POLITICS can be a baffling business. Four months ago, the UK’s Labour Party was trounced in a general election that opinion polls had indicated it should win. Most analysts attributed the surprise result to the left-wing policies of Labour’s new leader, Ed Miliband, who had edged out his more centrist older brother, David, in the race for the party leadership after Labour’s unprecedented three successive terms in office under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown came to an end in 2010.
David Miliband had been a supporter of Blair’s “New Labour”, which had taken a tactical shift towards the middle ground of British politics to end what had been a long drought in opposition for Labour. He had served in senior Cabinet roles for Blair and Brown and was an enthusiastic New Labourite. But Ed the lefty pipped him to the leadership post after the Tories returned to power under David Cameron.
David Miliband quit politics, while Ed forged ahead with what he saw as a rehabilitation of true Labour after the heretical Blairite years. Now Ed has come a cropper, taking the blame for losing an election many felt Labour should have won against the uninspiring Cameron. A new centrist was surely required to replace him.
But wait. This seems to be the season of uncertainty in politics worldwide, from the outrageous right-wing antics of Donald Trump in the US, to Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza in Greece, to our own Julius Malema.
I arrived in the UK a few days ago to encounter what is being called “Corbynmania”. An ageing, old-style British socialist named Jeremy Corbyn, who has been a Labour MP for 32 years without ever causing a blip on the political radar screen, has emerged from nowhere to take what looks like a runaway lead in the race to become the new Labour leader when the votes are counted on September 12.
It is a phenomenon that is puzzling the pundits and alarming Labour’s establishment, for Corbyn is well to the left of Ed Miliband, indeed to the left of every other Labour MP — the exact opposite of what the analysts felt labour needed for a comeback. What is equally surprising is that Corbyn, aged 66 and regarded as yesterday’s man in ideological terms, is appealing not only to old-style Labour supporters, but also to the youth, who are flocking to his rallies.
This is not because Corbyn is charismatic, as Blair was. Not that he is dull and boring. He is, shall we say, “ordinary”. And that, it seems, may be the key to Corbyn’s success. His ordinariness. As one Labour-supporting friend puts it: “He is straight, open, honest. He says what he believes without regard to whether it is likely to be popular or not. What you see is what you get. And that’s what makes him different.”
That is a terrible indictment of the state of politics in the western world. It has become too professionalised — the posturing, the pretences, the false promises, the focus groups to find out what people want to hear and the spin-doctoring to give it to them. If my friend is right, young people are fed up with the insincerity and artificiality of modern, processed politics.
They are also disillusioned with what they see as all political parties sounding much the same. With all competing for that middle ground where elections are won, differences in ideologies, policies, even ideas, have become blurred, subsumed by the overriding need to win elections. That makes all politicians look as though they are there for the perks rather than for their ideals or the public good.
As one horrified Labour leader puts it: “The hard-left’s argument against New Labour is that ‘it was just a way of getting elected’. Yet how else than being elected is it possible to achieve anything?”
What he fails to recognise is that this youth rebellion is against the artificiality of modern electioneering. They are responding to the novelty of someone who speaks his mind regardless of the opinion polls.
Corbyn is not the new, mass-produced, plastic politician. He has been what he calls a democratic socialist all his life, born of parents who met as peace campaigners during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. He appears never to have wavered, and when he feels his party has, at it did under Blair, he never hesitated to cross swords with it.
He advocates the renationalisation of British railways and other public utilities, combating corporate tax evasion, abolishing university tuition fees, restoring student grants and reversing welfare cuts.
On foreign affairs, Corbyn believes in unilateral nuclear disarmament and favours leaving the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and talking to all of the West’s perceived enemies, from the Islamic State to Hamas to Hezbollah to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“You make peace by talking to your enemies, not your friends,” he says.
All this is horrifying the Labour establishment, which believes Corbyn’s hard-left stance is a ticket to disaster. Three former prime ministers — Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — have appealed to party members not to elect Corbyn. Peter Mandelson, a former senior Cabinet minister and campaign manager, wrote a passionate article in last Friday’s Financial Times warning that Corbyn was putting Labour “in mortal danger”. Blair wrote an even more passionate article in Sunday’s Observer warning that Corbynmania was “Alice in Wonderland politics” that would take Labour to a cliff edge.
But Corbyn keeps drawing the crowds and his ratings keep rising. The Times reckons he is on course for a “decisive victory”. Of course, The Times is a pro-Tory newspaper, and the Conservative Party is rubbing its hands with glee at the Corbyn phenomenon. The Conservative Party sees the prospect of Labour returning to the days of Tony Benn, leader of its hard-left back in the 1980s, when Corbyn was an enthusiastic acolyte, as ensuring it of a long stretch of unrivalled power.
Indeed, Tory delight at Corbynmania has led to accusations that some Tory supporters are taking unfair advantage of a change in internal Labour election rules to further his chances of winning the Labour leadership, which they believe would be greatly to their advantage.
Ed Miliband changed the rules as he stepped down to democratise the election process by allowing any Labour supporter to have a vote by simply paying a one-off fee of £3. New Labourites claim many Tories are doing that to ensure that Corbyn wins the leadership.
But if it is true, it is possible that the strategy could backfire. Most analysts are arguing that, to win the next election, Labour would have to win over many who voted Tory last May, and that Corbyn can’t possibly do that. Yet I am wondering whether this sudden arousal of political interest among young people, who have been notoriously absent from ballot boxes across the western world in recent years, may not confound the pundits.
Never say never in politics.
• Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail