Leftward Mobility and the Death of New Labour
After a dismal showing at the 2015 UK General Election, the Labour Party was poised to undergo a period of soul searching. Member of Parliament Ed Miliband infamously led his party to its worst electoral showing since 1983. Labour suffered a net loss of 26 seats in Parliament, bringing their total seat count to 232, whereas Conservative voters – seemingly emboldened by Miliband’s lukewarm political persona – rewarded their Party with a decisive majority in the form of a 24 seat net gain (331 total). It appeared that Labour was in need of realignment— something was not adding up.
In the immediate lead up to the election, various pollsters including YouGov, BMG Research, TNS BMRB, and Ashcroft predicted either ties or very close election outcomes. The Guardian, on April 12, 2015 released a prediction indicating a Conservative seat count of 281 to Labour’s 271. It appeared that no one had seen a Conservative rout this monumental coming. Both pollsters and the Labour establishment were left confused. A bumbling Miliband and his team were confident that the election would result hung parliament, a showing that would force Conservatives to form a coalition government (as seen in 2010). Much can be written about the clumsiness practiced by the UK’s leading pollsters, especially on how they fumbled their Liberal Democrats projections. But this is neither an article about pollsters nor a paper about Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat Meltdown.
May 7 was a day of reckoning in British politics, surely the type that Labour has not experienced in close to three decades since Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives dismantled Michael Foot’s Labour (397 seats to 209 respectively). Miliband resigned a mere day after the General Election and instructed the party to begin the succession process. MPs Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn were all nominated. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall were all seen as establishment candidates, favored by the New Labour elite including former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Jeremy Corbyn, however; was seen as the ‘dark horse’ nominated by other Labour MPs to expand the debate.
By most expectations, the candidacy of a 66 year old self-admitted Socialist, heavy on the anti-American and anti-NATO rhetoric would go poorly. The same pollsters that predicted a Labour-Conservative tie found it difficult to see Corbyn survive an election process in Labour’s traumatized climate. Corbyn was set up for defeat from the outset. However, as the campaign moved forward, support for Corbyn eked upward. By August 10, a YouGov poll had Corbyn leading Burnham, Cooper and Kendall with 53% of support.
Nonetheless, Corbyn’s meteoric rise was complicated by “credibility concerns” and fears of Conservative sabotage. As early as July, MP John Mann asked Harriet Harman, the party’s Interim Leader, to suspend the election out of fear that Conservative voters had infiltrated the party in order to sabotage the outcome. In August “credibility concerns” were raised by raised by Iain McNicol, the Labour Party Secretary, at a party meeting. These concerns coincided with the revelation that Labour received more than “160,000 applications to vote in its leadership contest” the day before registration closed. According to the BBC, Labour tallied their total membership at 444,000 on the eve of the registration’s closing, meanwhile there were only 200,000 full members on Election Day. Whether or not these “concerns” actually possess merit, and whether or not they influenced Corbyn’s election remains to be seen. Though, it does speak to the widespread galvanization surrounding Corbyn’s ascension. Either progressive Labour voters came out in droves to support Corbyn, Conservative Party voters intentionally sabotaged an election to protect their 2020 prospects, or maybe a bit of both. It is yet unclear if Corbyn’s win is the product of a driven Labour base or a – to borrow Hillary Clinton’s term – ‘vast-right-wing-conspiracy’.
The result of September 12 undoubtedly shocked even Mr. Corbyn himself who, after spending 32 years in Parliament on the fringe, was now leading the second largest political party in the United Kingdom. Corbyn did not just defeat the Labour elite; he trounced them (receiving 59.5% of the 400,000 votes cast) and walked away with the largest margin of victory in modern Labour history (59.5% to Burham’s 19%).
Corbyn’s unapologetically leftward march shook up Labour’s political establishment spectacularly and signals the beginning of a reborn party.Labour was founded by unions in 1900 and has existed as the center left catchall party in British politics ever since. The party struck gold in 1948 when Prime Minister Clement Attlee pushed through the National Health Service, the UK’s single payer healthcare system and the foundation of the British welfare state. Having enacted other seminal achievements such as “a comprehensive benefits and pensions system and a state-run education system” in the mid-20th century, Labour was considered to be the paragon of The European Democratic Socialist Party.
However a series of calamitous events including Margaret Thatcher’s political term, the rise of Neo-Liberalist economic thinking, and depressed Union strength contributed to a period of weak Labour electoral outcome. Labour was trapped in similar fashion to the U.S. Democratic Party during the Reagan administration. The party could no longer rely on Union membership to keep electoral prospects afloat and inner party conflict ensured Conservative victory for decades. This changed when young Tony Blair took the reins of the party. He reoriented Labour in a similar way to how Bill Clinton picked up the pieces of a broken Democratic Party. Blair and Clinton are famous arbiters of “The Third Way,” a political dogma that, in New Labour’s case, combined the free-market nature of Capitalism and the equality and social-efficiency goals of Socialism.
New Labour ditched the out-dated connotations of the rigid Old Left: control of the economy, nationalized industry, and higher taxation. New Labour’s renewed image, coupled with fatigue with the Conservative Party, resonated with voters. Blair led New Labour to an era of renewed electoral vigor, winning decisive Parliamentary victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005. On the onset of the Great Recession, Labour, led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was defeated in 2010 by insurgent, David Cameron, who led the Conservative Party. With blame for the Great Recession tossed at its feet, voters gave New Labour a strong rebuke: transferring government control to the Conservatives.
Corbyn’s ascension is endemic of a nostalgic Labour base. Corbyn supports the renationalization of railways, a 50% tax rate on the top 1% of earners, a worldwide ban on Nuclear Weapons, a “control” on private rents, and a 10 Billion Pound plan to “scrap tuition fees". In addition, he is friendly to unions more so than his competitors. Corbyn also opposed the War in Iraq and military intervention in Syria – he even promised to apologize on behalf of the party for the War in Iraq if he was chosen leader. These policy positions, especially the coziness to unions, are much closer to a mid-20th century platform than to the third way triangulation of New Labour.
Critics of Corbyn, like Tony Blair, stress that his policies are tired, old and ineffective. His admiration for Hugo Chavez’s legacy in Venezuela, allegations of anti-Semitism, reference to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”, economic views on industry nationalization, price controls, and anti-American rhetoric have incited staunch resistance to his election. If Labour intends to shift the debate on issues to the left, Corbyn must answer this criticism decisively or else he will risk having the debate bogged down by personal and character attacks.
Corbyn is unabashedly a politician of Labour Renaissance. His election is symbolic of New Labour’s death and the dawn of a new era of Labour ideology. Although his stances harken back to the days of Attlee, Corbyn seems intent on reforging Labour as a politically competitive, populist and assertive party. Corbyn, for better or worse, seems to be injecting a much-needed soul into a party that lost its way in the shadow of Thatcher and under Blair. Social Democratic parties in Europe have grown complacent for the past decade; they casually accept tenants of austerity, and more generally, argue for ideas on the playing field of the right wing. Corbyn’s election is an answer to the weakness of the Social Democratic parties of Europe, as he intends to bring the debate left with serious economic proposals; coherent policy; and undaunted conviction. A worthy Corbyn Government may provide inspiration and impetus for a Social Democratic revival.
These predictions may be disproven should Labour be defeated in 2020, the next General Election. Some commentators, as well as Tony Blair, have already spelt disaster for Labour’s 2020 electoral prospects. There is significant time left before voters head to the polls to decide the next government and Corbyn has just been inaugurated. However, those that predict that a Corbyn-led Labour will face a fate similar to the Foot-led Labour of 1983 should not be so hasty. They should be more skeptical of these predictions.British voters would do well not to to underestimate Corbyn’s conviction