Jeremy Corbyn's left-wing populism shook Britain's political mainstream

Posted June 9

Since last year's Brexit referendum, mainstream political parties in Britain have been scratching their heads trying to work out how best to get through to a bitterly divided electorate.

Take the election campaign of the center-left, pro-Europe Liberal Democrat party. With its promise of a second referendum, party leader Tim Farron unapologetically made his pitch to the 48 per cent who voted to remain in the EU.

The Liberal Democrat's failure to significantly capitalize on Brexit is another indication of just how poor the liberal centre has become at judging the mood of the nation.

This doesn't apply only to the state of centrists parties like the Liberal Democrats. Though the Conservatives are still hanging on as the largest party, their campaign was a disaster. "This is the worst Tory campaign ever", boomed an article in the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine last week. As things turned out, that wasn't far wrong.

But by attributing the blame for an underwhelming Conservative victory to the party's campaign, politicians and commentators may again be glossing over the real story of last night's upset.

They would do well to pause and ponder why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn performed so well against expectations.

I suspect Corbyn's success is in some part due to the fact that -- as with the Brexit vote last year -- there are genuine reasons to be in revolt against the status quo in Britain. At times, it seems to take a moneyed member of the political and journalistic elite not to see this.

Take wages. British workers are currently experiencing the longest period of wage stagnation since 1860. A squeeze on pay has not gone on this long since Joseph Swan invented the very first light bulb.

Up and down the country, the use of emergency foodbanks is rife: the Trussell Trust charity provided more than a million three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis between April 2016 and March 2017.

Meanwhile, former industrial areas which once offered hard but dignified jobs -- coal mines, power stations, manufacturing plants -- are today awash with call centres, fulfilment centres and work on supermarket checkouts.

As in the so-called rust belt areas of the US, if you do not go away to college or university there are often few attractive options available. Many who do go away to university return with a mountain of debt before finding themselves toiling away on the minimum wage.

With his promise to abolish university tuitions fees -- and with pledges to invest in neglected parts of the country and embolden trade unions -- Corbyn's election campaign for Labour, though very different from the campaign to leave the European Union last year, has tapped into some of the same resentments.

Despite an incredibly shaky first 12 months of his leadership of the party, Corbyn has run an effective left-wing populist campaign that has capitalized up on a widespread desire for change.

The result -- as things stand, a hung parliament -- as well as potentially unseating Theresa May, will unsettle many Labour moderates who had been banking on Corbyn crashing and burning at the polls.

The politics of managerial centrism is not the election-winning force it was a decade ago, and those who have intransigently opposed Corbyn from day one will have to revise their view about the "unelectability" of a left-wing populist programme.

Yes, Labour looks set to remain in opposition and will have to do better to win power against a more effective Tory leader. The heavy emphasis in Labour's manifesto on the re-nationalization of the utility companies, while justifiable in its own right, is a far from satisfactory formula for promoting social justice in the twenty-first century.

It is particularly telling that Corbyn -- and many of his inner circle -- were lauding the Venezuelan government a few short years ago. Only in the more histrionic sections of the press would a Corbyn-led government turn Britain into Venezuela. But this sort of thing does leave one questioning the judgement of both Corbyn and a section of the contemporary left.

That said, Jeremy Corbyn has proved many who doubted him (myself included) wrong.

Principled disagreement with Corbyn will not have gone away. But it will be much harder for Corbyn's critics to maintain the decades-old axiom that the left can never beat small-c conservatism. Thanks to an unprecedented turnout by young voters, it has done just that.


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