Why commentators in the United Kingdom and Europe should be surprised by Jeremy Corbyn’s decisive victory in the Labour party’s leadership election is anybody’s guess. True, his was not a household name even in Britain, and when he entered the race in June - a month after the party's clear defeat in the general election - it seemed to have been practically by default. When early polling suggested he had a chance of winning, the British media reacted (a few exceptions apart) with fury, mauling the left-wing member for Islington North and his radical views with gusto. Many pundits, following the polls too closely, got the result of the May election wrong. This, then, was a double shock. The failure of judgment involved, as seen also over European issues and the rise of ISIS, reflects the fact that deeper political shifts are now underway which too often escape the notice of a media obsessed by fashions, surfaces, and the short term.
In this light, Corbyn’s victory - and its scale, with almost 60% of the vote going to him - reflects two trends in European politics which have been obvious for some time and which can only get stronger. First, a growing loss of confidence in the political and commercial elites of many high-income countries (such as France, Spain, Italy, and the UK - though less so in Germany and Scandinavia), in parallel with the rise of a populist right (France's National Front and Britain's UKIP in particular). The latter identifies corrupt elites, foreigners and scroungers as enemies of the nation and people. A populist left for its part emphasies the subservience of the political and media elites to greedy bankers and plutocrats; it believes in reversing some of the privatisations of the last three decades, reducing inequality, and using the state to tackle social ills.
Second, the depressed real incomes of many middle-class people, and the persistently high levels of unemployment among the young in countries such as France and Spain since the banking crisis of 2007, have offered fertile soil for strong feelings of discontent. That is now turning into cold rage. In municipal elections in June, the radical left-wing Podemos and its affiliates upset traditional political parties by winning major Spanish cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia from the conservatives. In France, Marine Le Pen might well win the Nord Pas de Calais region and her niece the Provence Côte d’Azur region in upcoming regional elections.
Given the endless Eurozone crisis, near stagnation in much of southern Europe, and growing criticism of global capitalism and its neo-liberal model, the puzzle is why a populist revolt did not gather steam much earlier - but also why it has not delivered power to the socialists and social democrats. After all, the deregulation of financial markets and the refusal to create a tighter and more equitable economic union in Europe were projects driven by the centre-right.
The second election win of Syriza in Greece, and Podemos's advance in Spain, shows that the left is capable of belated progress - though the former's troubled experience in office since January, and the emergence of rivals to the latter, also reveals some of the obstacles in their path. But such examples also point up the significance of what has happened in the UK.
The Corbyn challenge
Britain, after all, is not Greece or Spain. It is one of the world’s leading economies, an important player in Nato and the European Union, home to a financial sector which employs 2.1 million people (two-thirds of them outside London) and and which generates £66 billion tax revenues annually. The City of London - the major financial district - as well as the wider elite is now adjusting to the fact that the major opposition party is led by a resolute left-winger with policies and ideas that could threaten its power.
The City's favourite slogan is “When the City does well, the UK does well”. This might ring true in higher-end circles in the south of England. But that only echoes the status of "Greater London" as, in effect, a country unto itself. Elsewhere the phrase rings hollow, including across swathes of the country where poverty and unemployment have been rife for many years. The City can hardly be expected to contribute much to politicians who believe in the overthrow of capitalism, but British politicians are also famous for being pragmatic. Despite his long record of voting against his party in Westminster, Jeremy Corbyn might prove to be shrewdly tactical more than dogmatic - which might in the end make him more dangerous to the elites.
Some observers warned that under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, centre-left parties were in practice selling their soul to the devil. They and their successors endorsed free-trade agreements, large-scale deregulation, and binding fiscal rules; pushed for fully independent central banks, discarded Keynesian fiscal strategies, abandoned the tools of macroeconomic management, and imposed or supported austerity. Nowhere was their agreement with centre-right parties more in evidence than during the Greek crisis. France's Socialist Party is moving in the same direction today and as a result will likely meet disaster at the polls.
Voter disenchantment with centre-left parties has other sources. They have become the preserve of career politicians; ignored the impact of the rising cost of welfare and the impact of non-European immigration; do not understand that the free market, for all its recent faults, also - when regulated and before "financialisation" - once provided a good socio-economic template. Hence they are neither competent nor credible when they suggest, usually too late, ways to fix capitalism’s many failings. They forget that the 20th century’s greatest economic thinker, John Maynard Keynes, was able to craft new ideas about taming the animal spirits of the free market precisely because he accepted it as the basis for the socio-economic model.
European leaders often forget that their predecessors sleepwalked into the euro. Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl did not understand economics which they dismissed as a boring jargon, one which furthermore stood in the way of history. The first wanted France to lead the new Europe, the second to be remembered for unifying Germany. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, Mitterrand agreed to back German reunification if Kohl backed his pet project, the euro.
No Socialist Party member in France today dare say that Mitterrand got it completely wrong. Far from building Europe as it was meant to do, “the euro did the opposite” in the words of the Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper. It ended the construction of Europe that had begun in Messina in 1955.“Today the European project consists of trying to digest the euro.” It probably never will. The consequences of this sorry state of affairs now combine with the crisis on Europe’s borders to underline the incapacity of the continent’s leaders.
Recognition of the huge mistakes of yesteryear is now essential. European leaders are still too complacent for that. New radical leaders are fine. But protesting is one thing, offering fresh solutions to the difficult issues which the continent faces is another. The Labour Party might yet split, such is the gulf between its activists and its members in parliament. Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s different economic policies make sense though if his election tempts prime minister David Cameron into adopting more extreme policies to the right, British politics might well return to the turbulence of the 1980s. Whether that will contribute in any way to a saner debate in and on Europe, indeed whether the UK even remains in Europe, is anyone’s guess. What is not in doubt is that the UK and Europe are being shaken to their very core.