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Jeremy Corbyn’s first 100 days, revisited

The leader of Britain's Labour Party continues to inspire his supporters and confound his critics. Is he behind the times, or ahead of them? 

Corbyn welcomes Jim McMahon to Parliament. Mark Kerrison/Demotix. All rights reserved. Corbyn welcomes Jim McMahon to Parliament. Mark Kerrison/Demotix. All rights reserved.In mid-August 2015, and in a departure from the norm, one of these columns speculated on Jeremy Corbyn’s first hundred days as leader of the Labour Party, three weeks before he had even won the election (see "Jeremy Corbyn's first 100 days", 19 August 2015). It was a bit of fantasy at the time but now that he has just about completed those first hundred days, just how does it look?

That particular column started by commenting on David Cameron’s first hundred days as leader of a Conservative Party with an unexpected majority, but made the point that his party had very quickly focused on the rare opportunity to set the agenda. Labour, after all, was in disarray and might even elect the notoriously far-left Mr Corbyn (see "What's behind the Corbyn surge?", 26 July 2015).

From a Conservative perspective, Christmas hadn’t just come early but promised to last for a good five years. Even more important than this, though, was the need to move towards a proper neo-liberal light-government society of a kind that had been made so annoyingly difficult when they were held back by the Liberal Democrats. As that column put it:  

“Well within the hundred days, the government has brought in a raft of changes including a sell-off of housing-association stock, further NHS privatisation, the centralisation of education control, coupled with cuts in 16-plus education funding, further controls on labour rights, a planned easing of financial regulation, a substantial cutback in spending on rail investment, and controversial welfare changes.”

The article went on to report the shell-shock being felt within the parliamentary Labour Party and the disbelief that Mr Corbyn could come from nowhere and was heading for victory. Even more beyond understanding was the 70,000-plus surge in party membership to 270,000, and the crowded meetings that he was addressing right across the country.

In those first hundred days, the column predicted that many Labour MPs would fall into line, if reluctantly, in the face of Mr Corbyn’s victory. A Corbyn-led party would be strong in opposing austerity with this popular across the party membership, and would oppose an escalation in UK military involvement in the Middle East. 

There would be persistent opposition across most of the national print media, but the very fact that the Labour Party was saying something different would help ensure that the broadcast media would be more balanced and allow a more diverse range of views some air time. Again, as the earlier article put it:

“There was little or none of this when there was relatively little difference between the parties on many issues, but with this change in political outlook, a much more vigorous public debate becomes possible.”

In conclusion, the article posited the question:

“is Corbyn thirty years behind the times or ten years ahead of the times? The widespread assumption among most commentators is the former, but if we look across the world at the diverse but increasing opposition to the neo-conservative economic transition and the problems that transition is facing, we cannot be so sure.”

The road ahead

So, where are we now, after those first hundred days? Well, for start, the Corbyn team has had a very bumpy ride, with two factors much stronger than anticipated.  The first is the sheer unending opprobium pumped out by so much of the print media. This isn’t really surprising, given that the majority is controlled by just three right-wing families, but what is surprising is how this has set the agenda which has impacted on the broadcast media, especially the BBC.

That sector of the media seems unable to comprehend that Corbyn speaks for close to a third of the population in spite of the continual attacks. Somewhere, somehow, he is striking a chord, but the metro-commentariat seems unaware of this, much as it misread what was happening in Scotland not so many months ago.

There is a suspicion that the impact of the print and broadcast media opposition is being partly offset by social-media outlets. Certainly the speed and extent of some notable rebuttals – the sheer pace and number of re-tweets for example – are being largely missed by the conventional media. Even more odd is the dismissal of the further growth in Labour Party membership, now around 370,000, as being dominated either by hard-left "entryism" or misplaced idealism.

The second factor is the intense antagonism to Corbyn from within the parliamentary party, and it is clear that a significant minority would much rather lose the 2020 election than win it under Jeremy Corbyn. The level of leaking from that sector is a marvel to behold, with lobby correspondents hardly able to believe their luck.

Put all this together and Team Corbyn should really be on its uppers: sunk in despair and ready to quit. Yet that is far from the case.  Here again, there are two factors. One is that the team itself – hastily got together in response to the remarkable victory – is steadily getting its act together. Jeremy Corbyn’s style, not least at prime minister’s question-time, is proving difficult for David Cameron to handle, and all the time Corbyn’s self-confidence increases.

The other is the Oldham by-election result. Whatever explanation is sought – a very popular local candidate, postal voting and the rest – this simply cannot be explained if Corbyn is the disaster that the media, the Conservatives and many in the parliamentary Labour Party believe. Indeed, what happened in Oldham chimes with a suspicion being voiced by some very experienced Labour Party apparatchiks that something is happening below the surface of public opinion which is being missed by most commentators.

It seems, at root, to be down to the very simple view that shadow chancellor John McDonnell and others are expressing – that austerity is a political choice and that there are alternatives. If that is the case, then Cameron’s government may have a more serious problem than it realises.  It is already vulnerable on NHS and social-care issues; even the backtracking on tax credits has not done enough to defuse the controversy; and while the whole migration question is very prominent, the Conservatives are unlikely to reap any political advantage from it.

That means that during Jeremy Corbyn’s second hundred days, it can be expected that Mr Cameron’s team will focus on the one matter where they see a persistent and fundamental advantage – defence – especially with the internal Labour divisions. Indeed this may well last far more than a hundred days, given that Jeremy Corbyn will almost certainly survive anything other than a catastrophic outcome for the local elections in May 2016.

Excuse the pun, but defence will likely be a core battleground, yet even here there are two worries for the Conservatives (see "Britain's nuclear plans: the Corbyn factor", 17 September 2015). First, the Trident issue does not have to be as divisive as anticipated: it is perfectly possible to insert a third choice between retaining a comprehensive and very expensive nuclear-armed submarine fleet and giving up every vestige of the nuclear era (see "Two steps to zero", 17 July 2008).

Second, over the conflict in Syria, polls indicate that a third of the UK population is against British airstrikes, and there is growing evidence that Britain is getting dragged into the mire. Earlier this week the Pentagon’s internal newspaper, Stars and Stripes, carried a remarkable report that the Free Syria Army was on the verge of collapse. Since the FSA makes up half of the much-vaunted 70,000 troops that Mr Cameron has said are ready to take on ISIS, this presents something of a problem.

Although little noticed, there is a third significant worry for the government. This is the sudden interest in the high level of civilian casualties in Yemen, with many of them being attributed to attacks by Saudi Arabia’s British-made strike-aircraft.  It may not be a big issue in the context of the much more devastating war in Syria but the point is that it may be the existence of the Corbyn leadership as the official opposition that is even making people think this is important.

So, at the end of the hundred days, Jeremy Corbyn is still there, and arguably stronger than after the first fifty days. The question remains, though – is he thirty years behind the times or ten years ahead of them? The intriguing answer may be: both.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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