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What’s behind the Corbyn surge?

The wave of support for Jeremy Corbyn in the race to be Labour Party leader reflects a generation's search for a path beyond neoliberal austerity.

Jeremy Corbyn. Demotix/Peter Marshall. All rights reserved. Jeremy Corbyn. Demotix/Peter Marshall. All rights reserved.There is near uniform agreement among political commentators that if Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour Party leader it would make for an historic crisis for the party, consigning it to the political margins for at least a decade. It may have increased its membership by over 50,000 since the election on 7 May, but for many pundits Corbyn’s high level of support is part of a protest born of a childish refusal to face up to the reality of Labour’s surprise electoral defeat and Britain’s move to the right.

Meanwhile the Conservatives head for their holidays still enjoying the power of their unexpected victory and the great satisfaction not only of the prospect of a bitterly divided and ineffective opposition but also of being rid of that hugely annoying Liberal Democrat millstone. 

From their perspective, the economy is doing better, almost all the press is on side, the BBC will behave itself and the prospect of at least a decade in power is a delight to behold. Furthermore, for the ideologically minded (in a party that is in an unusually ideological phase) the neoliberal revolution looks set to accelerate.  

Life is good.

But what if they are wrong?  Indeed what if almost all the commentators are wrong about Corbyn and the meaning of his sudden popularity?

As one of the few exceptions to this view, Peter Oborne, acknowledged in a perceptive interview with the leader of Unite trade union, Len McCluskey, that: “McCluskey and his ally Jeremy Corbyn are straining to take British politics in an entirely new direction. Who knows, they might succeed.  And it might not be such a bad thing if they do” (see "Len McCluskey: 'This government is like a bully in the schoolyard'", Guardian, 18 July 2015).

A search for the alternative

There are two elements of the current political environment that are being largely missed in the mainstream media. One is the attitudes within the Labour Party and how they may represent a much wider viewpoint, and the other is the prospect that the entire neoliberal revolution that has dominated the economic agenda since the early 1980s may now be heading into deep trouble.
Within the Labour Party, ward after ward is witnessing the impact of new membership but, more importantly, seeing a remarkable degree of anger at what the government has enacted since the election and the palpable lack of opposition by Labour in the midst of its protracted leadership campaign.  

A week ago, on the morning after nearly fifty Labour MPs were sharply criticised for voting against the government's proposed welfare reforms, the Guardian reported that even on the government’s own figures over 300,000 children would lose out after the reforms were enacted. It is the kind of thing that is making ordinary Labour Party members from across the political spectrum decidedly bolshie, even if many of them never considered themselves particularly left-wing.

Many see it as a rerun of the post-election turmoil in 2010 which allowed David Cameron and the Conservative-LibDem coalition to embed in the public's mind a notion of Labour economic failure for the whole five-year parliament. This ignored completely the financial deregulation of the Thatcher era and its ultimate responsibility for the 2008 crisis.

Many Labour members are angry at the intended review of NHS funding involving accelerated privatisation, the sell-off of housing-association stock, the constant blaming of the “feckless poor”, and the renewed assault on labour rights. At the same time, inheritance tax is reduced, bank bonuses are rising, tax avoidance is the order of the day, and the Financial Conduct Authority looks set to relax even its modest regulatory grip. Among these and many other indicators of a move to the right, no wonder the Tories' claimed long-term aim of a “living wage” is treated with deep suspicion.

Though it is little noticed in the rest of the country, in the north of England there is real anger stretching way beyond the Labour Party at the post-election reneging on rail modernisation. Electrification of the trans-Pennine line and the Sheffield-to-London link were pre-election Conservative promises and a foundation of the much-vaunted "northern powerhouse". Now they are “delayed” and the view across a region with a population of over 10 million is simply that the government lied to win votes.

Perhaps most significant of all is the growing belief that the whole need for austerity is not only fundamentally unjust but unnecessary in the first place. That “there is no alternative”, is being questioned, having got a singularly powerful boost by the three women party leaders expressing it so strongly during the general election debate, especially the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon.

Then there is the worldwide element, especially the experience of Greece with the transnational monetary establishment seen to be clamping down on democratic dissent. This, in turn, is in the context of a mainstream questioning of the whole basis of the neoliberal approach. Even the very nature of this stage of capitalism is being questioned way beyond the traditional analyses of the Marxist left, as with Paul Mason’s persuasive analysis in PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (Penguin, July 2015)

A challenge to austerity

There is, in short, deep uncertainty mixed with anger, and all of this a long way from a childish failure to accept defeat. Then, in the middle of this comes Jeremy Corbyn who may be dismissed as an old-fashioned out-of-touch hard-left icon by so many pundits but is increasingly seen by many as the only person making sense of what is happening. He may not have all the answers but he is challenging received wisdom in a way that is entirely unexpected and against the views of all of what used to be called the British establishment.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is the questioning of the idea that Labour evolved successfully under Tony Blair and that Corbyn’s leadership would be a disastrous return to the past. Blair’s early years, though successful in many ways, can also be seen as appropriate responses to the high period of the neoliberal transformation. He was, in other words, right for that time and remarkably successful at managing it, at least in the early years.

Now, though, the neoliberal transformation is beginning to come apart at the seams and there appear to be more and more people coming to the conclusion that Corbyn is more about the future than the past. He is actually seen by many, especially younger Labour Party members, as the only candidate of the four that is offering them a challenge to the utter insistence on austerity. The only analogy to childishness in all of this might be with the story of the little boy and the "emperor’s new clothes".

It is an intriguing situation for political analysts and perhaps calls for more distancing from the mainstream media in seeking to understand what is really happening.

To put it another way, maybe Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t got it all right but, to adapt HG Wells: “in the country of the wrong, the half-right man might yet turn out to be king”.

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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