To the much-spoken-of Rightward lurch in politics everywhere, attested to by the rise of a whole roster of hard-hat figures across the globe, there is a corollary. There was a time, not too long ago, when a Bernie Sanders campaign would have been unthinkable on the American landscape. And now, there is the Englishman with a beard that’s been equally derided and good-naturedly feted. Jeremy Corbyn, till the other day, would have been seen as a politician so far out on the left as to be simply unviable. But here we are in the summer of 2017, with Labour pulling up just a whisker or two away from a majority in a snap poll and young supporters greeting him everywhere with a joyous pop anthem, a reworked version of Seven Nation Army.
The arrival of Corbyn as a serious politician, a stunning makeover during the course of which he won over many sceptics, was marked by the unexpected results thrown up in the recent parliamentary polls. In a sense, it had to do with the logic of the times—the anxieties over Brexit, a general gloominess. But it’s the way he was able to harness the dissipated energies coursing through a nation that made the headlines, even if he came up short. “The way he had grown during the campaign—in self-belief and oratorical ability and all manner of other qualities—was remarkable,” wrote Stephen Moss, a self-admitted former sceptic, in The Guardian.
A month is a long time in the fortunes of a political party and an individual. When Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called for a snap poll to bolster her party’s slim majority in parliament, most pundits felt it was good idea. The popularity gap between the Tories and Labour was more than 20 points, and most predicted it to widen. A Corbyn-led Labour, surely, was doomed to go down the chute. But the results trumped expectations. The Tories lost seven seats and Labour significantly improved its tally. According to the BBC’s vote tally, Labour came within 2.4 percentage points of matching the Tory voteshare of 42.4 per cent, suggesting an unprecedented swing during the campaign.
But why did Corbyn, in the first place, elicit extreme reactions and evoke breezy dismissals, even from within Labour? Because he was always a bit of an exaggerated rebel, a backbencher who revelled in wearing his pronounced socialist beliefs rather boldly on his sleeves. His commitment to principles had even cost the thrice-married man one of his marriages, when differences with his second wife over putting their son in an elitist grammar school led to their separation.
Not to speak of ridicule and isolation even within Labour when he went against the whip to vote according to his conscience. Though a Labour MP from Islington since 1983, he has voted against the party whip 500 times in parliament! On top of that, he was always open to embracing risky positions in British politics—accepting Hamas as a legitimate political entity, for instance, or holding consistent anti-war positions. His heretic streak started early. Back in 1984, he caused serious outrage by inviting two convicted IRA members and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams for a speech soon after the infamous Brighton hotel bombing that nearly wiped out the entire Thatcher cabinet. But that has been his line: pacifist, pro-trade union, in favour of dialogue. In short, as far away from British political establishment attitudes as possible. A misfit in a day and age that seemed to belong to swashbucklers like Boris Johnson.
His old-school socialist street cred had to be acquired, for he came from a blue-chip, middle-class, south England family—born in bonny Chippenham to an electrical engineer and grammar school maths teacher, and bred in Shropshire, in the Midlands. But now he’s quite the prototype—cycling to work, and the cheapest MP to maintain in terms of the travel allowance. To that parsimony, add a taste for Yeats, Chinua Achebe and a keen interest in the history of manhole design. And pacifism—when an MP threatened him by saying he had been the best boxer in school, Corbyn responded by saying his sporting prowess lay in track events!
Even when he became Labour leader in 2015 (he was re-elected within a year), it was a surprise that defied mainstream Labour choices for someone to helm a party down in the dumps for nearly a decade, since the recession of 2008 (though Gordon Brown resigned only by 2010). It went right down to a core dilemma for Labour. Should it be centrist, continuing the Blairite line? Wasn’t the old socialist line an anachronism in the information age?
The party establishment hewed to this view.
When Corbyn was brought in as a candidate in 2015—into what they call the Bear Pit—party MPs who nominated him did so only so as to ostensibly widen the field of debate, and had no real intention of voting for him. Yet he was buoyed up, and unexpectedly so, by support from younger party members and unions eager for a leadership change. Now, the 68-year-old vegetarian and near-teetotaller is not just a shadow premier; he can have a crack at bringing down the wafer-thin Conservative majority if he can force major changes in the Queen’s speech.
Not surprisingly, praises have poured in. Many of his Labour detractors, including MPs who had refused to work in his shadow cabinet, are now making a beeline for him. Those who thought till recently that Labour was in for a “crashing defeat” under his leadership are now jockeying to be noticed by Corbyn. The word, though, is that he will keep senior Blairites at an arm’s length, and stick with loyalists. The disconnect is captured by the fact that, opposed by most of the mainstream media, he had had to rely on social media to reach out.
The question is if Corbyn will use his rising political stocks to attack Blairism—in some ways only nominally Labour, and actually an extension of Thatcherite policies. The vote hands him a legitimate mandate for that. Though he may never put Tony Blair to stand trial for Iraq War crimes—as he had once demanded—few doubt that Blair’s centrist policies that held sway over Labour for so long may be jettisoned, as Corbyn strives to entrench his socialist ideas to revive the party and make it relevant to British voters. It is too early for Blairities to concede defeat, and resistance from party bigwigs is inevitable. But Corbyn can safely rely on his younger supporters, who see his steadfastness on principles as more endearing.
What has changed is that people are beginning to lose patience with the years of enforced austerity—with cuts in health, education and such like. And there was practically no tangible contrast between what the Labour establishment offered as against the Tories, till Corbyn. Jobs are under pressure, the wealth gap is rising, and people were being promised more uncertainty post-Brexit. Now, Corbyn too was a Eurosceptic, but had a better balanced articulation of themes that spoke to all sides. He knew the young do not want a total rupture, whereas the unions were more bothered about job security. He had only been advocating a soft separation, as opposed to the hard Brexit line of Theresa May, but the air of gloom benefited him. And now he can say, “Politics has changed, and politics isn’t going back into the box where it was before.”