UK politics: Who is Jeremy Corbyn?

UK politics: Who is Jeremy Corbyn?

The UK opposition Labour Party has just elected the most left-leaning leader the party has ever seen. To his critics, he’s a dangerous outsider without a hope of leading Labour to an election victory. To his admirers, he’s something like the Messiah. One thing’s certain: British politics hasn’t been this interesting for a very long time. By REBECCA DAVIS.

It seemed unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn would ever be able to rustle up the necessary 35 nominations to make the shortlist for the Labour leadership race. He was hardly a household name, having spent most of his parliamentary career as a Labour back-bencher. The other contenders for the Labour leadership weren’t seen as hugely inspiring, but perhaps as possessing sufficiently steady hands to steer Labour into calmer waters following the party’s catastrophic collapse in May’s general elections.

After the resignation of leader Ed Miliband following the election defeat, three Labour candidates emerged most prominently: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall. Miliband’s successor, it was felt, would likely come from one of these three.

Yet Corbyn unexpectedly managed to scrape together the nods for nomination as leader, candidly professing himself “quite surprised” at the time. He did so at the 11th hour, thanks partly to support from fellow campaigners from the left of the party, and partly to nominations from figures within Labour who simply felt that a far-left candidate would help broaden the debate.

Now that Corbyn has done the unthinkable, been elected Labour leader with a landslide victory, there are those in the latter camp who are kicking themselves. Former Labour foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, who gave Corbyn her nomination, has told the BBC it was “probably one of the greatest political mistakes” of her life.

But it’s too late: as the Guardian points out, Corbyn has secured the most decisive mandate from the Labour Party since Tony Blair in 1994. Corbyn served as an MP during Blair’s New Labour administration, but there is no love lost between the two men. Corbyn repeatedly voted against Blair’s policies, and Blair returned the favour by warning the Labour Party this year that to elect Corbyn would spell disaster.

Though some have said that Corbyn’s victory was due to the new practice of allowing Labour ‘supporters’ to vote after signing up with a £3 fee, his support among Labour members was also leagues more than that of his rivals. 49.6% of Labour members voted for Corbyn, with his nearest rival, Burnham, coming in at 22.7%. Among registered supporters of Labour, his numbers rose to 83.8%. These are figures any politician would dream of.

So what is behind the ‘Corbynmania’ that took root among ‘Corbynistas’ in the run-up to the Labour leadership election?

Simply put, Corbyn is considered that rare thing: a politician who means what he says. It goes beyond that, in fact: among his supporters he is seen as a man who lives his principles. In the most famous example, he allegedly separated from his second wife over a disagreement about whether to have their son privately educated or not. (Corbyn, needless to say, was against the idea.)

He is a vegetarian atheist who does not drink alcohol and is in favour of the abolition of the British monarchy. Corbyn never went to university, and left school with an E in his only two subjects. His expenses are the lowest of any other MP, and he does not own a car. He likes to make his own jam. The BBC reports that his favourite novelist is Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe. Like members of liberation movements throughout the world, he reportedly calls his political allies ‘comrades’.

Corbyn has termed the Iraq War illegal and suggested that it is not out of the question that former Labour leader Blair could be tried for it. He has said the super-rich need to get used to shelling out more to support the rest of the community. He is a pacifist who is opposed both to Britain’s membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and to the development of Britain’s nuclear deterrent Trident, though he may have to amend his position on both to appease other factions in his party.

A former unionist with a decidedly anti-imperialist bent, Corbyn has previously announced that he is inviting his “friends from Hezbollah” to a Parliamentary event, and also his “friends from Hamas”. He invited Irish Republican group Sinn Fein to the House of Commons shortly after a bomb attack on the Conservative Party conference. He is in favour of re-nationalising British industries. All in all, his policy positions may be closer to those of the Economic Freedom Fighters than to any other South African political party. It is no coincidence that Greek anti-austerity party Syriza hailed his election with enthusiasm.

Like with Julius Malema, Corbyn’s support may have aspects of a personality cult, but it is also premised on a very real sense of disenfranchisement among – in particular – young British people. These are voters who are tired of politics as usual; bored of fat cat politicians with empty slogans; feeling the impact of a global recession and an unaffordable housing market acutely; and drawn to the promise of what the left has called a ‘politics of hope’.

According to the labour party, 15,000 more people have joined since Corbyn’s victory. Among them is former African National Congress (ANC) MP and Arms Deal whistleblower Andrew Feinstein, who now heads up Corruption Watch in the UK. Feinstein tweeted: “For the first time since I left the ANC (or the ANC left me) I feel I have a political home.”

But there are few illusions that Corbyn’s way forward will be easy. To the ruling Conservatives, his election is considered a priceless gift. There have been reports of his victory being greeted with tears of laughter in the Conservatives’ headquarters. Their campaign to capitalise on Corbyn’s potential divisiveness, and his potential to scare off Middle England voters, has already begun.

Following Corbyn’s victory, the Conservatives immediately circulated e-mails to their mailing lists describing Corbyn as a “threat to global security” due to his links to radical groups. Labour supporters hit back with their own posters accusing Conservative leader David Cameron of the same, for agreeing to arms sales deals worth £12.3-billion to nations which “abuse human rights”.

Labour supporters have also retaliated by circulating memes highlighting the ideological differences between the two leaders. They include the fact that Corbyn was arrested in 1984 for protesting against the apartheid regime outside South Africa House in London, whereas Cameron accepted a free trip to South Africa from the apartheid government.

Opposition to Corbyn is not restricted to the world beyond his own party, however. A number of high-ranking shadow cabinet ministers resigned after the election result, rather than serve under him. Corbyn has reportedly already begun stocking Labour headquarters with supporters: when he walked in after his victory, it is rumoured that staff did not applaud.

From a man who has spoken repeatedly about the need for gender equality, the composition of his Cabinet has also attracted criticism – and even the accusation that he is practising ‘brocialism’ rather than socialism. The source of contention is the fact that he did not appoint any women to the top roles in his cabinet: shadow chancellor, home secretary and foreign secretary.

When you look at the shadow cabinet as a whole, however, Corbyn has appointed more women (16) than men (15) for the first time in history. The Conservative cabinet, meanwhile, features 20 men and 10 women.

Beyond considerations of gender, Corbyn’s appointment of longtime ally John McDonnell as shadow chancellor is a particularly controversial choice. McDonnell has previously called for the overthrow of capitalism and the nationalisation of banks, railways and energy firms. He has joked about wanting to time travel back to the 1980s and assassinate Margaret Thatcher.

Parliamentary discipline may also be a problem for Corbyn. In his own career as an MP, he has voted against his own party’s positions more than 500 times. This history of defiance may not serve him well now. As Anthony Lane asked in the New Yorker: “How do you square the example of your own conscience with the need for party order?”

Perhaps the toughest battle Corbyn’s Labour will face, however, will be from the right-leaning British media. A Corbyn proposal to introduce a “minister for equalities and faith minorities” was reported by tabloids such as The Sun as being the introduction of a “minister for Jews”. Other newspapers have predicted chaos among the unions, while The Telegraph took a yet more alarmist stance, proclaiming his election as “The day the Labour Party died”.

For his part, Corbyn has displayed little appetite thus far to appease news outlets. He has railed against the media in general in pre- and post-election speeches, has puled out of post-election television interviews, and refused to take questions from journalists on the composition of his cabinet on Sunday night.

Such frostiness may cost him. But it is clearly not to the media that Corbyn feels accountable, but to – predominantly – a working class he sees as having been crushed by Thatcher, successive New Labour governments and latterly Cameron’s Conservatives. Whether middle class Britons will feel themselves equally included in his vision remains to be seen.

You’d have to be very brave, or very foolish, to put money on Corbyn ever becoming prime minister with all that is stacked against him. Then again, many said the same about his chances of becoming Labour leader in the first place. DM

Photo: Then still a candidate for the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn during a press conference at Ealing Town Hall in west London, England, 17 August 2015. EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA.

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