Last Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn was elected the new leader of the UK Labour Party after a summer long campaign. Corbyn’s name may not be familiar to many readers. To be honest, few outside the supporters of left wing causes in the UK would have known of him until he just scraped on to the ballot after finding enough MPs to put his name forward. What happened afterwards has been truly amazing. From the status of ‘doomed to fail’ outsider, Corbyn and his team took the election by storm, speaking to packed rallies up and down the country. These drew many long-time labour members as well as others who have returned to the party after a long absence and, perhaps most significantly, thousands of young people who were supposedly irredeemably lost to politics. In a few short months, Corbyn managed to attract into the party tens of thousands of supporters who paid a nominal £3 to take part in the election. I went to one of his final rallies in Margate, a struggling seaside resort on the Kent coast. As with all of such events, the hall was packed to capacity with 300 people eager to listen to Corbyn speak. He is not the most electric orator, but in his calm, rational way he dissects with great clarity and moral authority many of the issues confronting the UK and the world beyond. He speaks in a direct, unspun style and is unapologetic about his views, which built up over his three decades as a backbench MP and before that a trade union officer.
Ordinary Labour Party members love Corbyn, but many MPs and the party’s grandees hate him. While Labour activists are excited to hear someone speaking in their language about issues they care passionately about, the senior figures see him as a dangerous radical who would drag the party back to the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s. They have a very particular narrative of how labour made itself unelectable during the 1980s and the Thatcher era, a situation that Tony Blair reversed, leading the Party to three successive general election victories in 1997, 2001, and 2005. Labour lost the 2010 election under Gordon Brown, partly as a result of the post-crash global economic crisis. In many ways Corbyn’s rise mirrors that of Bernie Sanders in the US – the traction both are enjoying suggest a growing discontent among the rank and file of their parties, a disconnect with an established political class.
This era of ‘New Labour’ was marked by a striking reluctance to talk about class, which was seen as part of the vocabulary of ‘old labour’ and a manifestation of the politics of envy. This trend continued even after the economic crash of 2008 and the beginning of the Party’s period of opposition. Corbyn himself rarely uses the word ‘class’, but through his actions and speeches he clearly articulates a class-based understanding of the economy, education, and the workplace. While his leadership election rivals were busy arguing over the extent to which they would match Conservative plans to extend austerity, Corbyn confronted head on the claim that Labour had mismanaged the economy. As Paul Krugman has recently pointed out, the Labour Party has a relatively strong story to tell in economic matters before during and after the crash, but it has allowed the Conservatives and other rivals to paint them as reckless and clueless.
All too predictably, the right-wing media and, to its shame, many BBC journalists have engaged in a vicious attacks based not on Corbyn’s substantive policy pronouncements but on his dress style, his failure to sing ‘God Save the Queen’, and other obscure features. Corbyn and his supporters may have a rough time ahead in the face of this tsunami of abuse, but in many ways this targeting speaks to his success in mobilising a popular movement of grass roots supporters to his cause. As I write this, some 50,000 new members have joined, or possibly re-joined the party, including 16,000 who signed-up on the day of his victory. The danger Corbyn represents for the political class lies in his class-based analysis, an approach that has not been attempted by a mainstream leader for two decades or more. Importantly, he draws attention to the interlinked issues facing the poor and the dispossessed in the UK and beyond, including the corrosive effects of the dearth of public housing, low paid casual contracts, the expansion of low skilled jobs, and lack of educational opportunity for working-class kids. In one of his first public speeches, to the Trades Union Congress, he rejected the accusation that Labour was a party of deficit deniers and instead described the Tories as ‘poverty deniers’. Corbyn has also described Government welfare policy as effectively ‘social cleansing’ of big cities, most notably London.
These are interesting and exciting times for those interested in working-class issues in the UK. For the first time in a generation we have a Labour leader unafraid to talk about how class and inequality work, and more crucially, how governments might intervene to ameliorate some of society’s more intractable problems. At the same time, many are uneasy at the power of the press to distract attention from these vital issues and instead vilify Corbyn the man. Even if Corbyn fails to change public policy, he is already helping to revive attention to class in the UK. Watch this space.