In the novel Jurassic Park a group of scientists is able to clone a dinosaur from DNA found in the blood of insects fossilized in amber. The result is that hitherto extinct creatures stroll the earth once more. Inevitably, they cause havoc.
If nobody had to clone Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour Party leader—who presided this month over his first party conference in his new role—he remains a dinosaur nonetheless. A throwback to the early 1980s, he stands for almost every policy Labour jettisoned 30 years ago in order to become electable.
And yet, from being a distant outsider when the Labour leadership candidates were announced back in June (indeed, he was able to gain the requisite amount of MP nominations to get on the ballot only at the very last minute) Corbyn won the leadership election with almost 60 percent of the vote. No second round was needed. It was a landslide.
Which is how Corbyn, a bearded, bicycling, 66-year-old vegetarian and longtime contributor to the Communist party-founded newspaper Morning Star, took to the stage in the seaside town of Brighton to address the massed ranks of Labour party faithful. It was a strange sight, seeing him on TV, with Brighton Pier in the background, being interviewed by Britain’s leading journalists. Though he has had to tone down or backtrack on some of his views since he became leader, Corbyn is an essentially timeless figure on the hard left; if you know his views on one subject you can guess, with a fair degree of accuracy, his views on pretty much everything else. Support for renationalizing British industry? Check. Support for abandoning Britain’s nuclear deterrent? Check. Support for “anti-imperialist” (read: anti-American and anti-Israeli) causes from Hugo Chavez to Fidel Castro to Hamas and Hezbollah? Double check.
Even his background, which is staunchly upper-middle class, if not affluent, is typical of a certain type of boilerplate “revolutionary” leftism. Not for Corbyn the story of an impoverished birth and ferocious struggle. He is the son of an electrical engineer and math teacher: peace activists who met campaigning against the Spanish civil war. He was brought up in a large house, grandly called Yew Tree Manor, in the English county of Shropshire, and educated privately before going on to a selective grammar school, where he did not perform well academically. He briefly studied for a degree in trade union studies at North London Polytechnic but dropped out to work as a union official.
It was perhaps inevitable that Corbyn was eventually elected, in 1983, as the Labour Party candidate for Islington North in London. Once installed, he did pretty much nothing of substance. More at home rallying people on the streets than debating his colleagues in the parliamentary chamber, he has always been a politician of protest speeches rather than legislative achievements. In the words of Denis MacShane, Labour’s former minister for Europe in Tony Blair’s government, when we met for lunch recently, Corbyn was always viewed as a “marginal figure … the MP for Lost Or Dubious Causes.” No one, it seems, ever took him seriously. As MacShane added, somewhat mischievously, in a follow-up email “I never saw him as a hidden giant of politics.”
Corbyn is by all accounts a decent man—as MacShane attests. According to Ellie O’Hagan, a Corbyn-supporting journalist, “he is very nice, very normal, all this stuff about him having principles and living by them, you get that very strongly when you meet him. When you get into conversations with him about politics he is very focused. He really does want a better world.” Even those who don’t support him, like former Labour councilor Mike Harris, seem to like him. “He is one of the most affable, genial politicians in Westminster,” he says. “I think he’ll lose Labour the election, but I don’t doubt his decency as a human being.”
Corbyn’s ascent is unequivocally a phenomenon. And it is a curious and an important one. This man, who in 30 years has never held a position of any responsibility and has almost no experience of heading any sort of group or faction, now leads Britain’s official opposition. Two questions must be asked: How did this happen? And more important, why did this happen?
To take the first question first: The answer is the narrower issue of internal Labour party politics. In May, Labour lost a general election it thought it was going to win. The effect was deeply traumatic. As MacShane told me: “All the [shadow] ministers thought the loss of power was a temporary aberration and that soon they’d be back. Only now are they going into full opposition, and they’re doing what all parties do, left and right: They are returning to their core values and beliefs. So, the Conservatives after [Labour’s win in] 1997 became very right-wing until David Cameron came along and made them sensible and now, because of the accident of the way this leadership election was organized, there has been a chance for Labour to very publicly revert to its [left wing] roots.”
When MacShane speaks of the “accident” of the Labour Party election process, he is referring to the “one member, one vote” system that former Labour leader Ed Miliband brought in. This change totally transformed the electoral system from a three-way electoral college that gave a third of the votes to the unions, a third to party members, and a third to Labour MPs, among whom Corbyn enjoys barely any support. In its place “one member, one vote” allowed all members and registered and affiliated supporters a single vote, accorded equal weighting, in any Labour leadership election. In effect, anyone who paid £3 ($4.50) to become an affiliate party member could now vote in its leadership elections.
And they did. Thousands of people—ranging from hard-left Trotskyites to first-time voters to even some Conservative voters determined to “consign Labour to electoral oblivion”—signed up. This surge, in combination with Labour’s internal soul-searching and the belief that Labour needed to return to its left-wing values to become electable again, helped to push Corbyn over the finish line. So, Labour is now stuck with a man who for many personifies the ultimate right-wing caricature of the unelectable leftist politician, the consummate outsider. And in this perhaps lies his greatest strength, because what is interesting about the Corbyn phenomenon is not the man himself (an essentially predictable figure on the hard left) but what his rise says about the times in which we live.
Why did a politician like Corbyn, so obviously unsuited to the position he now holds, win so convincingly? Ironically, this most atavistic of politicians has been the beneficiary of some of the most prominent political trends, and technologies, of a globalized world.
The first trend is a widespread and deep-rooted disgust with the matrix of institutions that make up what may be loosely described as “the establishment.” This is a global phenomenon, but it is particularly prevalent in Europe and the United States. The first breach in the 21st-century establishment wall was the collapse of trust in leaders (which, since Watergate, has never been particularly high, anyway) that arguably began over a decade ago with the bogus claims made during the run-up to the Iraq War concerning Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The disaster of Iraq continues to haunt both the British and American national consciousness. For the Labour Party, it helped to make its most successful-ever leader, Tony Blair, a pariah among many Labour supporters. Whether the deception was deliberate or not, the lessons of Iraq were clear to many: Prime ministers and presidents could not be trusted.
Then, in Britain, came the MPs scandal in which documents leaked to Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper revealed that MPs were using their allotted expenses to claim for everything from a moat for their country estate to second homes on which they made a profit at the taxpayers’ expense. The revelations further, and fundamentally, rocked people’s trust in the political class. As Harris told me: “The fact that MPs ended up in jail on criminal charges really eroded trust in a big way. People had low opinions of MPs; they thought they evaded the truth, etc., but no one thought they were on the take. No one thought they were actual criminals. And the extent of the expenses fiddling meant you couldn’t say it was just a few bad apples. It was systemic abuse.” It wasn’t just leaders; politicians as a whole were now deemed rotten.
The rot, though, wasn’t confined merely to the political class. From 2005 onward several prominent British newspapers had come under investigation for alleged phone hacking of celebrities and reached an apex with the revelations that the phones of a murdered schoolgirl and the relatives of dead British soldiers had also been hacked. A colossal public outcry ensued, which forced one of Britain’s most popular newspapers, the News of the World, to shut down. Then came the Edward Snowden leaks, which revealed that America’s National Security Agency, and its British counterpart GCHQ, were spying on their own citizens.
National leaders, politicians, the media, the security services: all the pillars of the modern establishment—none were now seen as untainted by corruption or scandal. But what truly united all of these strands of discontent was the 2008 financial crisis and the continuing economic malaise that has followed. As people have suffered financially, the need for scapegoats has increased exponentially, as it always does. As Harris observes, “a financial crisis followed by austerity policies has meant that the average family is no better off than they were 10 years ago, and many are worse off, on top of which the gap between rich and poor has grown hugely. To make matters worse, [in Britain] the rich aren’t even British rich; they are foreigners using Britain to launder their money: there’s a plutocratic class totally disconnected from people in U.K., especially in London.”
And people are genuinely suffering. Austerity, now seen as the economic expression of the European Union itself, has brought misery to Europe, especially in the Mediterranean countries. Anti-austerity platforms brought the Greek hard-left party, Syriza, to power in January of this year and created the rise of Podemos in Spain. Syriza is now in ideological retreat, and support for Podemos is waning, but the anti-austerity impulse remains strong. O’Hagan points to a “general collapse across Europe of social democracy, because it has failed to challenge austerity politics,” and she is right.
If the need for scapegoats arises so does the need for saviors to rescue us from them: that pristine individual who will arrive to say the unsayable and attack those deemed most to blame for the manifest ills of society. The result of this is depressingly predictable—the birth of the anti-politician politician: the man or woman whose raison d’être for being in politics is not even necessarily to take power (with all the grubby compromises that entails) but to challenge the nature of politics itself; to do politics by destroying politics. Thus do figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump emerge to dominate the political scene.
And they have one thing in common, which both defines them and accounts for their support. Damian McBride, a former special adviser to ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, encapsulates what to many is their defining attribute. “I think the biggest attribute you can now have in politics is authenticity, and he [Corbyn] has that in spades. Politicians are up there with used car salesman and estate agents [realtors] as the most distrusted people in society. [Having] authenticity and strong views and principles is the one way you can get people to listen to you in a society where politicians struggle to be listened to.”
This search for authenticity, or perhaps more correctly, sincerity, is the second trend (which emerges from the first one) across the Western world—once more, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States. And it is a curious one. That sincerity in itself has arguably come to be the defining quality people seek in a politician is instructive and depressing in equal measure. Because of course sincerity in itself doesn’t matter. It only matters what you are sincere about. To give an extreme example: Osama Bin Laden was a man of undoubted sincerity.
And so, on the right, Donald Trump can call Mexicans “rapists,” imply that a Fox News anchor asking him tough questions is menstruating, and dismiss the fact that he can’t distinguish between Iran’s Quds force and the Kurds. Yet, he is not seen by his supporters as boorish, rude, and downright dumb: He is, in their minds, sticking it to the politically correct, corrupt, and ineffectual establishment that has run the United States for far too long. For his supporters, Trump refuses to be “shackled.” He is “real.”
Corbyn can appear at a Holocaust denier’s event and donate to his organization; defend a vicar who both posted anti-Semitic material on social media and blamed Mossad for Sept. 11; campaign for the release of Jawad Botmeh and Samar Alami, jailed for their involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in London; and regularly appear on Iran’s Press TV and Russia’s RT television channels. To his supporters he is not associating with violent extremists and anti-Semites, but drawing into debate those excluded by the establishment. Lending an ear to those ignored by that bête noir of the hard left and right, the “mainstream media.” It’s proof not of, at the very least, insanely bad judgement, but his willingness to thumb his nose at power; his ability to connect with so-called outsiders—and his purity.
In this sense, Corbyn is not really a candidate at all. In the words of one of the architects of Tony Blair’s New Labour, Peter Mandelson, “[Corbyn] was elected as a symbol, not as a leader.” Both Corbyn and Trump are a new breed of politician in that their almost sole purpose is to be the signifiers of their supporters’ disgust and frustration.
We live in an age where the almost compulsive need to emote combines with the almost fanatical belief that the ultimate moral virtue is the expression of one’s individual identity. A form of political narcissism duly emerges, which holds that whoever best embodies the truest expression of your own identity is the savior. Its resulting political manifestation is the growth of an identity politics turbocharged by the power of social media. Disenfranchised individuals long denied a voice are now able, through the use of platforms like Facebook and Twitter, to band together in algorithmically determined networks that reinforce their world view. The need for compromise, to look across the political divide, becomes almost negligible. After all, when everyone around you thinks the same, you must be right.
Tristram Hunt, Labour’ former shadow Secretary of State for Education, is one of Labour’s few remaining prominent politicians. He is on the center right of the party and was tipped to be one of the candidates in Labour’s recent election. In the end Hunt decided not to stand and instead supported the most Blairite of the leadership contenders, Liz Kendall. What, I asked him over the phone, did he attribute to Corbyn’s rise? He was in no doubt: “The Corbyn phenomenon—and it is a phenomenon—is the product of pan-European mixture of anti-austerity politics, a broader mood of anti-politics, and a mood of populism; trauma at the Labour party’s defeat at the general election and a very effective social media operation,” he said.
“You have had these populist moments throughout history,” he continued. “But there is also now a frustration at the inability of politicians to manage forces which are outside their control—in an age of globalization their ability to deliver promised changes is much more challenging; and in an age of individualism, hierarchical parties come under a lot of pressure. There is a search of authenticity, which again involves a critique of establishment parties. Then of course there is the broader economic malaise in the wake of the crash.”
Hunt almost immediately ruled himself out of serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Why, I asked, had he made this decision? “There is a quite substantial political difference between myself and Jeremy, in foreign policy and education and areas like that, and I think it is best to be honest about that, and just as he said he wouldn’t serve other Labour leaders, I can’t do the same for him. He needs people around him to have the collective responsibility for his policies.”
Corbyn’s election may have shifted the political landscape but, like Trump he remains a largely marginal candidate. According to the latest polls, the views of his supporters remain wildly at odds with those of the wider British electorate. But at the same time, the number of deeply dissatisfied voters who have lost out on an increasingly globalized world is not diminishing. The Tories may consider Corbyn proof that “God is a Conservative,” but hatred of mainstream politicians is only growing, and this can only further benefit Corbyn and other politicians across the political spectrum for whom “authenticity” has come to be the defining trait.
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