Why Jeremy Corbyn Matters

Election of the opposition parties of American allies hardly measures a blip on the American consciousness, but Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the UK Labour Party should send shivers down the spines of the hierarchy of both American parties.

This is not because of what Corbyn might do should he become prime minister, but because of where he came from and how he got where he is today.

Jeremy Corbyn, 66, has been in public office since 1974 when he became London borough councillor. In 1983 he became the Member of Parliament for the London constituency of Islington North. He was re-elected to that seat in the May 2015 election polling more than 60% of the vote.

What makes this long, uninterrupted parliamentary service remarkable is that Corbyn has withstood just about every political tide that has washed over the country in the past 40 years. He is an unreformed hard-left politician. Tony Blair’s “New Labour” had no effect on his positions -- indeed, during his time in parliament, he has defied party whips and voted against his party -- even when in power -- more than 500 times. He invited Sinn Féin president Jerry Adams to London in 1984, voted against the Anglo-Irish agreement, and favours a united Ireland.

None of this has won him many friends in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Someone of such long service and obvious constituency support would normally have received a string of minor shadow cabinet positions, if not a bona fide cabinet post during Blair’s long tenure in Downing Street. Jeremy Corbyn comes to Labour’s front bench without a single post to his credit.

It is at this point that Democrats and Republicans alike should sit up and take notice.

Following the resignation of Ed Miliband as the Labour party leader after the stunning and surprising Conservative victory, a Labour leadership election was called, attracting almost as many candidates as the GOP has lined up for the presidency. Jeremy Corbyn was one of them, but few people in the party or in the media took his candidature seriously. Bookies were offering odds on his election at 200/1, sometimes more.

Corbyn campaigned as he always had. It wasn’t polished; it wasn’t smooth; he wasn’t quotable; and he wasn’t even colourful. Yet he drew the crowds and attracted a level of participation in the process that had not been seen for a long time.

More established Labour MPs barely acknowledged him, until, all of a sudden, the polls began showing the impact he was having.

Before the closing of the official entries to the race on 12 June, Jeremy Corbyn had barely registered on any of the polls. However, by the 12th, just six days after he declared himself officially a candidate, he commanded 47% in a poll published by LabourList.org. His nearest rival, Andy Burnham, the popular Shadow Health Secretary and hitherto the front runner for the leadership, registered only 13%.

How did this happen? And how did Jeremy Corbyn ultimately win the Labour leadership contest with 60% of the vote, with more votes than ever in British political history for such an election?

In the first place, Corbyn articulated the sentiments of several key groups including young and student voters and trades unionists. They heard an authentic voice with genuine conviction making clear statements that they weren’t hearing elsewhere.  

Secondly, Corbyn sounded like no one else on the stump. Yes, they were “Old Labour” messages, but few who were active in the campaign remembered Old Labour and its crushing defeats, like the one Michael Foot (party leader 1980 - 1983) suffered.

Thirdly, supporters waged a highly effective social media campaign with blogs, tweets, and emails, costing virtually nothing but connecting with voters more effectively than “mainstream” media.

Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t sound like a politician. In a world of carefully groomed candidates, speeches, refined messaging, manipulated media and images, this in itself was a welcome change. Set against a background of disappointment, a stumbling economy, unpopular policies that people believe are being shoved down their throats, Corbyn got attention where it mattered.

He has no time for sound bites and he isn’t rigorously briefed (yet). He appeared taken aback when a journalist asked him if he would kneel to the Queen when he became a member of the Privy Council, as all major party leaders do. As a republican, he doesn’t sing “God Save the Queen,” so learning of this ritual surprised him and he said he’d have to think about it.

Corbyn was a union official for a number of years and is a member of parliamentary union groups. He advocates the renationalisation of the utilities and the railways. He is in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament, a member of CND and the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

These radical policies and positions may not matter as bookies are currently taking bets that Corbyn’s time in the job will be a short 475 days. At present, no one is making predictions further in the future as the next general election isn’t until 2020.

What the Democratic and Republican parties should fear with all their being is that they find themselves on the receiving end of a similar populist coup. Candidates buoyed by genuine grassroots and social media support; an online presence that makes vast advertising spends not only useless, but redundant; the marginalisation of the party executive, and the collapse of the influence of mainstream media can rapidly and totally undermine a party.

More than half a dozen Labour front benchers have refused to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. The truth is, the public won’t miss them.

The bottom-line lesson of Jeremy Corbyn’s election is clear: “The electorate is as mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.”

Unless the major American parties recognise this, they will find that what control they think they have over the process disappearing, perhaps forever.

P. Michael Reidy is a freelance writer.  An American living in the UK, he often writes about their mutual interests and problems.