Britain’s Labour Lurches Left in Wake of Election Defeat

Jeremy Corbyn wins the party’s leadership contest in a throwback to the fringe politics of the past.

Labour's Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a protest in London, England, May 27
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a protest in London, England, May 27 (Sleeves Rolled Up)

Veteran parliamentarian Jeremy Corbyn was declared the winner in Britain’s Labour Party leadership contest on Sunday, pulling the opposition to Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives far to the left.

In his victory speech, the leftwinger and peace activist promised to fight for a more tolerant and inclusive Britain and tackle what he described as “grotesque levels of inequality in our society.”

Inequality in the United Kingdom is actually only slightly higher than in the rest of Europe but it has been rising for the last three decades.

When he entered the contest to replace Ed Miliband, who resigned as leader after losing the general election in May, Corbyn was considered a token leftist who could not possibly win.

Miliband, after all, had lost the election because he pulled Labour too far to the left. Under his leadership, the party criticized every austerity measure the Conservatives enacted and seemed only to promise more of the public spending largesse that made those cuts necessary in the first place.

Corbyn’s program — which includes free university education, the renationalization of utilities and rail, more generous welfare spending, state-covered homeopathy, withdrawal from NATO, dismantling of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, relinquishing Northern Ireland and Scottish independence — is a throwback to the left-wing fringe politics of the 1970s and 80s and totally unelectable in a twenty-first century Britain that just gave the right its first parliamentary majority in twenty years.

That doesn’t seem to bother Corbyn’s supporters, many of whom only entered Labour to vote for him.

For ‎£3 pounds, party supporters could register to vote while union members were automatically enrolled. More than 400,000 voted in the primary whereas Labour had only 187,000 members before the last election.

Corbyn won 49 percent of the membership vote, 57 percent of the trade-union vote and a staggering 83 percent of the “registered supporters” vote.

Overall, he got almost 60 percent of the votes, 40 percent more than his nearest rival, Andy Burnham.

The Atlantic Sentinel reported earlier this week that a Corbyn victory could see Labour turn on itself. Few of its members of Parliament support him. The new leader could have a hard time filling up a shadow cabinet. Talented centrists who realize that Corbyn’s far-left program will doom their chances in the next election are likely to turn him down.

He would also need to appoint a chief whip who, The Guardian predicted, is likely to be told by many lawmakers that Corbyn is entitled to receive the same level of loyalty he gave previous leaders — none.

Since he was first elected in 1983, Corbyn has voted against his own party hundreds of times. He became one of Labour’s most predictable rebels. Yet he told The Independent newspaper last month that as leader, he will expect other lawmakers to respect the wishes not of those who elected them but of the party faithful.

“I will absolutely use our supporters to push our agenda up to the parliamentary party and get them to follow that,” he said.

One way of enforcing discipline would be to threaten deselection, in which case the party withdraws its support from elected officials. The mere chance of losing access to funding and organization could compel many parliamentarians who are far from convinced that Corbyn represents Labour’s future to fall in line.