The unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn

By Virginia Moffatt
August 10, 2015

On the 15th June, I happened to be in London at the same time the candidates for the Labour leader were announced. To my delight, my local MP had responded to requests from constituents like myself, and had nominated Jeremy Corbyn. And that final nomination was enough to put the MP for Islington North on the ballot.

A couple of hours later, on my way back to the office, I passed a small demonstration outside Downing Street, in support of the Guantanamo Bay prisoner, Shaker Aamer. And there amidst the demonstrators was Jeremy Corbyn, doing what he has done for many years, quietly supporting an important cause he believes in. I shook his hand and wished him luck. He looked a bit stunned by the turn of events, but also seemed pleased that he’d be able to take part in the debate about the future of the Labour Party. I left thinking he had no hope in hell of getting anywhere, but maybe, just maybe, his candidacy could open up the possibility for Labour to move in a different direction.

I'm not a member of the Labour party but I wrote to my MP asking him to nominate Jeremy Corbyn because I'm tired of watching Labour sit by meekly while the Conservatives are wrecking the country. I wanted to see him on the ticket because I hoped his presence would change the conversation. Two months later, and Corbyn has performed beyond my wildest expectations. This ordinary, unstarry politician has been packing halls and churches up and down the country with a simple message. End austerity and try a new economic approach. And suddenly the underdog may actually be in the running to win.

Corbyn's unexpected success has resulted in a great deal of criticism from within the Labour Party. John Cruddas has argued that Labour lost because voters believed the party wasn't strong enough on deficit reduction. He suggests that the party can't win by challenging austerity. Tony Blair argues that the Labour party can only win from the centre. Whilst many have dismissed Corbyn as so left wing he is 'unelectable'.

I think they are all missing the point. Firstly Jon Cruddas based his claim on the fact that 58 per cent of people agreed with the statement “We must live within our means, so cutting the deficit is the top priority.” But as Larry Elliot points out in The Guardian this is a classic case of asking the wrong question. Had voters been asked “Do you believe that the government should borrow at historically low interest rates to invest in the railways or the NHS if that means it takes longer to balance the books?” the response would have been somewhat different.

Furthermore, implicit in this criticism is the idea that a party should write policies to suit the public mood. I agree it is important to understand what the electorate might want, but sometimes, it is equally vital to demonstrate there are alternatives to the perceived status quo. As I wrote recently, sometimes change is only possible when a politician is bold in the face of public scepticism.

Secondly, whilst Blair might be right that you win elections from the centre, that assumes the middle ground is a fixed entity, but it isn't. The current 'centre' of British politics is one that promotes privatisation, a reduced welfare state and cuts to public spending, ideas that would have been considered to the far right before Margaret Thatcher's rise to power. Many of the policies Corbyn is promoting:rent controls, nationalisation of railways and utilities were considered centrist forty years ago, and are supported by the public today. Which suggests that perhaps the time has come to be building a new post-austerity consensus to replace the failure of neoliberalism.

Thirdly, the idea that Corbyn is 'unelectable' for preaching an anti-austerity message seems strange coming from a party that has just lost two elections in a row supporting austerity principles. Particularly, since the so called 'left' Miliband actually slightly increased Labour's share of the vote.

I could be wrong of course, but the SNP victories in Scotland showed that anti-austerity policies are attractive to voters. And judging by the people turning out to listen to Corbyn recently, it seems they can be attractive to English voters too.

Which is why I believe Corbyn's candidacy has done nothing but good for the party. It has demonstrated the strength of feeling of local members (something that some in the party are now beginning to recognise). It has brought old Labour supporters back and encouraged new younger supporters to join. And it has influenced the other candidates.

Andy Burnham has said he might not support strikes in Syria. Yvette Cooper has called for a living wage for care workers. Both have admitted the party messed up the recent welfare vote. I doubt that would have happened if Jeremy Corbyn's name hadn't been on the ballot.

In May when Ekklesia analysed the Labour manifesto, we found:

"a party in conflict with itself. It has made some attempts to address inequalities and poverty, makes several positive moves on human rights, the NHS and sustainability. It lacks boldness in many areas. Still appears to be in thrall to restrictive free-market ideology and is too cautious on making humanising changes on welfare and immigration. Continued commitment to austerity limits the ability to really tackle inequalities. As a result, meets around half of the principles we have set out."

The Labour leadership campaign is bringing that conflict out in the open and I believe that's a good thing. Jeremy Corbyn has forced an important debate, showing his fellow politicians that alternatives to austerity can be popular. Furthermore, he has shown that being consistent with your principles - attending a Shaker Aamer demonstration immediately after being placed on the leadership ballot, speaking at an anti-nuclear demonstration on Hiroshima day, challenging cuts to welfare – is actually something people want to see.

Corbyn has shown us that it is possible for the Labour Party to have a vision, to stand for something. I do hope that whoever wins the leadership campaign, they're willing to learn from his success. Because after five years of coalition and with five years of a cruel Conservative government ahead, we need Labour to be different. We need the party to be bold, to challenge injustice, to champion human rights.

Otherwise, what on earth is it for?

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© Virginia Moffatt is the Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.