corbyn 2

I will be writing a regular column for Aljazeera English. My first column is about Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

Guardian journalist Seamus Milne hailed it as ‘a political eruption of historic proportions’. The Prime Minister David Cameron claimed it represented a threat to Britain’s national security. Whatever else it may achieve, Jeremy Corbyn’s success in gaining the leadership of the Labour Party, has certainly unleashed the surreal in British politics.

To understand more soberly what the leftwing maverick’s overwhelming victory, and the humiliation of Labour’s mainstream candidates, might mean, we need to answer first how Corbyn achieved his success. The key to that success has been the manner in which the postwar political system built around the divide between social democratic and conservative parties is now being dismantled. It is a process that can be seen not just in Britain, but throughout Europe.

The broad ideological divides that characterized politics for much of the past two hundred years have, over the past few decades, been largely erased. Politics has been reduced to a question more of technocratic management rather than of social transformation. One way in which people have felt this change is as a crisis of political representation, as a growing sense of being denied a voice, and of political institutions as being remote and corrupt. As mainstream parties have discarded both their ideological attachments and their long-established constituencies, the public has become increasingly disengaged from the political process. The gap between voters and the elite has alarmingly widened.

The main beneficiaries of this process have been rightwing anti-immigration populist groups, such the Front National in France and UKIP in Britain. But parties of the left – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Scottish National Party – have also been able to tap into that popular disaffection. Corbyn has done the same.

What makes Corbyn’s success different, however, is that this is the first time that a mainstream social democratic party has become a vehicle through to express disaffection with mainstream politics. This says as much about the state of the British Labour Party as it does about Corbyn’s ability to reach out beyond the mainstream.

Ever since the 1980s Labour has been hostage to reinvention. The triumph of Thatcherism, the neutering of trade union power, the rejection of old-style Keynesian politics, a greater acceptance of the market principle – all helped deprive the party both of its social base and its raison d’etre.

After a decade of internal civil war, it was reborn in the 1990s as New Labour, a media-savvy, technocratic, middle ground party that had largely cut its links with the working class. It became, under the leadership of Tony Blair, a powerful machine to win elections. But it also became hollowed out as living, breathing political party. In the decade after 1997, Labour won three successive elections – but lost nearly quarter of a million members.

The combination of popular disaffection and an ideologically shallow Labour Party has provided Corbyn with his opportunity. But how will his success change the Labour Party, and politics more generally?

Corbyn’s supporters argue that his victory will help revitalize the democratic process, and give ordinary people a political voice that they have lacked. There is certainly something refreshing about Corbyn’s willingness to talk of political values and principles, rather than merely repeat what might be electorally safe. Yet, what has been striking about Corbyn’s first week as Labour leader has been his unwillingness to reach out beyond his natural constituency. In all his speeches, Corbyn has addressed those whom already support him, but not beyond. He has shunned the media, and often refused to answer journalists’ questions. Corbyn complains that the media is biased and wants only to demonise him. There is truth to that. But his dismissal of the media shows also a disregard, even contempt, for the wider audience, and an unwillingness to be held to account.

Traditional Labour politics was less about building mass democratic movements than about looking to the state to act as a lever of social change. Corbyn follows in this tradition, which is why many of his policies are often deeply illiberal – support, for instance, for legal constraints on hateful and unacceptable speech, and for state regulation of the press.

Even where Corbyn has attempted to promote popular democracy, the results have not been particularly democratic. Much has been made of his first appearance as Labour leader at Prime Minister’s Questions. This is a weekly ritual in the British Parliament, at which the Prime Minister faces questions from the Leader of the Opposition and other MPs. It is one of the few occasions at which the Prime Minister can be held publicly to account. Corbyn decided to crowdsource his questions. Cameron was able easily to answer questions from ‘Marie’, ‘Claire’ and others who had emailed Corbyn, but faced no interrogation from Corbyn himself. The result was not greater democracy, but less accountability, and an abdication of leadership.

Corbyn’s elevation to Labour leader is neither a historic shift nor a national threat. It is another expression of voter disenchantment. Labour’s new leader has shown little evidence that he knows how to shape disaffection in a progressive fashion. The danger is that Corbyn’s impact may be to fuel even greater disillusionment with the political process.


  1. steve roberts

    It is rare that i take issue with Kenan’s comments.
    On this occasion i think it necessary though to point out that Corbyn’s election has little to do with the correctly identified disenchantment and support given to the likes of UKIP etc from the general demos – for reasons Kenan has pointed to in the past – but more to be found in the internal struggles of a parasitical left within the Labour Party helped by a massively enlarged part membership that has recently joined who may indeed be disgruntled old lefties with new found voting rights in the Labour Party but nothing more, certainly there is no new social force operating here.
    In addition i think Kenan is been too accommodating saying “There is certainly something refreshing about Corbyn’s willingness to talk of political values and principles” Corbyn and his spokespersons in and out of the shadow cabinet have recently been doing little more than dismissing previously held views and positions and this is only the beginning.
    Otherwise i agree with the article especially “Corbyn’s elevation to Labour leader is neither a historic shift nor a national threat….The danger is that Corbyn’s impact may be to fuel even greater disillusionment with the political process”

  2. I’m puzzled, perhaps because I was in the US when the change happened. How and why did the traditional European centre-left come to cut its links with the working class? Why did the UK Parliamentary Labour Party turn its back on a tradition of economic thought from Keynes to, in our own time, Krugman and Stiglitz, and while willing (fortunately!) to print money to save the paper economy, nonetheless accept the principle, if not the extent, of cutting benefits to the poorest? Why did Labour under Brown actually *increase* income tax for those just above the threshold, by abolishing the 10% bracket? How can it be that the son of Tony Benn can describe Trident as an “independent” nuclear deterrent, and on he Andy Marr show brush aside the very idea that it needs justification? And how come that even asking such questions is regarded as a dangerous Leftist aberration?

  3. As someone looking at this from outside, I’ve been eager to read your take on this. I can’t help wondering what the alternatives to Corbyn were like. I tried reading a few articles but ran out of my free articles for the month on most of the center-ish British publications without feeling any better informed. I feel a little abashed making a parallel to the politics in the U.S., but it’s my only way of understanding it. Many of my friends here are supporting Bernie Sanders. Although I don’t agree with his ideas, Clinton seems so much a part of a group that has tried to entrench itself as an elite over the course of the past couple of decades it’s really hard to support her. Actually, I prefer Martin O’Malley, but the moment I read that he had attended the Catholic University of America, I knew he would never be considered a serious candidate. Sanders went to the University of Chicago.

    I don’t know how it is in the UK, but it really does feel like the country is run by a clique. The ironic thing is that the members of the clique are almost oblivious to its existence because the illusion of the “meritocracy” makes them feel as if they belong there and that they are eminently deserving of their positions.

    Strangely, this feeds into your post on trigger warnings, which I don’t myself connect as closely to the free speech issue as you do. I think one thing that is hard for oldies like me to relate to is that education plays a very different role than it did when I was younger. Education for education’s sake is a luxury for the rich. For the lower middle class and the working class the top schools are like a less deadly version of the hunger games. With the gap between the rich and poor growing, whether or not you get into a top graduate school or wind up driving for uber while deeply in debt is serious business. Feeling a bit of angst and underperforming slightly could mean a huge difference in your future so I’m not surprised they kids are demanding on these issues.

    But will Corbyn make things better for the working class? How effective will he be? I guess only time will tell, but I’m not optimistic.

  4. Aloevera

    The argument advanced here is very interesting–and thanks to Kenan Malik for this very concise and clear analysis. While I cannot assess matters regarding the UK on my own (being an American who has never lived in Britain), the phenomenon described pertains, at least in part, to recent developments in the US (such as the current “Trump phenomenon”–or the recent “Occupy Wall Street”)

    From the point of view of an anthropologist–this disconnect between leadership and electorate seems to me as yet another manifestation of what we call “complex society”–or a one of many problems at the current stage of societal complexity. As society develops and becomes more complex (larger number of different sorts of people in unprecedented interaction, with accelerated rates of change), institutions begin to lag in their ability to keep up with doings on the ground (although this institutional lag occurs unevenly in different parts of the world). The disconnect described here seems to be one such example of institutional lag–in the West–and may be unavoidable under the circumstances of increasing complexity. One question to ask is: how can we keep our institutions more successfully adjusted as rapid social change and the expansion of arenas social interaction increase?

    At this time, the problem has been met on the ground by so-called “anti-politics”– that is, attempts by segments of publics, frustrated with a perceived disconnect between themselves and elected leaders, increasingly turn away from this political Establishment or turn away from conventional political behavior and processes, in efforts to push ahead with their own interests and agendas. The most emblematic examples of anti-politics are those which take place outside the Establishment–especially in attempts by activists in various “squares” around the world, to try and effect the policies they want (as in Occupy Wall Street and similar movements). The Corbyn/Trump variety of anti-politics is to operate within the political Establishment, but to do or say things that were conventionally unacceptable–and which thus play to the outraged sentiments of various publics–often in a populistic way–and with an emphasis on maintaining Identity over “winnerability” in presidential or prime ministerial Establishment elections.

    I have no ready response on how else to deal with the problem–but for those who wish to ponder this matter further–there are some other writings on this particular disconnect, available online:

    “Ruling the Void?: The Hollowing of Western Democracy” by Peter Mair in New Left Review (2006)
    Ruling the Void?: The Hollowing of Western Democracy by Peter Mair–excercepts from the book (2013)

    Click to access MairRulingVoid13.pdf

    “This book explains why Jeremy Corbyn now leads Labour. Its author died in 2011” By Henry Farrell
    “Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn have almost nothing in common—except this”

  5. ” rightwing anti-immigration populist groups, such the Front National in France and UKIP in Britain.”

    Blimey, it’s groundhog day again. UKIP is not “anti-immigration”. Half its members are ex labour – hardly “rightwing”.
    UKIP is for controlled immigration at sustainable levels. UKIP is against MASS UNCONTROLLED IMMIGRATION, which leads to deprivation, loss of amenity, and social friction.

    Do you understand the difference Kenan? (I’m beginning to doubt your sincerity).

    • Having to agree with you is not, I’m afraid, the measure of sincerity. Yes, we’ve had this debate before, at length, and more than once, so I have no desire to replay the old arguments. I can see why you might want to deny that UKIP is either anti-immigration or rightwing. That’s your privilege. But it doesn’t make either your view true or mine insincere.

      • Kenan, there are some people whose insults are a badge of honour. I myself am proud of having been sneered at by Casey Luskin and Ken Ham. But not knowing who tallbloke is, we cannot tell if he meets the same high standard.

        • As far as I know, there is nothing nasty about @tallbloke. He is a UKIP candidate, and often responds on Pandaemonium, mainly on issues such as UKIP and immigration, and is never abusive. I’m sorry if my response came over snarky – but the point holds: agreeing with his point of view is not the measure of sincerity.

        • I too would feel snarked if my integrity were questioned. As it is, I admire your patience; much greater than what I extend to creationists (the analogous group) on my own blog.

  6. I’m getting a bit tired of reading the different analyses of why I voted for Corbyn.

    They are uniformly nonsense.

    Actually, I vote on issues.

    I want rid of the idiotic, inhumane and economically counter productive austerity.

    I want rid of that moral aberration and financial waste that is trident.

    I want an empathetic approach to people, both locally (welfare, mental health, anti austerity, economic equality) and internationally (immigration, aid and development, etc.)

    Essentially I want politics to be about the common good, wanting the best for people regardless of who they are. Even if that costs me personally.

    Also, I took part in many protests against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I saw Corbyn at most of them too, even the smaller ones.

    Corbyn is the closest I’ve seen to supporting these views, about which I feel so strongly, therefore I support him.

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