Hope for radical progressives might be found in the tale of Jeremy Corbyn

Posted on August 1, 2015 in Governance Policy Context

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
July 31, 2015.   Colby Cosh

There is no reason you ought to have heard of Jeremy Corbyn, a U.K. member of Parliament for Islington North. A fellow of professorial demeanour who favours a flat cap and an untidy beard, Corbyn has never occupied an office of state higher than committee chairman. He represents a particular type of British socialist that one might have thought extinct: internationalist, radical-republican, pro-nationalization of industry, or at least some industries.

In foreign policy, Corbyn recognizes no enemies to the left, not Hugo Chavez, nor Hamas, nor even the Argentines, with whom he is happy to chat about the Falkland Islands. He’s a vegetarian, a Morning Star columnist and a pillar of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In short, an old, proudly unreconstructed Bennite.

Three months ago, a foreign observer might have been hard-pressed to say whether there were Bennites left in England outside Hyde Park. The hip leftist voice in the U.K. is Scottish Nationalist: young, paranoid and politically incoherent. May’s general election saw the kingdom split like a diamond between the SNP and the English Conservatives. Labour actually gained vote share at the expense of the Liberal Democrats — currently experiencing one of those phases in which the British voters forget what “liberals” might be for — but in a first-past-the-post model, they could not counter the regional strength of the Tories and the Scottish Nationalists.

Labour Leader Ed Miliband, a red-diaper baby who tried to paper over the tension in his party between socialist die-hards and postmodern market-aware progressives, stepped down. Three stylish, thoroughly corporate-looking and -sounding younger candidates stepped forward to replace him. Corbyn started giving interviews about the need for a real left-winger in the race — some representation for staunch, classical Labour views.

He would need 35 Labour MPs to sign off on his candidacy, however, and it was thought certain he would never find them. He made it at almost literally the last minute, and only by successfully convincing less radical colleagues that fairness, and perhaps even compassion, required his presence on the ballot.

Needless to say, Corbyn has become the firm favourite to become leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. It is a development unprecedented in postwar British history — and this, by the way, is quantifiable; one major betting house had Corbyn at 100-to-1 to win the leadership when he entered the race. (He’s a smidgen away from even odds now.) The thought of Corbyn calmly expounding on austerity, while his not-easily-distinguishable rivals bandy about welfare cuts and defence needs, has proven magnetic to young progressives, to nostalgic oldies who run the local constituencies and to the labour unions. All are lining up behind him and polls of Labour cardholders suggest he will have a big first-ballot lead.

If you ask me “what’s so interesting about the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon,” my answer will be, “everything.” To a student of Labour party history, the rocket-like rise of Corbynism is an addicting, action-packed cartoon, with new episodes daily. But when you pair the Corbyn moment with the startling early success of socialist Bernie Sanders in the campaign for the U.S. Democratic nomination — Sanders being so far to the left end of the Democrats that he is literally outside the party — you may even have the hint of a serious Anglosphere trend.

Trends, notoriously, require a third data point, and maybe that could be Alberta’s May election. Rachel Notley’s success at knocking off a feckless, centrist Conservative government was, like the nascent Corbyn and Sanders waves, visibly youth-driven. After months of thinking, I still cannot escape a generational interpretation of the Alberta election. Alberta is, in brute demographic terms, on the cusp of a handover of power from Baby Boomers to millennials. It’s all about the age-sex pyramid. (You notice that, when you’re in the narrow, politically impotent part of it.)

Many personality features are carelessly ascribed to millennials by professional bloviators. (No rigour! Coddled, under-educated indoor weenies raised by Google and video games!) What is indisputable is that millennials have personal memories that do not include the Cold War or double-digit inflation. They have no interest in socialism or social democracy, but they do not associate those terms with positions in a death struggle of organizing principles for civilization. They are children of a dampened business cycle — what economists call “The Great Moderation.”

The Moderation blew a tire in 2007, and that is the kind of event that calls verities into question. In the U.K., it has led to the paradox of Jeremy Corbyn, almost literally the lone survivor of a trampled and forgotten political clique, seeming new and incredibly refreshing. Even I feel it, watching him. Perhaps he represents hope for radicals of all species.

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