How Jeremy Corbyn Pulled Off One of the Biggest Upsets in Modern Political History

Labour’s shocking performance is proof that a strong left platform can win broad support.

Bhaskar Sunkara June 8, 2017

The Labour left isn’t a “mere social-democratic” current. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The Tories may still be in pow­er at the end the night, but Jere­my Cor­byn won today.

Labour developed a robust left character and platform for the first time in decades.

Yes, I know this is shame­less spin, but hear me out: the last few weeks have vin­di­cat­ed the approach of the Labour left and its inter­na­tion­al co-thinkers under Corbyn.

This is the first elec­tion Labour has won seats in since 1997, and the par­ty got its largest share of the vote since 2005 — all while clos­ing a 24 point deficit. Since Cor­byn assumed lead­er­ship in late 2015, he has sur­vived attack after attack from his own par­ty, cul­mi­nat­ing in a failed coup attempt against him. As Labour leader, he was unable to rely on his par­lia­men­tary col­league or his par­ty staff. The small team around him bom­bard­ed with hos­tile inter­nal leaks and mis­in­for­ma­tion, and an unprece­dent­ed media smear campaign.

Every elite inter­est in the Unit­ed King­dom tried to knock down Jere­my Cor­byn, but still he stands. He casts a longer shad­ow over his party’s cen­trists tonight than at any time since he was elect­ed Labour leader.

Okay, Cor­byn may not be prime min­is­ter tomor­row. He was a flawed can­di­date.” He wasn’t the strongest speak­er, he had his share of gaffes, he ate cold beans. All this is true. But besides for out­side hos­til­i­ty and the oppo­si­tion of his own par­lia­men­tary group, it’s worth remem­ber­ing that Cor­byn became Labour leader at the most per­ilous moment since the party’s birth.

Labour was dis­cred­it­ed by the Blair-Brown admin­is­tra­tions — from their cat­a­stroph­ic mil­i­tary adven­tures in Iraq to their pri­va­ti­za­tion agen­da at home and their over­see­ing of the finan­cial crisis.

The Blairites got their wish: Labour was look­ing more and more like a social lib­er­al par­ty than a social-demo­c­ra­t­ic one, embrac­ing the finan­cial sec­tor and pre­pared to mod­ern­ize” the wel­fare state by gut­ting it. But there was no seri­ous chal­lenge from its left, and there were pro­fes­sion­al-class vot­ers to chase.

The party’s mass mem­ber­ship base dete­ri­o­rat­ed, as did its links with a weak­ened labor move­ment. Scot­land was lost. The only anti-estab­lish­ment voice in for­mer­ly Labour-dom­i­nat­ed com­mu­ni­ties angry at years of neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic poli­cies was the right-wing UK Inde­pen­dence Party.

This was the sit­u­a­tion Cor­byn inher­it­ed. Yet, against all odds, his team brought Labour back to life.

They rebuilt the party’s mass base, turn­ing Labour into Europe’s largest par­ty, with more than a half mil­lion members.

Momen­tum, the grass­roots for­ma­tion cre­at­ed to sup­port the effort, orga­nized tens of thou­sands of Britons in com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try. Bat­tles with the Labour cen­ter- and right- wings helped in a cer­tain way, too, dis­tanc­ing the lead­er­ship from a dis­cred­it­ed estab­lish­ment. Many par­ty mem­bers came to embrace the ire of the bil­lion­aire press.

Labour devel­oped a robust left char­ac­ter and plat­form for the first time in decades. Even as it dipped behind in the polls, it was form­ing the nucle­us of a real oppo­si­tion, a real alternative.

But even if we didn’t care about pro­gram and just want­ed the Tories out, it’s hard to imag­ine that a right­ward-tack­ing Labour leader would have done any bet­ter than Cor­byn. Would Owen Smith have inspired the surge in youth turnout that pushed what should have been a Con­ser­v­a­tive land­slide into a hung par­lia­ment? Would Angela Eagle or any soft-left” chal­lengers have kept Wales in Labour hands? Could any force but the Labour left begin to win back Scot­land from the siren-call of the Scot­tish Nation­al Party?

Cor­byn sal­vaged this elec­tion by buck­ing Labour’s con­ser­v­a­tive slide over the past sev­er­al decades and stick­ing to his left-wing guns. His suc­cess pro­vides a blue­print for what demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists need to do in the years to come.

Labour’s surge con­firms what the Left has long argued: Peo­ple like a straight­for­ward, hon­est defense of pub­lic goods. Labour’s man­i­festo was sweep­ing—its most social­ist in decades. It’s a straight­for­ward doc­u­ment, call­ing for nation­al­iza­tion of key util­i­ties, access to edu­ca­tion, hous­ing, and health ser­vices for all, and mea­sures to redis­trib­ute income from cor­po­ra­tions and the rich to ordi­nary people.

£6.3 bil­lion into pri­ma­ry schools, the pro­tec­tion of pen­sions, free tuition, pub­lic hous­ing con­struc­tion — it was clear what Labour would do for British work­ers. The plan was attacked in the press for its old-fash­ioned sim­plic­i­ty — for the many, not the few” — but it res­onat­ed with pop­u­lar desires, with a view of fair­ness that seemed ele­men­tary to millions.

The Labour left remem­bered that you don’t win by tack­ing to an imag­i­nary cen­ter — you win by let­ting peo­ple know you feel their anger and by giv­ing them a con­struc­tive end to chan­nel that anger towards. The party’s elec­tion video said it all: We demand the full fruits of our labor.”

If the imme­di­ate eco­nom­ic pro­gram of Labour was inspir­ing, the lead­er­ship also revived a vision of social-demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics that looks beyond cap­i­tal­ism. The most strik­ing thing about Cor­bynism isn’t some run-of-the-mill wel­fare cap­i­tal­ism in an era where neolib­er­al­ism rules supreme, but rather that its pro­tag­o­nists see the inher­ent lim­its of reforms under cap­i­tal­ism and dis­cuss ideas that aim to expand the scope of democ­ra­cy while chal­leng­ing capital’s own­er­ship and con­trol, not just its wealth.

What oth­er post-Gold­en Age, cen­ter-left par­ty has draft­ed plans to expand the coop­er­a­tive sec­tor, cre­ate com­mu­ni­ty-owned enter­pris­es, and restore the state’s con­trol of key sec­tors of the economy?

The plans were far from exhaus­tive, but they would put Britain on a course for deep­er social­ist trans­for­ma­tions in the future. That’s a lofty dream, one that will take decades to come to fruition, but it goes far beyond tra­di­tion­al Labourism.

The Labour left isn’t a mere social-demo­c­ra­t­ic” cur­rent. Where­as what social democ­ra­cy had mor­phed into by the post­war peri­od often tried to tamp down class con­flict in favor of tri­par­tite arrange­ments with busi­ness, labor, and the state, the new social democ­ra­cy of Cor­byn was built on class antag­o­nism, active­ly encour­ag­ing move­ments from below.

But Labour couldn’t just put for­ward a pie-in-the-sky pro­gram. The par­ty has had to deal with issues that social­ists typ­i­cal­ly haven’t had to con­front. And it’s suc­ceed­ed by appeal­ing to the com­mon sense of the many” they sought to represent.

When the issue of ter­ror and secu­ri­ty was raised dur­ing the cam­paign, Cor­byn showed not only that the Left was not weak on these issues, but that, in many ways, we’re more cred­i­ble than our oppo­nents. For years, it’s been tak­en for grant­ed that when it comes to ter­ror­ism, the choic­es con­fronting the Left are either stick­ing to our hal­lowed prin­ci­ples and suf­fer­ing for it elec­toral­ly, or mim­ic­k­ing the bel­li­cose rhetoric of the Right.

Cor­byn found anoth­er way through the mad­ness. In the wake of the hor­rif­ic Man­ches­ter and Lon­don attacks, the Labour leader was unafraid to con­nect British impe­ri­al­ism over­seas and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of Islamist ter­ror. Cor­byn expand­ed his crit­i­cism into oth­er aspects of British for­eign pol­i­cy: a deep-root­ed set of alliances with Gulf States at the cen­ter of Mid­dle East reaction.

Cor­byn has tak­en some flak from the far left for his call for a pro­por­tion­al police response to ter­ror. But he out­lined a broad alter­na­tive, one that spoke of the social caus­es behind the path to ter­ror­ism, and he used it to attack the vio­lent xeno­pho­bia and scare­mon­ger­ing pushed by the Tories. In doing so, he changed the debate about ter­ror­ism in fun­da­men­tal ways. There will always be alien­at­ed, angry peo­ple engag­ing in anti-social activ­i­ty, but Cor­byn offered a way to view such acts as secu­ri­ty mat­ters to be dealt with at their roots, rather than a clash of civilizations.

Let’s not under­es­ti­mate vot­ers. After years of end­less wars and vio­lence, most of them are ready for peace. Cor­byn offered them what they want­ed, and he wasn’t pun­ished for it.

Even with a dimin­ished Con­ser­v­a­tive major­i­ty, things won’t be rosy tomor­row. Momen­tar­i­ly hum­bled, the Tories still rule. Their allies in the busi­ness and media elites will regroup. They will come up with new plans to attack work­ing peo­ple and the pub­lic good.

But Corbyn’s par­ty is bet­ter posi­tioned than any recent Labour régime to be a cred­i­ble oppo­si­tion root­ed in an unapolo­getic left vision; to offer hopes and dreams to peo­ple, not just fear and dimin­ished expec­ta­tions. Also, Bernie would have won.

This sto­ry is also post­ed at Jacobin.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the found­ing edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @sunraysunray.
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