Seumas Milne Guardian/UK 5 August 2015
In six weeks, Labour’s outsider has forced anti-austerity on to the agenda and created a national movement. The media and the political class can hardly contain themselves. What’s happening in the Labour party should simply not be happening. It’s suicidal, puerile, madness, self-mutilation, narcissistic, an emotional spasm and, in the words of one Tory cabinet member, a “potential catastrophe for Britain”.
But Jeremy Corbyn’s runaway leadership campaign shows little sign of flagging. In fact, the more he’s attacked and derided, the more support he attracts. It’s an extraordinary example of how utterly unpredictable politics can be. In the aftermath of the general election, Corbyn’s name was barely mentioned as a possible candidate, as Labour’s leaders lurched to the right. A couple of months later and the veteran leftwing MP is heading the field in polls and nominations, attracting thousands of young people to the party and packing public meetings across the country. As Corbyn himself readily concedes, it’s a political insurgency that was waiting for something to latch on to - and that something has turned out to be him.
The parallels with the anti-austerity movements that threw up Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and are fuelling Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the US Democratic nomination are clear. And the claim that the influx of new members and registered supporters is fuelled by far-left “entrists” is time-warp twaddle. He may not be able to match Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias for charisma, but he’s transparently honest and unspun
The paradox of Corbyn’s campaign is that some of the very reasons he wasn’t seen as an obvious challenger after the election are why he’s attracting such wide support now. He may not be able to match Podemos’s pony-tailed Pablo Iglesias for charisma. But he’s transparently honest and unspun, and so obviously not from the professional politician’s mould. Not only that, Corbyn represents Labour’s mainstream values and is making the case for a social democracy that has been driven from the mainstream for a generation.
As one young supporter at a Corbyn rally explained: “People say he is an old leftwinger or an old Marxist but to my generation his ideas seem quite new.” What she meant was simply free university tuition and the public ownership of rail and energy – common across Europe and popular with the British public.
“Corbynomics” is scarcely revolutionary. As the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman put it, when Labour supporters refuse to accept a failed austerity ideology, they aren’t “moving left”, they’re “refusing to follow a party elite that has decided to move sharply to the right”. That is what Labour’s other leadership candidates all did after the election, ditching the party’s most popular policies, such as the mansion tax and 50% top rate, in order to appease corporate business – which polling shows most voters believe Labour has in fact been too soft on. So now the mild-mannered London MP faces a wall of propaganda from almost the entire media and every Blairite has-been that can be mobilised to derail his bandwagon.
There’s no sensible comparison with the 1980s, when Labour was trounced after a rightwing faction broke away to form the Social Democratic party and Margaret Thatcher dined off the jingoism of the Falklands war. And the political and media establishment’s “centre ground” bears no relation to the actual centre ground of public opinion, from public ownership to taxes on the rich.
Having decided against the evidence that Labour lost the election because it was too leftwing, they now insist the party must move closer to the Tories or be consigned to irrelevance. Mass support for the anti-austerity Corbyn is definitely not part of the script. So expect the attacks to intensify – and more loaded polling and tendentious reports such as that partially published this week attempting to show the public supports austerity.
Of course, Corbyn is far from home and dry. But even if he loses to Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper, Corbyn has already succeeded in busting open a political establishment stitch-up. He has pushed an anti-austerity agenda into the heart of political debate, forced his rivals to halt their shift to the right, and brought tens of thousands of young people into active politics. Whoever wins, that movement is not going to disappear. In six weeks, the Corbyn campaign has changed the rules of the game. [Abridged].