Corbyn's leadership is an earthquake that might jolt Britain and beyond

The scale of Mr Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the Labour party's leadership election is a political earthquake. Britain's Labour party is neither Greece's Syriza nor Spain's Podemos. It has been in power for just less than 40 per cent of the time since 1945. Britain is also a participant in the Group of Seven leading economies, a weighty member of Nato, a close ally of the United States, one of the larger members of the European Union and home to a global financial centre. So, what does the election of an inexperienced left-winger mean?

Start with why he won. Professor Paul Krugman argues in the New York Times that it is because the Labour establishment failed to counter the Conservatives' misleading propaganda on the causes of the fiscal deficits bequeathed by the financial crisis and the urgency of fiscal retrenchment. I agree that the past leadership was too supine. Yet also important were changes in the electoral process. Above all, Mr Corbyn's rise reflects the loss of confidence in political and commercial elites also to be seen in other high-income nations, notably France, Spain and the US. This mistrust has roots in longstanding discontents. But a huge and essentially unexpected financial crisis, followed by the rescue of the institutions held responsible and a lengthy period of depressed real incomes, has turned it into rage.

The anger is to be seen on both extremes. The populist right identifies the enemy as corrupt elites, feckless scroungers and foreigners. The populist left identifies it in greedy plutocrats and their lackeys in politics and media. Mr Corbyn's ascendancy is the triumph of this second view. It may not be the last such event in Western politics.

What might the rise of Mr Corbyn mean for near and more distant futures? It seems to raise the likelihood that the British will vote to leave the European Union in the forthcoming referendum. True, Mr Corbyn has now clearly indicated his desire to keep Britain inside the EU. But many of his supporters see it as a capitalist plot and may even oppose him. More important, the pro-business and pro-market reforms Prime Minister David Cameron seeks are just what Mr Corbyn rejects. The more successful Mr Cameron is in uniting his party behind such a package of reforms, the less likely is Mr Corbyn's Labour party to support membership wholeheartedly. Labour's hostility to Mr Cameron's terms is likely to make the referendum even harder to win.

Another possibility is that Labour will split as it did in 1981. The rump Labour party would be even more left-wing and even more unelectable. The result would presumably be a lengthy period in power for the Tories.

The rise of Mr Jeremy Corbyn, new leader of Britain's Labour party, reflects the loss of confidence in political and commercial elites also to be seen in other high-income nations, notably France, Spain and the US. PHOTO: REUTERS

Yet that is likely to happen even without a split. With such a gulf between its activists and Members of Parliament and an inexperienced and extreme leadership, Labour is indeed likely to be seen as an unelectable shambles. If so, the Conservatives might adopt more extreme policies, such as proposals to curb still further the right to strike. That would raise the temperature of British politics to levels last seen in the 1980s.

While these seem the likely outcomes, they are not the only ones. Mr Corbyn and his colleagues might astonish us by proposing radical economic policies that make sense. More likely is a marriage of old Labour with new populism.

Moreover, even if Mr Corbyn's ascension lowers the chance of a Labour victory, it does not reduce it to zero. His hostility to fiscal austerity, the financial sector and nuclear weapons, together with support for rent controls, renationalisation of the railways and higher taxes on companies and the well-off, could prove very popular, particularly if the economy did poorly. If he added hostility to immigration, he might even do quite well. The belief that Mr Corbyn could never be prime minister is plausible, but not a certainty.

What might such a victory, or the possibility of such a victory, mean? Capital would flee. If in power, Labour would have to abandon its programme or introduce a siege economy behind tough exchange controls. Britain would then effectively exit the global economy. The isolation would be strengthened if Labour decided to leave Nato and the EU, as some of the hard-left desire.

The Corbyn earthquake, then, is more than an event of British significance. It is also more than a sign of the failure of Labour's past leadership to manage the party successfully, in power and out of it. It is another indication of the scale of the disaffection with conventional wisdom now rife in many countries.

It seems highly likely to increase the durability of Conservative rule. But a Labour victory is not utterly inconceivable. The past is, suddenly, a very foreign country.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2015, with the headline 'Corbyn's leadership is an earthquake that might jolt Britain and beyond'. Print Edition | Subscribe