The election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour leader has put British politics in shock. In a period of only four months, it is already the second political earthquake that hits the island unexpectedly. The first took place during the General election on May 7th; the Conservative party obtained a resounding victory, despite all polls forecasting the necessity of a coalition to govern. According to some analysts, the 326 seats of the Tories were the biggest surprise since the equally unexpected victory of Clement Atlee in 1945.
The defeat of Ed Miliband weakened the Labour Party tremendously. Nearly all commentators and critics agreed on the same point: Miliband did not follow the Third Way path and paid a high price for it. Weeks before in an interview granted to The Economist, even Tony Blair said that the Labour Party was committing “mistakes from the past”. Miliband is not a radical, but his social-democratic and progressive tone during his speech sounded revolutionary compared to the ones of Blair or Cameron.
However, Miliband’s real problem was that he stood in no man’s land. His discourse and his propositions were not liberal enough to attract Conservatives or Liberal voters nor did he try to use a different and more radical speech to gain back the disenchanted Labour voters. He played in Cameron’s arena and he lost. If one adds to this the electoral explosion of the Scottish Nationalist Party and the amount of votes obtained by the Greens and the UKIP, Labour’s debacle seems less of a surprise now.
While Miliband disappeared from the political scene, the primaries for General Secretary started. The candidates in favour of New Labour presented their candidatures, and in the last moment, a 66-year-old North London MP joined the competition; with 31 years of experience in Parliament, he was known for his rejection of the Third Way, his defence of Trade Unions, his pacifism and his activism against the NATO, the apartheid, Pinochet and many more: Jeremy Corbyn.
In only two months, he has achieved what seemed impossible: winning the primaries and becoming the new General Secretary of the Labour Party. This is a total breakdown from Blair’s Third Way. It is thus no surprise that during the entire campaign Blair, as well as the liberal and conservative press have aimed to discredit it. With a progressive program and a clear popular vocation, Corbyn has managed to involve a lot of people in his campaign. Now that he is the General Secretary and the earthquake has passed, the real hard work begins.
The referendum on whether the UK should remain a member or leave the EU will be the first issue to make Corbyn face the ballot box. David Cameron announced that he would campaign to remain in the European Union. Ed Miliband defended the same position when he was still the leader and it appears like Corbyn will follow his predecessor. Furthermore, Hilary Benn, appointed shadow foreign secretary, has announced that Labour will defend the EU membership under any circumstances. In July, however, Owen Jones, the current reference of the Britannic left who publicly supported Jeremy Corbyn during his campaign, published an article favouring the cessation of UK membership in the EU.
Starting from today until 2017, David Cameron will negotiate with Brussels and try to obtain liberal/conservative ‘reforms’ that he could present as positive changes to the British electorate. If Cameron achieves his goal, Corbyn will have to defend the European relationship, but not the reforms obtained by the Prime Minister, as their ideological positions differ. I would not rule out a change in Corbyn’s position regarding the EU if he starts perceiving that the policies proposed by Cameron are harmful for the British lower classes. (Note: this is a long and controversial topic, which in the future I will tackle in more detail in this blog).
However, the first obstacle that Corbyn will have to face before the referendum will be his own party. For the past two decades, the Third Way has embedded the doctrine and conduct of the Labour party. Incorporating members who share Corbyn’s view whilst moving out Third Way supporters without causing any ruptures in the party will be difficult.
Moreover, Corbyn faces another colossal challenge. 5 years remain until the next general election in 2020, but meanwhile, British working class will suffer cuts, austerity, and impoverishment. Nonetheless, it is a positive thing that Corbyn has 5 years ahead before the general elections. Instead of only focusing on the winning of the elections, he will now have time to focus on the real issues Britain faces. In fact, winning the elections should not be the ultimate end of these five years; rather it should be a step forward in the re-construction of a social mass in the UK. These concepts successfully appeared in Spain with the anti-austerity party Podemos, but unfortunately much of the party’s essence diluted due to the recent Spanish elections. Corbyn does not face an imminent pressure, and thus can construct these ideas in the next five years.
He will have to recover the votes of the working class that has stopped voting in the last years. Where today there is an abstention of 82 per cent in the depressed areas of Manchester, in 2020 there should be an 82 per cent of participation. Who yesterday voted for the SNP or the Green party because it represented the anti-austerity vote, in 2020 has to vote for the Labour Party to make it efficient. The English white working class man (Owen Jones dixit) who votes UKIP because he thinks that the immigrant is the problem has to vote Labour when he finally understands that austerity is the real problem.
However, Corbyn would commit a mistake if his only objective would be to gain votes back. He has to construct a social structure that goes beyond electoral considerations. To do this, he will have to involve all the British population. Corbyn should consider what happened in Scotland, where the SNP in spite of having lost the independence referendum, afterwards multiplied by three its number of members and then had a huge victory in the general elections. The number of party members, however, is only one of many factors that permits one to measure the degree to which society involves itself. For the participation to be at its highest potential, in order to become tools of effective change the demonised Trade Unions have to modernise with structures suitable for the 21st century. Furthermore, the Labour Party should consider the creation of assemblies, something that was fundamental in its creation, making use of new technologies, developing digital interaction, encouraging support groups in universities as primary structures giving voice to the young, etc. A vast array of measures not only to recover an electorate, but a whole social actor: the citizen.
Corbyn has awakened hope during his campaign and his first week as General Secretary: 400 000 people voted for him in the primaries and 62 000 people have become members of the Labour party. Mahatma Gandhi once said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win”. Ignored for years in the Labour Party, and mocked during the campaign, Corbyn has now reached the third stage: he has become a fighter. The next five years represent a colossal challenge in a hostile environment where the success of Corbyn and its (ironically) New Labour Party will depend on its capacity to construct a social structure and where the interaction between political and social agents will determine the possibilities of winning the next elections.
Many thanks to my friend Paula García Domingo for her big help in the translation of this text.