The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour Party leadership is a seismic event in British politics – perhaps even more so than the SNP landslide in May 2015. For the first time, a committed socialist and anti-austerity activist leads the Labour Party at Westminster. Many commentators were busy writing his obituary long before he became leader. Yet, serious thinkers on the right aren’t fooled. They know Corbyn taps into a popular mood, the desire for authentic opposition to the Tories, and an alternative to the right wing populism of UKIP. They fear that he really could threaten the enervating austerity consensus. Making that threat a reality is his only chance.
Corbyn faces formidable opponents in the state, business, media and the Labour machine itself. Can he survive as leader? Is it remotely plausible that he could become PM? It will be extraordinarily difficult, but it is possible whatever the psephologists might say. Politics can change. Political activists can be agents of change. The challenge, simply, is to make the “Corbyn surge” infectious: translate his campaigning energies to the national stage and use his position as Labour Leader to win credibility for his socialist worldview. In practice, that means he must mobilise a movement capable of stopping austerity in its tracks. To win credibility, the Corbynistas must find a way of making austerity ungovernable. Accomplish that, and they might regain credibility for socialist politics and bring millions of working class people alienated by the Blairite era back into the political and electoral fold. Since Corbyn’s astonishing victory on Saturday, there have been stirrings within the leadership of the trade union movement – even threats of “civil disobedience”. But we heard all that in the heady days of 2011. At the height of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement, we saw a trade union demonstration of more than half a million people in London, and mass strikes against cuts in public sector pensions. But the unions backed down and nothing came of it. Talking a good fight against austerity isn’t remotely the same as delivering. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is a huge gamble and the odds are stacked against him. If the Corbyn surge does not prove to be infectious, he will quickly be toast. But by sticking his guns he could just lead a renaissance on the left and transform British politics.
We will be discussing this and many other issues at the inaugural conference of our Centre for Urban Research on Austerity on 18th and 19th November 2015. See http://www.dmu.ac.uk/CURA2015.
Director – Centre for Urban Research on Austerity