Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has all the makings of an iconic moment in labour party history. Securing 59.5% of the vote in the labour leadership election after an engaging and powerful campaign, many believe Corbyn is set to revitalise politics with his socialist, anti-austerity agenda.
However, his path to leadership has not been simple. Tony Blair ominously predicted that his election win could lead the labour party to annihilation, and David Cameron warned that labour is now ‘a threat to our national security’. With an ex and current Prime Minister rattled but a huge collection of supporters, it seems that corbynmania isn’t just a fad, and change is truly on its way.
When the Labour election result was announced on the 12th of September, Corbyn seemed at home on stage, which some found surprising when considering his political career has included 32 years on the backbench. No-one really believed he would win, let alone with such a majority. Corbyn wasn’t always so eager to join the Westminster crowd, or even welcome there. After gaining 2 E’s at A level and then dropping out of North London Polytechnic, his academic underachievement is contrasting to the swarm of Oxbridge graduates populating the cabinet. He went on to receive education in unconventional ways, through volunteering in Jamaica and becoming heavily involved with trade unions. He’s a vegetarian who doesn’t drink, prefers to cycle everywhere instead of driving, and makes homemade Jam. He has the makings of a whimsical stereotype, the innocuous laid-back leftie with a passion for social justice.
Expanding out of the left-wing bubble is difficult. Despite best intentions, problems surfaced almost immediately. With the lack of a spin doctor, Corbyn was at the mercy of the media, with broadsheets eager to tarnish his reputation after officially supporting his opponents in the labour election. Carried by a wave of support from activists of all ages, the high expectations for his leadership produced easy targets for the press and even disgruntled members of his own party. As a self-confessed labour rebel, Corbyn has always rattled a few cages. He has been accused of demonstrating disloyalty to his party on multiple occasions, a mortal sin for a political careerist, but not necessarily a man who wants to create real change.
After the women-only carriages fiasco, where Corbyn was met with heavy criticism for agreeing that women might like the option of a safe carriage on trains, his feminist credentials were under close watch from journalists. The announcement of his shadow cabinet shortly after his victory was an opportunity for redeeming himself, and to prove that labour could be a transformative government. However, as the usual story of white economically privileged men dominating the most senior positions slowly unfolded, it was made worse by offering a hastily constructed consolatory position for Angela Eagle. Right Wing sources jumped on the opportunity to highlight the under-representation of women, ethnic minorities, and people with both intersections, which funnily enough they hadn’t cared about before. Despite the shadow cabinet overall being one of the most gender equal in history, for some the lack of women in senior positions means the inevitable side-lining of feminist issues, following the flawed logic that only women are affected by institutional patriarchy, and so only other women can represent them.
What is forgotten in these criticisms is that Corbyn does have a commendable track record in gender equality. His commitment was not captured accurately in this whirlwind of events. While self-identifying woman MP Harriet Harman stated that labour would support conservative changes to the benefit system which would disproportionately harm women, Corbyn has taken a hard-line anti-welfare cut stance. His ‘Working with Women’ manifesto suggests he understands the nuances gender discrimination in the UK and the approaches needed to tackle everyday sexism. Labour voting statistics show that more women than men voted for Corbyn, while the rest of the candidates had an even split or were male dominated. Clearly Corbyn is connecting with women voters just as much as men.
As a perceived radical, some of Corbyn’s principles do not translate well in the public eye. He referred to the extremist group Hamas as ‘friends’, and more recently faced claims of disrespect over his refusal to sing the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ at the recent Battle of Britain memorial service. These political moves will no doubt cause a division in opinion, but Corbyn defended his use of ‘friends’ as he meant it as a collective neutral term, and explicitly stated he does not agree with the organization. The national anthem incident has also been seen as respectful silent contemplation, while maintaining his stand against the monarchy.
Other attacks on Corbyn have been simply ideological. Corbyn believes that conservative-driven austerity is an avoidable choice motivated by agenda, while proposing ‘corbynomics’ in the form of quantitative easing to achieve the needed deficit reduction while protecting the most vulnerable. Although different from the Tory approach, his economic plans may be better for quality of life. Some argue that Corbyn’s tactics so far have been to band together the scattered disillusioned who hold similar political views, and effectively give up on the political right, but Corbyn’s main appeal is his core values, which some believe are only shared by a few.
Despite this rhetoric, evidence shows that his appeal is widespread. Through opinion polls its seen that an majority of the public from all over the political spectrum, including conservatives, support atleast some of corbyns’ ideals – namely renationalisation of the railways, high taxes on the 1%, a nuclear weapon ban, rent controls on landlords, and a mandatory living wage to replace the minimum. It seems Corbyn’s principled approach resonates with voters from many different backgrounds, but perception of his politics has become obscured by biased accounts.
Radical Politicians face a challenge when convincing voters that a large change is needed and is in the right direction. However his popularity with the labour voters attests his credibility, and his political activism has demonstrated he has always been on the progressive side of history, from being a staunch opponent of the apartheid regime, and supporting the miners strikes and LGBT rights in a right wing political climate.
By uniting the left-wing sphere, Corbyn has done something that has never been achieved in modern British political history. While joining the left together, he has fragmented the labour party, perhaps even catalysing its destruction. Corbynites now hope that the party can step away from New Labour and become reformed with Corbyn’s ideals in mind. For better or for worse, Corbyn’s has a powerful momentum behind his politics, and isn’t afraid of bad PR.