London—As if to underline the magnitude of the political earthquake that struck Britain this morning, Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, said that his first official act would be to attend a “Refugees Welcome Here” rally today in London. A 100-to-1 outsider when he entered the race at the beginning of the summer, the veteran left-wing MP and chair of the Stop the War coalition had trouble scraping together the 35 nominations from his fellow Labour members of parliament. Branded a fringe figure by the media and party insiders, Corbyn’s forthright opposition to austerity—he was the only one of the four leadership candidates to vote against the Conservative government’s punitive new welfare bill—brought hundreds of thousands of new members and supporters into the Labour Party. Yet when the votes were counted, Corbyn won nearly 60 percent of the total, giving him the largest mandate of any leader of any British political party—ever.
In a magnanimous victory speech, he thanked each of his opponents, citing Andy Burnham’s dedication to the national health service and saluting Yvette Cooper for her efforts in recent weeks to prod Britain to do more for refugees. Even Liz Kendall, the most unabashedly Blairite candidate, who disagreed with Corbyn on nearly every issue, was thanked for the friendly tone of their debates and praised for having the courage of her convictions. Holding his party together will be Corbyn’s first big challenge. Several MPs, including Cooper, have already ruled out serving in the new leader’s shadow cabinet—the group of opposition legislators whose job it is to provide opposition to government ministers and to be prepared, should Labour win the next election, to take over their jobs.
As someone who has spent his entire career defying the Labour leadership, Corbyn may well find it difficult to impose party discipline. However, with the next parliamentary election still nearly five years away, Corbyn has plenty of time to figure that out. The more immediate challenge will come from Britain’s overwhelmingly right-wing press—and from the Conservatives, who now face a parliamentary opposition led by a man whose candidacy was backed by just 15 of Labour’s 232 MPs, and whose views on a host of issues are at variance with most of the legislators in his own party. Current Labour MPs, for example, were elected on a platform that pledged to renew Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system—a move Corbyn has consistently opposed. Expect the Tories to use that issue, and others where Corbyn is to the left of his parliamentary colleagues, to try to split the Labour party. Nor can Corbyn count on support from the Scottish Nationalists, whose leader, Nicola Sturgeon, greeted his victory by tweeting that “if Labour can’t quickly show that they have credible chance of winning UK election, many will conclude” independence is the only way to derail the Tory agenda.
But as Sturgeon as is far too astute not to realize, Labour’s unexpected opening to the left brings opportunities as well as dangers, especially in Scotland, where a Corbyn campaign event last month sold out in a matter of hours and had to be moved to a larger venue. Winning back even half of the 40 seats Labour lost in Scotland would go a long way to countering the argument that Corbyn’s left-wing views render the party unelectable.