The political earthquake that delivered the leadership of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition into the hands of a white-bearded socialist vegetarian with a long history of opposing the monarchy continues to produce aftershocks. On September 12, Jeremy Corbyn, a 100–1 outsider on the left of the Labour Party who had trouble scraping together the required 35 nominations from fellow party members in Parliament to even enter the contest, was elected party leader with a whopping 60 percent of the vote.
Much like Bernie Sanders’s campaign, Corbyn’s challenge to the ruling consensus on everything from the inevitability of austerity to Britain’s supposedly inveterate hostility to refugees attracted hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic, mostly younger voters. He transformed a contest that had been seen as a dreary coronation into a lively, sometimes eccentric debate, with ideas long branded as “extreme” or “unworkable”—renationalizing the country’s railroads, scrapping nuclear weapons, using public funds to build housing—attracting popular support.
Deemed unelectable by the Labour establishment and the overwhelmingly Tory press, Corbyn’s surprise victory was greeted by predictions of an imminent split in the party. Some members of former leader Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet—the group whose job is to provide opposition to government ministers and to be prepared, should Labour win the next election, to take over their jobs—did refuse to serve under Corbyn. But the sheer margin of his victory gave Corbyn a larger democratic mandate than any previous leader of any British political party, quashing talk of party coups and internal revolts—at least for the moment.
Which doesn’t mean Corbyn has had an easy debut. His well-known skepticism about the wisdom of military intervention in the Syrian conflict prompted talk of a rebellion inside his own cabinet, while the prospect of Corbyn acting on his longtime opposition to Britain’s Trident nuclear-defense system led one anonymous serving general to threaten an outright mutiny should the left-wing MP become prime minister.
Some of Corbyn’s difficulties were of his own making. When you know the media are gunning for you—to the extent of turning a failure to attend a rugby match into a front-page scandal—you don’t stand in silence at a Battle of Britain commemoration rather than sing the national anthem. Nor does having one of the best records in Westminster on women’s rights excuse choosing white men to head all four of the major shadow-cabinet departments.
But Corbyn also wasted little time in signaling the scale of the change he intends to bring about, speaking at a “Refugees Welcome Here” rally in his first official act as Labour leader. (In 2015, Labour made “Controls on Immigration” one of its main campaign pledges.) By naming fellow Labour radical John McDonnell as shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, Corbyn not only picked one of the few MPs to have never even paid lip service to neoliberal orthodoxy on the horror of government deficits; he also picked a man who, as Ken Livingstone’s former deputy and finance chair of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, actually knows how to read a budget. (The press here wasted little time in trying to crucify McDonnell for having once said, “It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of [IRA hunger striker] Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table” in Northern Ireland. But Corbyn stood by his choice, and McDonnell apologized for having said that IRA members should be “honored”—and for once having joked that if he could go back in time, he would “assassinate [Margaret] Thatcher”—and the circus moved on.) Corbyn marked the end of his first week as leader by announcing that taking the railways back into public ownership would be among the first acts of a Labour government.
With five years to go before the next elections, Corbyn’s first task will be to turn a fractious, deeply divided party into an effective opposition. As someone who has spent his entire career defying the Labour leadership, Corbyn may well find it difficult to impose party discipline. And his second task—helping Labour candidate Sadiq Khan to succeed Boris Johnson as London’s mayor in elections next May—wasn’t made any easier by an interview Khan recently gave the Daily Mail, in which the Muslim bus driver’s son dismissed Corbyn’s call for a 60 percent top tax bracket and said the party leader’s failure to sing the national anthem was “unwise and disrespectful.”
With allies like that, Corbyn may not last until the next election. But even if he doesn’t, Corbyn’s victory has already freed his party from the dead hand of Tony Blair.
Yet it’s also worth asking what might happen if Labour decides to listen to the more than 60,000 new members who have joined since Corbyn was elected as leader. Many are veteran activists who left out of disgust with Tony Blair or the Iraq War. Others are young idealists who see themselves as part of a global effort, with Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, to bring capitalism to account. Long dismissive of electoral politics, they’ve had their hopes raised by candidates offering more than cosmetic change. And though the path to victory is both unclear and uncertain, they seem to prefer the risks of failure to the cold comfort of preemptive disillusion.