London—What a difference a year makes. When Jeremy Corbyn first offered himself as a potential leader following the Labour Party’s unexpected defeat in the 2015 general election, he had a hard time being taken seriously. Struggling even to find the minimum quota of Labour Members of Parliament to get nominated, Corbyn, a longtime fixture on the left of the party, surprised all of the pundits by winning the leadership election.
From the first day, however, his leadership was attacked and undermined by many of his own MPs—especially those with fond memories of Tony Blair’s three election victories. That implacable hostility, combined with Corbyn’s desultory performance in making the case for Britain to remain in the European Union during the 2016 Brexit referendum, gave rise to a formal leadership challenge at last year’s Labour Party Conference. Corbyn survived that, and a series of bruising internal battles over anti-Semitism (with the right-wing press taking every opportunity to fan the flames), only to face Prime Minister Theresa May’s surprise decision to call a snap election in June. In which, to the dismay of his critics, and at a time when the polls had the Conservatives ahead by as much as 25 points, Corbyn led Labour to its best result in years, dismantling May’s majority and putting many of the government’s most reactionary initiatives—from the return of fox hunting to a huge push towards selective education—on indefinite hold.
At this point, two things became dazzlingly clear. First, austerity wasn’t working. And second, everyone (including your faithful correspondent) had underestimated Jeremy Corbyn. During the campaign, it was Corbyn who came across as principled, compassionate, and—on the crucial question of Britain’s relations with the European Union—pragmatic, while May and her party increasingly appeared to be in the grip of an ideological obsession compounded of xenophobic fear and chauvinist economic fantasy.
Labour’s internal sniping continued, but thanks to the party’s much-better-than-expected election result and a huge surge in membership numbers—itself partly due to the rise of Momentum, the party’s internal left caucus, which came into existence to support Corbyn’s candidacy—the Labour leader is now firmly in control. As Corbyn pointed out in his speech this morning, with nearly 600,000 members, Labour is the largest political party in Western Europe. And if his speech is any indication, it is also among the most radical.
Gone were last year’s hesitant nods to socialist values and calls for marginal improvements. Long gone were his predecessor (and former Nation intern) Ed Miliband’s tortuous attempts to triangulate between populist attacks on predatory capitalism and an accommodation with “economic reality” designed to reassure voters that Labour could be trusted to balance the books. (Though Miliband himself was neither gone nor forgotten, displaying an unsuspected comic talent while emceeing a Momentum pub quiz the other night.) As for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s enthusiasm for hitching Labour’s wagon to the rise and flourishing of finance capital—all that was silently consigned to the dustbin of history.