The establishment’s Plan A had been to stop Jeremy Corbyn. Up against three technocrats of the political center, Corbyn—who has run nothing bigger than the planning committee of a town council, though he has been a member of Parliament since 1983—won 60 percent on the first ballot, becoming the new leader of the UK’s Labour Party.
Plan B had been to hamstring Corbyn if he won by withholding support from Tony Blairite, centrist, pro-Nato, pro-business members of Parliament. Corbyn would be the floundering figurehead for 18 months before returning to business as usual. But 60 percent—from a membership swelled to half a million during Corbyn’s barnstorming summer—gives you a crushing mandate.
Sixty percent gives you permission to appoint the hardest-left MP in Parliament as your shadow finance minister and put a vegan in charge of handling the farming lobby. Even as the right-wing press derided the mild-mannered and bearded Corbyn as a “weaponized lentil,” the shock was setting in. Corbyn wants to nationalize the railways and energy companies, use quantitative easing to fund public spending, scrap Britain’s nuclear weapons and student tuition fees. He is a lifelong anti-imperialist and supporter of Palestinian liberation. For the first time in 80 years, the establishment does not control the Labour Party.
Even the left in the party is stunned. Corbyn made the ballot paper only because politically hostile MPs sensed—rightly—that, without a token left-wing challenger, a contest between dull but worthy technocrats would be a prelude to five years of decline. When I spoke to a senior Corbyn aide, right after the nominations closed and three months before the election, he said, “Our aim is to come second; to carve out a space for the left and the unions.”
But everybody had misread the political dynamics. Once you read them properly, the implications are far-reaching for British politics.
Labour lost disastrously to the Tories in May 2015 because three fault lines had appeared in left-wing British politics. A left-leaning, populist Scottish National Party captured Scotland, wiping out Labour in its traditional stronghold. On top of that, nearly 4 million people voted for UKIP, a right-wing party opposed to membership in the EU and to immigration; though it drew support from discontented conservatives, UKIP was now taking millions of votes from working class Labour towns. Finally, more than a million people voted Green in May—and this after celebrity Russell Brand made a last-minute plea for them to back Labour.
Each of these events had been clearly signaled through prior local and European elections. Each has a socio-cultural driver.
Scotland’s nationalist party has acted as a left social-democratic force, protecting free social services and low student fees while Labour didn’t and opposing nuclear weapon development while Labour didn’t. At the same time, it has ridden on the back of a radical renaissance in Scottish cultural identity which brought 80–90 percent turnouts from working-class projects in the 2014 independence referendum.