Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A grizzled left-winger with a bold anti-austerity message begins what everyone assumes is a quixotic quest for elected office. His campaign provokes an unexpected wave of public enthusiasm, drawing cheering crowds that embarrass his rivals, and inspiring hordes of previously disaffected young people. Yet the media continue to insist that as an unabashed socialist with no national executive experience, he remains unelectable, while senior figures in his party warn of dire consequences if voters refuse to grow up and settle for a politician whose coronation has begun to seem less inevitable with every passing day.
For an American, especially, it is impossible to witness the growing excitement here over Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party without being reminded of Berniemania. Though Corbyn, at 66, is more youthful than the 73-year-old Vermont senator, and entered Parliament as MP for Islington, in north London, back when Sanders was still in his first term as mayor of Burlington, the two mavericks share a reputation for putting principle ahead of popularity, a willingness to challenge their own party’s conventional wisdom—especially on the economy—and an improbable status as icons of authenticity in an age of sound-bite politics.
But if you want to understand the roots of Corbyn’s appeal, and the painful dilemma he poses for the British left, you need to look past the gadfly-turned-Galahad story to the blasted landscape of the Labour Party, still reeling from its stunning defeat last May. With the next elections not due until 2020, Ed Miliband’s speedy resignation allowed the Conservatives, now in possession of a parliamentary majority, to throw off whatever concessions they’d had to make to their former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats—cutting £12 billion from welfare, withdrawing housing benefits from 18-to-21-year-olds, and limiting low-income tax credits to just two children per family. As if to underline Labour’s moral and intellectual bankruptcy, when the changes came to a vote in July, Harriet Harman, the party’s acting leader, forbade her colleagues from voting against the government.
Andy Burnham, a working-class Catholic with matinee-idol looks who led in all the early polls (and who was widely described as the candidate of the unions and the left), abstained. So did Yvette Cooper, who like Burnham had been a minister in both Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s governments, and Liz Kendall, who though elected to Parliament in 2010 has become the Blairite champion in the race. The only leadership contender to actually vote against the latest Tory attack on Britain’s poorest was Jeremy Corbyn, whose dark-horse candidacy was initially viewed as mere window dressing, a gesture to placate the party’s fractious but impotent left wing. Indeed, Corbyn—who, in his previous 30 years as a serial rebel on Labour’s back benches, had never betrayed any hint of leadership ambition—scraped together the 35 nominations from sitting MPs required to get on the ballot only thanks to the support of several who publicly declared they’d be voting for one of his opponents.