Jeremy Corbyn victory bolsters power of anti-austerity movement
New British Labour base sees itself as allied to Syriza in Greece and Spain’s Podemos
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is congratulated by his wife Laura Alvarez (right) following his victory in the Labour leadership contest between him and Owen Smith in Liverpool. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
They played Happy by Pharrell Williams as Labour Party delegates trooped into the Liverpool conference centre just before Jeremy Corbyn’s victory was announced.
One MP, gazing out across the leaden waters of the Mersey, was anything but. “It’s just a feeling of despair,” he said. “A complete lack of hope. No one knows quite what to do.”
The second coming of Corbyn represents a humiliation for the 172 MPs who signed a motion of no confidence in him in late June. Now they face an awkward choice: to fall into line under a leader they do not respect - or to continue their war of attrition through another means.
For Corbyn’s key allies the leadership result is just what they need to press on with their attempts to rebuild the party in his uncompromising image.
“Disunity is not good for the party, of course. This was another resounding majority for Jeremy as leader of the party. Everyone from MPs and councillors and members will want to rally around and help the party now,” said Jon Lansman, a close ally of the leader.
That may not be easy given the vitriol thrown around by Labour members in recent months. One MP, Ruth Smeeth, has brought her own bodyguard to the Liverpool conference after having been abused on social media by leftwing critics.
Fans of Corbyn also complain of abuse. Yvonne Tennant, a longstanding party member, told the FT that she had been called all sorts of names by Owen Smith supporters. “They’ve called me an entryist, a Trotskyite, scum, lunatic,” said Tennant, vice-chair of Pendle Labour constituency party.
Many activists are unhappy that constituency meetings were suspended during the summer to prevent infighting. “It has lost us time when we could be organising and attacking the Conservative government,” said Jean Aylott, secretary of a party branch in Lancashire.
Meanwhile the lack of unity was visible from the number of high-profile MPs who had stayed away from the announcement. Half of the auditorium was empty.
From the perspective of many MPs, the party has not just “lurched to the left” but has been subjected to a hostile takeover.
The party’s membership has more than doubled in only a year and many left-wing entrants who did not vote for Labour at the 2015 general election.
One figure illuminates the situation. Owen Smith, who lost the leadership election with 193,000 votes, did better than Ed Miliband when he became leader in 2010 with 175,000 votes. But Smith’s votes were only enough to give him 38 per cent of the new, expanded membership.
Corbyn pointedly referred to the new membership in his acceptance speech, when he described Labour as the “largest political party in western Europe” after having tripled in size in 18 months.
“Those new members are now part of a nationwide movement who can now take our message into every community in the country to win support for the election of a Labour government,” he said.
Many of the newcomers see themselves as part of an international anti-austerity movement embracing Bernie Sanders in the US, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. They are delighted to be able to shake off the awkward compromises of the New Labour years, when the party ran a major world economy.
Many MPs, believe that winning over the Labour membership - barely 1 per cent of the population - is not the real battle.
The Tory victory in the general election and the June 23rd vote for Brexit suggest a “small c” conservative electorate that is unlikely to warm to Corbyn’s brand of socialism.
If opinion polls are correct, he is one of the most unpopular party leaders of modern times despite his zealous supporters.
“Jeremy Corbyn must realise this is only the beginning and that he needs to reach out to the general electorate which is the only way you can win a general election and change the disastrous policies that we are currently experiencing from a Tory government,” said Louise Ellman, a local Liverpool MP.
“Getting support from adoring fans who already agree with him is very comforting but it isn’t enough.”
Corbyn, once seen as the ultimate political outsider, has just been reconfirmed as leader of the party, surfing the adoration of a majority of the grass roots. Within weeks he will see six supporters join the NEC, tilting its balance of power further in his favour.
“He could reach out,” said one unhappy MP. “But he might just think, ‘why should I?’”
- The Financial Times