Will UK’s Labour catch a youthful rebel wave?

The British Labour Party may turn sharply leftwards. If it does, it may be catching a wave with deep currents, one which has already washed over Greece and Spain.

Britain’s Labour Party has been thrown into turmoil by the surge of the radical-left Jeremy Corbyn in its campaign for a new leader. After the resignation of Ed Miliband, who led the party to an unexpected defeat in May’s election on a platform to turn the party away from Tony Blair’s centrist legacy and back to its leftist roots, it was expected the party would return to the centre ground. So worried were some MPs that the campaign would be a dull affair among low-risk candidates that they nominated one of the party’s most left-wing MPs, Jeremy Corbyn, to shake things up a little and at least get a debate going. What few of them expected was that Corbyn would surge in popularity to the point that he is now leading the party in opinion polls. The party leadership is now in open panic, with leadership candidate Yvette Cooper bemoaning the party’s ‘startlingly retro’ campaign and Tony Blair warning that any Labour member who votes with their heart ought to have a transplant.

Their interventions may be too late. Labour Party rules require that leadership candidates be nominated by Members of Parliament. But after that it moves out of their hands, as all party members get to have a vote. And Corbyn has turned out to be hugely popular with a significant part of the party base, while some old hands worry that outsiders are trying to game the system by buy last-minute memberships and tipping the party to the hard left. Corbyn, who likes to wear Lenin-style cloth caps, calls for, among other things, renationalisation of the railways, higher taxes on the rich, abolition of the monarchy and a united Ireland. In short, he is a throwback to an earlier generation of class-warrior Labour politicians.

That’s what has the establishment so anxious. There is a broad perception that the Labour Party cannot win on a hard-left platform, and that it lost the May election because its then-leader, Ed Miliband, explicitly rejected the centrist legacy of Tony Blair (a man who, it has to be acknowledged, led the party to three unprecedented majority victories). Convinced that Jeremy Corbyn will deliver the party back to a long period of opposition wilderness, like that which followed its 1979 defeat to Margaret Thatcher, the old hands worry especially that Corbyn’s supporters, if recent polls are correct, know this but don’t care. What, one wonders, could possibly cause people to vote for a withdrawal from power? Perhaps it’s because they are already largely outside the system and feel they have nothing to lose. The austerity that has followed the financial crisis has been cynically targeted by the governing Conservatives in such a way as to protect its own supporters while imposing a disproportionate burden on voters who would be more inclined to vote Labour — and especially young people. Labour’s problem is that, like other mainstream leftist parties, it doesn’t offer much of a response to this — save to protect its own traditional support base, particularly in the unions. But those who find themselves largely excluded from meaningful participation in both economic and social life have little to gain from a leader who will get elected, only to perpetuate what is a broken political model.

Occupy London, December 2011

Occupy London, December 2011

In the wake of the financial crisis, a wave of street protests broke out across the Western world as young people, hit hard by the recession, squatted in financial districts in moves to ‘Occupy’ the spaces they said were responsible for the Great Recession. The movement, whose roots appeared to date back to the grassroots orgsanisation of the 1990s anti-globalisation movement (which deliberately eschewed traditional political organisation to focus on local initiatives) spread far and wide and ultimately caught fire in the Middle East in the tragically ill-fated Arab Spring. Spontaneous and non-hierarchical, the Occupy movement attracted a wide cross-section of supporters and was striking for its ability to maintain order and a high degree of internal organisation with little in the way of a command centre. In time, the forces of order came down hard, and police swept through the public squares and cleared out the protesters. After that, the movement disappeared, and it was roundly dismissed as a flash-in-the-pan movement of fickle youth.

But nothing that takes that firm hold disappears so quickly without an element of consent. In fact, it didn’t disappear. Its participants declared they were going back to their home communities and would carry on the work of building resistance to the ‘one percent’ there. Without a single unifying ideology, what seems to provide the unifying thread to this movement is that it appeals to people who are — and on current tracks are likely to continue to be — largely excluded from the political-economic regime: young people. Youth unemployment rates exceed, and sometimes far exceed (in Greece and Spain, for example, by a factor of two) those of the society at large; they are having benefits cut and being loaded with new forms of stealth tax (for instance, being forced to pay tuition fees where the previous generation paid none); being told they will pay the same taxes as their elders but receive smaller pensions, and graduating into a job market in which austerity has eliminated many of the positions they have been trained to assume — with little re-allocation to make room for them among the currently employed (for instance, via job-sharing).

Jeremy Corbyn may be in his sixties, and to many Labourites he may be a throwback to a long-past age. But his support seems to be coming very largely from among young people (Why Labour voters are turning towards Jeremy Corbyn). The profile of his support thus mirrors that of similar radical movements that have arisen since the financial crisis, and in particular Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos. Mainstream parties of the left arguably have little to offer this marginalised generation: what good is it to defend unions if you don’t belong to a union, and have little prospect of ever doing so — and worse, when the union’s agenda is to defend its members interests even if that is at the expense of higher taxes or new employment for, as is arguably the case for some public-sector unions? It may seem suicidal to turn to the far left if that means that the right remains in power — but not if you already feel largely excluded from the system. And as recent experience from southern Europe reveals, the far left may yet have a profound impact on politics. In any event, whoever wins the Labour Party’s leadership election, I think we’re only just seeing the start of a new wave of youthful radicalism in the West.

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