In the 20 years that I’ve been eligible to vote, there has been a convergence, from both left and right wing political parties, on the centre ground. The received wisdom, from at least the Blairite ’90s onwards, has stated that unvarnished left-wing ideas must be moderated, to reassure big business, mainstream media and flighty swing-voters alike on touchstone economic issues.
However, recent events—in Iceland, the UK and across Western democracies—seem to suggest that this cautious centrist approach may be past its sell-by date, or even over completely. In London yesterday, 66-year-old veteran left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn pulled off one of the greatest upsets in recent UK political history when he swept to power as the newly-elected leader of the opposition Labour Party. Previously seen as something of an outsider and a party rebel, Corbyn’s election has stunned many Labour MPs, especially those who hold a centrist, post-Blair worldview that has seen them dubbed “red Tories” by Corbyn supporters (Tories being an often pejorative nickname for the Conservative party).
Corbyn’s campaign saw him addressing packed-out meetings countrywide, reportedly more akin to sold-out concerts than traditional political events, with long queues and multiple overflow rooms in some cases. One event saw the mild-mannered, white-whiskered Corbyn clambering on top of a fire engine to address a street full of people who couldn’t get in. He released a stream of policy idea documents during his campaign, on issues including renationalising rail travel and energy, reversing university tuition fees, increasing arts funding, legislating to enforce gender equality, protecting the welfare state and NHS, devolving power away from Westminster, capping spiralling London rent, closing big-business tax loopholes, building affordable housing, and total nuclear disarmament, among other things. He now faces a challenge in uniting Labour around these ideas, many of which were wildly popular with the public leadership “selectorate” (made up of union and Labour Party members, and “registered supporters” who paid £3 to join in the leadership election), but are not shared by the party’s many centrist MPs.
Corbyn’s election mirrors the rise of other anti-establishment figures throughout Western politics. In the US, openly socialist Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is gathering momentum as a surprise leftwing challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination (Sanders says he was “delighted” by Corbyn’s win). Spain and Greece have been rocked by the emergence of populist grass-roots parties Podemos (trans: “we can”) and Syriza (trans: “from the roots”).
Here in Iceland, the anti-establishment trend is reflected by the Best Party and the Pirate Party, both of which have become serious forces on a municipal and national level. The Pirate Party, which currently has two MPs, is currently polling as the most popular party in Iceland, suggesting the possibility of a huge upset at the next general election.
Whilst these movements vary in their their origins—some are brand new, while Corbyn and Sanders are old-school socialists operating from within mainstream politics—all are characterised by anti-political-establishment sentiments and huge grassroots interest. It has been suggested that this trend could be an expression of a sense of disillusionment with the professional “political class” and a perceived reluctance or inability to tackle such issues as growing inequality and the super-rich, corporate responsibility and worker’s rights, hawkish foreign policy, environmental issues such as climate change and renewable energy, online privacy and freedom of information.
Back in the UK, media commentators have been quick to report the problematic aspects of Corbyn’s election, from internal divisions in the Labour Party, to Corbyn’s apparent unelectability—a somewhat ironic criticism, as Corbyn has been reelected seven consecutive times as an MP, recording the highest ever majority in his North London constituency of Islington at the last election.
This bearded, teetotal, vegetarian cyclist—who filed the lowest expenses of any MP in the UK, amidst a recent wave of exorbitant expense claim scandals—has caused a huge political upset, defeating 200-1 odds with his victory. Whether or not Corbyn manages to fulfil his promise to unite the Labour Party, he has already defied expectation; if he survives as leader long enough take the Labour Party into the 2020 general election, he’ll be hoping to do so on an even grander scale. And after a grassroots campaign that took the world by surprise, his presence in opposition has already had a moderating effect on Britain’s right-wing government, with the Prime Minister toning down his language on potential Syrian air strikes. Corbyn’s emergence shows us once more that the potential for real change is always present.