Jeremy Corbyn’s rise is a tale of strange accidents, unintended consequences, and long odds overcome. Corbyn was never supposed to become leader of a renewed British left wing; that role was expected to fall upon a more colorful figure, such as Tony Benn or Ken Livingstone. Corbyn was never supposed to become the leader of the Labour party; he accepted a nomination to run from a small group of left-wing colleagues only because it was his turn to represent their views. Bookies had him as a hundred-to-one long shot to win that contest. Yet he won.
After he won, Corbyn’s Labour-party colleagues expected him to go away when 80 percent of them turned against him in a vote of no confidence. But under new rules that were meant to moderate the Labour party, left-wing activists discovered they had the power to retain him as party leader over the objection of his parliamentary colleagues. Corbyn’s 2017 campaign showing was supposed to be so disastrous that the spell of Corbynmania among his fervent supporters would finally break and the party could ditch his far-left brand of politics and begin a long crawl back to the center and power.
Nothing has gone as Corbyn’s opponents expected. Since Theresa May’s snap election blew up in her face, Jeremy Corbyn has become the odds-on favorite to succeed her as Britain’s prime minister. The Tory government, with the help of Ulster’s Democratic Unionist party, has to make a razor-thin majority work in the House of Commons or else blunder their nation’s government into the hands of a man who once told colleagues, “Our job is not to reform capitalism, it’s to overthrow it.”
It’s not only blunders that have contributed to Corbyn’s ascent, though. Corbyn possesses real political talents and real virtues — ones that have become rare over the last three decades of political life in the West, and more valuable.
The first is constancy. Jeremy Corbyn’s political orientation never adjusted with the winds of political fortune. The astonishing victories of the Conservative Margaret Thatcher were taken by many in the U.K. as a lesson for Labour: Ditch socialism. Tony Blair did just that. Along the way to his own massive political success, he removed Labour’s commitment to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange” from the party’s constitution.
Corbyn stuck to the old faith throughout these years of exile. His first speech in Parliament after his election in 1983 closed with a flourish that could be inserted, unchanged, into any of his campaign speeches today. It would be just as relevant as ever:
I represent an area of London that has suffered as much as any other from the policies of this government, and I shall be telling the House repeatedly that we do not intend to take these issues lying down. We shall not allow unemployment to go through the roof. We shall not allow our youth to have no chance and no hope for the future. . . . We shall return to these issues because justice has to be done for those who are worst off and unemployed in areas such as the constituency that I represent.
Corbyn’s cause has always moderated his ambition. Other colleagues were happy to abandon the Left to gain influence and power in later Labour governments. And other leftists, such as Livingstone, were happy to leave Labour and run as independents. Corbyn stuck with his convictions and his party. Though he consistently increased the size of his electoral victories in his North Islington district and achieved seniority as an MP, he never tried to move forward in the House of Commons, preferring to hover over all from the back benches, a physical embodiment of his party’s left-wing conscience.
Corbyn has other virtues, too. He is deeply conscientious. He has developed a top-shelf reputation as a “constituency MP.” He is often walking around his small district, attending events, and stopping by the local pubs, even though he never drinks much. He diligently helps constituents in their tussle with British bureaucracy. Corbyn also has a democratic touch. He is un-self-conscious and seems oblivious to social status. He lives modestly and dresses modestly. He is gentlemanly and plainspoken. Corbyn exudes nothing of the clubbiness and slickness of a Tony Blair or a David Cameron — he’s a conviction politician.
But about those convictions. Corbyn has always struck his colleagues as madly left-wing. Corbyn’s defense of Marxists began early in his parliamentary career. In the 1980s, some Labour leaders led an effort to expunge Communists from the Labour party. One group on which Labour’s moderates set their sights, a circle of Trotskyites that had influence in the party in Liverpool, was called “Militant.” Writing in the fringy London Labour Briefing magazine (later called simply “Labour Briefing”), Corbyn defended Militant, saying, “If expulsions are in order for Militant, they should apply to us too.” In his 2015 run for Labour’s leadership, he was quizzed about his ideological affinities by TV presenter Andrew Marr. “I haven’t really read as much of Marx as I should have done,” Corbyn calmly confessed. Nevertheless, he was confident enough to say, “Marx obviously analyzed what was happening in a quite brilliant way, and the philosophy around Marx is fascinating.” Corbyn’s occasionally vacuous tributes to left-wing thought give the impression that while his political commitment is deep, his intellectual formation is superficial at best.
That is consistent with Corbyn’s undimmable enthusiasm for Third World socialists who do not share his conscientiousness or modesty. Colleagues report that in the 1980s, beyond serving his constituents, Corbyn seemed most interested in using his office for promoting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who talked about the revolution and the poor and quickly instituted a kleptocratic state upon gaining power. Like Bernie Sanders, another ’80s enthusiast for the Sandinistas, Corbyn one day just stopped talking about the ongoing embarrassment of Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua.
Did Corbyn learn anything from that episode? Perhaps that it might be unwise to embrace movements about which you know little just because they are left-wing? No, of course not. In 2013, Corbyn eulogized Hugo Chávez: “He showed us there is a different and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice.” He doesn’t speak about Venezuela now, either. Corbyn knows what side he is on, even when he knows nothing about it.
Among the unpopular or outré left-wing positions he has adopted, a few have given him reason to feel vindicated over time. His hatred of British imperialism (arguably, even British national interest) impelled him to criticize the sale of weapons to Saddam Hussein. In 1993, as a Euroskeptic, he voted against the Maastricht Treaty; he’d have been dismissed as a crank if he had predicted the economic conditions that are accepted as normal in the European Union today. Corbyn was against NATO’s decision to give air support to the Kosovo Liberation Army. He went against his party’s leader by opposing the Iraq War in 2003. The ferocious backlash against that war in British public opinion has nearly wiped out Blair’s legacy and benefited lonely dissenters such as Corbyn.
But Corbyn’s embrace of far-left-wing causes can make him seem morally obtuse on occasion. In 2009, when announcing that he had invited members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to address Parliament, he said: “It will be my pleasure and honor to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking. I’ve also invited our friends from Hamas to come and speak.” When he took over the Labour party’s leadership, he only said he regretted the “inclusive language” he had used.
Sometimes these efforts at “inclusion” are bone-headed. Corbyn added to a series of recent anti-Semitic remarks by British left-wingers when he compared Israel to ISIS last year: “Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states,” he proclaimed in a kind of backhanded magnanimity. His intention was to embrace Muslims, but the moral equivalence of his comparison amounted to a blood libel.
The one cause that nearly ended Corbyn’s political career was his support for Sinn Fein and his open admiration for the Irish Republican Army. Corbyn’s district was home to a massive Irish population, with great sympathy for Irish Catholics in Ulster. In 1984, Corbyn invited two convicted IRA terrorists to a private meeting to discuss prison conditions. His articles in London Labour Briefing (later simply called “Labour Briefing”) appeared beside eye-popping endorsements of IRA bombings and jokes about dead Tories. To this day, he deflects questions about whether the IRA was a terrorist organization with criticisms of British policy in Northern Ireland, or with paeans to the “bravery” in the Irish-nationalist community.
In 1996, Corbyn invited Sinn Fein’s leader, Gerry Adams, to launch his autobiography in the House of Commons, only a few days before a pre-election Labour-party conference. Adams, being an elected member to Parliament (even one who followed Sinn Fein’s policy of abstaining from taking his seat), had the right to launch his book there, Corbyn reasoned. The timing was ugly: Just seven months earlier, the IRA had interrupted its cease-fire by blowing up a truck bomb in London’s Canary Wharf. Bowing to pressure, Corbyn agreed to move the event.
It is all this accumulated history of radicalism that gives Corbyn his reputation as a man of lonely integrity. Like Bernie Sanders, he is an older socialist whose almost otherworldly affect is intensely attractive to younger voters who seem to crave authenticity. Sanders and Corbyn are hopelessly themselves. An image consultant couldn’t possibly make them over.
Corbyn’s rise within Labour also bears some distressing similarities to Donald Trump’s rise in the GOP. In Britain, it was the Labour party that led the U.K. into the Iraq war, which proved disastrously unpopular. It was the Labour party that pursued trade-liberalizing policies and freed the financial sector from constraints just before a traumatizing economic crash. Just as in the GOP, voters in Labour proved willing to inflict an ideological makeover on their party after a period of misrule. The media and party mandarins were dead set against Corbyn, as they have been against Trump. That elite opposition only made Corbyn and Trump supporters redouble their enthusiasm.
Two sets of tectonic plates operate beneath British politics now. There are the old party alliances, which matter a great deal. And then there is Brexit. Theresa May’s stratospheric approval ratings earlier this year came when all the tectonic plates in British politics shifted the ground in her favor. She commanded the partisan energy of Tories. But she also stood as the political representative of Brexit, a cause supported by a majority of Britons. She had never lied in the cause of Brexit; she had simply converted to it when it won. And she provided clarity. May was going to make it a “hard” Brexit and make sure Britain regained control of its borders, another cause supported by a majority. Then, thinking her popularity was impregnable, she called a snap election. But the plates began shifting again, and they went against her.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party had accepted Brexit. This meant that May was left campaigning merely as a Tory. Corbyn had also moved his party to the center on immigration issues without inspiring a revolt. So he had successfully submerged two issues that divide his party.
His party’s relative electoral fortune then followed from the fact that he could be the candidate of every kind of objector. Do you hate the Establishment? Well, they’re all behind May now, so vote Corbyn. Are you an upwardly mobile Financial Times subscriber whose French friends are planning to leave London for Zurich because they feel unwelcome after Brexit? Stick it to May by voting Labour. Are you a working-class voter who joined UKIP because Tony Blair sold you out to Brussels, and you want to see immigration stopped? Well, you can return to Labour now. Are you a Green-party supporter? Jeremy Corbyn agrees with most of your platform, and he leads a major party. Vote Labour.
Corbyn had an advantage over May also because he was a conviction politician, and conviction politicians don’t have to decide on their response to events — they just respond. When the United Kingdom was hit with two appalling Islamist terror attacks during the campaign, at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester and on London Bridge, Theresa May fumbled for a response and came up with the suggestion of better Internet monitoring. Corbyn quickly blamed the already unpopular policies of austerity, which had included police cuts. At each turn in the news cycle, Corbyn seemed more self-assured and more responsible than anyone could have foreseen.
You, looking on from America, might be thinking that it’s inevitable now. His gentle demeanor disguises his radicalism. His purism keeps the stink of normal politics off him. And he has put together a wide coalition of Greens and Ukippers, of immigrants and border hawks, of Leavers and Remainers, of socialists and socialites. Meanwhile, a hobbled Tory government is stuck paying off a few Ulster Presbyterians to stay in power while May negotiates a Brexit that the entire political class loathes and is trying to undermine.
The thought is dawning on you that Jeremy Corbyn is going to become prime minister.
Not so fast. Jeremy Corbyn did not really win the 2017 election; he just outperformed expectations. Labour won 262 seats in 2017. Previous Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and James Callaghan resigned when they won more than Corbyn. Corbyn has merely overcome the soft contempt of abysmal expectations.
The shifting tectonic plates can quickly undo Corbyn’s Labour party. A first sign of this was his response to the terrible fire that consumed the Grenfell apartment block and killed scores of the underprivileged residents who lived there, in the middle of a posh neighborhood. Labour’s 2017 win in Kensington was a sign of just how many cosmopolitan elites had defected from the Tories. But Corbyn suggested that Grenfell Tower’s displaced residents could find accommodation by seizing the homes of the local rich. He urged supporters to “occupy” empty apartments in that neighborhood. A TV presenter asked whether this was merely a temporary solution — or would the new residents live in these homes forever? “Occupy, compulsory-purchase it, requisition it, there’s a lot of things you can do,” Corbyn explained. You can sense Labour’s share of socialites and Financial Times readers dwindling already.
Corbyn’s policy proposals will come under more-rigorous examination if people really believe that he is close to becoming prime minister. His Labour-party manifesto was a fantastical document, a series of enormous promises made in the serene confidence that he would never be asked to deliver on them. Free tuition for all students. Re-nationalization of several industries. An extra £48.6 billion in new annual spending, and £250 billion or so of new debt. How would he pay for it? Massive new tax increases on corporations, pushing the total tax burden to levels not seen since the immediate post-war period. The corporations would respond to this by hiring even more people, the manifesto alleged. The amount of triage to be done on an agenda this ambitious would leave many Corbynistas looking for the exits.
There is also the matter of Brexit. According to polls, young voters overwhelmingly favor remaining in the EU, and Corbyn turned out the youth vote, giving the political class ideas about scuttling Brexit or softening it. So the submerged issues of Britain’s sovereignty and its immigration policy are ready to spring out at any minute and begin dividing the Labour party and uniting people behind the May government once again.
Corbyn has glued together a deeply fractured anti-Tory coalition. His strange mix of radicalism and equipoise, and the low expectations of the public, allowed him to pull off that remarkable feat. But before he can think of pushing May out of Number 10 and drafting a Queen’s speech, he’ll need the tectonic plates of British politics to produce an earthquake in his favor. He’s still Jeremy Corbyn after all.