On Saturday Jeremy Corbyn was elected the new leader of the Labour Party. The election was triggered on the morning of 8 May, hours after the close of the 2015 general election, when a defeated Ed Miliband – who had seen his party lose 26 seats on their result from 2010, taking a total of 232 seats to the Conservatives’ decisive 330 – announced his immediate resignation. Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader under Miliband, has served in the meantime as Acting Leader of the party.
In 2014, Labour changed the way they elect party leaders. Previously the Leader of the Labour Party had been chosen by an electoral college split in three: with a third of the vote going to the party’s MPs and MEPs; a third going to all grassroots party members; and a third going to members of affiliated trade unions.
This three-way electoral college was replaced by a system of one-person, one-vote. Three groups of people were entitled to vote in the recent leadership election, which commenced on 14 August and closed on 10 September: registered party members; affiliated supporters; and registered supporters, who could register online with the payment of a one-off fee of £3.
To stand for election, prospective leadership candidates now need to be nominated by at least 15% of party MPs. Back in the middle of June, Corbyn – whose candidacy was announced only at the start of the month – only just managed to meet this criteria, garnering 36 nominations, a share of 15.52% of the vote. Andy Burnham was nominated by 29.31% of MPs, Yvette Cooper by 25.43%, and Liz Kendall by 17.76%, with the remainder undeclared.
Three months on, Corbyn has claimed the party leadership with 59.5% of the vote: 251,417 of 422,664 votes cast. Burnham took 19%, Cooper 17%, and Kendall – the most roundly right-wing of the candidates – just 4.5%.
This is a larger mandate than even Tony Blair achieved back in 1994. While there has been much hand-wringing over the £3 registered supporter fee, amid fears that the leadership election was being infiltrated by malevolent outsiders, Corbyn achieved 121,751 votes from the party’s registered membership, almost half of a total 245,520. He won 41,217 of 71,546 votes from affiliated supporters; and 88,449 of 105,598 votes from registered supporters.
Following a similar election process, Tom Watson was also confirmed on Saturday as the Labour Party’s new Deputy Leader. It was established that Chief Whip Rosie Winterton would remain in her post. But prominent Labour figures, including the defeated Yvette Cooper, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, shadow chancellor Chris Leslie, shadow communities secretary Emma Reynolds, and shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves, resigned from their positions and declared they will not serve under Corbyn. Early on Sunday, shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna also announced his departure from the shadow cabinet by ‘mutual agreement’, citing key policy differences, particularly regarding the EU.
Several party luminaries, including Ed Miliband and John Prescott, offered Corbyn support. And late on Sunday evening, Corbyn announced his first appointments, with John McDonnell to be shadow chancellor, Andy Burnham shadow home secretary, Hilary Benn shadow foreign secretary, Heidi Alexander shadow health secretary, Lord Falconer shadow justice secretary, and Angela Eagle shadow business secretary.
Vowing to unite a divided party, as Corbyn works on completing his shadow cabinet, he has already promised that half of the positions will be occupied by women. He has established his immediate plan of action as party leader: opposing government proposals for a clampdown on trade union rights, which would impose a 50% threshold on strike ballots, criminalise picketing, and permit employers to hire agency staff in place of those striking.
Corbyn has also posited a change to the format of Prime Minister’s Questions, with the suggestion that other Labour MPs may take turns facing David Cameron during the weekly session in the House of Commons.
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Jeremy Corbyn has served as Labour MP for Islington North since 1983, winning re-election on seven occasions. During the course of the last Labour government, between 1997 and 2010, he established a reputation as the party’s most rebellious MP, frequently defying three-line whips. He was also an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War, and one of the founders of the Stop the War Coalition which helped to organise the major demonstration in London on 15 February 2003.
Campaigning for the party leadership, Corbyn’s policies have included raising the top rate of income tax to at least 50%; introducing quantitative easing, which alongside the creation of a national investment bank would allow the Bank of England to print money to invest in housing, transportation, and green and digital projects; an all-new National Education Service and the scrapping of university tuition fees; the renationalisation of the rail and energy sectors; and opposition to the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons deterrent.
Individually these are not extreme positions. Until 1979, the top rate of income tax in the UK stood at 83%, before it was cut to 60% then 40% by successive Margaret Thatcher governments; and between 2010 and 2012, under Cameron’s Conservatives, the top rate was restored to 50% before being reduced to its current level of 45%. Corbyn has pointed out that quantitative easing was introduced to bail out the banks in the midst of the financial crisis; and he has advanced the idea of new investment as a way to rebalance the economy away from finance, towards some of the high-growth industries of the future.
Polls show an overwhelming public support – in excess of 65% – for the renationalisation of the rail and energy companies. Elsewhere Corbyn has promised to safeguard the NHS, routinely polling as one of the public’s chief concerns. And while the issue remains one of the most impulsive, getting rid of Trident certainly proved a vote winner for the SNP in Scotland.
The notion of Corbyn as Labour’s most left-wing leader in history seems misguided at best: evidence of a conservative political class in England, and of a compliant right-leaning media landscape, more than Corbyn’s victory echoes the left-wing successes of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Anti-austerity, Corbyn has argued that the deficit can be reduced by economic growth and the collection of more than £100 billion in evaded taxes.
Nevertheless, taken in their totality – and for daring to utter several sentiments especially ghastly for the conservative right: he is a republican, although he has also said that abolishing the monarchy is ‘not the fight I’m going to fight’; and he initially proposed withdrawing from NATO, though he has modified his stance to a desire for significant reform – Corbyn’s policies meant that he was cast early in the leadership campaign as a dangerous radical.
As the campaign wore on, focus was turned upon some of his foreign policy statements and questionable political connections. Fifteen years ago he reportedly met with Paul Eisen, and donated to the Deir Yassin Remembered organisation which Eisen was then in the process of setting up. Eisen has since embraced the term ‘Holocaust denier’ to describe his own views; while the Palestine Solidarity Campaign – of which Corbyn is a member – was compelled to refute any association with Deir Yassin Remembered back in 2007.
Condemning Israel’s ‘occupation policies’, Corbyn has also come under fire for referring to Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’. And he has criticised NATO for what he considers the provocation of a Russian response in Ukraine, calling for increased diplomacy between the West and Russia.
While the extent of his relationship with Eisen ought to have received fuller explanation, and the reference to Hamas and Hezbollah was in poor taste, what really marks Corbyn out here is his willingness to engage in dialogue with those the political establishments in the UK and US fanatically reject. The accusation that Corbyn presents a threat to economic and national security is crass hyperbole, the product of a debased party politics.
Espousing old New Labour values, asserting the need for economic credibility and desperate not to alienate business, Tony Blair was the first party grandee to vehemently intervene as Corbyn’s popularity rose rapidly. In late July, Blair stated that those backing Corbyn needed a ‘heart transplant’: absurd and reckless language from someone who, beyond his numerous vices, still always seemed a more calculated and careful politician. Alastair Campbell promoted ‘ABC – Anyone But Corbyn’, arguing ‘Labour could be finished if he wins’; while Peter Mandelson similarly mongered doom, as he allegedly plotted to disrupt the leadership race.
Such interjections seem wilfully ignorant when it comes to repeated failures within the context of world politics, while they dismiss the challenges posed inside the UK by gross cuts to welfare and services, and by a housing shortage abetted by spiralling rents. They do not consider the degree to which Labour has already lost the centre ground, after allowing mainstream political debate to be dominated for five years by demeaning right-wing rhetoric on benefits and immigration.
Meanwhile a string of Conservative MPs took hysterically to social media on Saturday to warn of the devastation a Corbyn government would cause. Yet the scope of Corbyn’s support despite all these protestations tells its own story: certainly one of distrust towards conventional politics and a dearth of inspiring Labour competitors; but also of genuine belief in the vital and comprehensive vision which Corbyn presents.