Anti-Austerity Corbyn Elected Leader of U.K. Labour Party

Updated on
Labour leadership contest

Labour leadership contest. Jeremy Corbyn takes to the stage after he was announced as the Labour Party's new leader.

Photographer: Stefan Rousseau/Press Association via AP Images

The U.K. main opposition Labour Party elected its most socialist leader in at least 30 years, signaling a decisive shift away from the free-market policies that brought the party electoral success under Tony Blair.

Jeremy Corbyn won 59.5 percent of the vote to succeed Ed Miliband with his nearest rival, Andy Burnham, gaining 19 percent. Tom Watson, who took on Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking, was elected deputy leader in a separate ballot.

A fierce critic of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s spending cuts, Corbyn won over Labour supporters with his appeal to scrap Britain’s nuclear weapons, renationalize the railways and fund infrastructure projects with money printed by the Bank of England. He may struggle to win back voters who rejected Labour in the May general election on the grounds they didn’t trust the party with the economy, critics say.

“Our party has changed,” Corbyn, 66, said in a speech in central London following the result on Saturday. “We’ve grown enormously, because of the hopes of so many ordinary people for a different Britain, a better Britain, a more equal Britain. The fightback now of our party gathers speed and gathers pace.”

Corbyn, who has spent his 32 years in Parliament on the fringes of the Labour Party, went from a 200-to-1 outsider to runaway favorite, amid a surge of people signing up to support the party following its election defeat.

Unity Plea

But the scale of his victory surprised many. Corbyn won a majority on the first round, avoiding the need for second preferences to be deployed, and led among full members, trade-union members and a new category of supporter who paid 3 pounds ($4.63) to take part.

He is less popular with Labour members of Parliament, having voted against his party hundreds of times. Fewer than 15 percent of them voted for him. Miliband and Watson pleaded for unity, but within hours of his poll victory, a string of senior figures announced they wouldn’t work in his top team, including fellowship leadership contenders Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, the party’s pensions spokeswoman Rachel Reeves, and communities spokeswoman Emma Reynolds.

David Blunkett, a home secretary under Blair, warned Corbyn against taking Labour back to the past.

“Of course we’re against what’s happening to the poor and disadvantaged,” Blunkett told reporters. “But we learned in the 1980s that you can’t put together a coalition of the dispossessed, disadvantaged and disillusioned, and hope to win an election.”

‘Pressure Group’

Labour’s leadership result is “an act of political stupidity unparalleled since Caligula appointed his horse to the Roman senate,” said Steve Fielding, professor of politics at the University of Nottingham.

“Given his unwillingness to compromise his views with the opinions of millions of the British electorate, Corbyn is more qualified to lead a pressure group than a party that seriously aspires to government,” Fielding said.

Prime Minister David Cameron, whose Conservative government stands to gain electorally from splits in the opposition, has accused Corbyn of risking Britain’s security and being in denial about the need to cut the budget deficit. Labour has “completely vacated the intellectual playing field,” he said in a speech on Friday.

Young People

Corbyn’s victory is part of a shift seen across Europe in recent years, from Syriza in Greece to Spain’s Podemos, as voters deserted center-left parties after the financial crisis forced governments to slash public-sector jobs and benefits. Like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the U.S., Corbyn has little experience of government.

While his rallies were regularly packed as he won the backing of young people, veteran activists and labor unions, the other leadership candidates -- Burnham, Cooper and Kendall -- failed to inspire comparable levels of excitement and support.

The tone of the election was set by the opening question in the first TV debate between the candidates: “How do we get away from Tony Blair’s legacy?” they were asked.

Blair, who repeatedly urged Labour activists not to vote for Corbyn, won three elections by accepting many of Margaret Thatcher’s free-market reforms and moving away from socialist and pacifist positions. He lost support over his decision to join the 2003 invasion of Iraq, stepping down before the financial crisis eroded the credibility of center-left parties across the continent.

Stop The War

First elected to Parliament in 1983, Corbyn took controversial positions from the start. In 1984, weeks after the Irish Republican Army came close to killing Thatcher with a bomb, he invited members of the group’s political wing, Sinn Fein, into Parliament. He has also regularly shared speaking platforms with supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah, groups the U.S. considers to be terrorist organizations.

Corbyn was one of the founders of the Stop The War coalition, a group originally set up in 2001 to oppose action against Afghanistan. He remains its chairman.

One thing he has avoided throughout his time in politics is positions of responsibility. Unlike the other, younger, leadership candidates, he has never been a Cabinet minister or a party spokesman. His most senior leadership role was as chairman of the planning committee on a London council, from 1980 to 1981.

He will now have to take responsibility for leading a party demoralized after two election defeats, dealing with its internal politics and handling the pressure of being under constant scrutiny.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE