Cult of Corbyn Smells Another Election
A small church hall in the northern English city of Manchester with sandwiches and cups of tea is not the most obvious venue for an insurrection that would reverberate across Europe.
After glorious defeat at the British general election in June, supporters of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn are mobilizing for what they see as inevitable with U.K. politics in disarray: their bearded, 68-year-old socialist cult hero getting another shot at becoming prime minister.
“It’s evident that this government is rapidly losing all legitimacy,” said Yannis Gourtsoyannis, a national organizer for fringe group Momentum, which has been holding training sessions across the country for would-be activists like the one in Manchester. “We are getting battle ready for an election, whenever that election may be.”
It’s been a good year for Corbyn as much as it’s been a bad one for Prime Minister Theresa May, as her plan to unite Britain behind her vision for leaving the European Union backfired. This week, she was forced to slap down her foreign secretary, the pro-Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson, over an unauthorized intervention in the debate. The risk for Labour is that another election doesn’t come soon enough for Corbyn to capitalize on his broadening appeal even with the help of an army of his most ardent activists.
Some political analysts, politicians and banks like Morgan Stanley predict another vote next year as Brexit negotiations flounder and May’s Conservative Party turns on her following the loss of its parliamentary majority. At the moment it’s set for 2022, but getting ready for power will be front and center of Labour’s annual conference starting in Brighton on Sept. 24, just months after even many of its own lawmakers had written the party off.
“A full length parliament is a lot of time for the opposition and familiarity breeds contempt,” said Anthony Wells, head of political polling at YouGov, whose latest survey put Labour one percentage point ahead of the Conservatives. “Will Jeremy Corbyn supporters have got bored of him in five years time?”
Being on the campaign trail is a situation that plays to Corbyn’s strengths at street rallies rather than his weaknesses as an organizer of Britain’s largest opposition party.
Momentum, the core of Corbyn’s faithful, is hitting the doorsteps, targeting the home districts of prominent Conservatives including Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Foreign Secretary Johnson, the former London mayor. The group came into being to support Corbyn’s bid for the Labour leadership following Ed Miliband’s failure to unseat the Conservatives in 2015. It was accused by some senior Labour lawmakers for hijacking the party, steering policy and ultimately making it unelectable.
Yet its influence has grown as Corbyn gained traction among young and disaffected voters after years of government spending cuts. It expanded online rapidly and developed software that allowed its thousands of volunteers to club together and share cars to drive to a battleground seat for a day’s campaigning during the June election.
It gave Corbyn an advantage, with Momentum backing him, as well as other third-party groups that “were campaigning all the time,” said Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby, quoted in an upcoming book, “Betting the House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.” Momentum “had a big role and influenced the campaign,” he said.
In the end, Labour took its biggest share of the vote since Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 2001, though won far fewer seats in the British first-past-the-post voting system.
Still, Momentum’s membership has swelled by more than 10,000 people in the past year to 27,000, according to its press coordinator, Joe Todd. Two of the candidates Momentum backed have gained places on the seven-member panel that decides motions for the party’s annual conference.
“We’ve always wanted to do this, but the election gave us that boost,” said Beth Foster-Ogg, 20, an organizer at a training event in the Manchester church hall. She said now it’s time to get ready for the next vote, even if that ends up being in 2022. “We’re preparing and we’re doing groundwork because the election won’t actually be won in the three months leading up to it, it will be won in the next five years.”
Since May’s disastrous result in an election she called to strengthen her hand in Brexit talks, she needs the backing of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to pass some key legislation. Brexit will require a series of votes and Corbyn has moved Labour policy closer toward that of Brexit opponents who advocate continued membership of the single market.
So suddenly a fringe group of activists feels it can pose a more credible threat.
At the recent training event in Manchester, about 30 Momentum members gathered to school each other in how to deflect criticism of Corbyn. The goal is to change people’s minds and change the outcome of the next election, not least by attracting people who wouldn’t normally participate in politics.
“I first got involved in the Labour Party during Corbyn’s first (leadership) election in 2015 campaigning for that, and I was struck by the number of young people who were involved and who were new to politics,” said Momentum member Anthony Hay, 39. “You’ve got a generation of young people who are enthused by the new direction of the party.”
Youth enthusiasm aside, Corbyn would still face a tough path to victory at the next election. He faces the threat of a more adept rival next time around, more of his own party infighting as Brexit looms and the possibility that the U.K. will reach “peak Corbyn.” This is the year that saw Corbyn T-shirts, songs and a packed-out Glastonbury festival appearance in addition to his gaining plaudits for his support of victims of an horrific fire at a London tower block.
“In many ways, politics is in a state of flux unlike anything we’ve seen before,” said Matthew Flinders, a Sheffield University politics professor. “How does Jeremy Corbyn maintain that energy and continue to secure the youth vote while expanding to reconnect with many of those people who are disillusioned?”
— With assistance by Tim Ross, and Flavia Krause-Jackson