Will Britain's Labour Party Prefer Corbyn to Winning?

A conviction politician.

Photographer: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn's candidacy is about as improbable as his ideas. He didn't even ask to be on the ballot for leader of the U.K.'s Labour Party, yet he's ahead in the polls -- and part of his appeal is his unapologetically old-fashioned economic thinking.

Imagine Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic Party's nomination for president in the U.S. Like Sanders, Corbyn is a longtime activist and campaigner, guided by personal hard-left conviction rather than party loyalty or strategic calculation. For both men's supporters, that's the appeal -- and, for their parties, that's the danger.

Labour has been through this before: After losing to Margaret Thatcher's Tories in 1979, it had a long and passionate affair with socialism before finally putting centrist Tony Blair in charge in 1994. Something similar could happen again. Many Labour supporters blame their crushing defeat in May on Blair's New Labour legacy and a deficit of vigorous leftism. Many socialist radicals, in any case, would rather lose with honor than win with moderation.

Corbyn is such a throwback that he's even open to revisiting one of Blair's first and most notable triumphs: striking "Clause Four" from the party constitution, which supported "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange." Apparently, in 2015, Corbyn doesn't regard that issue as closed.

He hasn't yet been too specific about his actual policies. Unsurprisingly, he favors public investment, the National Health Service, and much more generous welfare spending. When it comes to paying for it, the big question, Corbyn says, is "how to get some of the wealthiest individuals and biggest corporations to pay anything like their fair share." So far, he hasn't said what that fair share might be.

His most novel and much-discussed idea is "quantitative easing for people instead of banks" -- by which he means giving the Bank of England "a new mandate to upgrade our economy to invest in new large-scale housing, energy, transport and digital projects."

"Quantitative easing for people" is an appealing notion: When QE is necessary to boost demand in the economy, there's a respectable case for linking the central bank's asset purchases to government spending on infrastructure or direct payments to taxpayers. That way, you might get more bang for the buck.

But QE is for emergencies: No serious analyst ever envisaged it as central-bank business as usual. Now that the Bank of England aims to normalize monetary policy, the moment for QE has passed. The case for conventionally financed, fiscally responsible public investment remains strong -- and has nothing to do with quantitative easing.

For now, though, this isn't just, or even mainly, about policy. Corbyn, like Sanders in the U.S., speaks to the prevailing disenchantment with the insincerity of ordinary politics. Many voters -- not just those on the left -- want a change from all that.

Whether they'll want the policies that Corbyn will eventually have to spell out, supposing he wins, is much more questionable. In 1983, a leading member of the Labour Party called its election program "the longest suicide note in history." That's something for Corbyn and his supporters to think about.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.