Britain's Labour Party Chooses Death With Honor

Onward and downward.

Photographer: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn's landslide victory in the election for leadership of the U.K. Labour Party begins a fascinating experiment. Voters and political parties everywhere, not least in the U.S., ought to pay attention.

The upset underscores one striking fact: People are fed up with politics as usual. And it raises one especially important question: Can a party of the left be true to its principles and still get elected?

Corbyn, a hard-left activist rather than a career-building politician, had been such an unlikely candidate that he barely secured the nominations he needed to run. (Colleagues who didn't want him to win, and never dreamed he would, nudged him into the race as a friendly gesture.) But after starting out as a 100-to-1 outsider, he won a four-way race against well-qualified rivals, with almost 60 percent of the vote. The runner-up polled less than 20 percent. Corbyn didn't crush his opponents: He annihilated them.

QuickTake Britain's Multiparty Politics

Yet the outcome is even more dramatic than that. The Labour Party members who voted -- many of them newcomers who'd joined for that purpose -- have repudiated not just the other candidates but the party's entire leadership, its rank-and-file members of Parliament (only 15 out of 232 backed Corbyn) and its whole "modern left" posture. It is nothing less than a counter-revolution.

That's why many of the party's shadow ministers are saying they won't serve under Corbyn, whose circle comprises mainly hard-line activists like himself.

The Corbynistas want to renationalize the railways; increase public spending and tax the rich to pay for it; pull the U.K. out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and maybe the European Union as well; and command the Bank of England (which is independent, for now) to print money to pay for public investment. Anti-Americanism is a prominent part of the mix. Corbyn once called the killing of Osama bin Laden a "tragedy" and has called Hamas and Hezbollah "friends."

In short, it's prehistoric leftism. As you'd expect, the ruling Tories are struggling to contain their joy. They now face an opposition in the mold of Labour before Tony Blair -- an outfit so out of touch with the broader electorate, it kept the Conservatives in power for the better part of two decades.

Corbyn is as familiar with this history as anybody, and therefore faces a dilemma. His strength is an unassuming authenticity -- like Bernie Sanders in the U.S., he is a straightforward man who tends to say what he means. People like that, and his seeming lack of guile will appeal to voters beyond his political base. The problem is, his policies won't.

Corbyn is a winning personality with a losing program. But if he softens his line to reach out to wavering Tories -- as he surely must, to win a general election -- he'll be committing the very offense his supporters most despise. Perhaps, like them, he'll prefer to lose honorably than win through compromise (or betrayal, as many activists would see it). Perhaps the party will split, with the left on one side and Blairite social democrats on the other.

Britain's humiliated center-left should think hard about how it ever let this happen -- and social democratic parties in other countries ought to reflect as well. It boils down to this: The Labour Party failed to truly embrace the changes wrought by Blair in the 1990s. It saw no real virtue in pragmatism: Rather than champion moderation, it came to apologize for it. That's a posture that inspires nobody and quickly shades into cynicism.

Now, the British left will have to learn all over again to advocate moderation on principle, not just as a tactical calculation. It must again believe that competence and restraint in pursuit of its goals make for good policy, not just good politics.

Chances are that Corbyn, one way or another, will help the point to sink in.

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