The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is the most extraordinary event in British politics since the universal franchise. Whatever else it does, it sends a powerful message to the establishment that there is an appetite for doing politics differently. An uninspiring field of conventional candidates has been swept aside by an insurgent who breaks all the rules.
Mr Corbyn does not look like an MP, let alone a prime minister. He has never been a minister or even a shadow minister. His political programme is one that has been regarded as unelectable for all the 32 years that he has been an MP. Yet people have flocked to join the Labour Party to vote for him, attracted by the clarity and sincerity of his stand for the environment, for equality, and against the excesses of capitalism.
It was notable that the first policy area mentioned in his victory speech yesterday was the environment. It was one of the dismal aspects of the general election that green issues barely featured. David Cameron’s retreat from his early green promises in opposition was compounded by Ed Miliband’s loss of nerve on the subject during the campaign.
Mr Corbyn was also right to declare that “grotesque levels of inequality within our society” were not inevitable, necessary or right. This was a subject that animated his predecessor, but Mr Miliband failed to develop a consistent message or credible policies, and Labour found itself outflanked on the living wage by a Conservative chancellor after the election – a Conservative chancellor whose “national living wage” will not make up for his cuts in tax credits. Let us hope Mr Corbyn can make a more radical fist of it.
As the newspaper that opposed the war in Iraq most vigorously, we also welcome Mr Corbyn’s weight tilting the scales of public debate further towards proper scepticism about military intervention abroad. While we are uneasy about Mr Corbyn’s reflex anti-Americanism, if he makes Mr Cameron more cautious about military action, that would be no bad thing.
But the real lessons of Mr Corbyn’s election are less about policy specifics than about new ways of doing politics. As he said in his victory speech, young people “have been written off as a non-political generation who [are] simply not interested, hence the relatively low turnout and low level of registration of young people in the last general election. They weren’t. They are a very political generation that were turned off by the way in which politics was being conducted.”
The one thing that Mr Corbyn’s detractors cannot gainsay is that his campaign has cut through to a lot of people in a way that Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall failed to do. They appeared to be temporising, conviction-free creatures of an elite political subculture, always calculating the effects of their words. He has the fresh directness of the outsider, even if he has been an MP longer than any of them.
He has interesting ideas for changing the way Parliament does its business. He has suggested that other members of the Shadow Cabinet should take turns asking questions of the Prime Minister in the House of Commons. He is not the first to promise a “new politics” or to want to end the Punch and Judy of Prime Minister’s Questions, but perhaps he will be the first to succeed.
It may be that the doubters are right: that a re-run of Labour’s long suicide note of 1983 is not the way to win the hearts of Middle England. But it may be that Labour under Mr Corbyn’s unexpected leadership could throw up apparently outlandish ideas that test assumptions about whether policies are thinkable and unthinkable.
It is not as if our political system is so perfect that it could not do with shaking up.Reuse content