Here in the heart of Robin Hood country, where the legendary outlaw touted an innovative economic model in the 12th century, Britain’s latest political star is proposing something similar for the 21st.
The government needs to stop concentrating wealth in the hands of the have-a-lots and start investing in public services and welfare benefits for the have-nots, Jeremy Corbyn tells hundreds of merry men and women eagerly gathered to hear him speak in downtown Nottingham.
After all, he says, single parents, nurses and other ordinary workers didn’t cause the 2008 financial crisis; bankers bent on “grotesque” profits did. Yet the rest of society is paying the price as the state slashes spending after doling out billions to rescue the banks.
“Austerity has made this country more unequal,” Corbyn thunders. “I am beyond anger by the way which those people who are living in great difficulty in our society are treated.”
The crowd roars in approval, lending their support to one of the most remarkable, and unexpected, political juggernauts in recent British history.
If the polls are right, Corbyn, a member of Parliament since 1983, is about to be elected the new leader of the opposition Labor Party, an astonishing result for an unabashedly left-wing, somewhat scruffy politician whose candidacy was practically an accident.
Within the space of a few weeks, his campaign has electrified activists across the country who believe that Corbyn, 66, will return Labor to its progressive politics and socialist roots. His appearances draw hundreds, sometimes more than a thousand people eager to hear him denounce the policies of the Conservative government.
His three rivals are younger, slicker and, so far, fairly hopeless at firing up the public imagination. One recent survey put Corbyn’s support at 53%, 32 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, fellow Labor lawmaker Andy Burnham.
But instead of uniting his party, Corbyn is dividing it, so badly, in fact, that some members are warning of an irrevocable split. The enthusiasm of his supporters, many of them younger than 30, is being matched by the near-hysteria of party grandees who have lined up to warn that a Corbyn victory in the leadership race would be a catastrophe, dooming Labor to the political wilderness for years.
To them, his left-wing views — let alone his rumpled and non-telegenic style — make him unelectable as prime minister. Besides opposing austerity, Corbyn clings to causes that Labor ditched years ago, such as nuclear disarmament and re-nationalization of the country’s energy sector. He favors Britain’s withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Similar ideas were set out in the Labor Party’s election manifesto in 1983, a document that famously became known as “the longest suicide note in history.” Labor was trounced by Margaret Thatcher, who had only narrowly won the prime ministership four years earlier, and spent a total of 18 years out of power before moving to the political center to win back Parliament in 1997.
Tony Blair, who became prime minister that year and served until 2007, sees history in danger of repeating itself.
“The party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below,” he wrote recently in the Guardian, traditionally the newspaper of Britain’s left. “It is a moment for a rugby tackle if that were possible.”
If Corbyn is named the new party leader next Saturday — voting by members is underway — Labor faces not just a rout but “possibly annihilation” in the next election in 2020, Blair said.
Other senior party figures, including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have issued equally dire warnings. Look at Syriza, they say, the radical-left party that took power in Greece but was forced to surrender to the realities of international finance and has since split apart. Or Podemos, the upstart left-wing group in Spain, which after an initial surge in ratings is now hemorrhaging support.
Corbyn’s followers dismiss his critics as dinosaurs whose old way of thinking already cost Labor the last two elections, most recently in May. By aping the ruling Conservatives, Labor turned off many of its core voters, whereas their man can restore the party’s soul, “Corbynites” say.
They appreciate his unvarnished talk in much the same way that Republicans in the U.S. have taken to Donald Trump and Democrats to Bernie Sanders, an Independent. He lives frugally, rides a bike and rarely wears a tie. Even his lack of charisma is considered a plus: It puts the focus on issues, not on personality.
“He steps outside of the paradigm,” says cafe owner Tres Gretton-Roche. “There’s something that feels very different. The whole thing that surrounded Blair was spin; there was something unreal about it. But what Jeremy Corbyn has is a real rhetoric, a real connection.”
Gretton-Roche, 47, is a lifelong Labor voter. But she never attended a political meeting before joining Corbyn’s rally last month in Nottingham, alongside university students with multiple piercings, middle-aged men in suits and grim-looking activists who thrust copies of “Workers’ Liberty” and “The Socialist, Formerly the Militant” on passers-by.
There’s no doubt Corbyn has galvanized a certain section of the British population. Labor Party membership has jumped from 200,000 to more than 550,000 within the last three months, an increase attributed mostly to Corbyn’s candidacy in the leadership contest.
“The people who are joining are further to the left of the people who are already in the party,” said Steven Fielding, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham. “The danger is that these are people who aren’t representative [of the wider electorate] and who are going to put the party firmly into opposition and make it more unelectable than ever it was.”
That’s fine with the ruling Conservatives, who are gleefully watching the Labor Party tie itself in knots while they get on with implementing the harshest government cuts in a generation.
Corbyn was at first reluctant to run for party leader.
Although he has represented the same North London district in the House of Commons for 32 years, he’s no Labor drone. Political watchers estimate that he has bucked the party whip — its voting instructions in Parliament — somewhere between 200 to 500 times.
He was able to collect the required number of leadership nomination signatures from fellow lawmakers only because they felt he could broaden the debate, not because they actually supported him or thought he had a chance of winning. He submitted his name minutes before the deadline, in June, then cheerfully declared he had no chance of winning.
But his campaign caught fire among trade unions and voters sick of politics as usual and of Labor’s shift rightward.
“The mood is there, and we happen to be in the middle of it,” Corbyn told the Guardian. “We are not doing celebrity, personality, abusive politics. We are doing ideas. This is about hope.”
Leftism runs in his blood: He grew up the son of two peace activists in Shropshire, close to the Welsh border, and became a Labor supporter in his teens. He never finished college, but was elected to a local council in North London by the time he was 25. He is married to his third wife and has three sons.
Now that Corbyn has become the unlikely front-runner, his three rivals — Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall — are scrambling for ways to block him from winning.
Their supporters have muttered darkly, and not without reason, about infiltrators from other parties joining Labor to sabotage it by voting for Corbyn. Four hundred Tories who just signed up have been barred from the vote.
Critics have also taken some of Corbyn’s past comments and construed them somewhat dubiously to paint him as an anti-Semite or a friend of Islamic terrorist groups. Britain’s right-wing tabloids have happily piled on.
None of that fazes Martyn Rush, 28, who until recently was just a “half-hearted member” of the Labor Party. Corbyn has energized him by offering “a genuine left-wing alternative.”
“I’m not saying he’s going to establish the People’s Republic of Britain,” Rush says. But “trying to accept the Tories’ version of the middle ground hasn’t worked. We could actually change what the definition of the middle ground is and move it to the left.”