Jeremy Corbyn, the 66 year-old Socialist who has just become leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party, is living, breathing proof that it’s possible to be both obsolete and a novelty at the same time.
Obsolete because his thinking on economic policy, in particular, appears not to have moved on from the 1980s, when his party was officially committed to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” Corbyn said in an interview in August that he’d like to reinstate some form of commitment to state investment in industry into the party’s statutes and bring the railways back under state control. Other comments suggest his ambitions for the state go a lot further than just the trains.
In foreign policy, too, he seems not to have moved much from ideas formed in his youth in the 1960s and 70s, when it was fashionable to trace all the evil in the world back to U.S. and British imperialism. As Daniel Finkelstein astutely points out in The Times Wednesday, Corbyn couldn’t even bring himself to blame Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda for 9/11, calling it ‘a tragedy’, rather than anything more judgmental.
But somehow, Corbyn has all the attractions of novelty. He is that rarest of beasts in modern politics: someone who has spoken plainly and consistently about what he believes for 40 years, without a care for the focus groups and the spin doctors desperate to ensure the party can win an election. Brits have been amazed to find someone like that still existed in Westminster. In the televised leadership debates, he was the only one who said simply what he believed in, while his three rivals desperately tried to balance their pitch to the poor with their fear of the backlash from a mainly right-wing media. The effect was startling, even to neutral viewers.
Ever since Tony Blair wrenched Labour to the right in 1995, the gap on major policy issues between it and the Conservative Party has shrunk massively, and Corbyn’s unreconstructed leftism is–quite understandably–a breath of fresh air for those who want a real debate and a real alternative. A large part of the British Left (especially in Scotland, where Labour was wiped out in the General Election in May), resents the “Red Tories”, who they feel have hijacked the awesome machinery of the Labour Party, only to reshape it in the caricatured image of the bank-loving, foreigner-bashing Tories.
It’s also no coincidence that Corbyn enjoyed massive support in his campaign from the young, those unencumbered by personal memories of the shambles that was pre-Thatcher Britain (that same generation that doesn’t know the agony of being in impotent opposition for 18 years).
But it’s on a personal level where Corbyn’s novelty is most obvious. His appearance has the same sort of candor as his speech. He really doesn’t care what you think about the vest visible underneath his open collar, just like he doesn’t care if you disagree with his suggestions about reopening Britain’s uneconomic coal mines, or being open to dialogue with Hamas and Hizballah.
The novelty goes well beyond his dress sense. Corbyn was true to his word Wednesday in bringing a more civilized tone to Prime Minister’s Questions, the riotous bi-weekly half-hour in which the government is supposedly held to account by parliament. In contrast to the high-volume slanging match that the public has become used to, Corbyn basically read out highlights from his e-mail inbox in a calm–almost bland–voice, using individual cases to highlight the plight of those hit by the post-crisis austerity budgets of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Wrong-footed, Prime Minister David Cameron was unable to unlearn the ingrained habit of rhetorical aggression and came across rather like a colonial policeman swatting one of Gandhi’s non-violent protesters.
But this is Britain, and there is a limit to the value of novelty (PMQs, for example, has survived because it is–for all its flaws–brutally efficient in exposing the weaknesses of government policy and those executing it). Corbyn refused to sing God Save The Queen at a remembrance service for those involved in the Battle of Britain on Tuesday, his silence contrasting eloquently with his raucous singing of “The Red Flag” after his victory at the weekend. Some–the young, the Scots, the hipsters and a few more besides–may have enjoyed it, but the offense given to mainstream Britain was real and will last.
Episodes like that will take the gloss of Mr. Corbyn’s novelty faster than he thinks, exposing the gulf between him and the crucial middle ground that Tony Blair won at such cost to Old Labour’s feelings. It will become clear that Labour can’t win an election by pitching directly to the poor in a world of majority affluence. After the 1970s and the 2008 fiasco, Labour already has a reputation for wrecking public finances, and radical experiments like the ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’ that Corbyn promises are more likely to scare voters than convince them. Likewise his promise that the U.K. can better defend workers’ rights by withdrawing from the E.U. will be an impossibly hard sell. Many Britons might want out of the E.U., but it’s because they would rather blame immigrants rather than capitalist plutocrats for their problems.
As with the digital economy, globalization, the refugee crisis and the rise of Islamic State, Mr. Corbyn is going to struggle to find answers to such questions in his Socialist textbooks. As the novelty of his personality and his style wears off, the obsolescence of his doctrine will become all-too visible. What will remain of the proud old Labour Party by then can only be guessed at.