LONDON — Britain doesn’t do revolutions. Since the 1600s, bureaucrats and moderates have had an unwavering stranglehold on domestic politics.
After centuries of stability, utter panic has been set in motion by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, a hard-left radical on the verge of seizing control of Britain’s second-largest party.
A man who defends terrorists and dictators, favors the forced re-nationalization of private companies, and wants to disband NATO has taken a shock lead in the Labour leadership race.
At the start of the election, Corbyn happily admitted that he was standing as leader simply to broaden the debate among the more senior candidates, including the pre-race favorite Andy Burnham. Two months later, the Labour Party is scrabbling in vain to rewrite its election rules to try to keep him out while grandees from all sides of the political spectrum forecast a catastrophe for Labour, and even worse for the country if he were to continue his unlikely ascent.
The intervening weeks have seen the birth of an unprecedented, hard-left grassroots movement; Corbynmania is real. There’s no sign of the condition sweeping into mainstream Britain, but a mania has certainly settled on the country’s disaffected protester class.
At his latest rally in North London, a giddy crowd sang, laughed and celebrated the looming coup within one of Britain’s great political parties. One woman leapt from her seat and yelled “Revolution!”
As chants of “Jez we can!” echo around the room, it’s Lefty Christmas.
If the polls prove accurate, the party is on the verge of electing its most radical leader since its foundation in 1900. That is partly explained by a huge, unexpected surge in people signing up to join the party’s primary, some of them are traditional Labour supporters, others are not. Their hero is a bearded man who wears homemade jumpers, cheap shirts and $2 vests bought from a scruffy market on the down-at-heel Holloway Road.
In the eyes of these cheering Corbynistas the party’s moderate voices and former prime ministers have become the enemy.
“This is the working class saying, ‘This is our party and we want it back while they’re crying into their Chablis,’” shouted union boss Joanne Kaye, as she set about warming up the crowd for Corbyn’s arrival at the Union Chapel in Islington.
“I don’t know about you but this the first Friday night I’ve spent in a chapel. The only bearded man with the initials J.C. that would get me in one is Jeremy Corbyn,” she said. “Now we can talk about those policies we’ve always been ashamed of.”
And they are continuing to talk. Corbyn has refused to soften his message in front of his new national audience. In recent days he has threatened to stop bombing ISIS, forcibly renationalize utilities without compensation, and introduce a radical economic plan called “the people’s quantitative easing,” which would involve printing more money to spend on infrastructure projects.
His latest proposal has perhaps been the most thoroughly derided of all. Corbyn told The Independent Tuesday that he would consider the introduction of women’s-only carriages on night trains if it would help combat sexual harassment on public transport.
One of his leadership rivals, Yvette Cooper, Tweeted in response: “Just got off tube. Majority of passengers women. Why should we have to shut ourselves away to stay safe?”
Virtually every Corbyn interview on TV or in print includes him being confronted incredulously over his policy ideas or his past associations. Yet none of it seems to dent his popularity—among the 550,000 registered Labour voters, at least. When he was pressed on sharing a stage with a Holocaust-denier, for example, the clamor by his supporters against the “aggressive” and “biased” interviewer drowned out those who were unconvinced by his defense.
No matter how vigorously Burnham, Cooper, and Liz Kendall, the fourth leadership candidate, confront him, they have all failed to land a major blow. Corbyn’s hide may be thicker, even, than Donald Trump’s.
Burnham conceded to The Daily Beast that they had been caught cold by the Corbyn surge. “We didn’t anticipate it,” he admitted.
“It’s a protest against current politics, there’s no doubt that people are joining to vote for Jeremy. They tend to be younger, Russell Brandish types,” he said.
A lackluster campaign, in which Burnham has tried to appease Corbyn supporters, looks certain to end in failure. He insisted that his campaign’s private polling showed he was ahead of Cooper and should be seen as the stop-Corbyn campaign. A split between the moderate candidates should not be fatal as Labour is using the transferable vote system, which takes second, third and fourth preferences into account, and yet it looks like Corbyn will win a first-round landslide.
“We’re doing our best to ensure that doesn’t happen,” said Burnham. “It would be a disaster.“
It’s not just his opponents calling Corbyn a disaster. Past Labour leaders Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown, and Tony Blair have all broken protocol on intervening in internal party elections to urge voters to reject a lurch to the left. “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation,” said Blair.
Blair admitted himself that his intervention may have done more harm than good. When Corbyn finally took to the stage in front of thousands at the Union Chapel the biggest cheers were reserved for his attack on the war in Iraq. “Those of us who marched against the war showed that there are millions of us who don’t want to be a sidekick of U.S. foreign policy,” he shouted.
The crowd whooped and applauded. Outside after the socialist magician and a stirring rendition of Leftist anthem The Red Flag, Neil McNab, 52, admitted that he was a centrist Labour voter who had been swayed by Corbyn’s passion. “Can you imagine Yvette Cooper holding a rally somewhere?” he asked. “Who the fuck would turn up to see that?”
The venue is less than 400 yards from Granita, a high-end restaurant where Blair and Gordon Brown settled their own leadership race with a cosy private deal in 1994.
There is nothing cozy about the current race, which has descended into shambolic disagreements about the makeup of the electorate and threats of legal action. Ed Miliband forced through the new format to try to help the party become more democratic. By inviting the public to join the vote for the cost of a $5 donation, Miliband has certainly done that, with almost 400,000 people signing up.
The trouble is, party officials admit they have no idea who most of these people are, and they haven’t got enough staff to find out.
With voting underway and less than three weeks to go until the results are announced, the party is still going through the vast new database and attempting to weed out those who have ulterior motives in voting for Comrade Corbyn. So far, these have included Conservative politicians, Green Party activists, pet cats, dogs, and four llamas.