The eighties, as the hipsters among us know, are undergoing a revival. The music and fashion of the decade have been disinterred, and its politics too. Where, the pundits of America ask, is our Reagan? Meanwhile in Britain, the Labour party has revived its eighties’ follies by choosing an unelectable leader. Jeremy Corbyn is one of the hardest of the hard left, an ideological relic. His surprising success in Labour’s leadership election represents an unsavory turn in European politics.
If all this sounds as though Tony Blair never happened, then the Labour membership has achieved its first victory. In the early eighties, Thatcher’s shock treatment gave Labour a nervous breakdown. The Trotskyite true believers of Militant subverted local branches. A faction of senior moderates left to form a centrist party of their own, which eventually folded into the Liberal Democrats. And an erudite, shabby bumbler named Michael Foot led the party. The public responded by electing Thatcher for a second time, and then a third.
Slowly, Labour’s leaders accepted that times had changed. Neil Kinnock purged Militant, and then Tony Blair and the Clintonian triangulators of his New Labour faction led the party to the center. The backbench diehards never liked Blair, but could not argue with his electoral success. They became bolder as Blair’s uncharismatic successors, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, failed to retain Blair’s popularity with the voters. Last May, Miliband resigned after Labour’s defeat in the general election. The contest for control of the party began that night: an eighties-style schism between second-generation Blairites and the old, red guard, with Corbyn as the champion of the latter. Last week, in the first round of voting among Labour’s membership, Corbyn won 59.5 percent, defeating three Blairite candidates, and obviating the need for a second round of voting.
Can Corbyn, a veteran of the “loony left,” be the people’s choice too? His supporters, the Old Labour of union bloc votes and Red Flag socialists, hope to capitalize on public discontent with David Cameron’s austerity program. Asked if they have condemned Labour to a repeat of its eighties wilderness years, they cite the success of Syriza, the Greek socialists. This claim of hope is really an admission of failure. Only a fifth of British voters favor Corbyn as their prime minister. And only a Greek-style collapse of the U.K. could propel a British Syriza into Downing Street.
Corbyn would be a joke in a national election, but then so would Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. All three of them are running less for the public’s votes than against their parties’ leadership. They may be peddling quack medicine for a body politic that seems impervious to the usual treatments. But they could not gain an audience if nothing were wrong.
Corbyn’s cure for “grotesque levels of inequality” is far more extreme than anything offered by the likes of Trump and Sanders, and hence even more likely to fail. He proposes to go back to the eighties, by renationalizing the railways and reopening the coal mines. Labourites of yore responded to the challenge of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons by demanding the unilateral disarmament of Britain’s nuclear weapons. Today, while Iran furtively proliferates, Corbyn advocates unilateral disarmament. His high taxation and even higher spending would make the palsied economy of Enver Hoxha’s Albania look like a Singapore of socialism. But a protest candidate appeals to resentment, not reason. In this, Corbyn is something of an innovator.
Socialists, George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), come in two types. They are either a “youthful snob-Bolshevik” whose politics will mellow when he marries well; in our time, the overeducated and underemployed moralizers of Occupy. Or they are “a prim little man with a white collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings.” Corbyn, the son of an engineer and a teacher, is white collar born and bred. The leader of the Labour party does not lead by example; the closest Corbyn has come to manual labor is shaking hands with a miner. He affects a Greek fisherman’s cap, in the way that President Obama and Hillary Clinton affect a twang and talk about how “folks” aren’t getting a fair shake. He is, inevitably, a teetotal vegetarian.