With Corbyn, the UK moves away from Europe

13.09.15 Publication:

When the Partito Democratico suffered its surprise general election defeat in 2013, the party eventually indicated its desire for change by choosing a 38-year-old centrist newcomer to national politics, Matteo Renzi, as the new leader. Britain’s equivalent to the PD, the Labour Party, has now also reacted to its surprise defeat in May’s general election by showing its desire for change. But the party’s landslide choice as new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a 66-year-old leftist who has been an MP for 32 years, and who in that time has always been disloyal to the party leadership. To many, it looks like a suicidal decision for the party that Tony Blair made dominant in 1997-2010.

Indeed, the choice of Mr Corbyn has been condemned by Tony Blair, by his successor Gordon Brown, and by other past heavyweights from the party. It is being quietly celebrated by the governing Conservative Party, many of whom assume a Labour Party led by Mr Corbyn will find it impossible to win a general election.

That is unclear. Strange things can happen. But what is clear is that the choice of Mr Corbyn as leader of Britain’s main national opposition party has made it likelier that the UK will vote to leave the European Union. It also has made it harder for Britain to play an active military role overseas in the future, or to resume the interventionist foreign policy practised by Mr Blair. It may also have made it likelier that Scotland will at some time during the next five years hold a new referendum on whether to become an independent country, at which time it will vote to leave.

Anyone who predicted on the day after Britain’s general election in May that Labour’s next leader would be Mr Corbyn, or even any other similarly left-wing figure, would have been considered mad. But just four months later, Mr Corbyn’s victory had come to be seen as inevitable.

Analysts will be debating why this happened for many years to come. Among the explanations must be counted the widespread alienation felt in many democratic countries against established political parties, and against the politicians who led their countries into both the 2008 global financial crisis and the Iraq war of 2003. Correctly, Mr Corbyn is often likened to Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate in the US, for the appeal of both is as outsiders who use plain language. The recent Italian equivalent has been Beppe Grillo.

Another explanation, clearly, is that many ordinary Britons, especially traditional Labour voters, still feel impoverished by the global financial crisis, even though the UK’s economy is now doing well and unemployment has fallen. There were not enough who felt that way to win Labour the general election in May. But in a vote dominated by the grassroots of the Labour Party, and open to non-members to vote too as long as they paid a small fee, the feeling was strong enough.

Mr Corbyn won nearly 60% of the vote. But that means a little more than 250,000 people chose him in a party vote of 420,000. It is not a basis for a general election victory.

So what will happen now? Everything depends on Mr Corbyn and how he handles the party. He is a man who has never before shown any interest in leadership, nor any obvious leadership qualities, beyond a willingness to speak loudly when he disagreed with previous leaders. It is possible that he will seek some sort of party consensus. But if he persists with his very left-wing programme of nationalisation, of abolishing Britain’s nuclear weapons, of raising taxes on the rich, of using the Bank of England to print money to hand to the poor, then the likeliest result is that the Labour Party will split up into two parties.

In the short term, this is good for David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative prime minister. But it will also be awkward for him. His main opposition now will be in his own party, especially over Europe. And Mr Corbyn’s view on British membership of the EU is ambiguous. Mr Cameron can no longer rely on Labour support for remaining in the EU, nor for renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which he previously assumed he would.

Labour’s vote is not a good outcome for Britain’s place in the world.