Jeremy Corbyn aims to transform the world of British politics — an agenda the Labour leader has had since he was first elected to Parliament in 1983 alongside fellow reformer Tony Blair. But whereas Blair was part of the vanguard that initiated centrist “New Labour,” Corbyn has remained a steadfast relic of the pre-1980s hard, socialist Left. Now, a decade after Blair departed the party leadership, Corbyn owns it; and he plans to use that position to facilitate a complete makeover of British politics, starting with Labour’s annual conference this September, where he’s set to introduce new reforms, unopposed.
Corbyn’s rise to prominence from the obscure political fringes has baffled many in Britain and abroad. After all, the platform he’s espoused for more than 30 years was once called “the longest suicide note in history,” making his resurgent career seem near-miraculous. Some hindsight, however, suggests that the Corbyn phenomenon may be less surprising than it seems. When Labour changed its selection system for party leader, it accelerated the long-fomenting eclipse of the center-left by an even more left-wing alternative. Britain, it turns out, has been going through its own version of “Pasokification” (so called after Pasok, the Greek social-democratic party whose fortunes have recently declined).
Corbyn’s immediate predecessor as Labour leader, Ed Miliband, had been determined to make Labour “a movement again.” The vehicle for doing so, he believed, was using an open primary system to select the party’s head. Labour’s problem was that it had been bleeding members for decades, dropping from over a million members following World War II to 187,537 in 2014. There was a ready-made argument from across the Channel that adopting the primary system would make Labour more transparent and more responsive to the base, which in turn would attract new and more-engaged members to the party. The French Socialists had used this formula with success in 2012, when François Hollande became the surprise victor of the French presidential election.
At the time, Labour was using an electoral college to select its party leader. The tripartite college model gave votes for leadership selection to all of the party’s major stakeholders — the Parliamentary Labour party (PLP), the Constituent Labour parties (CLPs) (a collection of left-wing parties affiliated with Labour), and affiliated trade unions. Until the early 1990s, the unions held a 40 percent voting share within the college, allowing them an outsized “king-making” role in the selection process. This changed after 1992, when party modernizers, believing the party–union link was undermining their general electoral chances, changed the college rules and reduced the proportion of votes controlled by the unions. One of those modernizers, New Labour’s Tony Blair, emerged victorious in the first leadership contest after these reforms.
But in 2010, the razor-thin margin (1.3 percentage points) by which Ed Miliband bested his brother David in Labour’s leadership contest led to renewed criticism of the electoral system. Campaigning on a far-left agenda, as a critic of New Labour and “Tony Blair’s war in Iraq,” Ed Miliband beat David, who had been widely favored to win from the moment he entered the race. Campaigning to the left of David allowed Ed to overtake David’s 12-point lead among union members and turn it into a 14-point lead for himself within a three-month period. In the final round of voting, David won majorities in both the parliamentary and the members sections, but Ed’s 19.6-point lead over his brother among the affiliates was enough to wipe out that lead. The result was that Ed Miliband became the first winner in a Labour leadership contest since the electoral college was formed to win with a majority in only one section.
Before Ed’s victory, David had been regarded by most observers as the most electable of possible Labour candidates for prime minister. But a YouGov poll conducted a few weeks before the vote uncovered that it was Ed Miliband who most shared the political views of actual members. Party members and Labour-supporting trade unionists skewed left when asked to position themselves on the left-right scale, with almost no respondents classifying themselves in the center.
By contrast, the majority of elected Labour MPs placed themselves in the center. Having won through an unprecedented vote that he did not owe to the party establishment but that was in tune with the party base, it’s no surprise that Miliband decided in 2014 to double down on reforming the electoral system by introducing a one-member, one-vote primary system for choosing the party leader. If Ed’s victory over his brother David had been somewhat tainted within the standing tradition of the party’s electoral system, then the answer was to toss the system aside in favor of a “more open, more democratic” electoral format.
Miliband said as much in his “One Nation Politics” public speech to his party, a clear attempt to claim 19th-century Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s famous “one nation” mantle. In that speech, delivered at the St. Brides Foundation (near the birthplace of the Labour party), Miliband linked the future of Labour with building a “different kind of politics” that is “transparent, and trusted” by reaching out to people who were “rooted in every community.” On the most practical level, Miliband believed that with a primary system he was also creating the opportunity to raise party membership from around 200,000 to a “far higher number.”
Lord Ray Collins, former general secretary of the Labour party, was assigned to come up with the planned changes. When the Collins Report was released, it called for Labour to become a “genuinely mass membership party reaching out to all parts of the nation.” Labour would open up the franchise in the leadership primary to a new class of “supporters.” These would be required to declare their support for Labour values, provide the party with personal contact information, be on the electoral roll, and pay the party a small fee (£3) in exchange. This, the report argued, was an appropriate response to the realities of contemporary politics, where a consumerist public has a more “à la carte” approach to politics, one based on issues rather than on a commitment to membership of a political party with its broader policy platform.
Unsurprisingly, the Collins Report cited the French Socialist party’s 2011 presidential primary — which produced its first presidential victory in years — as well as the U.S. primary system, as proof that their reforms would be successful on all the fronts they were hoping for.
Labour used the primary system to select its new leader after Ed Miliband resigned following Labour’s defeat in the May 2015 general election. With a lingering touch of deference to the party establishment, would-be candidates were required to have a minimum of 15 percent support from the Labour members of Parliament. When backbencher Jeremy Corbyn entered the race (saying that a sufficiently left-wing voice was not represented), he barely managed to acquire a sufficient number of nominations from his parliamentary colleagues to stand. Around 12 members “lent” him their votes in order to widen the contest, even though they supported other candidates.
He faced a mass walkout from his shadow cabinet and lost a vote of no confidence among Labour MPs by 172 to 40, even while he continued to enjoy strong support from the party base. After a series of televised debates with the other candidates, Corbyn won the support of six of Labour’s affiliated trade unions, received the highest number of supporting nominations from CLPs, and went on to win the leadership vote in a landslide victory, gaining 59.5 percent of first-preference votes, with a 76.3 percent turnout of eligible members. Polls taken before the election showed that Corbyn was also favored by the new group of “£3 supporters.”
Intensifying the trend from the Ed Miliband election, it was a different story among Labour’s parliamentary members, who overwhelmingly backed other candidates by 210 to 20. This uneasy foundation planted the seeds of a contest to Corbyn’s leadership in 2016, ostensibly triggered by Corbyn’s lackluster performance in mounting a campaign against Brexit. He faced a mass walkout from his shadow cabinet and lost a vote of no confidence among Labour MPs by 172 to 40, even while he continued to enjoy strong support from the party base.
Nevertheless, Corbyn won this second leadership contest even more handily than the first, besting Owen Smith with 61.8 percent and winning even bigger majorities among the three groups of full party members, affiliated supporters, and registered supporters. This is an eclipse of the center-left of no mere blip proportions: In the snap 2017 general election, Corbyn led Labour to increase its share of the popular vote by 10 percentage points and win 30 more MPs than it had in 2015. He did this with no small thanks to Prime Minister Theresa May’s campaign missteps, but arguably also with the assistance of Momentum, the grassroots organization that drew its inspiration and ideas from similar leftist populist efforts in Greece (Syriza), Spain (Podemos), and the U.S. (Bernie Sanders’s campaign).
When Ed Miliband had initially introduced the notion of a primary, he said that such reforms would amount to “the biggest transfer of power in the history of our party to members and supporters.” It looks as though his prediction has come true. But whether this transfer of power within the Labour party will be good in the long run for Labour, electorally or substantively, remains much in doubt. The price for energizing a party base in the short term is to weaken the party structures that have handled the more difficult and traditional task of maintaining a party program with potential appeal to a national majority that could produce effective governance if elected.
Both British Labour and the French Socialists have experimented recently with opening up their systems for choosing a party leader and national candidate. In France, the Socialists’ experiment with the primary system has produced an electoral victory that became a shambles once in government. They are now facing total disarray as a party. It’s too early to say this will be Labour’s fate. But when it comes to party politics in popular governments, there’s no guarantee, ironically, that going down the road of populism is the best way to stay popular.