Jeremy Corbyn entered the Labour leadership contest with odds of 200-1 of winning, a number we endlessly hear about these days. However, it’s still worth bringing up as an example of how little anyone saw the whole thing coming. But like so much of life, it all seems obvious in hindsight.
Labour conference 2013, Brighton. I recall stepping out from Ed Miliband’s speech while looking at how it was playing on Twitter. This was the year of the energy price freeze pledge, and the press was dishing out the “Red Ed” sobriquet very freely – even the left of centre papers were in on the act. Then I walked into the bar at the Hilton and into an exact opposite universe to the social media one I’d just been ensconced in. A group of Labour activists were chatting amongst each other, discussing how Ed’s speech was “possibly the most right-wing oratory ever delivered by a Labour leader”. The price freeze thing? “Why isn’t Ed promising to nationalise the grid and give energy for free to poor people?”
The membership of the Labour Party, as most of the commentariat are only now openly admitting, has been becoming ever more left-wing, pretty much from when Blair resigned as leader. So a far-left candidate becoming leader this time round being considered a total impossibility looks unbelievably naive in retrospect. Add to this the sullying of everything and everyone connected even tangentially to New Labour via the post-political careers of many of its leading lights (beautifully discussed by Nick Cohen here, in an article that will surely have him labelled as a Tory on social media) and it all becomes even clearer.
Corbyn’s “purity” helped him more than anything else; the fact that’s he’s never had a frontbench job, never been paid off to say any of the things he says. When you contrast that with the man telling Labour voters to get a heart transplant while taking large consultancy fees from the Kazakh dictatorship, it’s easy to understand the appeal of Jeremy.
But another huge factor in his rise has been Corbyn’s willingness to vocalise ideas that had become more and more prevalent on the Left yet remained verboten for any Labour politician to talk about – much of it with good reason, as it’s some very nasty stuff we’re talking about here. Anti-Americanism so strong any enemies of the U.S., no matter how awful themselves, can be taken on board as “friends”; pro-Putin sentiments; vocal anti-Israeli feelings; Chavism.
To be fair here, Corbyn only lightly touches on most of these topics and at his worst tends to merely hint at these strains of thought, usually in a quite reasonable sounding manner. But the tone he uses hardly matters: a Labour MP, in a position to become the leader of the party, giving voice to these subjects which had become taboo to talk about in mainstream left of centre ideological conversations has let the proverbial genie out of the bottle. That’s why even though Jeremy is going to win, it really doesn’t matter anyway: it’s now okay to be openly anti-American, pro-Putin in a way that was unimaginable even a few weeks ago within the Labour membership. Things have changed for the foreseeable future – if not forever.