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Looking back: why did Jeremy Corbyn win the Labour leadership bid?

Image credit: The Nation
Image credit: The Labour Party
Image credit: The Labour Party

This question is, on the face of it, rather late, seeing as Jeremy Corbyn has been in the position for months now; but as the Labour Party falls into disarray – some say it’s soon to be civil war – it seems reasonable to remind ourselves of how and why Mr. Corbyn won the popular vote in September and succeeded Ed Miliband as leader of the party. 

The fact that underlied everything about Jeremy Corbyn’s success was his difference. He was unlike his fellow competitors in the race; he was widely recognised as an outsider, a man on the fringes; he neither looked nor sounded the part of a leading statesman; his policies would form a different kind of Labour manifesto than the one written and presented to the public in 2015; and he was without the grooming and political manner that modern politicians favour. Above all, his vision was the starkest antithesis to the Conservatives’ plans.

In comparison to his rivals in the leadership race – Andy Burnham MP, Yvette Cooper MP and Liz Kendall MP – Corbyn was the oldest and the most left-wing, leading to multiple newspapers constantly referring to him as a “veteran left-winger.” He was known for being unknown, seen as a Labour rebel who frequently disobeyed his party. Corbyn has participated in some notable campaigns (at one point getting himself arrested while protesting against Apartheid) but rarely would he be recognised as a leading figure, never having occupied a ministerial position: in many photographs, he is often standing in the background behind Labour champions such as Tony Benn. Choosing campaigns and activism over positions of political power and government affairs, no one could accuse him of being a ‘careerist’. As he has done throughout most of his career, Corbyn would address crowds and sit in interviews with an unbuttoned shirt and in a relatively cheap jacket. His scruffiness in comparison to the suit-and-tie politicians that inhabit the rest of parliament has long been noted.

Economics proved to be an important point of difference for the candidates. Liz Kendall appeared to concede to the financial austerity that the Conservatives espoused, arguing that Labour needed the financial credibility that could have won them the 2015 election. She was derided as ‘Tory-lite’ by critics, though it was noted that she would be the toughest candidate in the opinion of the Conservatives. Burnham believed that fairer taxes were in order and gave some Labour traditionalists hope with a nod to the renationalisation of the railways, but caved to criticism that Labour had mishandled the country’s economics. But Corbyn sought a whole new approach – huge public investment, quantitative easing, financial regulation and a strong pursuit of tax evaders.

It’s without a doubt that Corbyn stood out from the other candidates with his contrasting vision and plans – but why did this appeal to the public? Why did the “veteran left-winger” win almost 60% of the vote in September?

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s approach was the greatest contrast to that of the government. The government is pro-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-privatisation; Corbyn is anti-austerity, pro-nuclear disarmament and pro-nationalisation. Whereas others hesitated at the mention of austerity, Corbyn had a clear position on it. Some Labour MPs disliked it but had conceded to the Conservative rhetoric that told the public that it was ‘the only way’, a necessary evil that would lead to future success; Corbyn told the public that there was another way, and the people who had suffered under austerity by way of public sector cuts, benefit losses and healthcare difficulties were the keenest listeners. Many economists from Steve Keen to Joseph Stiglitz were delighted to see an anti-austerity candidate on the ballot.

When Corbyn spoke at his rallies, listeners heard an individual voice. It wasn’t a phony politician reading pre-written rubbish, carefully gleaned to toe a party line; it was the honest beliefs of the man himself. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall were recognised as members of the establishment and followers of the ‘professional politician’ mantra, whereas Corbyn, in his inexpensive Co-Op garments and his relatively unrehearsed address to crowds, demonstrated his individuality. He was the antithesis of what many young people imagine a political figure to be – an unrehearsed, underdressed, bearded vegetarian who reads African literature and doesn’t drive.

With this individuality came the views of a Labour Party of the past, many of which had been jettisoned by the New Labour movement. Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t being different because he had been asked to present old views – he actually held them himself and continues to believe them. Though the reasons of the Labour Party under Tony Blair for abandoning the views may be good, many people still follow the old ways and it was for them a joy to see a candidate who would willingly give them a voice.

As a result, Corbyn received more and more publicity and public favour. Talks and speeches were heard by hundreds, leading to sell-outs at venues jam-packed with enthusiastic listeners. The outcasts and exiles of British politics – ex-Labour voters, those who had never voted, those who had no interest in politics – came in to hear the new vision.

In September, Labour members elected someone who was different to Tony Blair and the other candidates; who believes there is an alternative to austerity; someone who speaks, looks and acts unlike many others. Jeremy Corbyn won because he was the candidate standing in blatant contrast to both the Conservative-led coalition government and his own party’s new mantra.