The wavering fortunes of Jeremy Corbyn
Four months in, the Labour leader still seems to be loved and loathed in equal measures, but how will it play out?
Glasgow, United Kingdom – He may have secured nearly 60 percent of the vote in the UK Labour leadership race four months ago, but the fortunes of Jeremy Corbyn continue to dominate the domestic British political scene.
Late last week, the veteran left-winger, whose party sits in opposition to Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Conservatives, finalised a reshuffle of his shadow cabinet.
Yet, far from being a formality, Corbyn’s maiden reshuffle not only took several days to complete, but also saw bitter internal feuds as three shadow ministers resigned in protest at the dismissal of shadow cabinet members who were at odds with the Labour leader.
“The whole thing has been a bit of a mess, but I think it’s inevitable given the position that the leadership, the parliamentary party and the membership at large are in,” said Mark Thompson, a UK political blogger and commentator.
“You have this bizarre unprecedented situation where you have a leader who 90 percent of the parliamentary Labour Party MPs didn’t vote for – and yet, he is the leader and he’s backed by the [overwhelming majority] of the membership,” Thompson said.
Corbyn, 66, was the rank outsider who, following the Labour’s disastrous showing in last May’s UK general election – which led to the departure of its then leader Ed Miliband – assumed the Labour leadership after defeating his three younger and more polished rivals in a bitterly fought three-month contest.
A backbench London MP for more than 30 years, Corbyn forged a reputation as a firebrand left-wing, anti-war and anti-nuclear politician, who, now occupying one of the top jobs in British politics, has suddenly found his every move and utterance subject to intense public scrutiny.
“The Corbyn leadership is a leadership of transition and a kind of interregnum,” Gerry Hassan, a political commentator and writer, told Al Jazeera.
“At the moment, and because he has a limited amount of power – with his constraints within the parliamentary party – it looks like the [reshuffle] is not serious politics on any level in terms of his own politics or the politics that opposes him from the Conservatives. So, in that sense, it’s just a treading of water.”
Corbyn’s (ultimately modest) changes to his team included anti-Trident nuclear MP Emily Thornberry replacing shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle, an unambiguous advocate of Britain’s Trident nuclear programme, who was moved to the culture brief to replace one sacked member.
Yet the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, a Labour big hitter who found himself publicly at odds with his leader after voting for British military action in Syria in last month’s Commons vote endorsing air strikes, survived. Further resignations had reportedly been threatened if Benn had been forced to leave his role.
A vacuum in British politics
For the many thousands of Corbyn supporters across the UK, his rise from an obscure backbench MP to the leader of the Labour Party has brought about a true and much sought-after left-wing opposition to what many see as an austerity-driven, right-wing Conservative government.
Yet Corbyn’s unique style of political leadership, which has included a reiteration of his anti-nuclear principles and a publicly expressed discomfort over a “shoot-to-kill” policy in the event of an attack in Britain, has exposed the Labour leader to savage media criticism.
“Whatever the merits and demerits of Corbyn, [his position as the Labour leader] tells you so much about the problems and vacuums in British politics,” said Hassan.
“And what it shows you is that when the existing mainstream consensus is questioned, the mainstream politics and the mainstream press and public discourse has a real problem in trying to understand this.”
For the vast majority of Corbyn supporters, the Labour leader’s treatment by the British press has been unreasonable.
One Corbyn supporter, Tom London, told Al Jazeera that most aspects of Corbyn’s actions as leader have been unduly attacked, not least his recent reshuffle, which, said London, had been distorted by a media “which doesn’t want to do Corbyn any favours”.
“I think that his political programme threatens powerful vested interests, and those powerful vested interests are using every weapon at their disposal, which includes the national media, to try and undermine him,” said London.
Is Labour heading for another defeat in Scotland?
Scotland was one part of the UK where many Labour Party members hoped a Corbyn-inspired leadership would lead to a revival of their fortunes.
Although the pro-Scottish independence Scottish National Party (SNP) has ruled the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh since 2007 and it took 56 of the 59 Scottish constituencies in last May’s UK general election, purging 40 Scottish Labour MPs in the process, Corbyn’s unabashed brand of left-wing politics appeared to enthuse many left-leaning Scottish voters during his leadership election campaign.
Yet, the Corbyn factor has so far failed to dent the SNP’s popularity in a Scottish nation that saw 45 percent of Scots vote for independence in September 2014’s independence referendum.
Indeed, polling has suggested that the SNP is on course to decimate the Labour Party once again in this May’s Scottish Parliament election, leading to speculation over the prospect of a second independence referendum.
“Publicly, Corbyn really doesn’t have anything to say to Scotland,” said Hassan, also emphasising the notion that the SNP has appeared to have successfully occupied the left-wing ground once held so solidly by Labour in Scotland.
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Thompson also told Al Jazeera that a poor showing for Labour in the Scottish Parliament election, while an unwelcome prospect for Corbyn, would probably leave him relatively unscathed, given his short time spent at the UK Labour helm.
“The vast majority of the damage that has been done to the Labour vote in Scotland has happened over decades – not in the last few months,” Thompson explained.
Corbyn for prime minister?
But, as far as Britain itself is concerned, can Corbyn lead Labour to victory in the 2020 general election and become prime minister?
Buffeted by internal and external strife, Labour’s prospects have been written off by many commentators – and by many Labour MPs. Yet the likes of Tom London see hope for Labour under Corbyn.
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“The idea that after four months, the guy has failed for me is just nonsense,” said the Corbyn backer.
“If you look at political history, a lot of people started off shakily. [Former UK Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher was seen as unelectable when she was [elected as Conservative leader] in 1975 … And Corbyn is no further away from the centre of British politics now than she was [then].”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi