Three years ago, British Parliament member Jeremy Corbyn’s future seemed set. A stalwart critic of his own Labour Party from the left, he had settled into a steady role as a human rights advocate, anti-imperialist peace activist, and parliamentary gadfly. Then came his stunning triumph in Labour’s 2015 leadership race. And then, in June, his narrow loss in the general election completed his transformation from a whipping boy for the press to a prime minister-in-waiting. What has made Corbyn’s whiplash rise all the more striking is what it reveals about his country’s politics — and a generational shift he has inspired as much as exploited.
Much of the sudden enthusiasm stems from the way Corbyn has presented himself as an alternative to Labour’s two-decade-old embrace of neoliberal politics — an alternative that his supporters had long been told didn’t exist. Back in the early 1990s, Tony Blair pushed the party to the center, embracing financiers and media tycoons, relegating Labour’s left wing to the distant back benches, and backing the U.S. war in Iraq. A few years ago, a dispirited Labour Party had limited its ambitions to temporarily stalling the relentless rounds of privatization and austerity. But not today: Suddenly the party leader is pushing for a leftist wish list that includes the renationalization of once-public industries and services, generous government spending to revive the economy, the abolition of tuition fees, and a reversal of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s shackling of unions.
What’s even more remarkable is that voters are responding — and not just Corbyn’s fellow graybeards. His unrepentant socialism has also electrified younger voters. The 68-year-old Labour leader may not always know what his new followers are talking about (he occasionally seems baffled when crowds chant “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” to the tune of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes), yet there’s no question that his promise to deliver an honest politics “for the many, not the few” resonates with a generation that feels cheated.
“Jeremy is popular with younger voters because young voters intuitively know that society is geared in the interests of the many,” says a spokesperson for Momentum, a grassroots activist movement that campaigned for Corbyn’s leadership and has helped draw younger voters to the party. “They suffer sky-high rents, stagnating wages, and little prospect of owning a home, and Jeremy Corbyn is the only one who articulates a different vision and pledges to build a more fair, prosperous society.”
The generational gap was on full display in June’s snap election, when 61.5 percent of voters under 40 chose Labour, up from the 36 percent of voters between the ages of 25 and 34 who supported the party in 2015, according to a poll. And no wonder: While Corbyn talked justice and equity, the Conservatives harped on antiquated issues, such as Corbyn’s onetime support for the Irish Republican Army in the now-dormant conflict in Northern Ireland. Labour still ended up losing the race but by such a small margin — just two percentage points — that it felt like a victory, sparking jubilation among even centrist Parliament members.
But it was the Grenfell Tower fire in June that saw moral authority decisively pass from beleaguered Prime Minister Theresa May to a newly confident leader of the opposition. The blaze, which killed more than 70 residents of a public housing tower, was widely blamed on cost-cutting measures pushed by the Tories under the David Cameron government’s “austerity” policy. And while May avoided the crowds for days, Corbyn immediately met with survivors. He “came here and walked around as if he is one of us,” one dispossessed resident said. “That’s how it is. That’s why he has been so successful. Because he is one of us.”
Not quite: Corbyn has yet to resolve the sticky problem called Brexit. While his youthful supporters overwhelmingly favor remaining in the European Union, Corbyn’s own sympathies have always been with the small band of hard-left anti-EU activists who see Brussels’s rules as a bridle on socialism. Since the referendum, Corbyn has tried to finesse the issue, calling Brexit a “settled” matter but one that should focus on the needs of “the people” rather than banks and corporations — a message that has found little resonance with either hardcore Remain or Leave supporters.
Fortunately for Corbyn, Brexit isn’t really his problem: May is the one facing the deadline looming in March 2019. Labour is thus unlikely to try to seize the reins before then. But with the Conservatives in freefall, Britain’s ultimate outsider could well find himself running the country before long.
James Palmer is Asia editor at Foreign Policy.
Corbyn is a longtime vegetarian and nearly teetotal.