Walkom: Corbyn’s left populism the real winner in U.K.

In liberal-left circles, populism has become a dirty word, associated with demagogues like Donald Trump or rightists such as France’s Marine Le Pen.

But Thursday’s United Kingdom election serves as a reminder that populism can take another form. The surprisingly strong showing by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party represents a victory for the kind of old-school, left populism that used to motivate social democratic parties around the world, including Canada’s New Democrats.

While Labour didn’t win the election, it did place a strong second, capturing 261 seats and denying Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives a majority in the Commons.

For Corbyn, it was a feat that just a few weeks ago was routinely dismissed as impossible.

At the beginning of the campaign, Labour appeared to be in shambles. Corbyn, a classic democratic socialist, who still promotes public ownership, was pronounced unelectable.

The 68-year-old trade unionist was said to be too old and too old-fashioned for modern Britain. Even his election as Labour leader in 2015 was widely viewed as a fluke, the result of the party’s too-hasty decision to democratize its voting process.

His caucus colleagues regarded him as a liability and spent much of their time plotting against him.

In 2016, his leadership was formally challenged and he was forced to run for his own job. He won. But the smart money insisted that as long as Corbyn remained leader, Labour was doomed. Then reality intervened.

The reasons for May’s dismal showing in Thursday’s snap election are many. She ran a disastrous campaign marked by policy flip-flops. Her main claim – that only she could safely negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union – never caught on. Indeed, the so-called Brexit issue was not discussed much at all during the campaign.

Theoretically, the Manchester and London terror attacks should have helped her. Voters tend to move rightward when their safety is threatened.

But in this case, the attacks merely reminded voters that, in a previous Tory government, May had overseen savage manpower cuts to Britain’s police forces.

Most of all, however, she paled beside Corbyn. He shone during the campaign.

Like Bernie Sanders, during his bid for the U.S. Democratic Party leadership, Corbyn managed to portray himself as a principled and truthful agent of change. Young people in particular were attracted to him.

And they were attracted to a Labour platform that in many ways marked a return to the past and away from the centrism associated with former party leader Tony Blair.

Corbyn campaigned unashamedly for public ownership. A Labour government, he said, would re-nationalize both the railways and the energy grid.

It would reintroduce free tuition for university students and reregulate the financial sector. It would build more public housing, raise taxes on the wealthiest 5 per cent of Britons and bring back rent controls.

While pronouncing itself in favour of free-trade and investment deals generally, Corbyn’s Labour came out strongly against those that allow private companies to override the public interest.

It was far from hard left. Labour embraced Britain’s nuclear strike force (although Corbyn has said he would never use it). And it embraced nuclear power.

The platform also included tax breaks for small business and a pledge to balance the country’s operating budget within five years.

But in relative terms, the platform entitled “For the many not the few” was remarkably bold, tapping into a widespread feeling that things are not as they should be, that the world is not fair and that fundamental changes are required.

In the U.S., that feeling propelled Trump to the White House. In France, it made anti-immigrant candidate Le Pen a contender for the presidency. But in Britain Thursday, this populist mood was captured and articulated by the democratic socialist left with considerable (although not total) success.

Canada’s NDP, which is in the midst of figuring itself out, may want to take note.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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