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UK: Corbyn wins massive mandate

Samira Shackle
September 12, 2015

With 59.5 percent of the first-preference votes, Jeremy Corbyn's mandate beats that won by Tony Blair in 1994. The left-winger's first job will be to unite party members behind his leadership.

Jeremy Corbyn
Image: Reuters/S. Wermuth

When Jeremy Corbyn entered the race to lead the Labour Party earlier this year, he struggled to get the 35 nominations from members of parliament needed to make it onto the ballot. That is a distant memory after he won a resounding victory to become the leader of the party. With 59.5 percent of the first-preference votes, Corbyn's mandate beats that won by Tony Blair in 1994.

Corbyn has never held a ministerial role. His rivals collectively have far greater experience in government. But Andy Burnham won just 19 percent of the vote, Yvette Cooper 17 percent; Liz Kendall, the Blairite candidate, came last, with just 4.5 percent. Corbyn's campaign saw a surge in new Labour members, with supporters signing up in order to vote for him and paying the party 3 pounds (4.10 euros/$4.60) for the privilege.

Tony Blair
Blair, who set Labour on a rightward path 20 years ago, campaigned against CorbynImage: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

"Regardless of your views of his policy platform, it is important to acknowledge that Corbyn's campaign has inspired tens of thousands of people to involve themselves in the political sphere - a significant feat in an era of declining political engagement," Charlie Cadywould, researcher in citizenship and political participation at the think tank Demos, told DW. "His success demonstrates the desire of many Labour supporters for the party to move further to the left and away from the Blair-Brown era. However, Corbyn has also left himself considerable room for maneuver on key policy areas, and the need to balance viewpoints and keep a fractured party together may mean a more moderate suite of policies than some would imagine."

In his acceptance speech, Corbyn stressed the need for unity. He said his first action as leader would be to attend a protest march in solidarity with refugees - but his first major task will undoubtedly be to unite members of parliament behind his leadership and persuade senior politicians to serve in his shadow Cabinet. Labour MPs overwhelmingly voted for other candidates - by 210 to 20. Many MPs believe that Labour lost the last election because its manifesto was too left-wing. Most of Corbyn's positions are significantly to the left of that platform.

"First of all there'll be a show of unity - I think Corbyn will try to reach out to all sections of the party, the Liz Kendall wing if you like," James Bloodworth, editor of the blog Left Foot Forward, told DW. "At the same time, it'll be hard to maintain that unity. Labour Party figures appearing on television will be asked if they agree with things he's done over the years - they'll find it really hard to give the party line." Throughout the leadership campaign, Corbyn was criticized in the media for his stance on various foreign policy issues, including his willingness to share a stage with Hamas and Hezbollah. Some analysts suggest that these past positions will become more of a problem as foreign policy moves up the agenda, with Prime Minister David Cameron considering further military action in the Middle East.

Prior to Corbyn's stunning victory, it was suggested that even if he won, he would soon be ousted. The size of his mandate - he was victorious not just among supporters who paid their 3 pounds, but in every category of the electorate, as well - calls that into question. "My feeling is his landslide means that he will lead Labour into the 2020 election," Stephen Bush, editor of the New Statesman magazine's Staggers blog, told DW. "As a result, I think it's highly likely the Tories will remain in office." Labour has a poor record of ousting unpopular leaders, although next year's local elections will be a key indicator of whether Corbyn will survive as leader until 2020.

'Relevant and electable'

Corbyn, who is 66, is associated with the traditional hard left of the Labour Party, and some fear that his politics are regressive. "For the party to become relevant and electable, he must seek out challenging new ideas, not hark back to the rigid certainties of the 1980s," Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the socialist Fabian Society, told DW. "Labour must face the future. In a little over four months, the mainstream of the Labour Party has suffered two extraordinary election defeats. In May it was rejected by the country, and today it has been spurned by its own members and supporters. All those in the Labour family who did not support Corbyn must now reflect on these twin failures with humility and make a deep commitment to rebuild, reach out and reconnect." Harrop added that Labour could only make a difference in power: "Principles are nothing without well-evidenced solutions. Ideological purity is nothing without power."

Most commentators agree that Corbyn fought an excellent campaign. He was underestimated by his rivals for the first half, which gave him time to build an impressive support base. "He's the candidate not afraid to talk about first principles," Bloodworth said. "He'd talk at debates about grotesque inequality, basic Labour principles. The others agree but appear to have forgotten how to talk about Labour reducing inequality and being a force for peace in the world. I disagree with how he thinks we'll get there, particularly on foreign policy, but his message was clearer."

Many voters clearly agreed. "It's great to see somebody principled who stood on an electoral campaign based on principled beliefs victorious, rather than another candidate parroting banalities based on focus groups," longtime Labour Party member Owen Kean told DW. "It's a shame that none of the other candidates could muster a coherent campaign that anyone could believe in. It did feel like there was really only one option. It's also encouraging that Corbyn appears to have appeal outside the core base. Even if he doesn't win the general election in 2020 - or make it that far - I hope it will move British politics towards a more honest and principled ground."

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