Monday, September 14, 2015

Labour’s Lessons

Over the weekend the British Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch — some may say radical — liberal, as their leader.  Anthony Lane at The New Yorker has a piece that explains who he is and where he make take the party.

It is your tenth birthday. You invite close friends to your party, plus a few other kids from your class—the popular ones, good to have on your side, and maybe a couple of smart ones, who know all the answers to the questions. Your mother has an idea: “Invite Jerry.” You scoff at the thought. Jerry is the outlier—the class grouch, making trouble but never headway. Nobody hates him, but you all roll your eyes whenever he raises his hand, because you know what’s coming next. Plus, Jerry is no fun. He actually likes school. For just those reasons, however, your mom thinks you should include him; it will loosen the guest-list, shake things up a little. So, with a sigh, you agree.

Jerry comes to the party. Everyone laughs when he arrives—dressed like a dork, of course, because he is a dork. Still, he hangs around, and talks. And then something strange happens. The other kids begin to listen to Jerry. They sidle toward him, and cluster round. He seems different from everyone else; that used to be a liability, but now it makes him stand out from the crowd. It even makes him—get this—a little bit cool. And so it is that, as the party ends, everybody leaves with Jerry, hanging on his every word. He has already blown out the candles on your cake, taken a large slice for himself, and handed round the rest. He has opened your presents. He has utterly won over your mother, who finds him “so real” compared with the rest of your pals. Today, in short, feels like his birthday, not yours. Everybody loves Jerry.

All of which is one way of describing the events that have overtaken the Labour Party in Great Britain over the past four months—events that culminated, Saturday, in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the party. How you regard this singular occurrence depends on your point of view. If you cleave to the idealistic left and believe that Labour has strayed for too long from the path of righteousness, you will treat the ascent of Corbyn to the top job—he is now the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, in Parliament—as the advent of a Messiah. (That was certainly the tone of the adulation that Corbyn received on Saturday afternoon, in Parliament Square, when, in his first deed as leader, he addressed a large rally that was urging the government to welcome refugees who are fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere, and arriving in ever greater numbers at the borders of Europe.) If you are someone who worked for Tony Blair, when he was the party leader, you will lie down in a dark room, press your fingers to your temples, and wonder if your life’s work just got thrown out with the trash. And, if you are a member of the Conservative Party, currently governing with a healthy majority, you will solemnly pour a glass of champagne and then, midway through your first sip, start laughing so hard that bubbles come out of your nose.

Already the Very Serious People are using Mr. Corbyn’s election as a cautionary tale for the Democrats who are promoting Bernie Sanders, but that’s what sells newspapers and Twitter trends.  (A closer parallel might be the Canadian election where someone with a famous name and legacy is leading the a liberal party.)

The results of a party leadership election in Britain aren’t the same as what’s going on here, and the next scheduled time for Mr. Corbyn to see if he can bring back Labour is in 2020.  By then we’ll be in the throes of another election over here.