BIRMINGHAM, England—At first glance, it looks like British politics has lurched hard to the left.
Described as a “hard left” socialist by some members of his own Party, Jeremy Corbyn garnered 40 percent of votes in the recent U.K. election, with a self-declared Marxist, John McDonnell, as his would-be treasury secretary.
A few weeks later, when the Labour Party leader appeared on stage at Glastonbury Festival, a crowd of tens of thousands chanted his name.
But the surge in Corbyn’s popularity doesn’t actually reflect a growing public appetite for hardline socialist ideals, say political experts and Party moderates.
Corbyn’s ideological stance is hard to pin down, and is interpreted differently by different supporters.
Corbyn’s policies and rhetoric were seen as an unpopular leftist throwback to the 1970s by many senior figures even from within his own Party, which had long since been pulled toward the center ground by former Prime Minister Tony Blair. When Conservative Party leader Theresa May called an election in March, her Party had more than double Labour’s points in the polls.
The Labour Party braced for a drubbing. Then the unthinkable happened: Corbyn surged in popularity, and the Party gained 30 seats, stripping the Conservative Party of their majority status and forcing May to team up with a minor Party to form a government.
The election result doesn’t mean public opinion chimes with Corbyn’s socialism, says Steven Fielding, a professor of political history and director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham.
Seven years of austerity cuts, a drop in real wages, a series of blunders by May’s campaign, and the ongoing debate over the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union were more significant factors behind the unexpected support for Corbyn.
“It’s a very complicated, very unexpected, and febrile moment in British politics,” says Fielding.
Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party in 2015, against the odds, and has survived two attempts to oust him with the help of a dedicated group with 25,000 members, backed by the unions and leftist elements.
Corbyn has held a consistently rebellious line since gaining a seat in lawmaking chambers in the 1980s. He is known for defying the Party whips of Blair’s centrist Labour Party government more than any other lawmaker. Biographies and accounts consistently note that he never showed leadership ambitions and was a true outsider, an anti-establishment figure within his own Party and within the government.
“That is almost part of his charm—the accidental leader,” said Richard Angell, director of Progress, which describes itself as a progressive Labour Party organization. “The fact that he doesn’t look ambitious for himself but for his politics is one of the things that his supporters like about him.”
“Corbyn’s appeal to young people was less strategy and more about having actively courted this anti-establishment sentiment—both against the establishment of the country and the Party,” said Angell.
Corbyn’s politics are much defined by his foreign policy attitudes—which, critics say, were suspiciously absent from the Party manifesto.
Anti-Western, anti-war, anti-American sentiment has long been a key element of the hard left in the U.K., say Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey, authors of “Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British Left.”
“Leninist anti-imperialism continues to play a central role in shaping [Corbyn’s] thinking on foreign affairs,” they wrote in an update to the conclusion of the book in 2016. “If there’s any guiding principle to Corbynism, it’s that the West—in other words, the U.S. and the other ‘imperialist powers’—is always wrong.”
In this worldview, “from the IRA to Hamas, from Cuba to Hezbollah, from North Korea to Venezuela, ‘anti-imperialists’ are ‘friends’ usually deserving solidarity—and a blind eye has to be turned to most of their flaws and their crimes.”
Anderson and Davey, who both identify as socialists, say that while Corbyn himself never joined one of the Leninist groups, he has drawn on their support and ideas throughout his political life.
As leader, Corbyn has given key positions in the Party to people from the “Leninist periphery of hard-left Labour politics who share this worldview,” they write.
Getting Back at May
But Fielding says he doesn’t think that Corbyn and closest ally McDonnell are Marxists in practice. “A lot of the language might sound Marxist, a lot of the rhetoric will sound very Marxist-influenced, but essentially they are very left-wing social democrats.”
He believes that many voters simply wanted to vote against May to weaken her, the Brexit agenda, and the much-hated austerity measures. Precisely because they knew Corbyn stood no chance of becoming prime minister, they were happy to vote for him.
Labour’s manifesto, while the most left-wing for 30 years, isn’t that radical in historical terms, Fielding says, although he notes it is a watered down version of Corbyn’s personal ideology.
However, he said that with Corbyn in place there will be “actual Marxists” around the leadership now, “with very strong Trotskyist views.”
“They will have a clear, definite, and wholly antagonistic attitude towards the market and the capitalists.”
Prior to the election, many prominent Labour Party members were outspoken in their criticism of Corbyn, both in terms of his ideologies and electability, and the leftist elements, which they accused of mounting a coup. With his leadership cemented by the election result, the majority of those have now capitulated for the sake of Party unity.
Paul Blanchard, a moderate Labour Party member, former councilor, and media commentator, has continued to criticize the Party leadership and describes them as “deluded,” echoing some privately held criticisms from within the Party.
“They are ultra-hard socialists, and they are unapologetic about it,” Blanchard said.
He said that the leadership are “crackers” if they think that the public will vote the Party into power with such a program and ideology.
Paul Webb, a professor of politics at Sussex University, said that the leadership are not Marxists per se, “although I have no doubt that Corbyn and McDonnell have encountered Marxist ideas and been in part shaped by them.”
They sit to the left of the Labour Party, “but are not ultra-hard revolutionists,” he said. “They would hardly be content with the parliamentary road to socialism if they were.”
He said he doubts the rise in the Labour vote indicates a sudden shift to the left in voters’ values, something that he said happens gradually.
“I think the outcome of this election has more to do with the ineptitude of the Tory campaign (which depressed the turnout among some of its usual core vote, such as the elderly), plus the particular circumstances that have produced an insecure, debt-laden, and young citizenry worried about the uncertain implications of Brexit,” he wrote in an email.
Anderson and Davey also write that even within the Party, there is a mismatch between Corbyn’s ideology and that of his supporters.
“Corbyn’s mindset is indebted to Leninism, but the Labour Party members and supporters who voted for him were and are people who wanted a change of tack on austerity and foreign military intervention. What they’ve got isn’t what they wanted,” Anderson and Davey write.
“Putting it crudely, a handful of Leninists past and present have been given key bureaucratic positions by a hard-left Leninist-fellow-travelling leadership.”