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Jeremy Corbyn, the UK Labour Party’s radical new leader, explained

Jeremy Corbyn, new Labour leader.
Jeremy Corbyn, new Labour leader.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Saturday morning, some stunning news was announced: Jeremy Corbyn, a British MP from Islington North, won the election to be the next leader of the UK Labour Party.

This is an absolute shock, even though recent polls had shown a Corbyn victory was likely: Just a few months ago, oddsmakers gave Corbyn a 100-to-1 shot at winning control of Britain's left-wing opposition party. There's a reason for that: Corbyn is best known for his radical left-wing views and comments, which include, for example, once referring to "our friends from Hezbollah." Labour's center-left establishment has been terrified by the prospect of Corbyn actually winning — and now their fears are realized.

"If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation," former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair warned in a Guardian op-ed written before the vote.

Yet "Corbynmania," as the British press has dubbed it, has swept the Labour Party. Here's why this happened, and what it tells us about British politics.

Why are people so freaked out about Corbyn?

Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

To put it very simply: Corbyn's policy views are way out to the left of the Labour mainstream. Not all of his ideas are extreme, but enough of them are that the party chiefs fear they're unelectable now that he's going to lead the party.

The BBC has an excellent rundown of Corbyn's actual policy platform. It includes, among other things, renationalizing Britain's railroad system and energy companies, abolishing tuition for British universities, and imposing rent controls to deal with Britain's affordable housing problem. He's even open to reopening the coal mines that used to be a big part of Britain's economy. It's essentially a throwback to the unreconstructed socialism — the real thing, way beyond Bernie Sanders — of the old-school British Labour Party, which used to be way more into the idea of the government controlling huge sectors of the economy.

Some of Corbyn's ideas are more appealing than others. Most importantly, he wants to end Britain's austerity spending cuts, which damaged the UK's recovery from the Great Recession. He also proposes something called "people's quantitative easing," in which the Bank of England would print money to invest in infrastructure projects. This won him praise from the Financial Times's Matthew Klein, who described it as a good way to get money into the hands of ordinary Brits and thus stimulate the economy.

Corbyn's positions on foreign policy are more extreme. He wants to withdraw from NATO and abolish the UK's nuclear arsenal, and has suggested that Blair could face a war crimes trial for his role in the Iraq War. His position on Ukraine echoes the Kremlin's: He's written that Russian expansionism "is not unprovoked" and that "the obsession with cold war politics that exercises the Nato and EU leaderships is fueling the crisis."

Notoriously, Corbyn once referred to members of Hamas and Hezbollah as "friends," and invited Hamas representatives to speak in Parliament. Here are the comments, from a 2009 speech he gave as a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign:

It will be my pleasure and honor to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking. I’ve also invited our friends from Hamas to come and speak as well. … So far as I’m concerned, that is absolutely the right function of using Parliamentary facilities.

Corbyn has tried to play down the "friends" comments, arguing that he was just saying all parties to a conflict should be involved in peace negotiations. But they play into an all-too-well-founded belief that Corbyn is a real extremist on a number of important policy issues.

Why did Labour voters turn to Corbyn?

corbyn supporter

A Corbyn supporter at a rally in Wales. (Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

The interesting thing about the Corbyn victory is that Labour, in a recent election, had tried moving to the left, and they lost. The party's last candidate for prime minister, Ed Miliband, was sometimes called "Red Ed." Labour lost so badly that Miliband was forced to resign, and Conservatives won a surprising victory. So moving the party even further left seems like an odd political strategy.

That said, Labour also lost seats to the Scottish National Party, whose platform was distinctly to Labour's left. And in any case, the Corbyn surge is about something deeper than that: It's part of the backlash to austerity happening across Europe, which in the UK has combined with simmering anger at the New Labour years finally boiling over.

In more economically distressed countries, such as Greece and Spain, you've seen left-wing parties surge as part of a populist reaction to austerity cuts. The UK's economy has fared much less poorly. But Prime Minister David Cameron's spending cuts have been pretty painful for much of the population. They've also set back the British left's core political project, of expanding the welfare state to protect the vulnerable and promote equality. Cameron is with the Conservative Party, not Labour, but the backlash against his policies may have grown the support for a left-leaning Labour.

But Labour has been relatively timid in challenging the austerity cuts. Corbyn represents a real alternative: a full-throated rejection of austerity. That proved to be an appealing vision for a lot of Labour voters frustrated with the direction their party has gone.

Indeed, Corbyn appears to have energized a newer wing of the Labour party. "People who joined the Labour party between 2010 and 2015 are more pro-Corbyn, [and] people who have signed up since 2015 are extremely pro-Corbyn," YouGov's Anthony Wells writes.

What happens now?

tony blair

One thing's clear: Tony Blair will not be happy. (Ian Gavan/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

No one's actually sure. But the Labour establishment is freaking out: There are reports that leading Labour politicians are resigning from the party's leadership in Parliament. The basic fear is that Corbyn's victory will render the party unelectable, potentially forever. To understand why this is such a huge deal, you need to understand the internal ideological fights that have plagued the Labour Party for the past several decades.

Around the 1980s, Labour was repeatedly trounced by the Conservatives. Two Labour Party leaders — Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — blamed their party's left-wing platform for its losses, and became the leaders of a movement called New Labour. Think of it like a British equivalent of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council: a force that pulled the party to the political center, particularly on economic issues, in the name of electability.

New Labour initially succeeded. It took over the party in 1994, when Blair was elected leader, and controlled the premiership from 1997 to 2010. But in 2010, the brand was retired after the Great Recession led to electoral defeat. However, New Labour's ideological influence is far from gone: Labour's mainstream and its leadership are still far more free market-oriented than they were in 1983, the year a landslide electoral defeat began the shift toward New Labour.

Corbyn's socialism, particularly his support for nationalizing chunks of the British economy, is a direct threat to Labour's current centrism. His critics accuse him of wanting to take the party back to the 1980s, or even the 1970s. A spokesperson for Yvette Cooper, a Labour MP and one of three leadership candidates who lost to Corbyn, warned during the campaign of "returning to the dismal days of the 1980s, with internal party warfare and almost two decades of [being in the] opposition."

Corbyn's fans, by contrast, see his candidacy as proof that today's Labour Party can finally renounce its centrist pretension and embrace its left-wing roots. "The Corbyn Surge, whatever it is, is a resounding comment on what has become of the worst of New Labour; an unflinching belief that Britain is a 'conservative country' and a 'centre' that must [be] chased not shaped," Neal Lawson writes in the New Statesman.

So the question of "what happens" now that Corbyn has won really depends on your ideological read of the UK: Do you think Britain is ready for a bold new left-wing approach? Or did electing Corbyn just hand victory to the Conservatives?