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Jeremy Corbyn has all the momentum. Britain's opposition leader, an inveterate leftist, presided over his Labour Party's annual conference in the seaside town of Brighton this week and preached an uncompromisingly socialist vision of the future. And the curious part? It doesn't seem to be hurting his chances of winning power in the slightest.
After being written off as a fringe anachronism who would take Labour into the wilderness for a generation, Corbyn is now solidly the bookmakers' favorite to be the next British prime minister. That's in part a reflection of widespread disaffection with the ruling Tories and the cynicism of Prime Minister Theresa May, who misread the British public's mood in calling for early elections this year in a bid to consolidate her own position.
That backfired, with Corbyn's Labour shrugging off prophecies of doom and significantly closing the gap on the Conservatives' once-commanding majority in parliament. May's lurching management of the Brexit process has only compounded her unpopularity.
But it's also a sign that Corbyn's message is resonating. A decade removed from the neoliberal centrism of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Corbyn's Labour has moved strikingly left, promising uplift for the dispirited British working class and the disciplining of corporate elites. Corbyn's platform seeks the nationalization of a host of utilities, including the railways, the abolition of tuition fees for universities and increased taxes on the wealthy.
Not long ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a program this radical gaining traction in the West. Now, it may be a winning ticket.
In a speech Wednesday, Corbyn declared that "2017 may be the year when politics finally caught up with the crash of 2008" — when a financial crisis upended European governments, wrecked the social contract with citizens in a number of countries and fueled anti-establishment movements across the continent.
From the Netherlands to France to Germany, traditional center-left parties that once dominated politics suffered stinging defeats in elections this year. Voters associated them with the ruling liberal establishment and blamed them for growing inequities in their societies, as well as the grinding austerity demanded by major lenders and international organizations elsewhere on the continent.
Corbyn doesn't have that problem. Backed by a strong grass-roots movement, his straightforward socialism seems a genuine alternative to the ham-fisted schemes of the Tories, whose championing of Brexit could lead Britain toward economic calamity. Although Labour politicians remain split on their approach to Brexit, they're happy to let the Tories own it while promoting their own social agenda.
This week, Corbyn confidently declared that “we are now the political mainstream — our manifesto and our policies are popular because that’s what most people in our country actually want, not what they’re told they should want.”
Looking on somewhat euphorically, left-wing Guardian columnist Owen Jones styled Corbyn as the next in line in a succession of epoch-defining prime ministers, following Clement Attlee, the architect of Britain's postwar welfare state, and Margaret Thatcher, the conservative giant who rejected an era of state socialism in favor of unshackled capitalism.
“At the time of the 2008 financial crash there was a widespread misplaced schadenfreude on the left. Surely market fundamentalism had been discredited; surely the west’s ruling economic elites — and their political representatives — would be held to account; surely the left would rise from the ashes,” Jones wrote, gesturing to what fueled Britain's Brexit vote and the broader populist mood in Europe. "Instead came a tidal wave of austerity, devastating attacks on the remaining social gains of social democracy, and the poison of rightwing xenophobia."
But Corbyn is rising at a moment when a new direction seems possible. “It is often said that elections can only be won from the center ground,” he said on Wednesday. “And in a way that’s not wrong — so long as it’s clear that the political center of gravity isn’t fixed or unmovable, nor is it where the establishment pundits like to think it is.”
Corbyn's many critics insist that he is still too far left, especially on foreign policy, where they claim he clings to a worldview more skeptical of the ambitions and effects of Western power than the actions of left-wing regimes or even anti-Western militant groups overseas. But even there, he may not suffer politically.
“The Cold War is ancient history to first-time voters," noted Rafael Behr, another Guardian columnist, who pointed to Corbyn's supposed soft spot for the Soviet Union. “To remember two Germanys you have to be well into your 30s, and the memory alone is not enough to guarantee suspicion of grey-haired politicians who once equivocated over preference for the western one.”
Britain's conservative press seems to concur. “It's time to admit it's the Tories who are stuck in the past, not Jeremy Corbyn,” declared a column this week in the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper identified with the Tories.
“The real danger is that the Tories might have vaccinated Corbyn. By botching their attacks, they may have given him immunity,” lamented the Spectator, a right-of-center magazine. “When they point to all his hard-left positions, his dodgy economics and his sympathy for various terrorist groups, voters might just shrug and say: ‘We’ve heard it all before.’ At the same time, Corbyn sounds very different to how he did two years ago. Voters tuning into him for the first time will find his agenda presented in a far more seductive and less sectarian way.”
Although Britain's political situation is unique, Corbyn's continued ascent may echo elsewhere. Across the pond in the United States, there's a right-wing government battered by low approval ratings and burdened by the ideological contradictions of its own party. And who is the most popular politician in America? A gray-haired democratic socialist who is sticking to his beliefs and calling for sweeping reforms that no one would have taken seriously just a decade ago.