Change in Labour Party Leadership

“Mr Corbyn 66 is consistent and sincere. A professed leader of the ‘hard left’ who believes that the Labour Party must return to its roots…”
— New York Times

“Welcome to our party, welcome to our movement. And I say to those returning to the party who were in it before and felt disillusioned and went away: welcome back, welcome home”
— Jeremy Corbyn, newly elected leader of the British Labour Party

Some observers have not hesitated in describing what happened during the election of the new Labour Party leader as a “political earthquake.” One will remember how following the debacle of the Labour Party during the last general elections in Britain the then leader Ed Miliband promptly sent in his resignation as leader of the party thus taking full responsibility for his failure in leading the party to victory. The British Labour Party has since then engaged into a process which has been completed with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader. We shall not here come back again on what is the most obvious lesson to be drawn from the above – namely that leadership is about character as well as about the commitment to do the right thing in all circumstances.

The other interesting point to ponder concerns the process of election of leaders of political parties in our two-party dominated political systems. In Mauritius there is at present a sort of intellectual infatuation with the concept of limited mandates for Prime Ministers. This may be understandable in view of recent experiences. However one wonders whether a more realistic solution to this problem of party leadership succession should not rather be sought within the realm of experiences related to our Westminster style of government.

In this regard it is interesting to note that David Cameron has already announced that although he has led the Conservative Party in Britain to a resounding victory in the last general elections he intends to step down as leader even before the next elections. In Australia the incumbent Prime Minister Tony Abbott fought for his job following a leadership challenge from former Minister Malcolm Turnbull. According to most Australian political commentators Malcolm Turnbull was deemed a hot favourite to oust the actual Prime Minister – and this has already happened!

It is very unfortunate that in Maurtius when confronted with such examples many political pundits shrug their shoulders and whine about a purported lack of “maturity” in our political system. In which case, they prefer to opt for a “rule based” solution – presumably an amendment to the Constitution – rather than a process determined approach which is based on respect for values and a proper democratic culture in the governance of political parties.

To come back to the election of Jeremy Corbyn most people would probably be unaware that when he started campaigning for the leadership position three months ago, Mr Corbyn was a 200 to 1 outsider to win the contest. All through the more than quarter century of his political career he has been a rather troublesome backbencher challenging the leadership of his predecessors mostly along ideological lines. He would certainly be classified as a member of the left wing of the Labour party, more in the tradition of a Michael Foot in strong opposition to Tony Blair’s New Labour.

A few of his most consistent promises during the campaign for the leadership of the party have been his engagement to fight what he describes as “grotesque levels of inequality in our society” and a firm stand against austerity programmes as a way out of economic crisis as well as being a consistent anti-war campaigner. He intends to “apologize” to Iraq for the role of Britain in the war efforts under the Bush administration.

Having obtained an overwhelming victory Jeremy Corbyn made the following statement to the BBC: “Politics can change and we have changed it.” One could assuredly consider this to be a little premature as he faces the uphill battle to turn around a Labour Party which over the past decades has been very comfortable in its role as “Her Majesty’s Opposition” and has not missed the least opportunity to reaffirm its credentials as a party of the Establishment which would do nothing to “rock the boat” even if it had some marginal differences with the Conservative and Liberal parties on some important issues.

The reaction to his election has been rather precipitous within the party as several of the “moderate” members of the front bench (shadow government) have quickly tendered their resignation either in anticipation of an eventual revocation or more likely because they simply refuse to serve under the “radical” Jeremy Corbyn with whom they claim have to have irreconcilable policy differences.

This stunning result, coming only months after the Conservatives had trounced the Labour Party in the general elections, has been a total surprise for all political observers in Britain. The election of Jeremy Corbyn is indeed more reminiscent of what has been happening in continental Europe where the Syriza Party in Greece has acceded to power while in Spain the radical leftist party Podemos looks most likely to form the government after the next general elections. Both these parties share with Jeremy Corbyn a strong anti-austerity conviction and a commitment to fight crying inequality and injustices in their respective countries.

In Greece the jury is still out about what will be the outcome of the tussle between Syriza and the financial “gnomes” of Europe although the initial battles seem to have turned in favour of the latter. The exit of former Finance Minister Varoufakis has meant that an intellectually coherent and principled opposition to the diktats of the Conservative Europeans has failed to gather enough popular and institutional momentum to avoid the imposition of the drastic austerity measures on the people of Greece at heavy social costs, especially to the more vulnerable sections of the population.

The fact remains that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party of Britain on a platform which openly challenges the “status quo” constitutes another manifestation of the rising level of rejection of the existing responses to the lingering sequels of the great financial crisis which seem to be making matters even worse except for what is increasingly being described as the privileged 1%.

  • Published in print edition on 18 September 2015

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