THE BLOG
09/13/2015 10:02 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2016

The Larger Meaning of Jeremy Corbyn

The victory of Jeremy Corbyn, an old-style unreconstructed lefty, to lead the supposedly modernized British Labour Party, is emblematic of trends afflicting all of Europe. Corbyn represents the same upsurge among the young and the dispossessed as Bernie Sanders does in the United States -- a feeling that the more progressive of the two major parties is just not delivering, and a demand for new leadership that rejects failed centrism.

Unfortunately for the Brits, Sanders is rather more presentable in his views than Corbyn. In the mainstream press, Corbyn has been ridiculed for saying admiring things about Hugo Chavez, wanting to pull Britain out of NATO, calling for broad scale nationalizations of industry and expressing pro-Palestinian views that, at times, seem to border on anti-Semitism. More on these questions in a moment.

But the election of Corbyn -- love him or hate him -- reflects something profound that is occurring all across Europe.

In a time of broad economic distress -- prolonged unemployment, falling wages for ordinary people, the seventh year of a perverse austerity policy imposed by the EU -- center-left parties are hopelessly part of a political establishment that hasn't delivered. Because they are in coalitions with the center right in much of Europe, social democrats and labor parties have ceased to be a credible opposition.

As "modernizers," they have gone along with cuts in social outlays, policies that weaken collective bargaining, austere budget plans, tax cuts for the wealthy and for business, and privatizations of public services that reduce wages and services and enrich multinational corporations.

None of this supply-side medicine has helped lift Europe out of a prolonged slump. This package of neoliberal policies should have been discredited long ago, but it remains conventional wisdom, even among center-left parties and governments.

With the failure of the center-left and center-right to address a prolonged economic crisis and the gradual erosion of economic security, the articulation of popular grievance has passed to far right and nationalist parties, and to leaders well to the left of "third way" types like Tony Blair, who turned the Labour Party into a centrist affair beginning in the 1990s. Corbyn is one.

In many respects, Blair and others like him of that era did more damage to a decent Europe than his predecessor, the arch-Tory Margaret Thatcher. The Thatcher revolution brought an aggressive free-market conservatism to Britain. Blair neutered the ability of the main opposition party reverse it. Corbyn, with all of his deficiencies, is payback for the sins of Blair-ism.

Thatcher's slogan was TINA, standing for There Is No Alternative. Blair-ism might have been represented by a variation -- TINO: There Is No Opposition. Well, now there is.

Elsewhere in Europe, far-right parties are the bearer of mass pocketbook frustration. In France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands, once strongholds of social democracy, they are now typically the second strongest party. There is also new energy on the left, most effectively in left parties in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Spain. Syriza in Greece represented an effort by a left party to resist austerity, but for all of his courage and bravado, the austerity consensus and the power of private finance turned Alexis Tsipris into just another supplicant.

A tragedy is an appalling lack of leadership in the responsible part of the political spectrum that represents struggling Europeans who have had enough. Francois Hollande, the one socialist leader of a major nation who was elected with a governing legislative majority, has been pitiful. His successor could be Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front.

The leader of the social democratic government in Sweden, Stefan Lofven, is admirable, but he leads a minority coalition that is too weak to have much policy influence. And this is typical. One consequence of the election of far-right legislators is that mainstream politics has fragmented. All over Europe, social democrats depend on the votes of conservatives--reinforcing the sense of paralysis.

The one social democratic leader in Europe who seems progressive, effective, and modern is Nicola Sturgeon, who heads the Scottish Nationalists. If one could waive a wand and elevate Sturgeon to leader of a broad left party for all of Britain, she would be elected in a landslide.

But Sturgeon is a Scot first; and the anti-Tory majority in Britain -- Thatcher never won a majority of the popular vote -- is more fragmented than ever, with a three way split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish Nationalists. Tories, if not displaced by the rightwing UK Independence Party, could govern indefinitely.

This brings me back to Jeremy Corbyn. I have no brief for his views on NATO or Israel, but his economic policies -- that got him elected Labour Party leader -- are not as "loony" as depicted in the mainstream press.

Massive public investment is just what Britain and Europe need. Most of the privatizations of the Thatcher-Blair era have been affairs that lined corporate pockets and resulted in deteriorated public services and wages, followed by government bailouts. The superior efficiency or privatization is substantially a convenient myth. Some restored public ownership might actually be salutary.

The conventional view is that with Corbyn as leader, Labour will suffer a dismal defeat. But with the revealed bankruptcy of Blairism, the neoliberalism of New Labour is just as unelectable.

In Britain and elsewhere, a new electoral majority is not in the elusive center, but in leadership committed to actually addressing mass economic frustrations.

It's too bad that the face of this leadership in Britain is someone as Old Left as Jeremy Corbyn, but that is testament to a lost generation of younger progressive leadership, thanks in part to the purges carried out by Blair and company. Even Corbyn just might rally the disaffected to take politics seriously.

In a sense we get the leaders we deserve. If the political mainstream can't do better than austerity, the result will be leaders far worse than Corbyn.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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