LONDON: Wildly popular among grassroot activists but isolated on the far left of fellow MPs, Jeremy Corbyn is poised this week to become the most unlikely leader ever of Britain’s main opposition Labor Party.
Party members and supporters have until Thursday to choose between the 66-year-old leftwing veteran and his three rivals — all in their 40s — with the results due to be announced on September 12.
But there is little doubt among bookmakers, pollsters and at the party HQ that Corbyn will triumph as Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall — the three “reasonable” center-left candidates — flounder in the face of “Corbynmania.”
The battle-hardened, bearded MP who has stood for Islington North since 1983, is known neither as an inspiring orator nor a charismatic leader, but projects the image of a humble man who travels by bicycle and cultivates his own garden in the north London district.
It is his leftist policies that experts assumed would be the biggest turn-off.
When Ed Miliband resigned as Labor head following its catastrophic defeat in the May 7 general election, the loudest critics were allies of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who blamed the party’s leftward turn and called for a return to Blair’s centrist platform.
Now, only four months later, Labor is set to elect its leftmost member: the British equivalent of Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s former prime minister and head of the radical leftwing Syriza.
An heir to Tony Benn and Michael Foot, Corbyn made a name for himself in the 1980s as a rebellious pacifist and now advocates the renationalization of the railways and energy sectors, the re-opening of coal mines and an immediate end to austerity.
Those looking for an explanation of the unusual events point to the voting rules, which were changed to allow anyone paying £3 ($4.50/4.10 euros) to have a say, a privilege previously reserved for members and unions.
Tens of thousands of new supporters and disillusioned former members responded to the call, charmed by the “authentic” Corbyn, although some are thought to be ‘infiltrators’ who registered to vote for him in order to sabotage the party.
“You may say it’s marvelous, but it leaves the Labor Party in a mess,” London School of Economics media professor Charlie Beckett said of the new rules.
Although Corbyn’s rage resonates among activists, he appears adrift from his fellow parliamentarians.
“This Corbyn thing is unprecedented in British politics,” said Beckett, who is also a journalist.
“There are about five, perhaps 10, MPs in the parliamentary Labor Party who would say ‘yeah I would be with Jeremy Corbyn’,” he added.
“The rest, to various degrees, just hate him, politically. He has not got a great network, never worked with other people and has no real parliamentary achievement.”
In fact, he only mustered the requisite 35 MPs needed to sponsor his leadership bid because some believed the race needed more variety, said Beckett.
“He is only standing because of the complacency and the arrogance of Labor MPs who said: ‘We need to have somebody from the left in the race so we are going to nominate someone we don’t even agree with’,” he explained.
Leading a party with the support of only five percent of MPs “will be a nightmare,” added Anand Menon, a professor at King’s College London.
Many within the party believe it will be impossible to win the 2020 general election from Corbyn’s leftist platform, with Tony Blair warning the party was on “the trajectory to becoming a pressure group.”
Some already predict the party will have a different leader by 2020.
“Very fine people who did not stand, such as Dan Jarvis or Chucka Umunna, could be seen as saviors,” said Beckett.
But Menon pointed out it would be “very hard to get rid of a leader before he lost an election,” pointing to Conservative leaders during the Blair years.