Underdogs have their day

No question about what was the big political story this weekend; Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph in the Labour leadership contest. That he would win hadn’t been in serious doubt for a while, but the margin of his victory was crushing, and has given him a clear mandate to reinvent the party along centre-left lines.

To some extent this is less surprising than it seems; in a European context the UK has been out of step over the last 20 years in having both main parties on the centre-right, and a leftward shift for Labour is really just a reversion to a longer-term status quo.

What is uncertain though is the effect that two decades of right-wing consensus has had on the outlook of the general electorate. The view among what can be broadly termed the political elite, which includes the newly-deposed Labour Party hierarchy, is that the ideas espoused by Corbyn and his allies, particularly on economic issues, may play well with existing Labour supporters, but leave the bulk of the population cold, rendering the party unelectable. The counter-argument is that there is a hidden majority in the country, currently alienated from mainstream politics, who have been waiting for someone like Corbyn to articulate a progressive agenda that they can support, and who will sweep a rejuvenated Labour to power. The last election produced some evidence for both positions; the SNP did well in Scotland by mobilising voters around a programme of limited social democracy, but the Conservatives did win overall with an unrepentant pro-austerity manifesto.

Time will tell I guess. The first electoral test for Corbyn’s Labour will be the Scottish Parliament poll next year, assuming they make it that far without splitting, but that campaign will be beset by all sorts of local issues, so it may be hard to draw many firm conclusions from the outcome. The local elections in England and Wales might be a better indicator of how far the Corbyn revolution can extend.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, there are signs that Bernie Sanders may be poised to pull off a similar upset. That seems like more of a long shot though, so I’m sticking with my prediction of Hillary Clinton for the nomination. Still, it’s looking more interesting than it did a few months ago. The real entertainment is in the Republican contest of course, but I can’t see that being more than a sideshow.

Long to reign over us

Around 5.30 this evening Queen Elizabeth II became the United Kingdom’s longest-reigning monarch, beating the 63-and-a-bit years managed by her great-great-grandmother Victoria. She shows no signs of flagging, so the second Elizabethan age is likely to run for a while longer, much to the chagrin of republicans like myself.

It’s easy to view British royalty as a quaint and essentially harmless anachronism, given that Elizabeth has largely refrained from directly interfering in politics, and the country is effectively a typical bourgeois democratic republic, but I think that underestimates the extent to which the institution of the monarchy underpins the conservative structure of our political culture. There is a big psychological difference between being a subject and being a citizen, and the deference to authority that is inherent in a monarchical system is a major barrier to progressive change.

Generations have grown up seeing Elizabeth on the throne as a fact of life, and her longevity has meant that the patent ridiculousness of choosing a head of state by bloodline hasn’t been a live political issue in recent years. Even queens are mortal though, and some day the country will have to consider whether the royal charade should go on. I can’t believe that the succession, when it comes, will be a smooth one; surely reason will prevail and Elizabeth will go down in history as not only our longest-serving monarch, but also our last one.

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