Britain is not an island. And British politics should not be looked at in isolation: after all, it is possible and useful to look at the recent British political developments from a European perspective, connecting them with similar developments occurring in other European countries.
Today Jeremy Corbyn has been elected leader of the Labour party with a 40 percent margin on his nearest rival. At first sight, his landslide victory looks like an odd, unique outcome (and the perfect recipe for Labour to lose the next general elections). But there must be some reasons for such a broad success. It looks that two central elements contributed to it: Corbyn’s hardline leftist positions, and his outsider profile.
It is rather unique that a radical left politician gains the leadership of one of Europe’s mainstream parties. I suspect that this has a lot to do with the social situation in Britain: large and rising economic inequality, and troubling social problems regarding welfare, housing and public services. It is not surprising that there are sectors of the British population asking for leftist policies. But this demand of radical left policies is not part of a widespread trend in Europe: only in some countries do such leftist policies enjoy a substantial electoral support.
However, Jeremy Corbyn would have not gained 60 percent of the votes if he had relied only on his radical left platform. His landslide victory is also due to his profile as an outsider vis-à-vis the previous party leadership, which was very clearly highlighted during the campaign. To vote for Corbyn meant to vote against Blairism and against the whole group of people that has ruled Labour in the last twenty years. All the other contenders for the leadership were expression of New Labour, either in an orthodox or in a slightly critical form.
Corbyn’s is not the first case of an outsider winning a leadership contest in a mainstream European political party. In the last years, we have seen this happen somewhere else: in Italy, with Matteo Renzi’s victory a couple of years ago. The differences between Corbyn and Renzi are so deep and obvious that it is unnecessary to list them. One portrays himself as anti-Blair, the other one as the Italian Blair. Yet, for all their differences the two of them do share a similar path to the leadership – and now they also share similar problems in governing their MPs and in keeping their party together.
While there is something specific to Britain in the success of Corbyn as a radical left politician, his success as an outsider is part of a very widespread movement in European politics. In almost every country (with the exception of Germany), large number of voters appear dissatisfied with the existing political parties and with their leaders. Anti-establishment parties enjoy increasing success, both on the left and on the right of the political spectrum, and outsider politicians attract increasing attention and support. From this angle, Corbyn’s and Renzi’s success are part of the same story.
I would argue that Corbyn’s and Renzi’s different positioning along the left-right spectrum matters less than their common character as outsiders. After all, to go left was the only option available to Corbyn if he wanted to challenge the existing Labour leadership. Renzi could choose to challenge the existing leadership from the left or from the centre. He opted for the latter, but he would have probably been just as successful if he opted for the former: as the success of a number of leftist outsiders in local elections showed, what mattered the most in Italy was to be an outsider vis-à-vis the existing leadership.
Citizens’ dislike of the mainstream parties’ leadership is a very widespread feeling in Europe, especially among centre-left voters. They seem to say: give us an outsider, and we’ll vote for him/her. This widespread feeling has brought about partly different political consequences, according to the specificities of the different countries. In Britain and Italy, such a feeling has lead outsiders to gain the party leadership. In countries such as Spain and Greece this feeling has brought about a substantial shift of votes from traditional socialist parties to radical left ones.
After Renzi’s Italy and Corbyn’s Britain, voters’ dissatisfaction with existing centre-left leaders is likely to be expressed next in France. In case of humiliating defeat in the next presidential elections, a radical reshuffle of the leadership of the French socialist party can easily be foreseen. An outsider could gain the leadership, following the same path taken by Renzi and Corbyn. Of course, outsiders can only win where leaders are directly elected by party supporters, as in Britain and Italy. Where party rules prevent voters from changing the party leadership, voters will rather change party altogether.