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Jeremy Corbyn-mania an 'electric shock' to the British left

Controversial new opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn is shaking things up in British politics, but he could also be the end of the Labour party.

Britain's new opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn: 'He has no charisma, that's his magic'

Jeremy Corbyn waves on stage after news is announced that he was elected the new leader of The Labour Party during the Labour Party Leadership Conference in London on Sept. 12. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press)

"He has no charisma, that's his magic."

Not the description you might expect of a man recently elected the new Leader of the British Labour Party winning nearly 60 per cent of the vote and credited with bringing in thousands of new members, but there it is. Baldly stated by renowned Guardian commentator Polly Toynbee.

A backbencher Member of Parliament for the London Borough of  North Islington for more than three decades, Jeremy Corbyn is a 66-year-old vegetarian teetotaller who would like to see the monarchy abolished, along with Britain's nuclear deterrents.  

Toynbee is attempting to explain what's been dubbed "Corbyn-mania" in Britain. She describes his promotion by ballot to  leader of the party earlier this month as an "electric shock" to the British left.  

"Nobody could have conceived of it a few months ago," she says. "This really insignificant moderate backbencher, who has never held any position of power anywhere, suddenly catapulted into the position of … leader of her Majesty's Opposition is bizarre beyond anything." 

Marred by controversy

Corbyn barely managed to get enough of the required MP signatures to allow him to throw his hat in the ring. Since his election he's been losing some big names in Labour politics from the shadow cabinet, his brand of labour politics apparently offensive to some of the front-benchers.  

Often shabbily dressed and sporting a light beard, Corbyn resembles nothing so much as a mild-mannered man you might encounter sipping tea and eating a bun in one of those little cafes where the windows fog up when it rains outside. 

The leader of Britain's opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn (front right), stands for the national anthem during the 75th anniversary Battle of Britain memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral in London on Sept. 15. He has been criticized for not singing the anthem. (The Associated Press)
His first week in the job has been marred by controversy over his decision not to sing "God Save the Queen" at a First World War memorial event. Now everyone is speculating about whether he'll kneel before the Queen when he's sworn in to the Privy Council, founded in 1659 by Charles II.  

At question time this week, Corbyn abandoned the time honoured tradition here of robust exchanges between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition across the Commons floor. Instead, he read out questions from his constituents. 

Critics said that although the discourse was indeed civilized, it put little pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron in terms of accountability. 

"We are not doing celebrity, personality, abusive politics," Corbyn said in an interview with a British newspaper before his election. "We are doing ideas. This is about hope."

Not your typical leading man

Conservative newspapers here have dubbed him leader of the "loony left" and scoff at him. 

There's no doubt that Corbyn isn't your typical "leading man" material. But he has been a mainstay on the British political landscape for decades. 

What's more, he appeals not just to his own generation, but to younger people wanting to engage in new types of political discourse.  

Critics say Jeremy Corbyn will have difficulty uniting his own party, let alone rallying the majority of the British people behind the Labour Party in an election. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)
"There's no sham about him, and that is a breath of fresh air for young people who've heard politicians always speaking with marbles in their mouths, not quite able to say what they really mean, both on the right and the left," Toynbee says.  

And he's shaking things up, unsettling the grooves and rhythms of the political establishment and the media used to doing business with it.

It's the children of older Labour party supporters who are backing him.

"I support him because for the first time there is a political leader in one of the two mainstream parties whose policies reflect my politics," the  33-year-old daughter of a friend told me. "Who is challenging austerity and presenting a political vision for the future based on hope and solidarity. I find it really inspiring." 

Antithesis of Tony Blair

Corbyn's critics point to his support for the former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez as one reason to raise eyebrows. He's also been accused of being an apologist for Vladimir Putin, advocating for Britain's withdrawal from the NATO military alliance.

"It's extraordinary," says Daily Mail Columnist Andrew Pierce of the Corbyn win. "He is the bearded Bolshevik and it's extraordinary to think that a party that was elected with Tony Blair would eight years later pick someone who is the antithesis of everything Tony Blair stood for. It could be the end of the Labour party."  

Tony Blair, of course, was heralded as the saviour of the Labour Party in the 1990s when he was elected on a "New Labour" platform, promising to end unchallenged fealty to the trade unions as one of the party's defining traditions.  

Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, supports calls to bring more refugees into his nation. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)
Blair and Gordon Brown, who followed Blair in to Downing Street, famously made their leadership pact in a posh Islington restaurant called Granita, winning  the riding the dubious title of "home of the Champagne Socialists."  

North Islington, on the other hand, Corbyn's riding, has often been referred to as the "People's Republic of Islington."

Tony Blair's former spin doctor,  Alastair Campbell, lost no time in making his feelings known, tweeting out "anybody but Corbyn" when it became clear Corbyn might steal the show.  

But leftists alienated by the Blair years have returned to the party to back Corbyn. 

"He's unspun, unlike Tony Blair, he's not controlled, he speaks from the heart, " says Pierce.  

"A lot of Labour supporters voted for (Blair) with a peg over their nose, they really didn't like the direction he was taking the country. He was much more at the political centre, they've never forgiven him for the war with Iraq.' 

Few analysts, though, think Corbyn will ultimately be electable as Prime Minister. Pierce says the Conservatives are "doing handstands" at the prospect of him at the helm.

 "It's also going to be difficult to see how he is going to be able to engender loyalty among his own backbenchers when he has been the most disloyal backbencher Labour MP of the last 30 years. Since 1997 he defied his own leadership 557 times."

Comparisons have been made between support for Corbyn's anti-capitalist ideology and support for anti-austerity political parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. 

But Corbyn's fans say it is actually about something more fundamental than ideology, that it's simply about saying what you believe in and meaning it. They call him authentic.  

"He is authentic," allows Tonybee. "No doubt about it. He may be authentic, but a disaster." 

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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