Post-Manchester, Corbyn's left-wing populism is catching on

Jeremy Corbyn giving a speech

The Manchester bombing should have ended this British election a month into it. Theresa May's Conservative government was outpolling Jeremy Corbyn's hopeless botch of a Labour party by almost two to one even before she ordered the vote, after denying for months she would.

Labour had been climbing slowly but then came the bombing. The Tories surely saw it as an electoral godsend though anyone saying so aloud would be declared despicable and subhuman.

Why godsend? Because Corbyn seemed hopelessly tarred by his 1960s, peacenik, Birkenstocks, bike-riding persona. Not someone to take on violence, the way Margaret Thatcher, a May of the past, pasted Argentinians in 1982.

I thought it was over after the bombing. Yet it hasn't hurt and may have helped Corbyn, who continues to rise and in some polls is virtually tied. This is truly stunning, though we went through the same drill with Bernie Sanders in the U.S. The mere fact that he'd always proudly called himself a socialist should have sufficed to sink him -- yet few cared.

Then Corbyn boldly, even recklessly, doubled down, blaming the bombing partly on the aggressive, militaristic foreign policy of previous leaders, including Labour's own Tony Blair. He said their attacks were counterproductive. Of course it's true, and he cited Western intelligence as support -- though he could also have quoted Osama bin Laden, architect of 9-11, who said he watched U.S. bombs destroy towers in Lebanon in 1982 and "it occurred to me to punish the unjust the same way (and) destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and stop killing our children and women."

Corbyn flouted his peacenikiness, and it worked. The proof it worked is that May stopped attacking him for it. Why did it work? Maybe because after 16 years of invading and killing people in the Mideast, those terror attacks continue, proving Corbyn's point. The spectre of Trump also helps: "She's A Liar," a song now topping the charts in the U.K. (can't quite believe I wrote that) includes a line on the fear of MOAB (Mother of All Bombs) in his "tiny hands."

May and Corbyn have now almost traded places, like Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in the film. Corbyn doesn't look rumpled, he's somehow morphed that into suave. May, in a panic, mocks him for how well he wears "a smart blue suit." (I get this. I once wore my lawyer's pricey suit to court and saw how it freaked out the crown attorney, far more than any actual defence would've. "Nice suit," he sneered.) Corbyn has acquired a cool, laid-back style for those classic British "gotcha" interviews: bemused, murmuring wittily. It's as if his rootedness in the distant '60s now lends him a perspective that helps everyone relax.

May, meanwhile, has turned out to be a terrible candidate, you see it in photos, especially since the decline set in. Some candidates can keep a poker face while getting bad news from their team; others, it's better to lie to. Her answers are robotic. ("I'm very clear that connectivity is hugely important for Plymouth and the southwest generally.") And she has a scary laugh she uses to fill time when she doesn't know what to say. Against all odds, it's become a fun election.

For the more intellectually serious, the fascination lies in the potential of left-wing populism. In a nutshell, right-wing populism blames "others" -- immigrants, minorities -- for the travails of "the people." Left-wing populism blames the rich.

Right populism, led by UKIP, carried the Brexit vote. Having won that, UKIP lost its reason to exist, and May is the least populist right-winger ever, so the field is open for the left. Corbyn's version is "For the many, not the few." It's not as tart as Bernie railing against millioneahs and billioneahs, but it'll do.

The mavens say a Tory majority is still likely, partly because it's now close to a two-party race, where small advantages generate many seats, due to the awful first-past-the-post system we inherited from them. But the point is, it's not a rout, Corbyn isn't who he was supposed, and consigned, to be, and there's that Manchester (non) impact. The unexpected is always at least instructive.

It's also a relief from the din about Russian plots in the U.S. Foreign scandals are more engrossing when you have a job and aren't drowning in debt.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Flickr/Garry Knight​

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