An English tea party? Rita Ricketts reflects on the advent of Jeremy Corbyn as British Labour leader and compares him with David Lange.

AuthorRicketts, Rita

The unexpected election of the maverick MP Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party has had a dramatic impact on British politics. He himself described it as a 'political earthquake'. It is possible that his advent will have almost revolutionary consequences. His populist approach, and his fierce opposition to the establishment policies on defence, has put him on course for a confrontation with the military industrial elite. His thinking on many issues, and his record of Robin Hood-like support for his constituents, brings to mind former New Zealand Labour prime minister David Lange, who faced similar challenges in driving New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy.


On first examination, David Lange and Jeremy Corbyn seem to have little in common. David Lange was hailed as a saviour after being elected as a member of Parliament, deputy leader (1979), leader (1983) and then prime minister (1984). He went on to win a second term--till then Labour's only since 1938. But look again, at policy and role rather than style and personality, and Corbyn's election feels like deja vu for anyone who remembers the 1980s. Lange's elevation, like Corbyn's, precipitated a seismic shift in the political climate. Both were popularly elected--not pushing but pushed into the forefront--with a passionate desire to be inclusive in policy formation and to balance the interests of labour and capital. Jeremy Corbyn has a record of Robin Hoodlike support for his constituents just as Lange had, albeit the latter's tenure in Mangere was considerably shorter than Corbyn's is in London's Islington North. It is, of course, Corbyn's fierce determination to oppose a new generation of nuclear missiles that suggests an immediate comparison with David Lange. Corbyn, as Lange did, will have to face down the military industrial elite. This will be trial enough. But, like Lange, Corbyn's Achilles heel threatens to be 'the economy, stupid'. (1)

Revolutions, wrote Gerald Hensley, are famously touched off by the unexpected. (2) Could the unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn be the trigger for an English equivalent of a Boston tea party? The day after his success, both the broad sheets and the red tops were already dismissing him. Yet even the most withering commentators admitted a grudging admiration for someone who had the brass neck to think he could change anything at all. But despite themselves, they were touched by Corbyn's message of hope for a new, gentler, style of politics. And as a leader elected with almost 60 per cent of the vote, he just might usher in a new era of greater democracy when those who did not usually vote, would vote. Even so, commentators predicted that the parliamentary party would dump Corbyn, just as soon as it recovered from the shock. These pundits of gloom were confounded when Corbyn received two standing ovations at the Labour Party Conference. He affirmed that his populist election was revolutionary.

What happened this summer with the leadership election was a political earthquake ... According to the script, socialist and social democratic parties were in decline. Social democracy itself was exhausted. Dead on its feet. Yet something new and invigorating, popular and authentic, has exploded.

This could have been a speech made by David Lange. Yet on the face of things Corbyn and Lange have little in common. David Lange's election as leader, and as prime minister seventeen months later was greeted with euphoria. Lange was at the time almost twenty years younger than Corbyn is now, and their personalities are as different as chalk and cheese. Corbyn is watchful, patient, restrained and reticent. Lange was often reckless. A powerful orator with an acerbic wit, often directed against himself, his quips brought gusts of laughter and his gnomic thrusts winded his critics. Corbyn has none of Lange's ebullience. In Parliament, he comes across as a world-weary schoolteacher facing a rebellious class of teenagers. Yet, he has the power to tame them. Turning prime minister's question time into 'a people's question time', Corbyn regaled his smirking audience with the story of homeless Mathew. The class, of MPs, tittered. David Cameron appeared 'not to care', but Corbyn came back with 'but Matthew does'. Cameron, chastened, shot his supporters a withering look upon which they immediately assumed compassionate masks. (3) Lange, no doubt, would have had something contemptuous on the tip of his tongue in such a situation.

Wide appeal

There are several reasons for comparing Lange and Corbyn. Both leaders had wide appeal, as attractive to baby boomers as to the internet generation; like Lange, Corbyn had set up close, personal, communication with his electorate, except the latter has the advantage of the internet and smart phones. Their agendas, too, are remarkably similar: addressing poverty and exclusion, facing up to the establishment on tax and welfare reform and no more corporate...

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