Thirty years ago I covered politics for a local newspaper in a prosperous patch of north London. Among the seven parliamentary constituencies within the paper’s circulation area was one that had been recently captured by a bearded young Labour hard-liner named Jeremy Corbyn, who always returned my calls. Even in those days of vicious factional struggle for the soul of the Labour Party, he seemed something of a fringe figure, with anachronistic economic views and admiration for a motley collection of leftist international causes.
By the time Tony Blair had guided Labour back to the political center and into power in the 1990s, Mr. Corbyn appeared a total irrelevance. He was the most rebellious member of Parliament, one who spent much of his time churning out columns for a Communist newspaper and speaking to sparsely attended meetings about American imperialist outrages.
Yet in perhaps the strangest twist in modern British politics, this left-winger, now 66, finds himself at the helm of a youth movement that may sweep him to the head of the Labour Party when the summer-long leadership election results are revealed on Sept. 12. To call this a surprise would be massive understatement. Labour lost a general election in May because it was seen as too militant. Mr. Corbyn stood for the party’s leadership only reluctantly as the hard left’s token candidate. At first he struggled to find enough supporters to make the ballot, and was written off by bookmakers as a 100-1 shot.
But like Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential race, Mr. Corbyn has electrified disenchanted young voters, leading to a surge in support for his antiquated brand of socialism. New members have flocked to join the party, while his rallies overflow with fans enthralled by his “authenticity.”
Not everyone is thrilled. Tony Blair, the only Labour leader to win a general election in more than four decades, says that Mr. Corbyn’s politics threaten to result in the party’s annihilation. Mr. Corbyn is a pacifist who favors Britain’s withdrawal from NATO, has appeared at events with anti-Semites and who called the killing of Osama bin Laden a “tragedy,” because “there was no attempt whatsoever that I can see to arrest him and put him on trial.” He has equated the atrocities of Islamic State to the actions of American troops in Iraq, said that Russia was provoked into invading Ukraine, eulogized Hugo Chávez’s awful regime in Venezuela, and referred to his “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah.
The contest for the Labour leadership has been streaked with farce from the start. The party’s rules require candidates to be nominated by 35 members of Parliament, but Mr. Corbyn struggled to find enough support. As the deadline approached in mid-June he was helped by foolish rivals, who publicly said they sought to broaden the debate by including discussion of this strand of anti-austerity politics, but who privately thought that his antics would hand the hard left a crushing defeat.
Then Labour’s attempt to widen its membership backfired. New rules allow supporters to register and vote in the leadership election for a fee of £3—less than $5—allowing infiltration by ultra-lefties and mischievous right-wingers.
When Mr. Corbyn’s candidacy began to gain momentum, one of Mr. Blair’s closest allies tried to persuade the three other candidates to withdraw, which would have invalidated the contest.
Several prominent Labour members of Parliament have ruled out serving under Mr. Corbyn, and there are fears of schism within the party. For many insiders this raises uncomfortable parallels with the early 1980s, when Labour was thrown into chaos by the rise of Margaret Thatcher and brutal internal battles with a resurgent left.
In 1980, Michael Foot, another veteran left-winger from North London, was elected the party’s leader. His 1983 election manifesto, which demanded widespread nationalization and unilateral nuclear disarmament, was called by one senior party figure “the longest suicide note in history.” Shortly after Foot (who died in 2010) took the reins, 28 members of Parliament defected to form a new centrist party. Yet Foot—an admired author, orator and intellectual—was moderate compared with Mr. Corbyn.
For all Mr. Corbyn’s militancy, he is no ranting demagogue. He is a mild-mannered and frugal man with a very English fondness for making jam from fruit grown in his garden allotment. But he is also so doctrinaire that he split up with his second wife over sending one of their children to (her choice) a traditional grammar school, which selects on academic ability, and (his more egalitarian choice) a nonselective school, known as a comprehensive.
Mr. Corbyn’s rise reflects the quandary facing a party that once gave voice to organized labor but now lacks a broader message. It also underlines divisions over the legacy of Mr. Blair and the Iraq war. The May election showed starkly how the party has been outflanked on the left by nationalists in its former Scottish heartland and on the right by the Conservatives in much of England. Mr. Corbyn offers a reassuring comfort blanket, with nostalgic demands for state ownership of utilities and his claims that he can conjure up £213 billion by cracking down on tax avoidance and cutting corporate subsidies.
If the polls are right, this man might soon be only one step from 10 Downing Street. Given the volatility of Western democratic politics, this is alarming—especially since the looming referendum on European Union membership threatens to exacerbate long-standing divisions in the Conservative Party.
Labour’s leadership election has been farcical, but there is nothing funny about Mr. Corbyn’s rise for his party, his nation or its allies around the world.