Cuba on the Thames

LIVERPOOL, England — Forget Brexit, Britain could be on the cusp of a much bigger revolution.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn set out his vision for a socialist United Kingdom to his party’s annual conference Wednesday, marking a self-confident shift from opposing the Conservative government’s austerity policies to laying out a new program to replace them, building on the party’s popular — and populist — 2017 general election manifesto.

Corbyn’s fate greatly depends on the unfolding Brexit drama, expected to climax in the coming weeks as the U.K. pushes for a deal before its scheduled exit in March 2019. But the impact of a Corbyn government, should he assume the reins of power, could be much more significant.

While the prospect of a Corbyn government would likely make post-Brexit trade relations with Europe more straightforward in the short term, predictions of a socialist London have already set alarm bells ringing in Washington, according to U.S. officials asked to draw up memos for the State Department in case of another snap election this year.

Corbyn’s long-held opposition to Western military intervention, hostility to NATO, support for revolutionary Latin American regimes and life-long determination to scrap Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent could reshape the United Kingdom in much more fundamental ways than its exit from the European Union.

The problem facing May is that Corbyn’s ideas are popular, even if polling suggests he personally is not.

The party cannot trigger a general election — that power rests with the House of Commons and would need two-thirds of MPs to support it — but the more Prime Minister Theresa May gets ensnared by Brexit negotiations, the more likely it is that Corbyn may get his chance.

Corbyn promised a Britain in which the rich would be more heavily taxed, utilities and the railways would be nationalized, the government would invest in 400,000 jobs focused on tackling climate change, and large companies would be forced to give workers stakes of up to 10 percent and pay annual dividends to staff. He signaled Labour would end British backing for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, immediately recognize a Palestinian state, and tilt firmly away from the U.S. as a key ally.

“Labour’s ideas have caught ‘the mood of our time,’” Corbyn told the conference in his closing speech, adding wryly: “It isn’t me saying that — it’s a former Conservative Treasury minister, Lord [Jim] O’Neill. I’ve never sought to capture the mood of a Tory minister before, but let me say to his lordship: ‘You’re welcome. Come and join us in the new political mainstream.’”

Underpinning the Labour leadership’s confidence is a calculation that the shock Brexit referendum and the resulting political instability has fueled the appetite for a radically different approach to government.

The more ferociously the press responds to his policies the better, said one senior Corbyn aide | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, regarded by many in the party as the strategic power behind Corbyn’s popular appeal, was explicit in his speech to delegates on Monday. “The greater the mess we inherit, the more radical we have to be, the greater the need for change,” he said. “It’s time to shift the balance of power in our country. It’s time to give people back control over their lives.”

One lobbyist for a multinational company, who was struck by the new “professionalization” on display at the conference, remarked that the party’s rhetoric has become strikingly similar to that of the Leave campaign during the 2016 EU referendum.

“It’s all about taking back control,” the lobbyist said.

Corbyn’s new deal

The problem facing May is that Corbyn’s ideas are popular, even if polling suggests he personally is not.

The more ferociously the press responds to his policies the better, said one senior Corbyn aide. Attention from broadcasters and publishers hands the party free publicity for popular policies and perfect material for a fresh social media onslaught.

“You’ve got to make sure the Telegraph has [the announcement to double tax on second homes],” the aide said. “They think all their readers have second homes so will put it on the front.”

Prime Minister Corbyn would present a major challenge for U.S. foreign policy.

“It’s perfect,” the aide added. “It means more people are talking about you, and you wouldn’t believe how popular this stuff is.”

Corbyn’s closest aides believe there is an inevitability to Labour’s rise to power if they stay on this path and are not sidelined by Brexit.

Labour’s membership now numbers more than 500,000, making it by far the biggest U.K. political party. Against all mainstream predictions, support for the party surged in the 2017 election.

The Tories, far from alighting on a coherent response, are moving further away from the kind of “red Toryism” first offered by May, which Corbyn’s inner circle say is the greatest threat to them.

Instead, Corbyn’s team says, the Tories have retreated to safe, small-c conservatism and traditionally austere economics, which can only be propped up by flag-waving nationalism for so long.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at the commemorations on the first anniversary of the Grenfell fire | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

“The positive message for Labour is that there are two pillars to Brexit,” Labour Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer told a fringe meeting on Tuesday evening. “There is the deal with the EU: technical stuff. But there is the much bigger issue: What is the deal for Britain that is going to transform the country?”

“Do you think the reason [the Tories] got 42 percent is because all those extra people wanted incremental change?” said the senior Labour aide close to Corbyn said. “It’s ludicrous. They want Brexit, and whatever you think about Brexit, it is not incremental.”

“They want radical change and the Tories are offering more of the same,” the aide said.

Change at home and abroad

Prime Minister Corbyn would present a major challenge for U.S. foreign policy.

A Corbyn government, even Labour MPs admit, would all-but end the “special” security and military relationship between the U.S. and its pre-eminent ally.

One of Corbyn’s most senior advisers, Andrew Murray, gave a glimpse of the direction a Corbyn government would take in a pre-conference article for the New Statesman.

Murray, a committed Marxist and defender of the Soviet Union, said Corbyn’s foreign policy radicalism is anathema to “the establishment” in the U.K. and elsewhere.

This year, BP, Google, Visa, Bombardier and Fujitsu were all represented with stands at the Labour conference floor.

“They fear the popularity of Corbyn’s opposition to war, backing for global human rights and support for the Palestinian cause and their loss of control over the international narrative,” he wrote. “The powers-that-be can perhaps live with a re-nationalized water industry but not, it seems, with any challenge to their aggressive capacities, repeatedly deployed in disastrous wars, and their decaying Cold War world view.”

According to the Yorkshire Post, Labour ministers are devising plans to scrap Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent.

Labour would also completely overhaul Britain’s immigration system, turn its back on a close economic relationship with the U.S. in favor of sticking close to EU standards and possibly even hold a second referendum with the option of Britain remaining in the EU.

Labour’s radicalism is not confined to electoral politics. If they cannot force a general election next year, one MP — Crewe and Nantwich’s Laura Smith — has called for a crippling nationwide “general strike” to bring down the government.

Business takes note

That kind of talk would be expected to chase the British and international business lobbies into the arms of the traditional party of business, the Conservatives.

But as much as business leaders are wary of Corbyn and McDonnell’s plans for higher taxes and collective shareholding, they are equally, if not more, concerned about a hard Brexit.

The conference exhibition floor showed how seriously business is taking the prospect of a Labour government and how prepared they are to engage.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry and deputy leader Tom Watson applaud Corbyn | Oli Scraff/AFP via Getty Images

In 2015, during Corbyn’s first conference, lobbyists were conspicuously thin on the ground, uncertain of how to influence the most socialist Labour leadership in modern history. This year, BP, Google, Visa, Bombardier and Fujitsu were all represented with stands at the conference floor. PwC, Hitachi, Novartis and Cisco all hosted or co-hosted fringe events, and numerous others sent lobbyists keen to fix up meetings with members of a potential government-in-waiting.

“It reflects, frankly, the recognition that they could quite possibly be the government before long,” the multinational firm’s lobbyist said.

A second lobbyist for a business association said firms are getting clear advice from political consultants that a Labour government is a distinct possibility.

“It used to be that business lobbyists only knew the old Blairite and Brownite MPs [supporters of former leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown]. Now, though they may not like some of their plans, they’ve found that the Corbynistas are engaging, and they’re having an earnest exchange of views.”

Corbyn speaks on stage at the Glastonbury festival, June 2017| Ian Gavan/Getty Images

McDonnell’s office, and that of Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey, operate “much more of an open-door” policy than in previous years, the first lobbyist said.

Perhaps the best illustration of how things have changed comes from looking at the conference app, sponsored by energy firm E-On, which would likely be first in line for the scrapheap under Labour’s nationalization plan.

“What are they doing?” said one senior business figure. “They’re sponsoring the party that wants to scrap them. It just shows you how much has changed.”

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