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Is the UK ready for a socialist leader?

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Justin Tallis | AFP | Getty Images

An outsider from the Labour Party's far left-wing is storming ahead in opinion polls, sparking talk that after Greece and Spain, the U.K. could be the latest European country to see a resurgence of the radical left under austerity.

The U.K.'s center-left opposition party has been left rudderless since Ed Miliband fell on his sword after the disastrous May election campaign. In the race for the Labour leadership, Jeremy Corbyn, a politician from the party's far left who has been an MP for 30 years without becoming a serious contender for high office, has emerged from seemingly nowhere as the frontrunner ahead of his more centrist -- and some say blander -- colleagues.


The only poll published so far, by YouGov, suggests that he has a 17 point lead on the next most popular candidate, former minister Andy Burnham.

Corbyn's policies include rowing back on austerity and scrapping the Trident nuclear weapons system. He famously opposed the Iraq war and has also referred to the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah as "our friends". He was also one of the few U.K. politicians publicly in communication with Irish Republican Army leaders during the 1980s, even after the IRA bombed the Conservative Party conference in 1984. Corbyn was ahead of his time in campaigning for the anti-apartheid movement and the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, later found to have been victims of miscarriages of U.K. justice.


Is his apparently growing popularity a sign that the Labour Party is returning to its left-wing roots? If the swell in support translates into a win, it would be part of a resurgence in more socialist values in Europe, after years where left-wing parties moved to the center ground. If the electoral success of Syriza in Greece is joined by growing support for Podemos in Spain in elections later this year, it suggests a new appetite for socialism in the European electorate.

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, said during a speech in London this week: "I am not surprised at all that there is a demand for a strong anti-austerity movement around increased concern about inequality. The promises of New Labour in the UK and of the Clintonites in the US have been a disappointment."

Corbyn's success may be part of an identity crisis within Labour, which according to polls had been in with a chance of leading a coalition government in May. The party was "smashed to smithereens" by the election results, which saw the Conservatives able to govern by themselves for the first time in nearly two decades, according to Mike Smithson, who runs the Political Betting website.

"The shock of the loss, when many, including me, believed that they were in with a real chance of returning to power, was worse than if the party had been predicted to lose," he told CNBC.

But is Corbyn's meteoric rise in the Labour leadership race a true reflection of the broader UK population? There has been a reported uptick in Labour Party membership since the election, leading some to fear that those signing up are in fact Conservative Party supporters who want to ensure that the Leader of the Opposition is less palatable to the population as a whole.

"That Corbyn is evidently a serious runner (the evidence of the constituency nominations and union support cannot simply be ignored) tells us as much about the (already evident) inability (much like former leader Ed Miliband) of the three other candidates to inspire Labour members (let alone anyone else), as it does about Corbyn's own merits." John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, who was the first pollster to call the general election results accurately, told CNBC.

Yet Smithson cautions against accepting poll results, particularly in light of the failure of pollsters to predict May's election outcome.

"It's extraordinarily difficult to poll in this case, and the recent records aren't very good," he said.

Ultimately, it may still come down to who might win a general election, and former ministers Yvette Cooper, Burnham, or Liz Kendall, viewed as the most business-friendly candidate, are still contesting the leadership election aggressively.

"Most Labour voters want a winner, and Corbyn isn't someone that looks like he could win an election," Smithson said.

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle