Corbyn's Politics Belongs in the Past
I wrote for the University of Chicago’s political review about Jeremy Corbyn and how he is not the right person to make the case for socialism. Both his and his followers’ politics involve an open embrace of autocrats and an intolerant rhetoric that are both the opposite of progressive and poison the party’s image.
Read it here, or click here to see its source
Following a demoralising defeat in the Britain’s 2015 general election, many in the Labour Party felt they needed to shake the neoliberal image the party had adopted during the Tony Blair years. Following the toxic Iraq War, the disastrous financial crisis, and a controversial center-right coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the time was ripe for Jeremy Corbyn to latch onto the Labour Party leadership.
Before he became Labour leader, Corbyn was just a backbench MP whose main claim to fame during his three decades in Parliament was winning the Parliamentary Beard of the Year award five times. Indeed, he is a big fan of jam-making, apple-picking, and manhole-spotting, and his blandness was a welcome change from the repetitive New Labour mantras that still echoed in the halls of Whitehall years after Blair’s resignation.
Corbyn lacked support from his parliamentary colleagues in 2015 but still won due to the party’s new membership system. The new “one person, one vote” system was introduced by former leader Ed Miliband, and meant that Members of Parliament and trade unions had equal voting power to ordinary members. Not only did the new setup mean an influx of energetic young people were able to vote, but it also allowed members of the far left—excluded from the party since 1918—to show their support for Corbyn. Corbyn’s entry into the leadership race prompted a flock of people to join the party for as little as £3 and effectively hold the Labour Party hostage. Having campaigned on the promise to stand up to those who’d lounged around in suits during a rule of austerity, Corbyn was announced as the winner of the leadership election in September 2015. A man who hadn’t changed his politics for thirty years was suddenly in charge of the Labour Party’s future.
Corbyn’s new-found spot in the public eye shone a light on his incompetency, especially at the weekly Prime Minister’s Question Time. PMQs are a televised parliamentary event in which the opposition leader is given the opportunity to hold the leader of the country to account for the whole nation to see, but it didn’t take long for Corbyn to be reduced to a punching bag for David Cameron, who was prime minister at the time. In one quip that was met with cheers, Cameron referenced the film Back to the Future and told Corbyn and his policies to “get in his DeLorean, go back to 1985, and stay there.” Admittedly, Corbyn did improve over time, but his reputation was already set in stone for most.
More importantly, however, the spotlight has shone on Corbyn’s past and a politics that had previously been consigned to the dusty backbenches of Parliament. Corbyn became the link between mainstream and far-left fringe views, and this brought with it repellent and reactionary politics. Corbyn preaches the slogan “Kinder, gentler politics” yet exhibits the exact opposite. In particular, Corbyn’s associations with abhorrent anti-Semites and anti-Westerners made his self-given position on the moral high ground questionable, if not positively absurd.
For example, Ken Livingstone, a close friend of Corbyn and the former Mayor of London, has a long history of anti-Semitic comments. In 2016, Livingstone made commentssuggesting Hitler had supported Zionism—an assertion disproved by many academics. Corbyn was criticised for his handling of Livingstone, who—much to the disgust of the nation—was merely suspended from Corbyn’s Labour Party rather than expelled. This came at a time when left-wing trolls associated with Momentum, the movement widely credited with Corbyn’s leadership victory, were at the center of a media storm for their aggression towards anyone—even those within the party—who spoke out against the Labour leader.
Corbyn’s foreign policy is premised on anti-interventionism and support for liberation groups. During the 1980s his allegiance fell on the side of the Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army—the latter being a paramilitary organisation infamous for its belief that political violence was the best way to achieve an independent Irish republic. This led him to share a platform with Gerry Adams, who has links with the IRA, and speak at events honouring dead IRA terrorists and commemorating active “soldiers of the IRA.” Since the 1990s it has meant support for Palestine. This in and of itself is certainly not a questionable position to take, but Corbyn took this sympathy further and decided to call groups Hamas and Hezbollah—listed as terrorists by both the EU and America—“friends” in 2009. It took him eight years to express regret over those comments made in Parliament.
His anti-interventionism has laced his politics with a heavy dose of anti-Americanism and led him to denounce some injustices yet remain quietly complicit on others. For instance, Corbyn has regularly looked towards Cuba and China in admiration of policies that have provided people with health care and education, yet he has conveniently overlooked state persecutions and imprisonment of exiles in the same countries. Similarly, Corbyn has had little to say about the imprisonment of dissenters against Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Rather, he’s made his admiration of the late Hugo Chavez well-known and praised Maduro’s authoritarian policies. It is noteworthy that post-Chavez, Venezuela has gone from the richest nation in South America to a country with murder rates equivalent to the civilian casualty rate during the Iraq war, and where three quarters of citizens report involuntary weight loss of around nineteen pounds per year due to the infamous “Maduro diet.”
The problem is not that Corbyn questions mainstream views. Examining the merits of interventionism is important, and so is questioning policies that have become the norm. Although Blairism was a winning formula before, Labour is right to distance itself from it. And perhaps socialism is the best position for the party to take. However, Corbyn is not the right person to make the case for socialism. Both his and his followers’ politics involve an open embrace of autocrats and an intolerant rhetoric that are both the opposite of progressive and poison the party’s image. That’s why, rather than place Corbyn’s politics on a moral pedestal, we should leave it in the history books as a lesson to learn from.