Five years ago, Jeremy Corbyn was an obscure member of the British Parliament — someone on the far fringes of the Labour Party who was seen as less likely to attain power than Donald Trump was in the United States. With Labour’s defeat in the 2015 general election, Corbyn scrambled to obtain the necessary votes from his parliamentary colleagues to become a candidate for the leadership. His “ordinariness” and advocacy of a return to true socialism in place of New Labour neoliberalism helped him stand out from his bland opponents, who robotically repeated the mantra of the Tony Blair years.
Few of his parliamentary colleagues backed Corbyn, yet the party’s new membership system allowed in not only many enthusiastic young people keen to repair British society but also those on the far-left, who had been excluded from the party since 1918. They had instead found homes in the Communist Party, various Trotskyist sects, the Greens, and a variety of minuscule groups that treasured ideological purity. With their support, Corbyn demolished his opponents in a landslide victory. His strong views had struck a chord, particular among young people and party members, fed up with the perorations of the men in blue suits in a time of austerity. Despite being past normal retirement age, he was seen as the oracle of the future.
Unlike in other European countries, there has never been a viable far-left party in Britain; only the Labour Party attracted the working-class vote. Yet recent elections indicate a dramatic erosion of working-class support for Labour and a drift toward the anti-immigration, anti-European Union UK Independence Party. Corbyn and his supporters were in a prime position to take advantage of Labour’s disarray. They formed a bridge between Labour and the extraparliamentary British left. It also meant that they were willing to share a platform with those whose world outlook was regarded as politically repugnant and reactionary. Corbyn placed the greater good of uniting the left above any qualms about associating with politically controversial figures — especially when it came to matters of foreign policy.
The most pointed charge he faced was that of anti-Semitism. On the tortuous question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Corbyn never differentiated between Palestinian nationalists and Palestinian Islamists, attempting to unify support for the Palestinian cause even if it meant appearing on platforms with people of unsavory and sometimes anti-Semitic views. While believing that Zionism was a historical mistake, he finally accepted a two-state solution after he became party leader. Yet Corbyn has never said the Jews have a right to national self-determination — as do the Palestinians.
The broader problem of anti-Semitism was not taken seriously — even by the rank and file. A YouGov poll of party members in 2016 revealed that 49 percent of respondents believed Labour did not have a problem with anti-Semitism and that the issue was “created by the press and Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents to attack him.”
While Corbyn himself is no anti-Semite, his apparent willingness to turn a blind eye when anti-Zionism tipped over into anti-Semitism has had wider repercussions. Anti-racists and many long-term Labour Jews have either left the party or remained within it in terminal despair.
Although Corbyn has been severely criticized for his one-sided stand on Israel-Palestine, he has never acted as an intermediary between the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps. His position on the issue is part of a broader foreign-policy worldview that is narrow, selective, and myopic.
Upon attaining the leadership, Corbyn moved to cement his inner circle with comrades from the 1980s — several of whom had formed the pro-Kremlin faction of the Communist Party of Great Britain and others who had belonged to a variety of Trotskyist groups. Corbyn’s elite advisors were not “Old Labour” but instead recruits from the far-left outside the party. His close friend, Andrew Murray, who had worked for Novosti, the Soviet press agency in the 1980s, joined the Labour Party recently as a Corbyn advisor after 40 years as a stalwart of the Communist Party.
Corbyn’s foreign-policy views were forged during the era of decolonization in the 1960s, when he spent two years volunteering in Jamaica. It translated into an alignment with newly independent nations and support for groups perceived to be fighting for liberation. It meant sympathy for the Irish Republican Army in the 1980s and solidarity with the Palestinians during the 1990s and since. It also meant selective outrage — that Corbyn condemned only some injustices while on others he remained silent.
To this mixture, he added a touch of anti-Americanism and opposition to liberal interventionism. So, while he could condemn Saudi Arabia for its bombing of Yemen, he stayed silent on grassroots protests against corruption in Iran in late 2017.
Corbyn gave a speech following the suicide bombing last year at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, U.K., criticizing the West’s war on terror. He linked liberal interventionism — in this case, Britain’s intervention against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces in Libya in 2011 — with the attack in Manchester by a jihadi of Libyan origin. It reflected his long-held views that “the war on terror is simply not working.”
On the far-left, there is an admiration for countries such as China and Cuba that have taken multitudes of people out of poverty, provided them with education and health care, and attempted to close the gap between the rich and poor. Yet there is an accompanying silence on the state persecution, imprisonment, and often exile of dissenters who wish to explore a different narrative. Despite the hunger queues in Caracas, Corbyn has praised the policies of Venezuela’s autocratic president, Nicolás Maduro, and expressed his admiration for the late Hugo Chávez.
In a Trump-worthy feat of moral equivocation, Corbyn blamed the recent violence on all sides and has had little to say about the fate of Maduro’s imprisoned dissenters.
Corbyn’s longtime friend, the former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, has a record of making insensitive anti-Semitic comments. In 2016, he implied that Adolf Hitler supported Zionism despite research by eminent academics that indicates the opposite. Livingstone’s public pronouncements spoke of “collaboration” and “collaborators” — a term that conjures images of Vichy France and Quisling Norway. The insinuation was that Zionists had somehow worked with the Nazis, not to rescue Jews but because they quietly approved of Hitler’s revolution in German society. While Livingstone was clearly an embarrassment to most Labour members, he was suspended from the party and not expelled.
Last week, the far-left took control of the Labour National Executive Committee. One of its first acts was to remove the longtime chair of the party’s disputes panel. The fear is that many of those suspended for alleged anti-Semitism, such as Livingstone, will now be readmitted to the party and the issue glossed over permanently.
When Corbyn first became the Labour leader, many Conservative Party activists were delighted. They believed that Corbyn would be an albatross around Labour’s neck when Theresa May called an election in June 2017. Yet these were uncertain times with the quicksand of Brexit negotiations, Trump in the White House, and a host of authoritarian figures walking the world’s stage. May proved to be an aloof politician fighting a lackluster campaign. In contrast, Corbyn promised a socialist bounty of heaven on earth, a message that was amplified by his social media-savvy young enthusiasts, changing the public perception of him from colorless and peripheral to bold and prophetic.
In part, this had been achieved by a populist election manifesto that argued for taking back utilities such as the railways and water into public ownership, greater funding for the National Health Service, tighter control over big business, more public housing, and hints about the abolition of tuition fees at universities. This brought back many voters who had previously deserted Labour. It conveyed traditional Labour values, and the manifesto’s message was warmly received.
Yet foreign policy in a period of deprivation and bewilderment became a secondary concern for many. Now, as May’s government sways from crisis to crisis and her standing in the polls plummets, Corbyn’s is rising. Only the fear of a far-left Corbyn government rallies Conservative support and prevents total disintegration.
For many who demand radical changes at home, Corbyn is the messiah for whom they have waited a lifetime. His defense of autocrats, and ambivalence on Brexit, however is a throwback to the bad old days of the Cold War. It lacks any scintilla of socialist morality and is a betrayal of Labour values. Such a foreign-policy vision will prove to be catastrophic and signal a closing of the progressive mind to those who expect solidarity and support from Britain.
Foreign Policy 26 January 2018