The Portents of Labour’s Extreme New Leader
In October 2015, the American novelist Jonathan Franzen gave a talk in London in which he expressed pleasure that Jeremy Corbyn had just been elected leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party. To his evident surprise, Franzen’s endorsement was met with only scattered applause and then an embarrassed silence.
Most of Franzen’s audience were the same sort of people likely to attend a Franzen talk in New York: Upper-middle-class bien-pensant Guardian readers who revile the name Thatcher the way a New York Times home-delivery subscriber reviles the name Reagan. For them, as for most Labour members of Parliament, the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn offers little to celebrate. Indeed, it looks a lot like a disaster—a bizarre and potentially devastating epilogue to the shocking rout of the Labour Party at the May 2015 general election.
Franzen probably imagined Corbyn as a kind of British Bernie Sanders, a supposedly lovable old coot-crank leftie willing to speak truth to power—and so assumed that any British metropolitan liberal audience would be packed with his fans. In fact, for all the obvious parallels between the two men, Corbyn is a very different kind of politician working in a very different system and for very different goals. Sanders may call himself a socialist, but he is relatively mainstream next to Corbyn, an oddball and an extremist even in the eyes of many British socialists.
It may seem extraordinary that a party most observers and pollsters were sure would be brought back to power in 2015—and that has long enjoyed the unofficial support of much of the UK’s media, marketing, and arts establishments—now looks to be on the verge of disintegration. But even if no one a year ago could have predicted the takeover of the party by an uncharismatic extreme-left backbencher with a fondness for terrorists and anti-Semites, the Labour Party might well be collapsing due to economic and social changes that have exposed its own glaring internal contradictions.The first stage of Labour’s meltdown was its unexpected defeat at the general election in May 2015. The experts and the polls had all predicted a hung Parliament and the formation of a coalition government led by Labour’s then-leader, Ed Milliband. But Labour lost 26 seats, was wiped out by nationalists in its former heartland of Scotland, and won less than 30 percent of the popular vote. The Liberal Democrats, the third party with whom Milliband had hoped to form a coalition, did far worse. Meanwhile the populist, anti-EU, anti-mass immigration, UK Independence Party (UKIP) won only one seat in the House of Commons but scored votes from some 3 million people—and took many more voters from Labour than from the Tories.
Milliband’s complacency about and ignorance of the concerns of ordinary working-class people played a major role in the defeat. So did his failure to contest the charge that Labour’s spendthrift ways under Tony Blair had made the 2008 financial crisis and recession much worse. Perhaps even more devastating was the widespread fear in England that Milliband would make a deal with Scottish nationalists that would require concessions such as getting rid of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. He had promised that he would never do this, but much of the public seemed to doubt the word of a man so ambitious to be prime minister that he had stabbed his own brother in the back. (David Milliband was set to take over the leadership of the party in 2010 when his younger brother, Ed, decided to challenge him from the left with the help of the party’s trade unionists.)
In the old industrial heartlands of the North and Midlands, Labour seemed at last to be paying a price for policies on immigration and social issues anathematic to many in the old British working class. As a workers’ party as well as a socialist party, and one that draws on a Methodist as well as a Marxist tradition, Labour has always had to accommodate some relatively conservative, traditional, and even reactionary social and political attitudes prevalent among the working classes (among them affection for the monarchy). Today the cultural divisions within the party between middle class activists, chattering class liberals, ethnic minority leaders, and the old working class can no longer be papered over.
With the ascension of Tony Blair to the leadership of the party in 1994, Labour began to pursue certain policies practically designed to alienate and drive out traditional working-class Labour voters and replace them not only with ordinary Britons who had grown tired of the nearly two-decade rule of the Tories but also with upper-middle-class opinion leaders attracted to multiculturalism and other fashionable enthusiasms.
One can even make a kind of quasi-Marxian argument that as the Labour Party has become more bourgeois over the decades, the more it has engaged in what amounts to conscious or unconscious class warfare against the working class it is supposed to represent. One of the first blows it struck was the abolition of the “grammar schools” (selective high schools similar to those of New York City) on the grounds that they were a manifestation of “elitism,” even though these schools gave millions of bright working-class children a chance to go to top universities. Then there was “slum clearance,” which resulted in the breakup and dispersal of strong working-class communities as residents were rehoused in high-rise tower blocks that might have been designed to encourage social breakdown and predation by teenage criminals. But the ultimate act of Labour anti-proletarianism came after the Party was recovering from the defection of working-class voters to Thatcherism and its gospel of opportunity and aspiration. This was the opening of the UK’s borders to mass immigration on an unprecedented scale by Tony Blair’s New Labour. Arguably this represented an attempt to break the indigenous working class both economically and culturally; inevitably, it was accompanied by a demonization of the unhappy indigenous working class as xenophobic and racist.
In the 2015 general election, many classic working-class Labour voters apparently couldn’t bring themselves to betray their tribe and vote Tory—but were comfortable voting for UKIP. This proved disastrous for Labour, which had once been able to count on the support of some two-thirds of working-class voters. But these cultural changes made it impossible for Labour to hold on to its old base in the same numbers. And its new base—the “ethnic” (read: Muslim) vote, a unionized public sector that is no longer expanding, and the middle-class liberals and leftists who populate the creative industries and the universities—is simply not large enough.
Labour should have won the election in 2015; it lost because of its own internal contradictions. Out of the recriminations and chaos that followed the defeat, there emerged Jeremy Corbyn.
To understand who Corbyn is and what he stands for, it helps to be familiar with the fictional character Dave Spart, a signature creation of the satirical magazine Private Eye. Spart is a parody of a left-wing activist with a beard and staring eyes and a predilection for hyperbole, clueless self-pity, and Marxist jargon, which spews forth from his column, “The Alternative Eye.” (He’s like a far-left version of Ed Anger, the fictional right-wing lunatic whose column graced the pages of the Weekly World News supermarket tabloid for decades.) A typical Spart column starts with a line like “The right-wing press have utterly, totally, and predictably unleashed a barrage of sickening hypocrisy and deliberate smears against the activities of a totally peaceful group of anarchists, i.e., myself and my colleagues.”
The 66-year-old Corbyn is the Ur-Spartist. He has always preferred marches and protests and speeches to more practical forms of politics. He was a member of Parliament for 32 years without ever holding any sort of post that would have moved him from the backbenches of the House of Commons to the front. During those three-plus decades, he has voted against his own party more than 500 times. Corbyn only escaped being “deselected” by Tony Blair—the process by which a person in Parliament can be removed from standing for his seat by his own party—because he was deemed harmless.
Many of Corbyn’s obsessions concern foreign policy. He is a bitter enemy of U.S. “imperialism,” a longtime champion of Third World revolutionary movements, and a sympathizer with any regime or organization, no matter how brutal or tyrannical, that claims to be battling American and Western hegemony. Corbyn was first elected to Parliament in 1983, and many of his critics in the Labour Party say he has never modified the views he picked up from his friends in the Trotskyite left as a young activist.
This is not entirely true, because Corbyn, like so much of the British left, has adapted to the post–Cold War world by embracing new enemies of the West and its values—in particular, those whom Christopher Hitchens labeled “Islamofascists.”
One of the qualities that sets spartists like Corbyn apart from their American counterparts is an almost erotic attraction to Islamism. They are fascinated rather than repelled by its call to violent jihad against the West. This is more than anti-Americanism or a desire to win support in Britain’s ghettoized Muslim communities. It is the newest expression of the cultural and national self-loathing that is such a strong characteristic of much progressive opinion in Anglo-Saxon countries—and which underlies much of the multiculturalist ideology that governs this body of opinion.
As a result, many on the British left today seem to have an astonishing ability to overlook, excuse, or even celebrate reactionary and atavistic beliefs and practices ranging from the murder of blaspheming authors to female genital mutilation. Corbyn has long been at the forefront of this tendency, not least in his capacity as longtime chair of Britain’s Stop the War Coalition. STWC is a pressure group that was founded to oppose not the war in Iraq but the war in Afghanistan. It was set up on September 21, 2001, by the Socialist Workers’ Party, with the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain as junior partners. STWC supported the “legitimate struggle” of the Iraqi resistance to the U.S.-led coalition; declines to condemn Russian intervention in Syria and Ukraine; actively opposed the efforts of democrats, liberals, and civil-society activists against the Hussein, Assad, Gaddafi, and Iranian regimes; and has a soft spot for the Taliban.
Corbyn’s career-long anti-militarism goes well beyond the enthusiasm for unilateral nuclear disarmament that was widespread in and so damaging to the Labour Party in the 1980s, and which he still advocates today. He has called for the United Kingdom to leave NATO, argued against the admission to the alliance of Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, and more recently blamed the Ukrainian crisis on NATO provocation. In 2012, he apparently endorsed the scrapping of Britain’s armed forces in the manner of Costa Rica (which has a police force but no military).
As so often with the anti-Western left, however, Corbyn’s dislike of violence and military solutions mostly applies only to America and its allies. His pacifism—and his progressive beliefs in general—tend to evaporate when he considers a particular corner of the Middle East.
Indeed, Corbyn is an enthusiastic backer of some of the most violent, oppressive, and bigoted regimes and movements in the world. Only three weeks after an IRA bombing at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984 came close to killing Prime Minister Thatcher and wiping out her entire cabinet, Corbyn invited IRA leader Gerry Adams and two convicted terrorist bombers to the House of Commons. Neil Kinnock, then the leader of Labour and himself very much a man of the left, was appalled.
Corbyn is also an ardent supporter of the Chavistas who have wrecked Venezuela and thrown dissidents in prison. It goes almost without saying that he sees no evil in the Castro-family dictatorship in Cuba, and for a progressive he seems oddly untroubled by the reactionary attitudes of Vladimir Putin’s repressive, militarist kleptocracy in Russia.
Then we come to his relationship with Palestinian extremists and terrorists. A longtime patron of Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Committee, Corbyn described it as his “honor and pleasure” to host “our friends” from Hamas and Hezbollah in the House of Commons. If that weren’t enough, he also invited Raed Salah to tea at the House of Commons, even though the Palestinian activist whom Corbyn called “an honored citizen…who represents his people very well” has promoted the blood libel that Jews drink the blood of non-Jewish children. These events prompted a condemnation by Sadiq Khan MP, the Labour candidate for London’s mayoralty and a Muslim of Pakistani origin, who said that Corbyn’s support for Arab extremists could fuel anti-Semitic attacks in the UK.
That was no unrepresentative error. As Britain’s Jewish Chronicle also pointed out this year, Corbyn attended meetings of a pro-Palestinian organization called Deir Yassin Remembered. The group is run by the notorious Holocaust denier Paul Eisen. He is also a public supporter of the Reverend Stephen Sizer, a Church of England vicar notorious for promoting material on social media suggesting 9/11 was a Jewish plot.
Corbyn’s defense has been to say that he meets a lot of people who are concerned about the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with their views. The obvious flaw of this dishonest argument is that Corbyn doesn’t make a habit of meeting either pro-Zionists or the Arab dissidents or Muslim liberals who are fighting against tyranny, terrorism, misogyny, and cruelty. And it was all too telling when, in an effort to clear the air, Corbyn addressed the Labour Friends of Israel without ever using the word Israel. It may not be the case that Corbyn himself is an anti-Semite—of course he denies being one—but he is certainly comfortable spending lots of quality time with them.
How could such a person become the leader of one of the world’s most august political parties? It took a set of peculiar circumstances. In the first place, he only received the requisite number of nominations from his fellow MPs to make it possible for him to stand for leader after the resignation of Ed Milliband because some foolish centrists thought his inclusion in the contest would “broaden the debate” and make it more interesting. They had not thought through the implications of a new election system that Milliband had put in place. An experiment in direct democracy, the new system shifted power from the MPs to the members in the country.
The party’s membership had shrunk over the years (as has that of the Tory Party), and so to boost its numbers, Milliband and his people decided to shift to a system in which new members could obtain a temporary membership in the party and take part in the vote for only £3 ($5). More than 100,000 did so. They included thousands of hard-left radicals who regard the Labour Party as a pro-capitalist sell-out. (They also included some Tories, encouraged by columnists like the Telegraph’s Toby Young, who urged his readers to vote for Corbyn in order to make Labour unelectable.) The result was a landslide for Corbyn.
Labour’s leadership was outplayed. The failure was in part generational. There is hardly anyone left in Labour who took part in or even remembers the bitter internal struggle in the late ’40s to find and exclude Communist and pro-Soviet infiltrators—one of the last great Labour anti-Communists, Denis Healey, died this October. (This was so successful that the British Trotskyite movement largely abandoned any attempt to gain power in Westminster, choosing instead to focus on infiltrating the education system in order to change the entire culture.) By the time Corbyn took over, most of Labour’s “modernizers”—those who had participated in the takeover of the party leadership by Tony Blair and his rival and successor Gordon Brown—had never encountered real Stalinists or Trotskyists and lacked the fortitude and ruthless skill to do battle with them.
Unfortunately for the centrists and modernizers, many of Corbyn’s people received their political education in extreme-left political circles, so brutal internal politics and fondness for purges and excommunications are (as Eliza Doolittle said) “mother’s milk” to them. For example: Corbyn’s right-hand men, John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone, were closely linked to a Trotskyite group called the Workers Revolutionary Party. The WRP was a deeply sinister political cult that included among its promoters not only the radical actors Vanessa and Corin Redgrave but also the directors of Britain’s National Theatre. Its creepy leader Gerry Healy was notorious for beating and raping female members of his party and took money from Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.
Most people in British politics, and especially most British liberals, had fallen prey to the comforting delusion that the far left had disappeared—or that what remained of it was simply a grumpy element of Labour’s base rather than a devoted and deadly enemy of the center-left looking for an opportunity to go to war. As Nick Cohen, the author of What’s Left: How the Left Lost Its Way, has pointed out, this complacent assumption enabled the centrists to act as if they had no enemies to the left. Now they know otherwise.
Another reason for the seemingly irresistible rise of Corbyn and his comrades is what you might call Blair Derangement Syndrome. It is hard for Americans and other foreigners to understand what a toxic figure the former prime minister has become in his own country. Not only is he execrated in the UK more than George W. Bush is in the U.S., Blair is especially hated by his own party and on the left generally. It is a hatred that is unreasoning and fervid in almost exact proportion to the adoration he once enjoyed, and it feels like the kind of loathing that grows out of betrayed love. Those in the Labour Party who can’t stand Blair have accordingly rejected many if not all of the changes he wrought and the positions he took. And so, having eschewed Blairism, they were surprised when they lost two elections in a row to David Cameron—who, though a Tory, is basically Blair’s heir.
Blair is detested not because he has used his time after leaving office to pursue wealth and glamour and has become a kind of fixer for corrupt Central Asian tyrants and other unsavory characters. Rather, it is because he managed to win three general elections in a row by moving his party to the center. Those victories and 12 years in office forced the left to embrace the compromises of governance without having much to show for it. This, more than Blair’s enthusiasm for liberal interventionism or his role in the Iraq war or even his unwavering support of Israel during the 2008 Gaza war, drove the party first to select the more leftist of the two Milliband brothers and now hand the reins to Corbyn.
He expressed unease at the assassination by drone strike of the infamous British ISIS terrorist “Jihadi John.” Corbyn said it would have been “far better” had the beheader been arrested and tried in court. (He did not say how he envisaged Jihadi John ever being subject to arrest, let alone concede that such a thing could happen only due to military action against ISIS, which he opposes).
Corbyn’s reaction to the Paris attacks prompted fury from the right and despair in his own party. He seemed oddly unmoved and certainly not provoked to any sort of anger by the horror. Indeed, he lost his chance to score some easy points against Prime Minister Cameron’s posturing. Cameron, trying to play tough in the wake of military and policing cuts, announced that British security forces would now “shoot to kill” in the event of a terrorist attack in the UK—as if the normal procedure would be to shoot to wound. Any normal Labour leader of the last seven decades would have taken the prime minister to task for empty rhetoric while reminding the public of Labour’s traditional hard stance against terrorism in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Instead, Corbyn bleated that he was “not happy” with a shoot-to-kill policy. It was “quite dangerous,” he declared. “And I think can often be counterproductive.”
They concede that there is little chance of Corbyn’s ever winning over the 2–3 million swing voters of “middle England” who have decided recent elections. But they worry that in a rerun of the leadership election, Corbyn might be able to recruit a million or more new, young voters who have no memory of the Cold War, let alone Labour’s failures in the 1970s, and who think that he is offering something fresh and new.
It might not only be naive young people who would vote for Corbyn despite his apparent lack of parliamentary or leadership skills. In Britain, there is a growing disdain for, and distrust of, slick professional politicians—and for good reason. It’s not hard to seem sincere or refreshingly possessed of genuine political convictions if you’re going up against someone like David Cameron, who even more than Tony Blair can exude cynicism, smugness, and a branding executive’s patronizing contempt for the public. The fact that Corbyn is relatively old and unglamorous might also play in his favor; the British public is tired of glib, photogenic, boyish men. Corbyn and McDonnell are “an authentic alternative to the focus-group-obsessed poll-driven policies of the Blair days,” Cohen writes—but it is an authenticity based in “authentic far-left prejudices and hypocrisies.” Those prejudices and hypocrisies could sound a death knell for Britain’s historic role in advancing the Western idea—an idea that is, in large measure, this country’s greatest achievement.