The Corbyn-ite maneuver

September 23, 2015
The new leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn addresses the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in Brighton in southern England

The new leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn addresses the Trade Union Congress in Brighton, England, September 15, 2015. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Britain’s Labor Party, one of Europe’s oldest political groupings, has a claim to some distinction. It created a welfare state, including the National Health Service; was the main founder of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; brought in a raft of progressive policies, including legislation to end discrimination against gays and ethnic minorities; it advanced the cause of women’s rights and brought the murderous IRA campaign in Northern Ireland to an end.

It didn’t build Jerusalem, as the William Blake hymn its members like to sing pledged it to. It doesn’t keep the red flag flying anywhere any more (or it didn’t). It went through drear times, in the 1960s and 1970s, losing power at the end of the latter decade to a Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative party, which then held government for nearly 20 years. But it has usually been decent, liberal and fairly efficient, and (as the much-quoted saying goes) has owed more to Methodism than to Marxism. A moderate left party for a moderate people.

Then, earlier this month, the Labour Party elected a real socialist as leader. Jeremy Corbyn, 66, has been a member of parliament for over 30 years, and has been at the core of its (small) extreme left wing throughout. He has never held any ministerial office, or any executive post. Most of his fellow MPs disagree with most of his positions — which include nationalizing the railways and the energy companies, ordering the Bank of England to print money for investment, introducing rent controls and scrapping university fees.

In foreign policy, he’s closer to Trotsky than to the Labour Party. He wants to leave NATO and abolish the Trident submarine nuclear deterrent. He is close to Hamas and Hezbollah and hostile to Israel — and even more, to the United States. He dislikes the European Union and thinks NATO is to blame for the Russian advance into Ukraine.

So why did the 550,000 members of the venerable party elect this man? Faced with a choice of three candidates who were more or less centrist and uninspiring, they did as many of them do on Facebook: they “liked” the fourth candidate, Jeremy Corbyn. He has a plain speaking style, has held the same views for decades and paints a picture of a country where inequality is tackled, the poor risen up, the bankers and the rich punished and aggressive institutions like NATO cast loose. People don’t join the Labour Party to  make capitalism work better: they do so to made ordinary people’s lives better. With a bad beating in the election in May behind them, and more than four years of a Conservative government ahead of them, they clicked on the app for socialism. Corbyn was all about socialism being the answer, and ever has been — no ifs, no buts, and no problem.

No problem, that is, as long as he was on Parliament’s backbenches and enemies of the people like Tony Blair were betraying the Labour Party’s reason for existing. But in the first week in office, he was made to realize just how much of a problem his beliefs pose to his leadership. He turned up to his first official engagement — a memorial service for pilots killed during the Battle of Britain — and did not sing  “God Save the Queen”, the national anthem. He was crucified in the newspapers. His office later said he would sing it in future.

He has been a lifelong anti-monarchist republican:,but he said he would join the Privy Council, a mediaeval institution composed of senior politicians who advise the queen. To join he must kneel before Elizabeth II. He told one prospective shadow cabinet member he was against the UK remaining in the EU — and another he was for it: the present position seems to be that he is an enthusiast for the Union, and will campaign against the UK leaving it when the government holds a referendum on the issue, probably next year.

His shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, said that two of his leader’s most ardent desires – to leave NATO and scrap the Trident nuclear deterrent “would not happen.” Corbyn’s choice as shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, a man as hard to the left as he, apologized for having said some years ago that IRA members should have been “honored” for their struggle against Britain — and when he was about it, apologized for having said (as a joke) that Margaret Thatcher should have been assassinated.

Electing a straight-talking socialist wasn’t as straightforward as it looked. There’s rising bile both within and outside of the Labour Party against Corbyn. The Sunday Times reported that an un-named general has forecast an army revolt against him: and half the cabinet is said to be willing to support the government on airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria, anathema to their leader. If this goes on, he won’t be leader long. But if he is forced to resign, he will leave two legacies.

First, he was elected with 60 percent of the votes: some of those voting may have held extreme views, but most, probably not. As elsewhere in Europe and North America, the residue of anger against gross inequality, stagnant wages and insecurity at work appears large and may be increasing, even as growth returns again. Indeed, it may grow because growth is returning — as the fear of recession gives way to a more self-confident militancy.

Second, he presents those on the center left, social democrats and liberals, with a large question: What do you believe in? How do you propose to tackle poverty, insecurity, inequality, growing terrorism? What have you done to make the world safer, less ecologically fragile, more able to secure food and water for the many millions of the destitute and the terrified, now crowding into Europe’s ports and stations.

So will the popular movements founded in the 19th century to address gross inequalities in the 20th — such as trade unions and liberal and social democratic parties — find a role in the more complex 21st? Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the man to find out, since his leadership of Labor will be short and unsuccessful. But some movement must articulate the frustration and confront the threats — or the good life will become progressively worse.

5 comments

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A very jaded, cynical piece by a man who should know better! Every unexamined cliche about Jeremy Corbyn listed in a litany, without any thought given to the real meaning of this man’s rise, against all odds, to the leader of Labour. Shouldn’t the author be interested in who the mass of supporters are and what they are thinking, what moved them to support Jeremy C.in overwhelming numbers. With ideological blinders on, John Lloyd is missing the boat by miles, and is doomed to continue writing in this same manner, recycling empty “facts” about Jeremy Corbyn and predicting/wishing for his demise.

Posted by Helsinki37 | Report as abusive

An establishment journalist gives an establsihment view of Corbyn. The same view we’ve been hearing since Corbyn came out of nowhere: he’s a Troskyist, he’s a naive no-hoper, terrorist-lover etc, etc
The truth is that he’s what would have been termed a middle of the road left-winger before the rise of the far-right neoliberalism that has infiltrated many instituions of power across the globe in the last thirty years.
The alternative that he offers is what the people have been deprived of for many years and now they are seizing their chance at having their views represented.

Posted by McVitie | Report as abusive

The main problem is not with the election or ideas of Corbyn, its the fact that these are given any credence. The constant comments of his so called massive support is always touted as justification for his platform. The real truth is that this was on the back of labour activists (old and new) who are disillusioned by the parties move to the centre. In the real world if he is still around in 2020 his policy’s and beliefs will destroy the labour party for decades to come.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

“Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the man to find out, since his leadership of Labor will be short and unsuccessful.”

John, you should know better than most not to make such stubborn predictions. Who would have predicted a year ago that Jeremy Corbyn would be the Labour Leader?

Posted by KaiGalles | Report as abusive

The title of the piece didn’t hit me until the end. Excellent. Live long and prosper.

Posted by chicagohp | Report as abusive