The World | Grace McLoughlin
The outbreak of ‘Corbynmania’ in 2015 surprised almost everyone in and around the British political establishment -- including, it appeared, Jeremy Corbyn himself. Corbyn’s wave of support steadily increased, with Labour increasing its seat share in the House of Commons by 30 in the snap general election in June 2017, a 9.6% swing. Labour under Corbyn appeared not only to be ascendent -- it was touted as revolutionary, and trendy too. Corbyn, who had been a controversial backbencher for decades, had suddenly come into his own, completely re-writing Labour’s political and economic playbook of the Blairite years, and of those who came after. A strong political campaigner, it has stood to Corbyn that he can draw crowds and chants at Glastonbury, and looks well on a Christmas jumper. He provides a message of hope and a symbol of change for those who are disillusioned with the political alternatives or ‘establishment politics’. However, there is a strong argument to be made that Corbyn’s most prosperous days are behind him, and that the events of spring / summer 2018 have exposed him as unsuitable for the office of Prime Minister.
The first alarm bells sounded in March, with the Skripal poisoning. Theresa May, in the early days of the affair, acknowledged that the poisoning may have resulted from Russian military-grade nerve agents falling into the wrong hands. However, the reaction (or lack of one) from the Russian state to questions from the UK made clear that they were not interested in cooperating in an investigation into the cause. Corbyn provoked outrage from many in his party, in his call for a “calm, measured” approach from the UK, avoiding “hasty judgments that could lead to a new cold war”. Rather than focussing on unilateral measures, Corbyn argued that the UK should act multilaterally via the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. With his history of opposing NATO, Corbyn was accused of using the affair to further his own political beliefs -- an accusation which was galvanised by his invocation of the handling of the UK’s intervention in Iraq. Given that this attack occurred on UK soil and the military-grade nerve agent had been identified as of Russian origin, Corbyn’s lacklustre response to the poisoning and its fallout disappointed many, both inside and outside of his party.
Further controversy and criticism was soon to follow as, throughout the summer months, the party was dogged by an anti-semitism scandal. In July, the Parliamentary Labour Party voted overwhelmingly to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-semitism (which has been adopted by 31 countries). However, its governing body, the NEC, decided not to adopt all 11 of the examples of antisemitism given. The reasons cited were that adherence to all examples might limit the potential to criticise the state of Israel. These developments deeply angered and upset many members of the Jewish community in the UK, and MPs from across the board. Prominent members of the Jewish community came forward to speak of their distress at this decision by Labour, saying that a Corbyn-led government would represent an “existential threat” to Jewish people in the UK. The uncovering of several historic examples of controversial actions and comments by the Labour leadership added to the disquiet, which was fueled by Corbyn’s vague response to these revelations. In September, Labour finally decided to adopt the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism in full -- but Corbyn’s position became clear when he sought to insert a caveat into the final version of the IHRA definition -- a caveat that was not accepted by the NEC, but another, less stringent one, was added instead. Throughout the controversy, Corbyn’s failure to reach out to Jewish communities or to issue a solemn apology and offer reassurance to their qualms demonstrated an adherence to dogmatic viewpoints, which he privileged over the wellbeing of a minority group.
What both of these instances reveal is that Corbyn has an uncompromising and inflexible streak, which compromises his ability for compassion, inquisical thought -- and, one might argue, justice. It is also remarkable that, in the middle of Brexit negotiations, Corbyn’s main concern was the extent to which one is allowed to criticise Israel. This demonstrates the degree to which he has the well-being of those he is supposed to represent at heart -- both Jewish, and not. Labour has historically prided itself as being, in the words of Harold Wilson, a “moral crusade”, seeking to prevent racism, and economic and social inequality of all kinds. The Skripal affair exposed Corbyn as being unreliable on security matters, while the antisemitism scandal demonstrated his prioritisation of strongly-held beliefs over evident hurts and distress, and counter-arguments. The Labour party’s performance in opposition and its nebulous stance on Brexit is yet another area in which Corbyn’s actions should raise concern. Labour remaining vague on Brexit policy has largely allowed voters to read into it what they will. However, it has also meant that they have offered a weak opposition -- often absent from the headlines, they provide no alternative Brexit vision, or challenge to the Tory agenda or leadership, which is the primary role of the opposition party in democratic politics . While it is an effective (if somewhat cynical) strategy to allow the Conservative party to tear itself apart -- thus saving Labour from having to get dirty themselves -- this is a reckless and amoral approach when, in the midst of the Brexit debate, the literal fate of the country is at stake. It is also another example of Corbyn placing his personal beliefs and ideology above his constituents’ wellbeing. Corbyn has never been
an ardent advocate of the EU, and there is reason to believe that he would prefer a UK exit -- he has previously argued that EU rules might limit state aid and state spending (claims which were subsequently quashed by experts). However, evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the groups which have the greatest to lose from Brexit are those who Corbyn and Labour predominantly represent -- the working classes, the young, and educated urban voters.
Many people place hope in Corbyn because of his supposed ‘authenticity’ as a political leader -- he offers an alternative message and vision to status quo politicians, and as a former maverick, can be understood as a resilient and persistent underdog. However, when taking his response to the political events of this summer in consideration, severe doubt must be cast on the degree to which he can be considered a leader of integrity.
Originally published 22.11.18 in Vol. 2 No. 1.