Jeremy Corbyn’s victory marks a major turning-point in British politics which has not only shaken up the Labour party’s traditional elite but also produced confusion in Conservative party ranks as David Cameron and his Cabinet work out how best to react.
Tony Blair and many former members of his Government have portrayed Corbyn as a throwback to the 1980s while the right-wing media have been quick to demonise Corbyn as a threat to Britain’s security because of his alleged hostility to Nato and his meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah officials.
Their attacks are unfounded. Neither in the 1980s or before that was Corbyn a member of any of the many sectarian groups on the left of British politics, who met in small groups and produced little-read leaflets and four-page news-letters He campaigned for Parliament under the Labour party banner and was elected in 1983 as a supporter of mainstream movements like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti-Apartheid movement and other anti-colonial liberation struggles as well as groups like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua fighting to free Latin America from US domination.
As for the economic agenda British politics have moved on since the 1980’s. While Corbyn was one of the hundreds of thousands who marched against Margaret Thatcher’s anti-trade union policies the issue of ‘austerity’ which is the centre-piece of current UK politics was not a political topic in the 1980s.
So when Corbyn centred his leadership campaign on confronting austerity and reducing the growing inequalities of British society he was tackling the central issue of the 2100s, not going back to the past. This is why he was able to galvanise so much support. The key comparison with Corbyn is not the 1980’s but the contemporary grass-roots-based anti-austerity movements in other parts of Europe like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. In his first article since winning the leadership last weekend, (in the Observer) Corbyn rightly described his election as “an extraordinary demonstration of grass-roots democracy and public participation” which had “drawn hundreds of thousands of people, far beyond the ranks of long-standing activists and campaigners”.
They included thousands of young people who were turned off by the conventional Westminster style of politics and the neoliberal economic consensus that meant the Labour party under Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband had not dared properly to confront the notion that cutting the budget deficit was the government’s priority goal. These people were not just from low-income families. They include, as in Syriza and Podemos, huge numbers of university graduates who cannot find jobs, a new cohort of the sons and daughters of middle- and even higher-income families. Their parents may vote Conservative but they themselves like Corbyn for promising to try to make Britain a fairer, juster and less unequal country.
This is why Cameron is finding it hard to adjust to Corbyn’s victory. The government realises that austerity is highly unpopular and that Corbyn’s call for social justice and economic fairness has touched a chord.
The Conservative media are different. They are the attack dogs.While Cameron takes the high road, the newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch as well as other titles like the Daily Mail and the Express are taking the low road. They are doing everything possible to smear Corbyn and distort his views, including accusing him of wanting to take Britain out of Nato. No such statement has been made by Corbyn. What he has said is that Nato should have disbanded at the end of the Cold War when the Warsaw Pact did and that its expansion into central and eastern Europe was a mistake. He also wants Britain to argue within Nato for less confrontation with Russia and for a return to dialogue and diplomacy over Ukraine.
Other elements of the media have raised doubts over Corbyn’s commitment to the European Union. (The rightwing media ignore this issue because of course they themselves are not committed to the EU). But here again there is distortion. Corbyn’s argument that he will not give Cameron a blank cheque for his negotiations with the EU for a different British relationship does not mean that Corbyn will not vote for Britain to stay in. It means that Corbyn cannot support Cameron in asking for a weakening of workers’ rights and environmental rights in the EU or for more opt-outs for Britain from EU regulations.
Indeed, Corbyn this week made it clear in an interview with Channel 4 that he wants a more social and a juster Europe, and that Labour would work with other social groups across Europe to try to achieve it. He said he could not foresee any circumstances in which he would campaign for Britain to leave the EU.
On wider international issues Corbyn comes across as a man who is more knowledgeable about the details of foreign affairs than any other incoming Labour leader of recent times, or than Cameron and Thatcher when they became Conservative leaders. In his Observer article he said Britain must oppose Saudi bombs falling on Yemen and allowing “the Bahraini dictatorship” which was armed by Britain, from murdering its democracy movement. This was not just unprecedented criticism of British policy in the Middle East but also an extraordinary display of interest in human rights issues in countries which normally get little attention in the British or any other developed country’s media.
Time will tell whether Corbyn sticks to these positions now that he is leader of the opposition. Less than ten per cent of Labour MPs supported him in the leadership election and the majority who now sit with him in Parliament may try to persuade or press him to change his policies. However, predictions that they will split the party are unlikely to be borne out. The split which severely wounded Labour in the 1980s when a prominent group broke away to form the Social-Democratic Party is still remembered. That is a genuine issue from the 1980s which is being discussed today.
One thing is certain. British politics have not been so interesting for a long time. The chances for real debate and argument have enormously improved, and there is a large constituency of newly energised young people who are taking part.