Explaining Jeremy Corbyn to Friends Outside Britain
By Denis MacShane
If I get one more call from political friends outside the UK asking ‘C’est qui ce Jeremy Corbyn?’ or ‘Was ist los mit dem Labour Partei?’ I shall have to start charging for my replies.
The answer is simple. Jeremy Corbyn is all the ghosts of Labour’s past periods of working through the eternal question of the democratic left – power or faith? The tragedy of the European left is that it does opposition well and office badly. Why not then stay in the comfort zone of opposition and denunciation of all the many ills in the world?
That has been the story of Jeremy Corbyn’s adult life. He a socialist Candide, always seeing beyond the official wisdom to ask the question why things cannot be different.
He is not a political organiser like a Tsipras, or a Gysi, or Mélanchon. He is a man for all causes that the left hold dear. He is against capitalism and thinks the state can run the economy. He is against militarism and war, against austerity and balanced budgets. He started life protesting the Vietnam War, then Reaganism, then globalisation and free trade, then George W Bush and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. So he does not like America.
No appeal to Jeremy to support an individual badly treated by an odious government, or groups like the Kurds or the Polisario front, or those expelled from Diego Garcia to turn it into a US military base in the 1960s (Ah, those Americans again) goes unanswered.
He opposed Sovietism and will denounce Chinese capitalism and communism in equal measure. He is moralist and a preacher, not a politician who seeks to form a group of supporters or lead a faction. In votes in the House of Commons he has voted against the official Labour line more than 500 times.
But he does so without scorn or contempt in his voice. He quietly and effectively makes his point and moves on to the next cause, the next small meeting, the next demonstration or protest outside an embassy. Unlike the other tribunes of the left he does not denounce his Labour Party colleagues or use the time-honoured tradition of personal denunciation.
In thirty years of knowing Jeremy Corbyn and being firmly on the reformist, modernising wing of Labour social democracy we have never exchanged a cross word. Unlike many on the left (or the right) who resort to personal denunciation or sneers or putdowns, Jeremy Corbyn just gets on with putting into words his socialist dreams.
The last person in Labour who could have imagined Jeremy Corbyn being seen as a possible – now probable – leader of the Party is Jeremy Corbyn.
This reflects how hollow and empty Labour had become after 20 years of domination by first Tony Blair, then Gordon Brown and finally one of their creations, Ed Miliband.
The left always punishes those who lead it to power and office. Look at the treatment of George Papandreou in Greece, the way Lionel Jospin has become an unperson in France, or the disappearance of Zapatero in Spain. The right thanks its former prime ministers. The left throws them into the recycling bin.
To win power 20 years ago Labour became a highly disciplined electoral machine. It shut down all internal party debate. Policy was decided by the elite insiders at the top. The annual conference became void of interest. No new talent emerged based on debating skills. The new generation of politicians shaped by Blair and Brown were all straight from Oxford and had no experience of fighting political battles, shaping opinion, and fighting inside the party to modernise it. They were simply aides to the Blair-Brown machine, put into parliament and then made ministers without any real experience of debate, argument, or party leadership.
Ed Miliband symbolised this post-political generation and when he failed to deliver a return to power in May 2015 the party simply imploded. As with Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain there is desire for some simple verity called ‘socialism’ that all can believe in and which if properly explained to voters will bring the left to power to transform the nation.
Corbyn represents that longing for a better world. The Labour Party in a generous demotic offer to make the selection of its leader more democratic has allowed anyone who pays £3 (€4, $4.50) to vote for the new leader. 600,000 have joined. Once they have cast their votes they cease to be party members and it will fall to 220 MPs, and all the existing party officials in the country to make sense of a Corbyn-led Labour Party.
There will be endless quarrels and disagreements. These are already surfacing over the question of Israel and Europe. There is not an iota of anti-semitism in Corbyn’s make-up but he does appear on platform with the most vicious of eliminationist and anti-Jewish speakers and organisations. For Jeremy the cause of the Palestinian people over-rides any duty to examine the ideology of those who denounce and wish to destroy Israel and the right of Jews to have a small patch of land they can call their own.
On Europe, Jeremey opposes TTIP, of course, and while not calling for Brexit says he support a Europe that is pro-worker and anti-austerity. So in the forthcoming UK In-Out referendum he may well oppose any deal on the EU which David Cameron puts to a vote if it is one-sidedly neoliberal and not fair to workers and social justice.
The European question may help Labour as if there is a No or Out vote then David Cameron will have to resign. The Conservative Party will be in disarray and divided, and there would be an opening for a clever opposition to demand new elections to deal with the constitutional and economic crisis of a Brexit vote.
But Labour also has to work out what to do about Scotland which like Quebec or Catalonia wants a different existence no longer ruled by London. Labour has always depended on its Scottish MPs but they have all been replaced by nationalist MPs. Labour has to work out what to do about the disappearance of the manufacturing working class and their unions who provided a reservoir of votes and common sense political support.
Labour is a party of the 20th century which does not know how to exist in the 21st century. Electing Corbyn is a symptom of that disarray. He will not enjoy the job and will not last long. But as elsewhere in Europe, the old parties of the left have difficulty finding a way to power and purpose in the new economy and new society.
Denis MacShane joined the Labour Party in 1970 and was an MP for 18 years and served as PPS and Minister and Council of Europe delegate 1997-2005.