Understanding Corbyn’s Politics

Dec 13th, 2017 | By Barry Winter | Category: Articles, Comment, Features, Frontpage, Lead

BARRY WINTER examines the political origins of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics, asking: what are its ideological roots and what is the nature of his leadership?

Until the two recent Labour leadership elections, I had never met Jeremy Corbyn, nor even heard him speak, although I attended party conference and its numerous fringe meetings for a couple of decades.

In one sense, uncovering the roots of Corbyn’s politics appears simple. He comes very much from the Bennite left tradition: at its best sincere and committed; at times politically simplistic.

Corbyn pointing

In 1988, that tradition faced a monumental defeat. Tony Benn made a desperate bid for the party leadership, challenging Neil Kinnock. Benn secured roughly 11% of the vote, compared with Kinnock’s 89%. The Bennite left never really recovered from that rash endeavour.

At the time the ILP warned that, given conditions in the party, it was a bad idea for Benn to stand. We felt the left was already enfeebled and defeat would only make matters worse and highlight its weakness. We likened Benn’s challenge – thanks to Eric Preston’s formulation – to the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Sadly, we were right. Benn’s defeat marked the demise of what, for a time, had been a vibrant Labour left in which the ILP had often played an active part. At the time, Corbyn was secretary of the Bennite Campaign Group of Labour MPs.

Corbyn has been a very active and long-term member of the broader Labour movement. Like many on the left, he was a member of CND in the 1960s. In the 1970s, he worked for the tailor and garment workers’ union and then as an organiser for the National Union of Public Employees. He was in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and a member of its executive. “Ever the activist”, as the socialist writer Richard Seymour put it.

Corbyn strongly opposed the expulsion of the vanguardist Militant tendency, saying, perhaps rather unwisely, “If expulsions are in order for Militant, they should apply to us too.” I’d argue that this failed to recognise that Militant was a manipulative, bullying and self-serving presence within the party.

In 1983, Corbyn entered Parliament representing Islington North, and joined the Campaign Group. He’s been a stalwart, hard-working member of the Labour left. However, his judgement on some issues like Northern Ireland, with his uncritical support for Sinn Fein, suggests an oversimplified political outlook.

Between 1997 and 2010, he held the record for voting against the Labour government, particularly against the three-line whips. In just five years – between 2005 and 2010 – he rebelled on 428 occasions. The fact that he never had the whip removed suggests the leadership did not feel he posed them much of a problem.

It is also worth remembering that between 1997 and 2010, Labour shed five million votes.

Corbyn was also a vigorous anti-war campaigner and was heavily involved in the Stop the War Coalition. He vehemently opposed the Iraq War, speaking at many of its rallies, as well as organising the massive demonstration against the war, which many of us will remember well.

To sum up his politics, I would situate Corbyn within the ethical socialist tradition. However, he has had a tendency to oversimplify some complex issues. Never the careerist, he has been a sincere, hard-working MP, both nationally and locally.

‘It kind of clicked’

As for the nature of Corbyn’s leadership, I first want to comment on his candidature; then briefly to consider the wider political context; and finally to present the thoughts of a good friend of mine who is among his many ardent supporters.

First, how come he stood for the leadership of the party? Here, I find the  remarks of another long-time Bennite – Jon Lansman, now chair of Momentum – very revealing. Lansman, as you will probably know, is standing for Labour’s NEC, hoping to fulfil a long-term aspiration.

ILP Corbyn dayschool Dec17

He recently told Red Pepper magazine that after Ed Miliband resigned, “I was desperate to find a left candidate. John McDonnell wasn’t willing to stand.” With his then boss, the late Michael Meacher, he struggled to find someone else.

As he reports: “We went round. I went round. Jon Trickett, Ian Lavery, some other names I feel very embarrassed about! Jeremy didn’t actually spring to mind.”

I repeat: Jeremy didn’t actually spring to mind. Only when the national officer of the Trade Union and Labour Liaison Organisation, said: “I think you should go for Jeremy” did it cross his mind. As Lansman admits: “Jeremy? It kind of clicked.”

In other words, while both he and Meacher were anxious to find a left candidate – from quite a small pool of MPs – neither initially considered Corbyn.

The unfolding story of Corbyn’s subsequent rise and rise is well known. The left academic, David Coates writes in Reflections on the Future of the British Left that the received wisdom at the time was that if Corbyn is the answer, then Labour is asking the wrong question. The Observer was disparaging about his candidature. And we all know about the Daily Mail.

But as Coates says of Corbyn, “Whatever his limits, he has tapped into and mobilised a large sea of discontent within contemporary society.”

I attended two Corbyn leadership rallies in Leeds. The first was attended by 1,000 people of all ages and varied backgrounds. It was a very friendly and festive event. At the second, after the Parliamentary Labour Party had voted to remove him, the attendance was even larger, with some 1,500 very enthusiastic supporters. Compare this with the 20 people from Leeds who went to hear Yvette Cooper in the first leadership election.

On both occasions he spoke calmly, but with passion and clarity, although I must admit I only went the second time because a former politics student of mine – in her 20s – was one of the platform speakers. She is very, very fond of Corbyn. At the time, she was working in London and sleeping on her mother’s settee.

Last June, Corbyn came to North West Leeds to support the Labour candidate in the general election. The constituency has a large student population. Some 3,000 mainly young people came to the outdoor event. Many students sat in the trees and quite a lot took their exam revision notes with them to read before he spoke.

Touched a chord

I am not alone in suggesting that much of this appeal is his authenticity. Arguably, he is not seen as a conventional politician in a time of quite understandable but worrying, political alienation.

As Elian Glaser puts it in the Coates collection, Reflections on the Future of the British Left: “He is explicit about what he thinks is wrong with Britain in an era of political disaffection.”

She adds that he may have been derided as a fossil from the 1970s but his politics are relevant to the grievances that establishment politics has neglected. Corbynism represents a breakthrough, she argues, but there is still a long way to go. As she says, it’s “the start of a process not the end”.

Another source argues that he offered a message of hope while facing a blizzard of abuse.

I would add that all of this is taking place when social democracy is in crisis, not just in the UK but internationally. Like the substantial support for Bernie Sanders’ candidature in the US elections, it’s a sign that all is not lost.

In his book, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, Richard Seymour talks of how Tony Blair admitted how baffled he was about Corbyn’s support, declaring: “I’m not sure I fully understand politics right now.”

To be honest, he is not alone. These are difficult times to comprehend. In Corbyn’s case, he has touched a chord among a significant swathe of people, many of them – but not all – relatively young.

There is a debate to be had about whether this support is basically the cult of personality or whether it represents something much more creative, an opportunity to build a radical movement of substance.

To conclude, I want to quote something written by a friend in her 30s about her support for Corbyn and the Labour Party. This was written specifically for this meeting at my request. It is only one voice but it is an authentic one.

This friend developed a serious disability later in life, Tourette’s, but has still become a Labour Party activist as a result of Corbyn’s leadership.

She writes:

“I joined the Labour Party for the first time in May 2015 to specifically vote for Corbyn in the leadership election. I never thought for one second he would win, but to me it was important after the Blair and Brown eras (although some positive things did happen), to show that there was still an appetite for a true democratic socialist Labour Party.

“I went to ‘uni’ just after Blair was first elected. At that time Blair provided so much hope for many and I had some knowledge of political issues, but very little of political parties. These were days before there was much access to information other than the mainstream newspapers and BBC News. There was no social media and people were only just starting to use the Internet.

“So ‘uni’ opened my mind to the different political perspectives and the prevalence of biased reporting. With that knowledge and what followed in the Blair and Brown eras, there was just no way I would join the Labour Party… This was not in the main a democratic socialist party. So in elections I mainly voted Labour (as the lesser of evils) and after Iraq, I just could not vote for a long time.

“Getting a bit older, I learned to become less idealistic and more tactical in my voting. After the coalition government were formed (I voted Labour at that election), I could not vote Lib Dem again. So, although I described myself as political, to my mind there just had not been any credible opposition by Labour.

“The party just kept selling out over and over. I couldn’t connect to any political party. Labour were just better than the Tories, even though at times it was hard to spot a difference, or much of one.

“So I joined the party to vote mainly as a protest to the catastrophic situation, in my opinion, the main Labour Party had put itself in.

“Why I like Corbyn is that he seems to genuinely care about people. He is passionate, dedicated and fought against injustices and for rights for decades, way before many others, and for unpopular and unrecognised causes. He stands up for what he believes is right and is not anyone’s puppet or a careerist.

“I can connect to such a politician and he speaks socialism. In my lifetime no Labour leader before has, well certainly not consistently. So I had not seen this before. This, I think, is why so many had and still have a very emotional and positive affection for him.

“He’s not perfect, I don’t agree with everything he has ever said or done, but with all that opposition from the media, the big corporations, all the back stabbers in the Labour Party and the coup, etc, he stuck to his guns because he believed in the voice of the grassroots membership.

“Corbyn had such a steep learning curve to completely relearn his role in a short space of time, against mass all-round opposition. He isn’t a youngster either and whilst it wasn’t a transition without some mistakes, he did it, against all odds. And he brought so much life back into the party. How can anyone not respect and admire him, even if they disagree with him, after all that?”

“So Corbyn has relit my passion for politics and this general election was the first time I was proud and excited to vote Labour. And for that I do love the man.”

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This article is based on a presentation given to the ILP’s dayschool on ‘Corbyn, Labour and the Revitalisation of Social Democracy’ held at The Circle centre in Sheffield on Saturday 9 December 2017.

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  1. I was very sorry to miss the ILP dayschool for family reasons, but glad to read this cogent article. As ever, Barry is lucid, unpretentious and persuasive.

    However, I do have one disagreement. Although I welcome the opportunity that Corbyn’s leadership presents to open up the Labour party to new radical ideas, I find it difficult to explain his past errors simply in terms of his ‘oversimplified’ approach. I think there’s more to it than that. Like the old Stalinist left, he actively ignores evidence that doesn’t suit his worldview and acts as an apologises for human rights abusers.

    Let’s set out what he has got badly wrong.

    1. Support for Sein Fein. It is true that he never supported the IRA, but he happily worked with people who did. If his sectarian approach had been taken, we would not have had peace but bloody civil war in Northern Ireland. He was an obstacle to peace. Thanks, in part, to the ILP, he and his ‘comrades’ were sidelined and the peace process began. Let’s not forget how vile his crowd were to us as we proved them wrong.

    2. He is an apologist for mass murderer Slobodan Milosevic and has denied mass murder and genocide – equivalent to Holocaust denial.

    3. His support for the anti-democratic, incompetent and corrupt Maduro regime in Venezuala – which is regularly condemned by Human Rights Watch.

    Barry, I think you are too kind to him. The ILP has never been afraid to point out when the left departs from human rights norms, even when this makes us unpopular. In fact, it’s something we’ve been doing since the Bolshevik revolution. Our job is to clean the stables, so the left can go on to transform society. Whilst we may welcome the end of New Labour and the return of social democracy, we shouldn’t overlook Corbyn’s serious weaknesses.

  2. I share Jonathan’s reservations about Jeremy Corbyn, and agree that the value of the ILP is its willingness to be a critical voice on the the Labour left. On the left, the ILP took a distinctive view of the Irish troubles (opposing “Troops Out”), 9/11 (criticizing the “US had it coming” mentality) and the post war situation in Irag (supporting Friends of Iraq and challenging far left support for thei insurgency). As Barry Winter reminds us, Corbyn was “heavily involved in the Stop the War Coaltion,” and indeed he still is, but democratic socialists might also have reservations about that organisation, which rarely criticized Saddam Hussein.

    It is possible now to be a friendly critic of Jeremy Corbyn, without necessarily wishing to change the leadership. Corbyn has undoubtedly shifted the party to the left, and this is to be welcomed. However, we should resist the personality cult that is forming around him, be prepared to voice disagreement when necessary, and continue to advocate party unity, including a more inclusive shadow cabinet,

  3. I question whether it is possible to characterise Corbyn without an understanding of the large numbers who rallied to his message outlined in his leadership bid. I have read and heard many descriptions of Momentum as a student or youth movement. The Momentum meetings I have attended in Derbyshire included very few or no students and very few under thirties. I am aware that in the cities and university towns that the picture may be very different. So, I am ready to accept that university and college students may have rallied to the campaign in large numbers.

    I recall from my time at college and university (the 1960s) a significant slice of young people, many disaffected from mainstream politics adopted ‘left’ perspectives. The youth of middle class parents are capable of articulating the disaffection of their parents and do not necessarily use the same language or express it in the same way. The deepening crisis of global capitalism is felt by all of us in our daily life.

    So there are, broadly, two other groups that oriented themselves to Corbyn-Momentum and the wider campaign. The first was the large layer of post-adolescents who, over many years, had left the Labour Party and even the Liberal Democrats in disgust at the conduct of established parliamentarians. Finally, there are the members of trades unions – consistently abused, taken for granted or ignored by established parliamentarians.

    Taken together the three elements see different qualities in the project and are attracted by different reasons. The revolt of the over-fifties into supporting UKIP and the revolt of the wider electorate resulting in Brexit offer continuing evidence that political certainty has been eroded. Into the vacuum stepped Corbyn but importantly he was supported by a hard working, talented and energetic group of people and attracted attention. It was in the process of his campaign that the three elements of his constituency gradually rallied to his campaign and his message.

    Clearly, politics is dynamic. Jeremy Corbyn presents his politics in an ethical and non-sectarian way. This is refreshing to many people but I am not confident that it can carry him through if he was to become Prime Minister. We need to use the opportunity which his campaign has created to rebuild socialist argument both within and beyond the Labour Party.

  4. What I like best about Corbyn is his unaffected ethical explanations. I fear he may be disingenuous. I’m not sure what you mean by ” rebuild socialist arguments” and why that’s different from an ethical approach.

  5. It would be useful if your commentators got their facts straight and adopted a less partisan approach to events in what used to be the Republic of Yugoslavia.

    Firstly, the ‘Mass Murderer Milosevic’ 27 Feb 2007 – Slobodan Milosevic was posthumously exonerated on Monday when the international court of justice ruled that Serbia was not responsible for the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica. The former president of Serbia had always argued that neither Yugoslavia nor Serbia had command of the Bosnian Serb army …

    Secondly, there was the 78-day NATO bombing of Yugoslavia including civilian targets – an aerial blitzkrieg of a defenseless civilian population in Serbia and other parts of Yugoslavia (Kosovo) where Serbs had also been present for generations. Even the New York Times had to admit to at least 500 civilian deaths. Moscow (Yeltsin’s Moscow) put the figures much higher. It should be common knowledge that war against civilians is a war crime, also an attack on a country which does offer no threat to the attacker – NATO – or is not at war with the attacker is an international war crime.

    Thirdly, the annexation of Kosovo – without a referendum – by NATO was again a violation of international law.

    But then I guess the winners and powerful write the history books.

  6. I largely agree with Barry. At least part of the reason for Corbyn’s success in the initial leadership election was that the other three candidates failed to offer a radical response and seemed to many to be simply saying ‘Me too’ to the Conservatives. Corbyn’s greatest merit was that his candidature gave the party a long overdue shake-up.

    That said, one cannot ignore some of the positions he has taken in the past – and more worryingly, that he is taking now – as mentioned by Barry and in their comments on his piece by Jonathan and John. As someone who lived for years in a ward where Labour was dominated by Militant I can only agree with Barry that it was ‘a manipulative, bullying and self-serving presence within the party’. Corbyn and others who defended it were at best misguided. It’s these sort of concerns that makes me hesitate to endorse Barry’s inclusion of Corbyn in the ‘ethical socialist tradition’. It’s also that I don’t find the concept of ‘ethical socialism’ as clear as I’d like it to be. We need an agreed and fairly precise definition, which I don’t think we have at the moment. Am I wrong?

    But for me – and I’m sure many many others – having reservations about the leader of the Labour Party, and other prominent and influential Labour figures, is the norm. I certainly had differences – sometimes more, sometimes less – with Gordon Brown, Tony Blair (even before the Iraq disaster), Neil Kinnock, Michael Foot, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson. And, retrospectively, the same is true of Gaitskill, Attlee, Lansbury, and MacDonald. (I’ve left Henderson out since he was only leader for such a short period.) Before MacDonald there were, strictly speaking, no Labour Party ‘leaders’ but as the individual with the best claim to be the founder of the party – Keir Hardie – was widely regarded as leader let’s include him among those I have retrospective issues with. That seems to me normal. You don’t expect to have no disagreements or doubts. It doesn’t stop you supporting the party and its leaders. That’s politics.

    But one thing I am very concerned about is the hostility to politics on the Left. Many will say ‘surely, nobody one meets is more “political” than the most committed Leftists?’ But are we confusing politics with ideology?

    I’ll return to the general point in a moment but first it’s only fair to start with my own attitudes to politics which are ones I don’t recommend to anyone. They certainly reflect a sort of Leftist (or Leftish) distaste for politics as a dodgy and sometimes pretty nasty business. The idea of being any kind of politician – MP or councillor, or even a very active activist – fills me with horror. Thank goodness there are enough people prepared to take on these vital but often thankless roles. One of the things I am clear about is how easy it is for me as an armchair critic to ‘put right’ those who have to take the difficult political decisions. No-one ever blames me when it all goes wrong.

    If it was just me who had an unhelpful attitude to politics it wouldn’t be much of a problem. But I believe a strain of socialist hostility to politics goes back to the very beginning of what we usually think of as the modern socialist movement. Take the opening words of the Internationale by the former Communard Eugène Poittier – ‘C’est la lute finale.’ But will there be – can there ever be – a ‘final struggle’?

    William Morris fell into the same anti-political trap several decades later in ‘News from Nowhere’ where the traveller in the future is told that they are now well off for politics because they have none. The assumption is that ‘come the revolution’ all conflicts of interest and all differences of opinion – serious ones – will simply disappear.

    The history of revolutions demonstrates rather convincingly that this just doesn’t happen. If – as is usually the case – dissenters are not allowed to organise politically they sooner or later resort to violence. Having failed to stamp out dissent, the revolutionaries then respond in kind and a sad and horrific tale of civil war and repression ensues. The revolutionaries rarely intend this to happen, but all too often they find themselves trying to justify the suppression of opponents in the name of the ideals, as they see it, of the revolution.

    It’s not hard to see why people become disenchanted with politics. It’s even easier to see why they were in the late 19th century when only a minority had access to its established forms. Even at it’s best, politics is a messy business and, for anyone wishing for radical change, a horribly long-winded one. Yet, given what they often have to put up with, who would want to be a politician? I’m sure I’m not the only person who is filled with horror at the thought. So, I find myself grateful to those more resilient folk who are prepared to take on the role. Not an alluring prospect, then, politics.

    The problem is that the only alternative is violence in some shape or form. But has violence – even revolutionary violence – ever led to the sort of outcome that socialists seek? Usually, Left and Right are seen as positions on a continuum. In this perspective the Leninist Left is simply more left-wing – further to the Left – than the more ‘moderate’ variety. But is this the real division?

    I don’t see it like that at all. For me the fundamentally anti-political, authoritarian and ultimately violent Left belongs to a different spectrum from democratic socialism. The latter is not necessarily less radical than the former. In fact, it can be far more radical and in that sense much further to the Left. The key difference is that it accepts the need for politics, for political persuasion, and for at least some degree of tolerance of other views. The big divide is between those who accept politics with the need to persuade as many as possible to your point of view and those who just want to find a way of imposing the ‘correct’ line. The division is clear – yet it’s awfully easy to slip across to the anti-political side without realising it. There is likely always to be disagreement about how radical a programme we should be pursuing, about how much compromise is justified. Such debates are the essence of democratic politics.

    I used to get very annoyed with politicians and others who invoked Britain’s ‘centuries of democracy’. Democracy is of course much more than simply a matter of the right to vote – but that right is pretty fundamental to it. How can we talk about centuries of democracy when it was only in 1928 that all women were enfranchised and even after that some forms of plural voting continued until after the Second World War? Then I realised that what they were referring to was not democracy at all but politics. In that limited but not unimportant sense they had a point.

    Violence was the normal way of seeking change for many centuries – millennia in fact – but in Britain (Ireland is, sadly, a different case, of course) there has not been a really serious attempt with any chance of success to produce what we might now call ‘regime change’ since the Jacobites in 1745.

    Even those formally excluded from the political system have pursued their demands for every sort of change by essentially peaceful political means, whether this has involved agitating for extensions of the right to vote, the formation of trade unions and their subsequent activities, and campaigning for every other sort of worthwhile cause (and some not so worthwhile ones too). Politics in those days was by modern standards ridiculously restricted and appallingly corrupt. The best thing you could say about it was that it was better – and more effective in the long run – than a wholesale resort to violence.

    Debate, discussion and persuasion are major tools of politics, as are campaigns, demonstrations and argument. The anti-political approach comes out sometimes in the most trivial ways. A while back I kept seeing people wearing T-shirts proclaiming ‘Never kissed a Tory!’ Perhaps, I would think, they ought to start kissing a few – we need the votes!

    I’ve drifted away from Barry’s article and Corbyn’s politics. I suspect that 2018 will be the crucial year for the latter. Corbyn will have to decide definitely whether or not he really wants to have a serious shot at becoming prime minister. The decisions he takes will determine that.

  7. In response to Frank, in my view, he seeks to obscure the fact of genocide against Bosnian Muslims and others, perpetrated by Serbian militias, supported by Milosevic and others, by shifting the focus to questions of international law.

    Firstly, international law does not operate like domestic law. Attempts to obscure the substance of debates about how to keep people alive by misleading and highly selective references to it does the left no credit .

    To quote the latest standard text on international law and peacekeeping, “most international lawyers approved of the 1999 [NATO] bombing of Serbia”. Arguably, it falls within the ‘evolving doctrine of humanitarian necessity’. The bombing of Belgrade and civilian targets was not in my view, or Amnesty International’s, proportionate, but then again, neither was the bombing of Dresden in Nazi Germany, and no one argues that we shouldn’t have taken action against Hitler. Or in fact that Churchill and Truman should have been on trial in Nuremburg along with Goering et al.

    Secondly, international law – as a concept – is problematic and has failed on several occasions to protect civilians, most notably in Rwanda and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. That doesn’t mean we should abandon it but we have to understand its limitations.

    In the words of Kofi Annan, “if humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to Rwanda or Srebinica?”

    (Source: http://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/law/humanitarian-law/un-peacekeeping-operations-and-protection-civilians-saving-succeeding-generations?format=HB#tokoMjfgGsdIfqHs.97)

    On the subject of the decision of the International Criminal Court, it found that Serbia, “violated its obligation to prevent the Srebrenica genocide in such a manner as to engage its international responsibility”. This is a very serious conclusion, which shows Milosevic et al had blood on their hands. There are dissenting judicial opinions which put it even more strongly. There is a persuasive case that there were serious flaws in the decision – groundbreaking though it was at the time – and it should have made an even more damning indictment.

    The issue of Milosevic’s personal guilt, though it formed part of this decision, was not fully resolved. He died before it could be, still on trial at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia. I continue to believe, with other legal and judicial authorities, that he was complicit in acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

    I can also fully understand the offence that treating the systematic murder of Muslims gave to Islamic communities throughout the world. Black lives matter and so do the lives of people who practice Islam.

  8. I should have added that the lives of the non Muslims who were targeted matter too, including Croats….

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