Two years ago, in a vivid reminder of why Mensheviks have a way of losing out, Jeremy Corbyn was handed the chance to run for the leadership of Britain’s Labour party by some soft-headed members of the soft Left. To be eligible, Corbyn needed to be nominated by 15 percent of Labour’s parliamentary party. That was a problem. Corbyn was far to the left of most of his fellow MPs and had made little effort to build bridges to those who failed to show the ideological purity he expected — and that was almost all of them. There was also the small matter of his appeal to the broader public, which was then considered — happy days — to be minimal. The necessary 35 nominations looked beyond reach, but growing grassroots pressure and some deft work on social media persuaded a handful of MPs to “lend” Corbyn their support by agreeing to nominate him. Their justification for doing so was that it would be healthy if the hard Left were allowed to play its part in the debate over the party’s future direction. Corbyn received 36 nominations, one more than he needed. Pandora’s ballot box was now primed. On September 12, 2015, Corbyn became Labour’s leader. If some recent polls are correct, he now has an outside possibility of becoming Britain’s prime minister after the general election set for June 8.
Margaret Beckett, a former deputy leader of the Labour party, later described those MPs who “lent” their nominations to Corbyn as “morons.” She confessed that she had been one of them. She was right: They had thrown a lifeline to someone who, given the opportunity, will strangle them with it.
Brought up in a left-wing family that was reasonably well-off, Corbyn could easily be mistaken for one of those 1960s student radicals who breathed in whatever was in the campus air and never got over it. Sadly this — how to put it — less than academic individual (he left the equivalent of high school with two Grade ‘E’ A levels — ask a Brit what that means, and he or she will tell you once the laughter subsides) was only able to stick with “Trade Union Studies” at the Polytechnic of North London for a few months.
Never mind: Family tradition, the spirit of the times, and the peculiarities of Corbyn’s personality were enough to do the trick. Before long, he was a hardworking and effective member of his neighborhood Labour party, austere, consumed by politics, a union organizer, an activist on his way up, a true believer on the march. He eventually arrived in Westminster in 1983 as the MP for Islington North, a part of the city being gentrified by the educated, metropolitan Left; Corbyn’s radicalism played well there.
It was also a part of London that hosted a prominent Irish diaspora, something that may have reinforced Corbyn’s focus on the conflict in Northern Ireland as the “anti-imperialist” struggle closest to home. It may have been an era of terrorism and sectarian violence in the province and of bombings on the U.K.’s mainland, but support for the Republican cause (Troops Out and all that) was nothing out of the usual in the redder corners of the British Left. Nevertheless, a number of Corbyn’s associates took it further than most, and Corbyn then took it further still. It was Corbyn who invited two convicted IRA members (one of them convicted for explosives offenses) to the House of Commons (to discuss, it was said, prison conditions in Northern Ireland) shortly after the 1984 IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton that killed or seriously injured a number of leading Tories, while narrowly missing its main target, Mrs. Thatcher. It was remarkably tactless of John McDonnell, a longstanding friend of Corbyn’s with intriguing connections to the IRA himself, to joke publicly in 2010 that he wished he could go back in time to the 1980s and “assassinate” Mrs. Thatcher. (McDonnell will be chancellor of the Exchequer if Corbyn wins.) He apologized for the quip, but in 2014 he “jokingly” returned to his earlier theme, saying that there had been “massive support for actually assassinating Margaret Thatcher.” McDonnell was Corbyn’s campaign manager in the Labour leadership contest.
Corbyn’s association with the IRA was more than a matter of one meeting in the House of Commons. For years, he had dealings with leaders of Sinn Fein, the party often labeled the “political wing” of the IRA — a distinction, despite denials, without much difference, at least at its highest ranks. In Comrade Corbyn, her excellent biography of Labour’s new leader, Rosa Prince describes the reaction of Kevin McNamara, Labour’s “shadow” Northern Ireland secretary (the party was in opposition at the time), and a supporter of Irish reunification himself, to Corbyn’s decision to invite Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams to speak to a meeting at the annual Labour-party conference in 1989. Speaking of Adams, McNamara said that, as far he was concerned, “there is no place for people who defend murderers at the Labour-party conference.”
And yet, years later, Margaret Beckett was prepared to “lend” her support to the man who thought that there was.
Corbyn now maintains that his actions helped pave the way for the peace process, an argument (Rosa Prince notes) dismissed by the Catholic Northern Irish writer Eilis O’Hanlon, a fierce critic of Sinn Fein:
When they [Corbyn, McDonnell, and the rest] were out defending the IRA . . . [they] didn’t know when, or if, that campaign would end. They still happily supported, or had an ambivalent attitude towards, Republican violence. They knew exactly what they were doing, and how their solidarity was used by the Republican movement to paint its murder campaign as part of some wider campaign for social justice.
To call them useful idiots is to be naïve.
To “lend” one of them a nominating vote was, yes, moronic, but something worse than that, too.
Fast-forward a few decades, and Britain is again facing a terrorist threat, this time from Islamic extremism. Corbyn’s response has been instructive. He condemned the Manchester bombing but didn’t neglect the opportunity to connect it to “wars our government has supported or fought in other countries,” a claim that might have had more force had it not come from someone who so frequently blames Britain or, more generally, the West, for the world’s evils.
On other occasions, he has just taken the other side. Thus Corbyn opposed the Falklands campaign as a “Tory plot,” the war to stop Serbia’s attack on (a touch ironically) Muslim Kosovars, and (naturally!) the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. (He was, however, pleased to write for the Communist — and pro-Soviet — Morning Star newspaper while the USSR was fighting in Afghanistan.) He was against the Iraq War, a respectable enough position, but not so much when coming from him.
The crisis over Ukraine showed that little had changed. Writing in the Morning Star (itself little changed) in 2014, Corbyn repeated Kremlin smears about the new “far right” Ukrainian government and described Moscow’s adventurism in Ukraine as “not unprovoked.” Three years later, Corbyn (no friend of NATO during the Cold War or now), argued that no more British troops should be sent to the Baltic States and, undermining notions of deterrence still further, refused to commit to the principle of collective defense enshrined in NATO’s Article 5 (a principle, while we’re talking about it, that President Trump should do more to affirm).
Long antagonistic to the United States, Corbyn seems to have a softer spot for Iran, using the 35th anniversary of that country’s Islamist revolution to call for an end to the ‘demonization’ of its regime.
Long antagonistic to the United States, Corbyn seems to have a softer spot for Iran, using the 35th anniversary of that country’s Islamist revolution to call for an end to the “demonization” of its regime by the West and for the immediate lifting of sanctions. (This was before Obama’s nuclear deal — such as it is.) It would be reassuring to think that the cash Corbyn received (up to £20,000) for appearances on Iran’s propagandist Press TV between 2009 and 2012 had helped shape those views, but unfortunately they appear all too sincere.
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that he has also referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends,” something he now says he regrets. He has also said that he regrets the remark he made to a parliamentary committee investigating anti-Semitism in the Labour party (it’s come to that): that Jews were “no more responsible for the actions of Israel” than Muslims were for the “various self-styled Islamic states or organizations.” Quite a few read that as an attempt to equate Israel (a nation for which Corbyn has — shall we say — scant affection) with ISIS. This, explained Corbyn, was a misinterpretation: “It would have been better . . . if I had said Islamic countries rather than states.”
It might also have been better had he not compared the U.S. with ISIS, but in 2014 (in other words before Labour MPs “lent” him those nominations) that’s what Corbyn did. In the course of one of his many interviews on RT (the rebranded Russia Today) he explained that what was needed was a “political compromise” with the Islamic State. Some of what ISIS has done was “quite appalling,” he conceded, but the same could be said of “some of what the Americans did in Fallujah and other places.” The following year, Corbyn told Press TV (them again) that the American “assassination” of bin Laden was a “tragedy”: There had been no real effort made, you see, to put Osama on trial.
Beyond Corbyn’s attraction to Islamism (a movement with far-from-Islington views on women, gays, and just about everything else) as an ideology that can be portrayed as “anti-imperialist,” there is also some old-fashioned political calculation at work. Britain has plenty of Muslim voters, and they tend to favor Labour. Corbyn’s foreign-policy positions may go too far for quite a number of them, but they still help lock in the idea of Labour as a pro-Muslim party.
There’s also something else. Looking back over Corbyn’s career, it’s difficult to miss the way that he appears to be drawn to the hard men, the killers and the thugs — the IRA, Castro (whom he called “a champion of social justice”), Chávez (“he made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world”), Trotsky, or, indeed, Islamists. In person, Corbyn may be quiet, shy, and courteous, but there is steel there, too. (He split with his second wife over her insistence on an ideologically inappropriate selective school for their eldest child) as well as a whiff of sulfur, whether in his fan-boy enthusiasm for those hard men, or in choosing to surround himself with an entourage of inquisitors, enforcers, and commissars-in-waiting, not least the clever, sinister McDonnell and strategist Seamus Milne, a somewhat incongruous Stalinist among all the Trots.
Looking back over Corbyn’s career, it’s difficult to miss the way that he appears to be drawn to the hard men, the killers and the thugs — the IRA, Castro, Chavez, Trotsky, or, indeed, Islamists.
There is also the nastiness he clearly inspires in some of his followers. In Comrade Corbyn, Rosa Prince recounts the role that Corbyn played in edging out moderate Labour-party members in a constituency where he was active early in his career. Corbyn himself was “never confrontational,” but one of his contemporaries recalls that “he would be part of whipping up an atmosphere of hostility.” Three decades later, Prince explains how “the tendency for political discourse to turn ugly is writ large in Corbyn’s Labour party.” His social-media followers have shown themselves more than capable of bullying, sometimes purely political, sometimes including threats of physical violence, and, sometimes, when it comes to women at the wrong end of Corbynista wrath, disturbingly misogynistic. Prince adds that “some of those who have found themselves on the receiving end of such treatment feel Corbyn and his allies have failed to do enough to address it.” I am shocked, shocked to hear that intimidation might have been going on.
Labour’s manifesto promises tax-and-spend, heavy-handed intervention in the economy, some nationalization, and various other stupidities too depressing to mention. That’s all bad enough, but if Labour were to win and Corbyn and his team tightened their grip more, what follows would be much, much worse.