Jeremy Corbyn has spent his lifetime campaigning against the policies of UK Goverments, whether Conservative or Labour. If he can persuade voters to back him he will swop the loudspeaker for Number Ten. Even if he loses the election, he will surely keep control of the Labour Party. Is the future red?
Writing a profile of a political leader before an election is tricky. How many wrote about how we have embraced Europe or penned glowing tributes to the new president, Hillary Clinton? But still, I will take the plunge. Jeremy Corbyn will believe he is the winner of the 2017 General Election.
He probably won’t get the most votes or seats. He might even get roundly thrashed and long-standing labour MPs may resign en masse, creating a new centrist party.
But he will still consider he has won. For most of us, a general election success is measured in seats won, but Corbyn doesn’t think in such narrow terms. For the true socialist the road is long and suffering is all part of the journey. In 1934, in order to achieve ultimate victory Mao led the ragged Red Army on a brutal 5,600-mile, year-long march of retreat. Trotsky and Lenin stormed the Tzar’s Winter Palace almost 70 years after Marx and Engels crafted the Communist Manifesto (which didn’t even mention tuition fees).
So why would this election represent a victory for Corbyn? To answer this you have to go back to the mad, bad days of Thatcher, Scargill and Kinnock - back to 1984.
The Workers United will often be defeated
After the announcement of the closure of 20 coal mines, two great forces faced up for the ultimate battle, like a epic Tolkien fantasy. On the left were the flag-bearers of the working class - the miners, hard-working tough men who worked in atrocious conditions, which forged their rock-hard solidarity. Leading the right was Mrs Thatcher, determined to tame the out-of-control unions. The miners’ cause rallied left-leaning activists together as one: socialists, communists, liberals, gays, feminists, pacifist, vicars… They were heady times and change was in the air. But this confrontation was no accident; the government had been preparing for this for years.
Ms Thatcher won the war with a combination of luck (a mild winter and a windfall of North Sea oil cash) and planning. The National Coal Board had been stockpiling coal and the police had been meticulously prepared for the battles ahead. Just like the soldiers in the First World War, the miners were lions led by donkeys. Arthur Scargill had led the flying pickets to victory in the strikes of the 1970s but had become far too arrogant. Unbelievably, he called the strike at the start of spring just when demand for coal was plummeting.
When the final strikers returned to work a year later, defeated but defiant, few on the left pointed the finger at Scargill. The anger was directed at the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, who was repulsed by the narcissistic Scargill and refused to wholeheartedly support the strikers. Among those who were appalled by Kinnock’s ‘betrayal’ was an earnest socialist MP who had been elected the year before the strike began, Jeremy Corbyn.
The miners strike was a moment in time when the left was truly unified and LGBT stonewall groups marched with traditional trade unionists. However the bitter divides were never far from the surface. Monty Python’s Life of Brian parodied the left’s absurd in-fighting with their brilliant People’s Front of Judea Sketch. (“The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f***ing Judean People’s Front”).
One of the dominant players on the scene in the 1980s was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which believed that the only way forward was a revolution and the complete overthrow of Capitalism. Militant Tendency believed that the way for workers to take control was from the inside and the starting point was to take over the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn was not a member of Militant but he shared the idea that the Labour Party was the vehicle for radical socialism. The politics of the SWP and Militant were as close as the width of a cigarette paper, but no love was lost. When the miners fell, the blame game started in earnest.
The idea of Militant-style entryism in the Labour was snuffed out by Kinnock. At the party’s 1985 conference, he attacked the Militant council in Liverpool shouting, “You end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council, a Labour council, hiring taxis to scuttle round the city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.” Within months, the Liverpool District Labour Party was suspended. The dream was over for the Left, both outside and inside the Labour party.
The purge left Corbyn as one of the only far left-wing MPs in Parliament. The others had almost became part of the establishment. Tony Benn, amiable and now powerless, became affectionately regarded as the Grandfather of the House. Dennis Skinner, the Beast of Bolsover, became best known for his barbed quips and put downs, which were enjoyed by parties from all sides. Corbyn was younger and driven, becoming virtually a lone voice of the left. He routinely voted against the government even when it was his party (especially when it was his party, as he hated the whole New Labour project). He defied the Labour whip a total of 428 times during the thirteen years between 1997 and 2010. But no-one took any notice - he was unheard and unnoticed.
No-one really took any notice of Corbyn when he stood as party leader in 2015. They should have. He is no longer the ignored lone voice. He runs the party where Militant failed. And now the left are united again. Even the SWP are urging their followers to vote Corbyn. No wonder he thinks he is winning. This is the moment in the sun for him and his beloved socialist vision, and the voters won’t dampen his spirits in the slightest.
Who is the real Jeremy Corbyn?
Modern politicians are moulded and trained to present the right message and to avoid revealing their real personality. Except it doesn’t seem to apply to Corbyn. What you see is what you get. When you delve into the cupboard looking for skeletons, the age-old rule is sex will bring down a moralising Tory and money will do for a rich-bashing Labour MP.
Corbyn seems totally unimpressed by money, so maybe it is the sex. He’s now on his third marriage, and it has been revealed that he had a fling with Diane Abbott. A randy philanderer? Hardly. Abbott and Corbyn were young and single and it was no scandal. His string of marriage failures can be ascribed to the fact his wives were bored with his total obsession with politics.
So is it the personal power that drives him? Again not guilty. When MPs threw their hats into the ring for 2015 Labour Leadership election, Corbyn was a reluctant entrant. He only entered because his comrade, John McDonnell told Corbyn it was his turn.
Frugal, hard-working and earnest, Corbyn comes across as a man who’d be much happier photo-copying leaflets or sitting through an interminably dull council committee meeting, debating unimportant finer points, whilst everyone is desperate to get to the pub for last orders. In short, he seems to be rather dull.
DJ Taylor, writing for The Independent describes him as follows: “He looks exactly like the sort of man who, 80 years ago, rose to his feet in church halls to address Quaker peace conferences… Mr Corbyn may desire an end to austerity, but he has “puritan” written all over him. The idea that the people’s party owes far more to Methodism than Marx is central to Labour Party history… So far as I can tell he is an example of that very common phenomenon, the Christian Socialist who doesn’t believe in God.”
Born in 1949, Corbyn comes from a relatively privileged background, though his parents greatly influenced his politics. Most of his childhood was spent in a seven-bedroom manor house in Shropshire. His parents David and Naomi met in the 1930s at a meeting in support of the republic during the Spanish Civil War. He was educated at Castle House Preparatory School, before attending Adams’ Grammar School as a day student. Ironically an argument over grammar schools was reputed to be a factor in one of his marriages breaking up, as he was against their child attending one.
He has three older brothers, and is particularly close to Piers, who is two years older. The BBC’s Brian Wheeler, writes, “Piers would go on to be a well-known squatters leader in 1960s London and was even further to the left than Jeremy. Piers is now a meteorologist known for denying climate change is a product of human activity. Corbyn disagrees with his brother on climate change but they remain close. They both learned their politics at the family dinner table, where left-wing causes and social justice were a frequent topic of debate.”
While still at school, Corbyn became active in the Young Socialists, his local Labour Party, and the League Against Cruel Sports. He achieved two E-grade A-Levels before leaving school at 18. He joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in 1966 and later became one of its three vice-chairs. After a brief stint as a newspaper reporter, he set of to Jamaica for two years on a Voluntary Services Overseas programme. What he saw on his travels reinforced his ideological stance:
Corbin outlined his views succinctly: “Socialism is a natural instinct to me, one that shares wealth and resources, gives opportunities to all and recognises the limits of exploitation of our natural environment. I have many political influences, from my mother and father and also as a late teenager living and working in Jamaica and travelling throughout Latin America, I could see the dreadful levels of inequality there.
“Later as a trade union organiser seeing the way in which we can challenge injustice at the workplace and inequality through trade union membership. Socialism is about including all people and trying to create a world of peace.”
This statement can be seen as a mantra for his whole adult life.
On return he worked as an officer in various trade unions and in 1974 he was elected to Haringey District Council, in North London. In the same year he married fellow Labour councillor, Jane Chapman, a university lecturer.
Chapman told the Mail on Sunday that she married Corbyn for his “honesty” and “principles” but she soon grew weary of his intense focus on politics: ”Politics became our life. He was out most evenings because when we weren’t at meetings he would go to the Labour headquarters and do photocopying.” During their five years together he never once took her dinner, preferring instead to “grab a can of beans and eat it straight from the can” to save time.
His wife grew disillusioned with the relationship and they divorced, but Corbyn found a new love in 1979 - a young worker at the National Council for Civil Liberties called Diane Abbott. According to biographer, Rosa Prince, Corbyn was keen to show off his new conquest.
She quotes an unnamed Labour activist: “One Sunday autumn morning, he had broken up with Jane, and we were out leafleting. And for some reason he called four or five of us and said: ‘Oh, we’ve got to go back to my flat and pick up some leaflets.’
“It seemed a bit odd – ‘Why the hell didn’t you bring them with you, Jeremy?’ So we all bowl along to his bedsit, follow Jeremy into the room; there on the mattress on the floor in the one room is Diane with the duvet up to her neck, saying: ‘What the ****’s going on?’’
“Jeremy may have thought that letting it be known that he was in a relationship with a black woman would demonstrate his commitment to radical Left-wing politics. It was the late ’70s, it was still a point of interest, a white man with a black woman, so he was slightly showing off: ‘I’ve got a new girlfriend, and she’s black’.”
Abbott and Corbyn stayed together for a year and she is now his Shadow Home Minister.
In 1987, Corbyn married Claudia Bracchita, a Chilean exile, with whom he had three sons. Typically they met at a political meeting, an event where Ken Livingstone was the main speaker. The couple separated in 1999, but remained on good terms. In 2013, Corbyn married his Mexican-born partner Laura Álvarez, who runs a fair-trade coffee import business. She is almost twenty years younger than Corbyn.
A Life on the Backbenches
Corbyn has had several wives and lovers, but has never been as promiscuous with his political heroes. Brian Wheeler is in no doubt about who his is main influence: “He became a disciple of Tony Benn, sharing his mentor’s brand of democractic socialism, with its belief in worker controlled industries and state planning of the economy, as well as Benn’s commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament and a united Ireland.”
The Guardian’s Daniel Boffey reported, “Every Sunday for many years, Corbyn would make a pilgrimage to the Holland Park home of Tony Benn. In cahoots with Ed Miliband’s father, the Marxist author Ralph Miliband, Benn would assemble interesting and sympathetic thinkers on the left to talk about matters of the day. Corbyn is said to have been one of the quieter members of the group, but he has referred to his time with these thinkers in Holland Park as his ‘university education’.”
He was elected Member of Parliament for Islington North in 1983 and Wheeler recalls Corbyn’s career on the backbenches:
“Corbyn and his comrades - unlike their modernising colleagues they would use the term without irony - routinely attached themselves to any cause that felt like it would strike a blow against British and American “imperialism” or the Israeli state.
“Internationalist in outlook, they would proclaim solidarity with socialist campaigns and governments in places like Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador and attack US policies that, in Corbyn’s view, enslaved the Latin American world.
“He incurred the wrath of the Labour leadership early on his career when he invited two former IRA prisoners to speak at Westminster, two weeks after the Brighton bomb that had nearly killed Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet.”
The left could often claim the moral high ground, opposing monsters like Chile’s General Pinochet, or campaigning against apartheid whilst the government turned a blind eye. But with the passage of time it is clear that many groups supported by the left had their own sinister side. Some were no better than the regimes they so bitterly opposed.
Nick Cohen, writing in The Spectator is scathing about Corbyn’s associations. “Jeremy Corbyn has praised and supported Raed Salah, an Islamist who has been accused of spreading the Blood Libel (an old antisemitic conspiracy that Jews use the blood of gentile children to make their bread). Salah has also been charged with inciting racial hatred and violence, and has claimed the Jews were behind 9/11.
“Corbyn invited Hamas and Hezbollah to Parliament and called them his ‘friends’. Bear in mind that Hamas’s Charter is explicitly genocidal – it makes it clear its supporters want to kill Jews and repeats Nazi conspiracy theories. Their founding Charter also rules out any peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestine problem.” And Cohen goes on to list several other associations with grim agendas.
The problem is that the support of the Palestinian cause can easily bring you close to groups that are fundamentally anti-semitic.
One of Corbyn’s justifications for meeting terrorists groups / freedom fighters (depending on your politics) is that the only way a peace can be won is by opening a dialogue. This is disingenuous and misleading. For instance Corbyn, like McDonnell, is a longtime supporter of a United Ireland and was active in the ‘Troops Out’ movement. By attending IRA-linked events and inviting Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness to Parliament, they were showing their support for the nationalist cause, just as they support the cause of Hezbollah (Some Labour MPs call Corbyn Jezbollah).
I am not qualified to comment on the rights or wrong on either debate; but the point is that he is showing support for a cause not reaching out to make peace with an enemy. If Corbyn had embraced a radical Zionist or Ian Paisley, then he would deservedly have been lauded for his selfless pursuit of peace.
Steve Moore, writing for the Belfast Telegraph, believes Corbyn attempted to slow the peace process in Ireland: “Jeremy Corbyn voted against the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985 and spoke in Parliament against it saying those of us who wish to see a united Ireland oppose the agreement. Corbyn was prepared to put his support for a united Ireland before the peace process and we have no reason to believe he has much changed his mind since.”
The Future is Corbyn’s?
Corbyn has won the battle for the Labour Party but has the Party won? With his controversial stance on foreign policy, the position for many in the Labour Party is now untenable. Surely a split will come? Many were outraged that he tried to blame the actions of radical Jihadists on British policy so soon after the sickening Manchester bomb. Many are frustrated that their efforts to win the election are hampered by the fact that so many voters mistrust Corbyn on defence and the economy. The real battle will begin after the voting stops.