Over the past two years I’ve heard many Jews both in America and elsewhere throwing their hands up and wondering aloud why Jeremy Corbyn, a politician that seems to have pyramids of skeletons to hide, seems almost untouchable and could be on track to be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom. In frustration they cite his long record of support for terror groups in both the Middle East and Ireland, anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli statements and his affiliations with other UK Labour figures with similar if not more extreme views on Jews or Israel like Momentum movement vice-chair Jackie Walker. A rock star to the global left and at once the bogeyman of his nation’s Jewish community, he had the UK Labour Party now sitting at between 38% and 41% in recent polls, just edging out the ruling Tories. Later as the impending Brexit decision has split the Labour faithful their numbers have plunged. Some say that his popularity has crested now that he is forced to give a coherent policy position on Brexit, which he no longer can do without alienating millions of young ruddy cheeked Corbynistas.
Corbyn’s long history of left activism coincides with several episodes in which he has engaged in demagogic verbal attacks against Israel or Jewish targets, typically rationalized as pro-Palestine, anti-Zionist and anti-war activism. I myself am baffled by something else: How is it that a person that has sat on the fence concerning Brexit, split hairs on his participation in a wreath-laying for deceased 1970s Palestinian terrorists, and blatantly lied about his role in the Irish peace process. As a Jewish American most of my life I’ve been blessed to not have to deal with open attacks against me and my faith, with the exception of the college years when it was a near daily occurrence for a time, but I’ve come to accept the fact that prejudices whether they are racially based or otherwise show no signs of abating as long as human beings breathe oxygen. However, it is to me most shocking that ordinary Britons are capable of remaining captivated by his mystique notwithstanding his mendacity about his past and the utter incompetence of his party acolytes like Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott (see BBC Radio 4 interview below) who can barely answer simple questions.
In order to understand the social behaviour that underpins Corbyn’s support among many Britons, the observer must divorce his or herself from assumptions of prejudice or ideology from their motivations. There are absolutely British subjects that support Corbyn due to their socialist leanings and/or hatred of Jews, but those two tendencies whether together or independent of one another are not the keystone that holds together a mass movement. In order to understand the origins of Corbynmania we need to address the roots of the movement that he leads, the weaknesses and failures of his opponents, and the tectonic social shifts that have led British society to a crisis point where they would consider putting into power a man who was just four years ago a nondescript, shabbily dressed, parliamentary backbencher. Mr. Corbyn’s would I believe be a horrible leader, likely worse than Theresa May, but in order to understand his popularity one must first confront the fact that he’s the symptom of a chronic illness in British politics that is not entirely linked to anti-Jewish sentiment.
Changing norms, or restoring them?
How different could the next UK Labour Party prime minister to some of the earlier ones? Consider the fact that the first one Ramsay MacDonald was educated in Church of Scotland parish schools and worked as a common invoice clerk at a warehouse in 1890s London years before forming a minority government in 1923. Does Jeremy Corbyn have much in common with MacDonald, and one of the three co-founders of the party that eventually supplanted the Liberals? Consider the fact that they both came from trade union backgrounds. MacDonald called for neutrality in WWI while Corbyn has remained a mainstay of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Stop the War Coalition. Both were also plagued by accusations of being beholden to foreign communist leaders, with MacDonald being done in by the dubious “Zinoviev letter” published by the Daily Mail prior to his failed reelection effort in 1924 alleging that the Communist Internation (Comintern) was pressuring its British contacts with MacDonald to finalize a number of treaties with the USSR. Similarly, Corbyn was accused last February of having been an informant for communist Czechoslovakia’s StB secret service. However, whereas MacDonald’s career survived, the Soviet diplomat Christian Rakovsky with whom he established relations with the USSR was dispossessed during the 1938 Great Purge and died in prison three years later. In addition the Soviets
However the original Labour leader’s subsequent record would put him at odds with today’s Jeremy Corbyn. MacDonald’s second premiership from 1929-35 made him a pariah among his former party comrades as he and the party contended with the Great Depression and a currency crisis caused by a £120 million deficit caused Labour to split between socialist hardliners and his expelled supporters called “National Labour” that formed the National Government with Liberals, Tories and other former opposition MPs. MacDonald decided to embark on a number of massive spending cuts that would be comparable to today’s austerity policies so hated by the Corbynistas.
Many subsequent Labour leaders have struggled to balance their policies between the militant trade union groups and activists that constitute the party’s loyal base and the pressures of governing the country as a whole. For many a Labour premier like MacDonald there was a party hardliner like Arthur Henderson that called for a purer adherence to the party’s class conscious policies. In every case there was a point where the leader had to compromise on Labour’s international pro-worker platforms:
- Clement Atlee, the next Labour PM after MacDonald, defeated Winston Churchill in 1945 and immediately after World War II guided Britain firmly into NATO in opposition to the expansion of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe.
- Under Harold Wilson in the late 1960s Northern Ireland’s political powder keg erupted into “The Troubles” and his Labour government dispatched the military to enforce the peace. Much of the Labour hardcore backbench also resented his public support for the US war effort in Vietnam. During his second term in the mid-1970s Wilson’s soft social democratic policies created an atmosphere of mediocrity that would eventually lead to the victory of the new ideological Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher over his anemic successor James Callaghan.
- The two turn of the century “New Labour” leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are regarded as particularly odious traitors to the social agenda of Labour due to Blair’s collusion with the President George Bush in the Iraq War and the ruinous economic policies that led to the meltdown of 2007-08.
For many of Corbyn’s supporters his leadership hasn’t debased the Labour Party as his critics would say, but reoriented it to the original socialist principles that it originally stood for. But how did the movement get into such a state where voters demanded such a restoration_
The Blair Betrayal
Among followers of the phenomenon of Jeremy Corbyn the question of who his supporters despise the most may be answered by many observers as “the Jews”, yet in reality the answer could be answered by them as “the Blairites”. The disappointment and perfidy perceived by core Labour activists of the former prime minister’s leadership from 1994 to 2007 (he was elected prime minister in 1997) is felt to the core. When the young fresh-faced barrister took the stage (video above) during the campaign to unseat the Tory John Major, many of the party’s veteran trade union activists from the strikes of the Thatcher years could be seen scowling in the crowd dressed in their zip-up windbreakers. In the same clip Diane Abbott, the same Abbott who is now an avowed stalwart of the anti-Blair Corbyn, offers modest praise for her party leader. However, the far-left firebrand Dennis Skinner openly admits that he does not have the same feeling when hearing Blair’s generic rhetoric against class warfare and focusing more on education.
Tony Blair would serve the longest term of any prime minister in the party’s history, and he was credited with a breakthrough accomplishment in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to the Irish Troubles between the Provisional IRA and most Protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. But Blair’s general domestic policy was a slap in the face of the vision of Labour as set out by almost any other leading politician of the movement. Here are some examples:
- As Leader of the Opposition in 1994 Blair lobbied successfully for the repealing of Clause IV which called for the nationalization of most industry.
- Blair’s election as party leader ushered in what he called “New Labour”. Blair, like his predecessors John Smith and Neil Kinnock had endeavoured to enact a “one member, one vote” policy that eliminated bloc voting. Under Blair the party would begin to attract voters from the middle and professional classes in an effort to broaden its image beyond its traditional on the left and within the trade unions. In doing so they encroached on the traditional ground of both the Conservatives and the centrist Liberal Democrats but did so at the expense of some of their more hardline members. National Union of Mineworkers leader Arthur Scargill for example ditched the party and formed the Socialist Labour Party.
- In tandem with the “New Labour” rebranding Blair took advantage of the Britpop phenomenon in music and the “Cool Britannia” theme in pop culture to generate interest among youth voters. Whereas Major and the Tories seemed stuffy and stuck in the 1980s, Blair made every effort to court the favour of musical icons like Noel Gallagher of Oasis, while he was also offered (but did not accept) an appearance in a Spice Girls video. This was certainly a break from the stuffy culture of British electoral politics.
For obvious reasons many veteran activists saw New Labour as a rejection of the party’s values in favour of the cool, media friendly, cosmetic, pop friendly corporate “Third Way” that had swept Bill Clinton into power in the US in 1992. Among the broader British public he was a welcome change from the stuffy Major and a Conservative Party that had become addicted to the perks of power.
Please read Part II of this analysis for how Labour transformed from the Blair era to the Corbynista party of today.