The coming of Corbyn
Few political events in recent times have created such a political stir as the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Britain's Labour Party. Jeremy Seabrook explains this extraordinary reaction, especially by the British media.
THE election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party (with 59% of the vote of its members) has already performed one great service to an atrophied political debate in Britain. He has widened the shrunken realm of discussion, which had narrowed into arguments reminiscent of religious disputes between medieval schoolmen whose minute scriptural exegeses were irrelevant to believers. Corbyn has opened up territory on which No Trespassing signs had been erected by a political establishment which lays down the rules of the game, the rituals of a politics designed to resist all serious challenges to wealth and power.
Whatever Corbyn's fate - whether he becomes Prime Minister, proves 'unelectable', as the press virtually unanimously declares, or withdraws before the election of 2020 - he is already owed a debt of gratitude by all who defy the institutionalised conservatism of a somnolent Labour Party.
Jeremy Corbyn, modest and inexperienced in the braying art of leadership favoured by the Conservatives, showed up the hollow rhetoric of the Labour elite, its timid respectability and poverty of imagination. The other contenders in the leadership contest invoked their 'principles' and 'passion' and, at the same time, their 'realism' in recognising that you couldn't do anything for the weak and vulnerable until you had gained power; even though to acquire that power you have to jettison all principles.
It was inevitable that the media would seek to destroy him. There had, after all, been two precedents in the recent past. Firstly, when Natalie Bennett's Green Party showed a surge of popularity, and secondly, when Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) threatened to undermine the vote of both 'mainstream' parties. Bennett, with her 'honking voice and strident opinions', a 'bombastic blonde Australian', was described as offering 'hard-Left' policies, a desire to ban the monarchy and the House of Lords and much of the armed services and make illegal fur and 'cruel foods' like foie gras. She would make it easier to join Islamic terror groups. She gave a TV interview described as a 'car crash', and was called a 'poor media performer', proof that she was 'not up to the job'.
Similarly, Farage was represented as a phony, projecting himself as an ordinary bloke in the pub with his pint and forbidden cigarette, in spite of his private education and even more private fortune. This was calculated to expose him to ridicule and therefore to electoral oblivion. In a curious reversion to an archaic attribution of human character to the 'humours' of Hippocrates, he was said to be full of 'bile' and 'spleen'; he was 'dyspeptic' and 'rancorous'. His image as man of the people was further undermined by his complaint that, despite a household income of œ109,000 a year (as well as a œ60,000 chauffeur allowance and media appearances worth over œ45,000), he was nevertheless 'the poorest person I know in politics'. He was called homophobic for referring to gays as 'fags', sexist and racist, and had spoken of 'Muslim ghettos which were no-go areas for the police and operate under sharia law'.
In spite of this systematic demolition, Farage's UKIP received 13% of the popular vote in the 2015 election, while the Greens achieved 4%. Although a flawed electoral system yielded a single MP for each party, the onslaught of media and ruling elite failed to wipe out the confidence which a proportion of the British public placed in these - apparently ridiculous and unelectable - figures.
How much more severe the censure when Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition voted as leader a man who had always been a thorn in the side of Labour governments, a radical pacifist, a man who publicly said he wanted to abandon the fiction of Britain's 'independent' deterrent. It is a savage irony that Corbyn's name was only placed on the leadership ballot by certain Labour MPs who were alarmed at the reduced prospectus on offer. It was something of a game to widen the range of opinion among aspirants and to initiate debate. Only at the last minute were enough MPs - by no means all supporters of Corbyn - persuaded to set their names to what was intended as cosmetic extension of discussions that would never take place.
And if the media had had their way, they would not. One of the less controllable features of the modern world is that public opinion, that hitherto malleable putty-like substance, to be shaped at will by a few newspaper owners and their paid 'opinion-formers' in the interests of the globally powerful, has been modified by the existence of social media. These have become a technological version of that word of mouth which, a century ago, permitted the Labour Party to emerge from the limited traditional straitjacket of a politics that saw Liberals and Conservatives as sole participants.
If the media were insulting to Farage and Bennett, they reached a paroxysm in their vitriol against Corbyn, even before he had been elected. He was leading the 'loony Left' and at the same time the 'hard Left', his supporters were 'adolescent thugs', 'hordes', 'an alien brood', 'insurrectionists'. The Labour Party had been 'captured' by extremists who would reduce Britain to Zimbabwe and 'the politics of the past'. Corbyn was a 'Hamas lover', he would endanger the security of the nation. His ideas were 'crackpot' and 'dangerous'. He is 'economically illiterate' (a curious charge this, coming from those whose competence led to the global financial crisis) and a traitor, since he would 'betray the armed services'. Even his bicycle was called 'a Mao-bike'. The Daily Mail ran a horror story, an account of three years of a Corbyn government in 2023. It paints a Britain reduced to Greek-style borrowing, money flooding out of London, property prices in freefall as Russian oligarchs and the international rich quit ('British Airways reported record ticket sales on first-class flights out of London'); a Britain subjected to power blackouts, a siege economy, hyper-inflation, disorder on the streets, riots and families living under curfew.
It was relentless. In Corbyn's first days as leader, the media accused him of failing to sing the national anthem during the commemorative service for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. As Opposition leader, it was automatically assumed he would become a member of the Privy Council, a body of 'advisers' to the monarch - clergy, royalty, former ministers and aristocratic luminaries who still ornament British social life. They must take an oath of silence which dates from the 13th century ('keep secret all matters committed and revealed to you'). Corbyn did not attend the first meeting of the Council, and this was interpreted as a 'snub' to the Queen. He had a prior engagement, which turned out to be a walking holiday in Scotland; although when current Prime Minister David Cameron became leader of the Opposition, he attended no Privy Council meeting for three months; and his 'loyalty' was not called into question.
Corbyn was asked whether he would wear a 'white poppy' on Armistice Day, whether he would abandon 'our' nuclear deterrent; and when he said he could not imagine himself pressing the button, this was tantamount to surrendering the country to anyone who cared to take it over.
'Beating the bounds'
All this recalled the ancient English custom of 'beating the bounds' of a parish in order to reassert its limits, now a quaint archaic ritual. Children would follow the parish priest, striking the outer landmarks with green boughs of willow or birch, and the priest would say, 'Cursed is he who transgresseth the bounds . of his neighbours.' Such practices have not fallen into disuse, although no longer directed against a land-grab by neighbouring parishes or covetous landlords. The terrain now most rigorously policed and guarded is political, and this epic work of containment employs thousands of people. The contemporary media are the equivalent of the ecclesiastical court, which adjudicated claims of trespass and the alienation of more material lands.
The fear of these custodians of electability, the beaters of the bounds of democratic propriety, has, in little more than two years, expressed itself in intemperate efforts to shame or undermine alternatives, on both the Right and Left. Democracy is clearly a stunted concept in its heartland: from the Mother of Parliaments now issues a very muted clash of ideas.
In its way, it demonstrates once more the 'lessons' of Greece, namely, that when the electorate votes the wrong way, this can easily be reversed. This should not astonish us. After all, we recently witnessed the prolonged immorality-play of the ruling Syriza party's doomed attempt to protect the poor of Greece from the vengeful policies of the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank. After all the breathless, down-to-the-wire rhetoric, the last-minute 'compromises', how much energy and effort (not to mention money) has been expended on pulling the wayward Greeks into line? Corbyn has been associated with these same 'losers' and 'no-hopers'; a risk to 'financial stability' with his ruinous idealism.
The Conservative victory in 2015, paltry and opportunistic though it was, has become a 'mandate', endorsement of a newly arrogant Conservative Party, which has set the tone for the kind of country we are supposed to live in. (At his party conference, Cameron called Corbyn 'security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating'.) Efforts to outlaw even the most modest questioning of the existing political order show whose voices are actually speaking through the dutiful echolalia of most 'commentators', 'observers' and authoritative conveyors of 'messages' acceptable to the great landlords of knowledge.
They have dug up skeletons of the 1980s from the shallow graves in which Michael Foot, 'entryism' and Leftist 'takeovers' were interred, invoking the Communist Party of Great Britain - that shrunken and powerless rump of nostalgics - as though this were representative of a world-conspiracy to bring down democracy, with Corbyn its stalking-horse. The revivalism of this anti-Left pathology is faded; a savourless taste, an odour of damaged goods, a scarecrow in a landscape which even the crows have abandoned. 'Entryism' is an unconvincing fable in countries where the Left is supposed to have been definitively routed for all time.
There is a disproportion in the extravagant and blood-curdling rhetoric employed to diminish Corbyn, as though he - and not war, a global refugee crisis, disease, inequality, ISIL, terror, drugs, global warming and mass migration into city slums - were the greatest danger facing the world. It is a measure of our parochialism in the presence of the real threats to the planet. Any challenge to the comfortable politics of alternation between what are labelled 'centre-Right' and 'centre-Left' is regarded as an unacceptable disturbance of our way of life, even when the prevailing order plunges people into poverty, cuts incomes, creates homelessness, punishes the poor and reduces prospects for the next generation. A party that would leave financial institutions, transnational companies and the global rich to their continuous attrition of the civilities and amenities of public life, transforming tax into a voluntary alms-giving, destroying welfare, increasing surveillance, widening inequalities and overheating the social as well as the meteorological climate, would retain 'credibility' and show itself worthy of power (or is it impotence?) once more.
The moderation, reason, good sense and humanity of Jeremy Corbyn must be shown as a rapacious assault on all we hold dear. All the artful devices of power have been employed by the sightless visionaries of the 'real world' to castigate the extreme and outlandish, embodied in a humane 66-year-old, demanding that he repudiate any vestigial 'Marxist' beliefs, and avoid splits and divisions in a Labour Party always anxious to distance itself from a radicalism it is bound to deny once more - particularly now that 'radicalism' has taken on quite other connotations than a serious questioning of the roots of social and economic injustice, and has been transformed in the lexicon of power into advocacy of violence.
The ritual of beating the bounds of discourse in the reduced parish that is Britain never ceases. But most of the time it remains in the background, a solemn if constant reminder of what may not be said, in a world of blue skies, pushed envelopes and thinking the unthinkable. The mainly young people who affiliated themselves to the Labour Party did so to elect someone whose 'extremism' turns out to be a few simple questions: Why, if the Bank of England can create £375 billion in phantom money to give to the banks, can it not do the same for infrastructural projects and popular empowerment? Against whom could we imagine launching our nuclear 'deterrent'? Why should we fatalistically accept that inequality is as unbiddable as a force of nature? Why have hope and idealism been banished from the parched political landscapes of contemporary Britain?
Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in the UK. His latest book is The Song of the Shirt (published by Navayana).