Until a few months ago hardly anyone had heard of Jeremy Corbyn. And those who had, this writer among them, knew him only as an eccentric “champagne-and-caviar Socialist” member of the British House of Commons. At an age when you are not considered to be somebody unless you are on TV, Corbyn, denied access to British networks, appeared only on Press TV, run by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and the Kremlin’s Russia Today.
In the House of Commons he often voted against his party but hardly anyone cared. He hobnobbed with members of the office of the Iranian Supreme Guide in London, not to mention operatives from Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, pro-Vladimir Putin lobbies, and “liberation movements” from Japan to Peru.
Having opposed the toppling of the Taliban in Kabul and of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, he cast himself as the antithesis of the mushy consensus that has dominated European politics for decades.
In a sense, Corbyn could be regarded as an elegant version of Saddam’s old buddy, the thuggish George Galloway.
Now, however, Corbyn seems well-placed to become Leader of the British Labour Party and thus a potential prime-minister-in-waiting. Having started by considering the prospect with some amusement, the British establishment now appears terrified of a man seen as no more than the joker in the pack only a few weeks ago.
Why is Corbyn frightening the horses?
The answer is simple: he is reminding everyone that, in a democracy, politics is about the clash of ideas and policies, including the weirdest, until a consensus is forged, not regimenting everyone into a pre-established pattern.
Corbyn is an ideological politician in an age of pragmatic fetishism.
Neither a Marxist nor a Leninist, he sees himself as anti-Imperialist which, at this moment in time, means ferociously anti-American.
Once that matrix is established, everything would follow seamlessly.
All that Corbyn has to do is to see on which side the US happens to be on any issue for him to adopt the opposite side.
Corbyn admires Ali Khamenei because he is supposed to be “standing against the Americans”. Corbyn could not have invited Mullah Omar or Saddam Hussein to dinner. If he sheds tears over their demise, it is because they fell victim to American “Imperialism.” He describes the killing of Osama bin Laden as “a tragedy”. But that is not because the Al-Qaeda paymaster has a special place in the Hampstead man’s heart. Corbyn mourns Bin Laden because Americans killed him.
For Corbyn, Israel is a hate object not because it is Jewish or even “usurper of Palestinian land” but because it is supposed to be an ally of the US. Corbyn has nothing to say about the massacre of Chechens by Russia or of Uighurs by China or of Rohingya by Burmese Fascists.
Corbyn is not against military alliances; it is only NATO that he wants to abolish because he sees it as a tool of the US. (Ironically, it was a Labour government that created NATO despite hesitations by the Americans!) Nor is Corbyn opposed to nations having nuclear weapons: he has no problem with Russian and Chinese arsenals or Iran’s alleged ambitions to make a bomb.
He preaches unilateral nuclear disarmament for Britain because it is America’s key ally in Europe.
On domestic issues, little is known of Corbyn’s agenda. He has talked of nationalizing a number of sectors, including transport and energy. He also wants state control over banks and financial markets.
His position on Europe is a mystery, although he has at times branded the EU as a “neo-liberal” concoction opposed to the interests of “the working people.”
He also wants to abolish the House of Lords and the Privy Council, and “involving the masses in policy-making” in unspecified ways.
It is clear that Corbyn has not thought his ideas through to fit them into credible policies. This is not surprising; he never expected he would be in a position to think beyond emotional responses to issues.
What may look surprising is that so many people, perhaps hundreds of thousands, seem to have bought Corbyn’s bill of goods. One reason may be the growing disenchantment against political elites across Europe where antiestablishment groups, such as Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the National Front party in France, have emerged as serious contenders for power. In the UK itself, the Scottish Nationalist Party and UK Independence Party have benefited from the same mood.
Many British analysts regard Corbyn’s rise as bad news for British democracy. I do not agree with them. To start with, it seems that Corbyn represents a much larger constituency that the “caviar-and-champagne” caricature would suggest. It is important to let that constituency air its grievances and demands, even the most unreasonable, within the framework of British democracy. The British electoral system of first-past-the-post obliges the big parties to operate as big coalitions. Thus you could have someone like Corbyn in the same party as someone like Peter Mandelson. The same is true of the Conservative Party. As a student in Britain in the 1960s, I often wondered how Harold MacMillan and Enoch Powell could belong to the same party.
In a continental electoral system of proportional representation, Corbyn would be head of a small radical left party with no chance of securing a share of power except through coalition with other parties.
The Corbyn phenomenon has highlighted the abiding importance of ideological emotions in politics, even in mature democracies. This was illustrated by a letter that 50 prominent economists signed in support of Corbyn’s economic policies which he has never spelled out.
The signatories only “felt” he would do what they like. At the other end of the spectrum 40 other prominent economists published a letter warning that Corbyn’s economic policies, unknown to them as to himself, would lead to “catastrophe.”
If Corbyn is able to bring large numbers of activists out of their utopias, and into the big tent of British democracy, so much the better. The beauty of democracy lies in the fact that, though bad ideas may gain ascendancy for a while, they always end up being exposed for what they are and discarded.