Britain: The Politics Behind Jeremy Corbyn’s Grassroots Popularity

Political victories can be hard fought. Compromise abounds, and hopeful candidates often find their idealism tarnished by the realities of backroom deals, intrigue and the apparent necessity of giving up their original values for the sake of alleged ‘consensus’.

But sometimes principle wins through, with political ideals triumphing in celebrated contests that reshape dominant narratives and restore real possibilities for change. This happened on September 12th when Jeremy Corbyn, with nearly sixty percent of the vote, claimed undisputed victory in the battle for leadership of Britain’s Labour Party.

Corbyn’s openly leftist policies have whipped up a veritable storm in recent months as he endures a gauntlet of media hostility. While at home in the economic sphere his policies are more social-democratic than revolutionary, Corbyn stands for a multitude of progressive positions, from Palestinian self-determination, nuclear disarmament and trade union rights to a curtailment of the arms trade.

Unsurprisingly, a plethora of peculiar accusations from anti-Semitism to posing a threat to national security have been hurled at the sixty-six year-old vegetarian, all of which, ultimately, amounted to precious little as he swept the contest with over a quarter million votes.

What happens next is a prime question. At the helm of the largest political party in the country, Corbyn faces not just a Conservative government hell-bent on further assaults on the trade union movement, but dissent within his own organisation.

What’s more, ominous threats from the armed forces have surfaced over his reputed opposition to NATO and belief in an altogether different course in foreign policy.

To get to the root of such animosity, it’s important to remember that this is above and beyond the usual political conflicts that take place within the corridors of power. Corbyn is a veteran of both the trade union and anti-war movements, with his consistent opposition to Israeli aggression to the belief that Britain should apologize for the 2003 invasion of Iraq all making fissures in the political landscape. To understand how this has come about, a look at the situation closer to home is required.

With friends like these…

The current climate inside the Labour Party is tempestuous, to say the least. Over the course of the election campaign, right-wing party members and outright followers of disgraced former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, became incensed with Corbyn’s mounting popularity, resorting to increasingly outlandish claims regarding infiltration by the ‘radical left’.

Emboldened by the intervention of Blair himself (who, in a rare and atypical display of honesty, almost confessed to being aware of just how hated he really is) the right-wing pressed the attack. Becoming obsessed with the peculiar notion that a Corbyn victory would somehow ‘turn back the clock’ on political progress, some even entertained the possibility of a coup to depose him should he succeed.

As outrageous as such an event would be, potential plotters have been suitably cowed by a huge upsurge in party membership. Thousands flocked into the Labour Party in the immediate wake of Corbyn’s victory, augmenting the already vast numbers who’d rallied to support him prior to the final result.

Unseating a man of such popularity proved so daunting a task that newly-elected deputy leader, Tom Watson, felt secure enough to discount such a possibility altogether in the elections. Yet the threat of a minority imposing their own mandate had been thwarted simply by the sheer strength of democratic opinion.

Unsurprisingly, the increasingly hysterical claims of communist infiltrators turned out to be something of a hoax. British Marxists have historically been divided on their attitude to the Labour Party, and, most importantly, do not command anywhere near the numbers to even partially explain the huge levels of support seen over the course of Corbyn’s campaign. Invoking the spectre of communism, in this case, pointed to little other than desperation.

Yet many dissidents, outraged at the way things have turned out, are now voting with their feet. Jamie Reed, himself then Shadow Health Minister, left his post before Corbyn had even finished his victory speech.

Reed, in a resignation letter that raised more questions than it answered, accused the new leader of being ‘fundamentally wrong’ on several issues, before implying that the party would fail to win the support of the general public in the 2020 elections. He was soon accompanied by a number of colleagues who refused to join or remain in already occupied posts in the Shadow Cabinet, including former leadership contenders LizKendall and Yvette Cooper.

Kendall, herself generally viewed as being a political successor to Tony Blair, accrued four and a half percent of the vote in the elections for leadership. Cooper, while obtaining a more respectable seventeen percent, still failed to outpace second-place winner Andy Burnham.

Their own reticence to support Corbyn now that victory has been won is not an isolated affair, with the recently decimated Liberal Democrat Party now claiming to have been contacted by numerous Labour Members of Parliament wishing to defect.

What might prompt such an exodus? To claim that these politicians genuinely believe that Corbyn will lead the party to defeat would be disingenuous. The sad truth is that a great many Labour high-rankers were never interested in a fundamental change of course in party policy, something made markedly clear when Corbyn only received the required nominations to join the contest for party leader within minutes of the deadline.

Even in this case it seems that Corbyn’s initial supporters in Parliament were not as loyal as some might hope. Whereas some appeared to be simply interested in having a broader range of candidates to vote for, others backed Corbyn because their previous favorite, Mary Creagh, had withdrawn from the contest.

Initially it seemed that Corbyn’s attempt to even be considered for leadership would go the way of the 2007 bid by fellow leftist (and now Shadow Chancellor) John McDonnell, who ultimately failed to win enough nominations to enter the one-sided contest that led to Gordon Brown’s rise to power.

The Labour Party operates under the strange method that only Members of Parliament can nominate one of their own for the position of party leader, something which has, in the past with McDonnell and recently with Corbyn, made things difficult for candidates who are popular with the membership yet unwanted by their peers.

Such antics point to how vast the gap between the upper echelons of the party and its grassroots has become. While critics may argue about how unpopular Corbyn will inevitably become with the general public, they ignore the sheer number of recruits flocking to Labour’s ranks precisely due to the policies espoused by the man they denounce as a public relations nightmare.

Such interesting logic is not a new phenomenon. After returning to power in a startling victory last May, the ruling Conservative Party made much of their apparent popularity among the electorate, who sent some eleven million votes their way. The gist of the argument, much akin to what certain Labour high-flyers have been espousing, is that the population abhors left-wing politics, something which allegedly cost Labour the entire election.

Previous Toward Freedom coverage has exposed the weakness of such a viewpoint. Notably, leftist Labour Party candidates have certainly not faced insurmountable odds in winning elections in their local constituencies, this certainly being the case in May.

Corbyn himself won a large majority in his local London haunt of Islington North, with fellow stalwarts Dennis Skinner and John McDonnell winning similar victories at Bolsover and Hayes & Harlington, respectively. Despite the eventual Conservative win in Parliament, the above victories are hardly inconsequential.

The argument, so cherished by detractors, that Corbyn’s brand of politics will lead to total defeat thus points to ideological posturing rather than sound analysis. In addition to heralding one of the largest membership surges for Labour in some considerable time, Corbyn’s popularity extends even to members of opposing organisations, with a poll carried out last month revealing, strangely, his favour with members of the right-wing and euro-sceptic UK Independence Party.

Why this may be the case is a complex matter, although when careerism plays a sizeable role in politics, displaying a degree of principle and integrity is a pleasing rarity, even among those who may not entirely agree with the overall message.

A brief look at which of Corbyn’s policies are actually popular gives credit to such an argument, even without considering how a number of political opponents are starting to warm up to what they, in the words of none-other than Baroness Tonge of the Liberal Democrats, consider a ‘breath of fresh air’.

Media woes

Yet it’s not just within the House of Parliament that Corbyn finds a mixed reception. Clearly unsettled by the recent course of events, the British press has also turned sour toward Corbyn. Obsessing over any and all details that could possibly be cast in a negative light, journalists have become fixated on issues as vitally relevant as Corbyn’s dress sense to his alleged ‘fling’ with fellow politician, Diane Abbot, in the 1970s.

This form of supposed journalism took a further turn towards the bizarre during a recent remembrance ceremony for the Battle of Britain. Turning up at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in what would generally pass for an acceptable suit and tie, Corbyn was subsequently defamed for the crime of failing to fasten the top button on his shirt. He then fell victim to additional media outrage by remaining silent during the singing of the national anthem.

Corbyn is an advocate of republicanism – a position not uncommon in modern Britain – so his silence during an anthem celebrating a monarch is not exactly unexpected. Unfortunately, this snippet of political knowledge seemed to escape certain journalists, who evidently hold that the recent winner of a democratic election should show deference to an individual, Queen Elizabeth, whose authority is bequeathed by birth alone. This issue became increasingly tense when it came to the question of Corbyn joining the Privy Council, with the initiation ceremony for such a role requiring him to kneel before the monarch.

Why the press has taken this stance is unclear, although in their gusto for defaming a politician they don’t happen to like, the mainstream media outlets have highlighted some serious problems in relation to their priorities.

Whereas the usual suspects in the form of newspapers such as the Sun and Daily Mail (the former owned by Rupert Murdoch and the latter a keen supporter of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s) have surprised few by indulging in the usual partisanship, others have been disappointed by outlets known for at least some degree of professionalism.

The ostensibly ‘liberal’ influenced newspaper, The Guardian, is a case in point. Writing in the wake of Corbyn’s victory, one contributor for the paper poured scorn on the result, bringing forth a charge of sexism over the fact that the winner of the election was a man. This rush to jump on the bandwagon of character assassination backfired; Corbyn’s subsequent efforts to reform his new Shadow Cabinet resulted in one of the most egalitarian yet seen, with 16 of a total of 31 members being female. Although another Guardian writer subsequently attempted to cling to the charge of discrimination by claiming that the ‘top jobs’ had all gone to men, even this concession held little weight, given that what constitutes a ‘top job’ seemed open to debate.

A not so ‘special relationship’


The sensationalist antics of the press aside, it’s in the realm of foreign policy that the Labour leadership may prove most controversial. Corbyn has been a long-standing opponent of NATO membership, denouncing it in the past as one of the ‘tools of US policy in Europe’ partly responsible for renewed tensions with Russia. How this pans out over the course of the next five years is by no means certain, although his position on this issue has been noted by certain top-brass within the military.

In what constitutes perhaps the most alarming turn of events in this entire political episode, an as yet-unknown ‘general’ has stated the likelihood of a ‘mutiny’ should Corbyn push ahead with plans to scrap Britain’s nuclear weapons program, downgrade the armed forces, or withdraw from NATO.

“The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security,” said the mystery officer, in an interview with the Sunday Times. “There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny,” he added.

The as-yet-unknown soldier was also allegedly offended by certain comments made by Corbyn and his Cabinet over the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Shadow Chancellor McDonnell has gone down on record for claiming that members of the IRA, such as famous hunger-striker Bobby Sands, should be recognized for their role in the struggle against the British state.

Bobby Sands remains a controversial figure on both sides of the Irish Sea for his campaign for Prisoner of War status to be granted to IRA inmates. Demanding also that prisoners be permitted to receive visitors and wear their own attire, Sands and many other republican inmates embarked on a hunger strike. Succumbing in May 1981 after sixty-six days without food, Sands was joined in death by several of his compatriots, ultimately sealing his fate as a martyr for the cause of a unified Irish Republic.

It’s easy to see how British Army officers would not hold such a man in high regard. What is hard to fathom is why some of them might assume their own opinion should be shared by civilians such as the Shadow Chancellor, who all the same recently apologized for his remarks supporting Sands and the IRA.

Britain’s involvement in NATO may not be as important as some assume, at least from a material perspective. The UK’s armed forces are not what they once were, with the once unstoppable Royal Navy now being bereft, at least for the moment, of a single aircraft carrier. What is important, however, is the interplay between US military clout and British diplomatic savvy.

Author Mark Curtis, in his book, The Great Deception, makes an interesting case here, citing the role the UK plays in US military escapades as a legitimizing force. Arguing in relation to the US air offensive against Libya in 1986, Curtis holds that the US was able to act, if it had to, without UK assistance. Yet British support proved desirable precisely to maintain the notion that the US was not acting as a lone aggressor but as part of a broader alliance with global security as its prime concern.

Jeremy Corbyn, however, has always been a thorn in the side of power during such scenarios, having been party to a sequence of events that successfully foiled potential US/UK air strikes on Syria in 2013. In this case it would seem that the refusal of the UK to again act as junior partner to the US in a military solution in Syria played a serious role in the end of the whole plan for air strikes. The ‘special relationship’ thus showed a few cracks.

Corbyn’s foreign policy plans show little sign of diverting from such an outlook he held in regards to attacking Syria. In addition to disbanding the UK’s nuclear weapons (an issue provoking some controversy among his own allies) he stands for an altogether different approach overseas. Deeply critical of NATO’s 2011 assault on Libya, Corbyn hasn’t been shy over linking the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the cultivation of a sectarian Shia government and the now catastrophic rise of ISIS.

Yet with talk of yet further signs of rebellion in his own party, the Labour leader has a plethora of enemies at home. Not only does Corbyn have to confront possible defections and disloyalty from his own organization, but he has to face the ongoing attacks from the media. The solution may lie with those responsible for his original success: the hundreds of thousands of trade unionists, activists and citizens who elected him. What happens now will test the limits of British democracy.

Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist and blogger. He has an MA in Human Rights and is currently studying for an MSc in Global Politics at the University of Southampton. Tweets @DanielTRead