Left Turns in Britain: Jeremy Corbyn and the Battle Over the Labour Party

The ongoing political battle for leadership of the UK’s Labour party is highlighting some important tensions, not just within the left, but the political climate across the nation.

With Members of Parliament in revolt over fresh welfare cuts and the unashamed leftist Jeremy Corbyn now set to win the leadership of the Labour party, we are without a doubt headed for dramatic times in British politics.

This is something to get excited about. Indeed, last May, the left-leaning forces at home and internationally were left dumbstruck when the Conservative Party shot to victory in the general election after winning some eleven million votes.

This defeat, while not entirely unexpected, led to an unwelcome intrusion by former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Blair, still seemingly unperturbed by the fallout from leading Britain into the brutal and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, was quick to argue that the Conservative victory had been won by Labour’s unpopular leftward policies. The solution, apparently, lies with a “return to the center ground” in the hopes of regaining popularity from an electorate allegedly put off by progressive ideals.

Corbyn’s popularity suggests otherwise. In what was generally a sequence of losses for Labour on the election night of May 7th, Corbyn racked up some sixty percent of the vote in his London constituency of Islington North.

John McDonnell, another dissident Labour MP not operating under the delusion that “socialism” is a dirty word, likewise rallied almost sixty percent of voters for Hayes and Harlington. Dennis Skinner, a former miner known for his scathing sense of satire within the House of Commons, won the support of over twenty two thousand citizens at Bolsover, leaving Conservative challenger Peter Bedford flailing with less half of that figure.

So what’s all the fuss about? For one, the above successes highlight a certain flaw in the argument that only “moderate” or indeed right-wing ideas strike a resonance with the British public. If straying too far to the left cost Labour the general election and “old socialist” ideas are universally hated, then you might think that politicians known for espousing such notions would find themselves out of a job. When the reverse appeared to happen, and with a leftist contender for party leader swiftly winning the support of Labour members across the country, it seems that there may be other factors involved.

Jeremy Corbyn’s actual policies have a deceptive potential, if only because political conservatism has become such a staunch edifice in British politics that any shift leftwards can open up broader vistas for change. In the domestic sphere there is nothing excessively radical in what he is proposing; the rail service is to be potentially re-nationalized, existing laws would be stringently pursued to crack down on corporate tax avoidance, while additional revenue would be created with the scrapping of Britain’s ailing nuclear deterrent, Trident.

But it’s his stance on trade unionism and foreign policy that are of particular note. Whereas the Conservatives have been unrelenting in their efforts to impose yet more restrictions on the once powerful British trade union movement, Corbyn has long seen the historic link between the unions and democracy as of vital importance, something that speaks volumes to millions of working people.

Unsurprisingly this had led to the support of huge swathes of the trade union movement, including the largest in Britain, Unite, with a membership of well over one million. In very stark terms, the General Secretary of the Communications Workers Union, Dave Ward, claimed in late July that the “grip of the Blairites” on Labour “must now be loosened once and for all.

“There is a virus within the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn is the antidote,” he added.

In foreign affairs, Corbyn has a prominent role in the Stop the War Coalition, itself an umbrella organisation of various political organizations originally founded to oppose Britain’s role in the alleged “War on Terror.”

Since then he has often applied his parliamentary credentials in denouncing further British military adventures abroad, having been one of many Labour MPs that were instrumental in defeating proposals for joint UK/US strikes on Syria in 2013. As such it seems likely that a Corbyn victory would conceivably serve as a restraint on further foreign policy debacles, not just in the Middle East, but episodes such as the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya and the escalating tensions in Ukraine.

Indeed, a notably controversial aspect of Corbyn’s campaign is his dim view of NATO. In an article written by himself for the Morning Star in the summer of last year, Corbyn blasted NATO as one of the “tools of US policy in Europe” whose expansion had “particularly increased tensions with Russia.” In a somewhat vacuous article in the News Statesman in late July, Corbyn was even quoted as believing the UK’s membership of the alliance was a mistake, although how this may play out in the future, given Britain’s declining military strength, is hard to gauge.

Closer to home, however, it’s the disappointment felt at the prospects of yet another five years of Conservative rule that’s behind much of the upheaval within Labour’s ranks. The situation for some of the most vulnerable strata of the population has noticeably darkened since the initial Conservative electoral victory in 2010, with government austerity policies coupled with economic crisis contributing to numerous problems, from homelessness to malnutrition to unemployment and suicide.

Such maladies are worth focusing on in that they provide an effective backdrop to the political and social ferment currently impacting much of Europe. The UK remains one of the more economically impetuous nations within the European Union, retaining an impressive position as the world’s fifth richest economy. Despite the downgrading – much to the embarrassment of our Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne – of our credit rating from its triple A status in late 2013, Britain retains significant economic clout.

Unsurprisingly, such an impressive abundance of wealth does not entail an easy life for all. In a Toward Freedom investigation last year, it was discovered that one in ten British citizens had recently claimed to have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, many of them within the previous five years. The number of homeless individuals sleeping on the streets had increased by thirty six percent over 2013 alone, with suicide proving endemic among the most vulnerable.

In a genuinely bizarre display of callousness, certain areas of London were also found to be playing host to special “spike beds” which were effectively designed to prevent rough sleepers from lying down outside of places of business or affluent residences. Certain human beings, it seemed, were being viewed as irritants best sent on their way.

Various government measures such as the notorious “bedroom tax” (an under-occupation penalty forcing tenants to face a reduction in housing benefits if they are found to be living in a property with a spare bedroom) that are playing a palpably destructive role. The government’s attitude towards housing provisions in particular has proven a controversial subject, something which led to a brief but heated rift with United Nation’s officials in 2013.

Indeed, after compiling a report on the UK housing situation, the then UN rapporteur, Raquel Rolnik, specifically cited the “bedroom tax” as having “an enormous impact on [a citizen’s] right to housing and also on other human rights, like the right to food [and] the right to education.”

This incident, which led to some interesting backlash from Conservative politicians unaccustomed to being criticised, shed light on the UK’s adherence to human rights norms. particular its obligations under article eleven of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and, arguably, article eight of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) specifically.

It seems to have been downhill from this point on, with Prime Minister David Cameron being suitably irked after earning the ire of Amnesty International. In its recent annual report, Amnesty was deeply critical of the UK, even going as far as to accuse the country of “leading the charge” against human rights globally. A variety of alleged infractions were subsequently cited, including possible war crimes carried out by British troops in Iraq, as well as cuts to legal aid at home that may potentially infringe on the rights of individuals to appropriate representation in the courts.

The government subsequently became more adamant over proposals to completely remove Britain from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Releasing a policy document prior to the May election, a new “British Bill of Rights” was further eLabourated upon, something which, according to the government, would thus be “rooted in our values” as the “country that wrote Magna Carta” and liberated “Europe from fascism”. While not engaging in spurious claims to an alleged “mission creep” of European influence on British affairs, the document outlined further measures to place judicial authority over human rights cases with the UK supreme court, thus limiting the authority of the ECtHR.

It’s this “Euroscpetic” tradition that has been repeatedly employed by the government to cast suspicion over institutions such as the ECtHR. Despite at times advising caution on a blanket endorsement of continued EU membership, Corbyn himself has come out in favor of a united Europe, citing “our hard won human rights” as something specifically being targeted by government hostility to Brussels.

Yet it’s the furore over welfare policy that again came to a head recently when a string of amendments to existing legislation prompted outrage in the House of Commons. Despite the Welfare Reform and Work Bill being approved by some 308 to 124 votes, forty eight Labour party MPs rebelled against directives from their own leadership to abstain, rather than vote against, measures that will lead to a further twelve billion pounds in welfare cuts.

This incident is telling in that it highlights serious divisions within the Labour party as to how they are to function as an opposition. For those demoralised by what happened last May, the fact that the acting party leadership opted to abstain, rather than directly oppose, renewed austerity policies is quite startling. Jeremy Corbyn’s nomination for leadership and mounting success may thus seem like a ray of hope in an otherwise perpetually bleak sky.

Yet not everyone feels that way. Evidently unsettled by Corbyn’s mounting popularity, certain Labour high-flyers have gone as far as to advocate his immediate overthrow should he win the mantle of party leader.

“I can’t see any case for letting him have two minutes in office, let alone two years,” said John McTernan, himself a Labour party political advisor, in an interview for The Spectator.

“In the unlikely event Corbyn wins, [it matters that] something is done swiftly and quickly to restore the party to its sense,” he argued.

What about party members who disagree? Apparently it’s not a concern, at least for McTernan, who went on to dismiss any and all dissenting voices as being out of touch with modern political discourse.

“Who cares about the grassroots?” he said, “the leader is one who determines the saleability of the Labour party. How the Labour party in the twenty first century, at a time when Putin is at his most aggressive, can consider electing a leader who would take us out of NATO I have no idea, genuinely no idea.”

“Why is that acceptable for the Labour party and why party members of all sorts think that is acceptable to the electorate I have no idea,” he added.

For a political advisor to have “no idea” on so many fundamental questions is one thing, but it’s a serious matter to advocate the effective overruling of an internal election if he happens to dislike the result. But for all his apparent lack of ideas, McTernan has helped to highlight a stark divide in the party ranks, most notably between the grassroots members he claims to not care about and the careerists in desperate fear of a Corbyn victory.

Unfortunately he’s not alone. Members of Parliament John Mann and Graham Stringer have joined a chorus of voices within the party demanding the election be halted due to alleged infiltration from the far-left.

There may be something to this. Over the course of the current contest tens of thousands of new recruits have entered the party, with many of them expected to back Corbyn in the upcoming vote. But do such individuals constituent a “far-left” in British society? And if so, what does that actually mean?

Thus far critics have been far from clear, preferring instead to make ominous noises regarding allegedly out-dated political ideologies that will presumably render Labour unelectable in the foreseeable future. Yvette Cooper, herself running for the leadership as a softer alternative to the Blairite Liz Kendall (who is also, incidentally, running dead-last in the polls) has also weighed in, claiming “we have a choice of two futures“; one of success (with her, presumably) and one of perpetual defeat (with Corbyn).

As crude and opportunistic as such an argument may seem, it does highlight just how uncomfortable the higher echelons of the party have become at the prospect of a potential return to leftist policies. The arguments being put forward against Corbyn often seem to imitate the prose of Tony Blair in both form and content, in the process relying upon a distinctly right-wing notion that the only alternative to the status quo is simply more of the status quo, albeit it with perhaps a softer edge.

With Jeremy Corbyn rapidly outpacing his closest contenders in the leadership polls, it seems that, whatever happens, the legacy of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” may be about to be finally put to rest. The future for the British left just became considerably more interesting.

Daniel Read is a freelance journalist specialising in human rights and international affairs. He possesses a BA in journalism alongside an MA in human rights, and is currently studying for an Msc in global politics at University of Southampton, UK. Twitter: @DanielTRead. Also see Read’s blog, www.uncommonsense.me