Dear Partners in thought,
In a nice fit with some Interludes on the Brexit saga and as I was intrigued about him and his strange journey, I wanted to know more about Jeremy Corbyn, the unlikely leader of the Labour Party at an incredibly challenging time for Britain. I felt that I was not the only one in the dark as to whom this unlikely leader was and where he came from. While we hear a lot about JC, we actually know very little beyond his historical radical past and the usual accusations, such as those linked to anti-Semitism, that have stuck to him for months (and we discover, years) now. So with all of this in mind, I would like to tell you about “Dangerous Hero – Corbyn’s ruthless plot for power”, a brand new book by journalist Tom Bower, once at the BBC, who has been covering news and writing books on world events and their makers since the late 1960s. TB’s book goes into Corbyn’s roots and his political journey, explaining how he was able to seize the Labour leadership, only eighteen years after Blair’s New Labour emerged and five after Gordon Brown’s sunset, taking it way leftwards in a stark contrast with his own electorate but on the strength of new party members, many of whom quite radical, whom he brought with him to change the course of British politics. The story of JC from the early 1970s to now is also a story of the Labour Party and a reminder, for those who forgot it, of the Marxist and Trotskyist radicalism of a huge segment of that party at the local authority level and the many radicalised union-led strikes and electricity shortages that were the daily experience of the British people during that socially challenging pre-Thatcher period.
To be fair, TB’s book could have been commissioned by the Tory Central Office so much it is a hatchet job on JC (however deserved it may be) so this should be borne in mind. Interestingly Tom Bower is a contemporary of JC and was even a radical student at the London School of Economics, then known as “Tom the Red” before shedding a lot of the colour as he “grew up”. With this in mind, it is quite key to remember that the JC attributes stated in this Book Note are really from TB’s book, which does come across as a never ending list of shortcomings with very few redeeming features. If all these attributes were indeed true and there is nothing to suggest otherwise, it is hard to believe that JC would be qualified to hold any type of high political office in the UK. While such a peculiar background would make his rise to the Labour leadership all the more surprising, it may also be linked to his core skill of artful insider’s political party maneuvering, which to some may indeed be JC’s only skillset since he entered politics as a radical youth.
JC was born in Wiltshire in May 1949 and joined Labour as a teenager, becoming a Trade Union representative when moving to London. In 1974 ha was elected to Haringey Council and became Secretary of the Hornsey Constituency Labour Party before being elected MP for Islington North in 1983. Being a left wing radical, he often opposed the Labour leadership throughout his career, focusing his action on anti-fascim, anti-apartheid, nuclear disarmament and a united Ireland, many positions being effectively against US and Western interests both before and after the Cold War. During the Blair and Brown years, JC often opposed “New Labour” and chaired such groups as the Stop the War Coalition. He became Labour Leader in 2015, taking the party leftwards, supporting the re-nationalisation of public utilities and the railways, a less interventionist military policy and an increase of funding for welfare and public services. Although a Eurosceptic he supported mildly remaining in the EU during the June 2016 referendum, much alike Theresa May when the Home Secretary of David Cameron’s government. He was able to secure his leadership by increasing the number of new left wing members in the Labour Party, knowing that they and not Labour voters would now decide on the party leadership. In doing so he created a gap between a radicalised Labour leadership and a much more moderate base. The most damaging criticism against JC over the last three years has been attacks on his perceived antisemitism, going back to his early years of public life and strong opposition to Israel, which he was not able to quell through clear and definite personal refutations now that he is the Labour leader.
TB interviewed a lot of the then young radical left leaders of the early seventies for his book (those, we learn, who did not commit suicide as many did), most who did not achieve political stardom as they were outside the British establishment circles. Many remembered JC though all were in agreement to state how unimpressive he was intellectually, making his rise to power at Labour all the more surprising, if not for his doggedness and “entryst” qualities (entrysm being the favourite infiltration game of left radicals wanting to take over local Labour Party committees the Marxist and “Trot” ways). We discover an uneducated JC, something that nobody knows, later going to great length to be against school elitism, even preferring for his children not to go to good schools so as not to give them an unfair advantage even if they would receive a worst education by not doing so. We see a JC who boasted about books he never read (we discover that he does not read books) or cannot manage his family finances to the point his debts will lead him to his second divorce (he remarried in 2013), providing a poor prospect for leading the country. Not understanding Marxism or Trotskyism as political “philosophies” he would nonetheless stick to all their tenets to “make the rich pay” and promote true socialism in the UK, first at the local authority of Haringey which he would eventually lead after much internecine warfare, characteristic of the Labour dynamics in the 1970s.
Quite aside from the political arena, TB takes us to a trip into JC’s private life which is not that private as politics is everything for him. We read about JC’s travels with his first wife which were not focused on having a good time in nice accommodations but on tent/camping and eating can food to her dismay even though she was also from the hard left. They even traveled to Central Europe and visited Vienna though he made the point not to enter the palace of Schoenbrunn as it was too much a sign of imperial power. Similarly they visited Czechoslovakia and Prague with JC praising the local regime for its achievements on the road to socialism, felling no sympathy for the “delusional” Prague coup, otherwise known as “Prague Spring” of 1968.
TB takes us through the life of JC as a Labour activist in Haringey, followed by his election in 1974 as a Council member and head of the public works committee while also being Secretary of the Hornsey Constituency Labour Party and head of the local National Employers Public Employees’ union or NUPE, a multiplicity of roles that would create conflicts of interests during strike times that were many in the mid-to late 70s. Interestingly Jane Chapman, his first wife, also chaired a Haringey Council Committee, most council members finding her more capable than JC. Their relationship will go gradually South, JC not caring much for their couple and its well being (as we had noted in terms of their holiday plans), being totally devoted to his cause of a hard left, Trotskyste activism.
We run into JC’s “fellow Labour travellers” among the hard left some of whom would become leading figures, like Ken Livingstone (future Mayor of London before Boris Johnson), John McDonnell (a very serious politician though of a very abrasive nature who would become Shadow Chancellor under JC after 2015), George Galloway (who would run onto many “affairs” over the years and became close to dubious foreign leaders) but also Tony Benn, a radical Labour grandee, close to JC party-wise, who shared many traditional features with the Tories given his background and the Marxist Ralph Miliband, father of Ed and David, a future left wing Labour leader (opposing David Cameron as PM) and a future New Labour foreign secretary (under Gordon Brown). Those individuals were very active in the Labour Party throughout the 1970s, creating much positioning headache for the Labour moderates and various party leaders and PMs from Harold Wilson, to Dennis Healey to Michael Foot even if the latter was not deemed a moderate. This was the time of very controversial party members with some MPs involved in lobby groups like the World Peace Organisation or the Movement for Colonial Freedom actually financed by the Soviet Union, a fact that was not always obvious at the time (JC was a member of the MCF). To those men (there were very few women though Dianne Abbott, still an active Labour MP, was one of them), all radical activists, JC was not a leader in the making but just a team member, lacking the requisite intellect and Marxist grounding to be considered leadership material unlike a Tony Benn.
While the Tories had won a general election in 1979 leading to the Thatcher and a pro-business, free markets era, harsh economic times were leading them to an eventual loss in the next general election, just garnering 20% in the polls. Then, as often in history, a foreign crisis erupted in April 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands off their shores as a way to unite its people and deflect domestic problems. The UK reacted swiftly, with backing from the U.S. and sent a naval force which eventually re-took the islands and led to the collapse of the Galtieri junta. The Falklands war united Britain with Labour led by Michael Foot supporting the Thatcher government and only a few Labour MPs and elected officials including JC to oppose military intervention. JC came across as an enemy of the UK and the U.S. and a supporter of Stalin, Mao, Castro and Galtieri, the latter even if a hard right military dictator whose views were polar opposite of JC. As the mood turned pro-Tory following the quick war (in spite of the loss of HMS Sheffield which some war opponents declared was let happen so Britain could go full force against the Argentines) the country was getting ready for the June 1983 general elections. Residents and businesses were leaving Haringey, the highest spending British local authority with the highest rates aimed at funding administrative staff increases (including two “anti-nuclear officers” charged with promoting world peace). On election day, Labour’s campaign manifesto, driven by a draconian programme of wealth confiscation, was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”. Labour that should have won handsomely pre-Falklands, did not withstand its Marxist drive and secured its worst result since 1918 with 27.6% vs. 42.4% for the once doomed Thatcherian Tories. Britain’s working class, many of whom own their cars and homes, largely voted for Margaret Thatcher.
In spite of this debacle, JC got his first parliamentary election victory and joined the reduced Labour group in Westminster. He showed no interest in the dynamics of Parliament including those of its own group, not playing as a team member and contributing little to the group and Whips’ wishes. JC displayed very personal positions on Israel (opposing it firmly while always supporting any aspect of the Palestinian cause) or Nicaragua (supporting Daniel Ortega and opposing the Contras and the U.S.) or even the IRA which was making headlines in all of the 1980s with terrorist attacks on the mainland (with JC defending the rights of jailed terrorists) or supporting the new Marxist government of Grenada that orchestrated a coup in the island. As JC started his new parliamentary career, actually allowing him at long last to have a better lifestyle, substantial disruption was erupting with the national miners’ strike and their flying pickets from Yorkshire and Scotland. The strikes which made headlines the world over were strongly supported by JC and the hard left MPs and led by Arthur Scargill, who would become the frontal opponent to Margaret Thatcher (it was later shown that the strikes were also funded by both the Soviets and Gaddafi’s Libya). When Tony Blair came to power with a strong victory for New Labour in 1997, he had to deal with two oppositions comprising the Tories who had lost power after nearly two decades and his own left wing with the likes of JC and John McDonnell (he seriously considered whether deselection was not possible but having such a strong majority decided to live with this impediment). On an amusing note following his divorce in 1999 from his second wife, Claudia, JC had a string of relationships with many women (so that the tabloids nicknamed him “Hot Trot” not getting what the attraction for this unkempt and ill-mannered man could be) until he met Laura Alvarez from Mexico, a small party activist but a great JC follower unlike his two previous wives, whom he married in 2013.
As an MP JC will only and proudly represent the hard left on domestic and foreign policy matters. He will be pushing policies that are hard core socialist if not communist including the nationalisation of banks and public transport. Internationally he will have softer stances towards the Soviet bloc during the Cold War (so much so that he met several times with Czech diplomats who were intelligence officers in London – though never betrayed). He will consistently be on the opposite side of the U.S., UK and the West in general on nearly all foreign policy matters ranging from his pro-Ira stance during the troubles (his friend, John McDonnell would publicly apologise for his support years later on the BBC), Cuba and Castro, the hard-line Islamic if not Islamist organisations, going as far as almost admiring the “skills” of the plane hijacking terrorists on 9-11, Iran, the Afghan and Iraq wars (of note, he would be “right” about the WMDs, not that his general intent was not misplaced initially), Gaddafi and Lybia, and of course Israel generally (resurrecting the now topical question regarding the link between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism that have plagued his leadership). As stated JC was very-Eurosceptic, not hiding his historical disdain for the EU as a capitalist pot against the masses. On the central subject of terrorism across Europe and the response to it, JC will always find it hard to support the killings of terror’s perpetrators like in the wake of the Paris November 2015 attacks, ideally preferring bringing the culprits to the courts, however unrealistic the ideal option. Hugo Chavez and then Nicolas Maduro became JC’s favourites as they were pushing Venezuelan socialism, this in spite of creating the most indebted country in the world particularly as oil prices would also plunge. Later on as the Syrian civil war would worsen, JC would want to wait for tangible proof to agree that the regime had been behind the deadly mass-chemical attack against children as footage might have been fabricated by the West.
We go through the period when Labour goes back gradually to its 1970s roots and Ed Miliband defeats in a less than brotherly contest the moderate David Miliband for party leadership bringing back the party to the left though not left enough for the likes of JC, John McDonnell or former JC flame, Dianne Abbott. The Blair legacy comes under attack and the moderates will lose power culminating with the likes of Andrew Burnham and Yvette Cooper (the latter whose name we hear on cross-party anti-Brexit amendments in 2019) losing against JC who reluctantly, at least on the surface, decided to run for party leader on the grounds that it was his “turn” and he “would do it after all”. Being a polite kind and not attracting criticism at the personal level, in spite of his positions at the odd of traditional Labour on many issues, he will eventually win the leadership contest in 2015. One of the reasons why he will win is that 66% of party members identified with the left while only 33% of Labour voters did. JC benefitted from a new rule whereby party members or those who paid 3 pounds would select the party leader at a time where the unions and Unite, a trade main union, in particular organised substantial increase in party membership. Thanks to the rule that sidelined the Labour MPs who were in the past choosing their leader Labour was able to go radical left in no time, even if by then JC and McDonnell were trying hard to shed any Communist or Trotskyist credentials due to the responsibilities they were about to assume (McDonnell donned a blue suit, white shirt and tie and JC became a bit more sartorial in no time). I will not cover the well-known period from when JC seizes the party leadership in 2015 which will be a continuation of half-hearted efforts at all levels to repudiate a radical past so as to appear potential Number 10 material, unbelievable neglect about antisemistim accusations against him and the top of the Labour team and a very ambivalent stance in relation to the June 2016 referendum due to a deep Euro-scepticism leading to a very mild involvement for the Remain camp, while Labour voters (though possibly not party members) were overwhelmingly Remainers. While the book does not cover it as the move was too recent, it is notable (on the positive side, at least for me) that JC finally and after a long time stated he supported a second referendum (the type to be clarified) even if only to stop a likely flow of Labour MP defection to the Independent Group in February.
It is difficult to rejoice at the quality (or lack thereof) of the Tory leadership as seen during the nearly three years of the Brexit process (including the fateful decision of David Cameron to make good on his promise to his hard right, nationalistic wing to hold a referendum if he won in 2015). However the ascent of JC to the Labour leadership created an impossibly shambolic “rock and a hard place” political landscape for Britain between a morphing radical left Labour as for its leaders and a gradually dysfunctional, irrational Conservative Party steered to “notional” sovereignty and economic self-harm by hard right, delusional Tory ideologues. In the absence of a sensible center, exemplified by a weak Liberal Democratic Party and in spite of new developments such as with the newish Independent group in February, Britain is faced with no sensible choice were to come a General Election. The most likely scenario would be a Tory victory based on Labour’s radicalism and leadership style but it would only come as a lesser of two evils. In many ways and strangely, while the Conservative party is imploding on Brexit (signing the death warrant of the most successful Western political party of the last 100 years), the Tories must find some solace in knowing that they might still come back to power in case of a General Election mainly thanks to JC and his top team that won party leadership but could never garner a majority of voters so out of touch they really are with economic and geopolitical reality. Now and having said this, as we contemplate the potential Brexit self harm potentially ahead, anything is possible and the race may be wide open given the contenders.
After reading TB’s book one wonders how someone so unskilled in so many fields and and unfit for main political party leadership or high office could have achieved what he did. Sadly it may be too accurate a reflection of where the British political establishment stands today as amply demonstrated with the amazing Brexit process the world has witnessed thus far. And I say this with great sorrow, hoping that the indispensable Britain the world knew and I loved for many years can find itself again.
PS: If I wanted to be facetious (admittedly more than usual) I would wonder if JC was not betting on a deep collapse of the UK post-Brexit (while making all the tactically wise noises about the abhorrent “No Deal” option) to benefit from a deeply economically wounded British society that would more easily be tempted by the kind of radical changes he espoused all his life…While he might likely seize upon my idea with delight, one thing that refrains me from expressing that possibility is that we now know (if we believe Tom Bower) that he would not have read Machiavelli…