Understanding the Corbyn Phenomenon

By John Weeks

Labour Party Rebellion of 2016

Cross-country political comparisons mislead by creating an illusion of insight.  The attempt to compare Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn provides a clear example.  While both rose to prominence through a wave of popular rebellion, the political context and constraints each faces are substantially different.

Passing from the misleading to the bizarre are comparisons of Corbyn to Trump because each represents a rebellion against his party’s establishment.  Though true, this basis for comparison is substantially less valid than equating cats and cows because they both are quadrupeds.

Trump came to the Republican primaries very much the arriviste, advocating a mixed bag of policies that while consistently reactionary in sum, in their detail shift and bend with the momentary political wind.  By stark contrast, within the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn for over thirty years has consistently advocated domestic policies within the British and broader European social democratic tradition.

Corbyn the Extremist?

Could it be that Trump and Corbyn share a fatal flaw, that ultimate political sin in electoral democracies of extremism?  The answer to that question depends on what we mean by “political extremism”, which I define as 1) advocating political actions that break social consensus about acceptable discourse, and 2) supporting non-legal methods to achieve those outcomes.

Discriminating against people by racial, ethnic or religious attacks and sanctioning violence to achieve that discrimination would qualify as extremist.  Advocating unpopular positions and actions, actions supported by a small portion of the population, is not extremism.  As Thomas Carlyle famously wrote, “Every new opinion, at its starting, is precisely in a minority of one”.

By the above two-part definition Trump is an extremist and Corbyn is not.  First, Corbyn’s domestic policies come from solid social democratic principles.  Anti-austerity stands as the center piece of this economic policies, shared with the Scottish National Party, the Green Party and the National Party of Wales (Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru), as well as Podemos Unidos in Spain.

At the program level, Corbyn favors re-nationalization of the railroads, reversing piecemeal privatization of the National Health Service, and strict regulation of the financial sector.  While radical in the British context (and in the United States), these do not qualify as extreme policies.  They are bed-rock social democratic.

On foreign policy abandoning nuclear weapons represents Corbyn’s outstanding break with the past.  Far from extreme, Britain “going non-nuclear” is completely sensible: the necessary and urgently necessary refurbishing of this military program (“Trident”) would be staggeringly expensive and make no contribution to national security (as Tony Blair states in his autobiography).  In practice the “British nuclear option” is not British, because it could not be used without prior agreement from the US government.

The Corbyn foreign policies that might most strike Americans as “extreme” are probably 1) his opposition to NATO, and 2) his strong support for Palestinian rights.  The first qualifies for Carlyle’s judgment about new opinions.  The Eisenhower government created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to block Soviet influence in Western Europe, closely linked to rejection of the Soviet proposal in 1954 for a united and neutral Germany.

Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union NATO is little more than an anti-Russian alliance dominated by US national interests.  The proposed EU defense force is the obvious 21st century vehicle for European security.  The continuation of NATO blocks progress for a common EU military force.

On Middle East policy Corbyn has abandoned his support for  Hamas and Hezbollah, while remaining a severe critic of the Israel government.  This combination moves him into the spectrum of mainstream opinion in Europe on the Middle East and consistent with official EU policy.

Corbyn like Bernie Sanders has focused on domestic not international policy.  To the extent that Corbyn has addressed foreign policy issues he has taken consistently progressive, event radical positions that are not extreme.

A Very Blairite [Bungled] Coup

In Britain, or more accurately in England, Jeremy Corbyn faces relentless criticism especially from Labour Party members of the House of Commons (the Parliamentary Labour Party, PLP).  Last week in an ad hoc gathering of the PLP, three-quarters of the MPs voted for Corbyn to resign (172-40).

The only thing surprising about this apparently overwhelming rejection of Corbyn is that the anti-Corbyn MPs took so long to screw up their courage to act.  A purge of left wing MPs began in the 1980s under Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock and was continued with gusto by Tony Blair.  When Ed Miliband became leader in 2010 the PLP was solidly neoliberal, “Blairite”.

Miliband introduced a reform of the process to select the party leader that eliminated the power of the PLP.  Before the reform the Labour Party operated with something akin to an electoral college in which the PLP held one-third of the vote.  The Miliband reform created a strict one-person-one-vote, passing power to the party membership.  Little did the party establishment realize the consequences of the rule change.

The Labour Party suffered a devastating defeat in the 2010 general election after which Ed Miliband resigned and set in process a contest for his replacement.  To stand as candidate for leader an MP required 17 nominations from the PLP.  Corbyn made it literally in the last minute before the deadline with the minimum number of pledges.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.  The opportunity to vote for a social democrat rather than one of three exceedingly dull neoliberals set loose a massive wave of grassroots enthusiasm that led to Corbyn sweeping up almost 60% of the votes in the first round.  When in September 2015 Jeremy Corbyn assumed leadership of the party, the overwhelmingly neoliberal PLP reeled with horror.

And they immediately began a campaign, often shambolic and always devious and without principle, to overthrow the choice of the party membership.

During September 2015 through April 2016 the PLP Blairites engaged in constant undermining of the new leader and his shadow cabinet.  They would not attempt a formal challenge for the leadership because of their weakness at the grassroots.  As pointed out by the Financial Times, the Blairite establishment had for two decades consciously distanced itself from the party base.

Thus, the Blairite old guard required some deus ex machine development to facilitate a Corbyn coup.  They Blairites on the local elections in early May 2016 to do their dirty work.  Erstwhile Labour grandees warned that the party faced disaster, in imminent danger of Conservative gains across England.

In the event the electoral gods did not favor them. With over 2500 seat contested, the Labour Party lost 18 (for a total of 1326).  The Conservatives dropped 48, falling to a total of 842.  In addition, the elections brought victory to the Labour candidate for mayor of London after eight years of misrule by Tory Boris Johnson.  Try as they might neither the Blairite MPs nor their sympathizers in the media could spin the electoral outcomes as summing to a disaster.

To add to the gloom of the anti-Corbyn plotters, the Labour Party candidate to replace Khan in the House of Commons increased the winning majority, from Khan’s 2842 votes to 6357, a remarkable result for a “bye election”.  Corbyn may indeed be “unelectable” as his enemies alleged, but it has not manifested itself in the vote counts.

Neoliberalism vs. Social Democracy

Now into July the central dilemma of the PLP Blairites persists.  They desperately want to regain control of the party after losing it to the grassroots, but to achieve that goal they must have the support of the grassroots to defeat Corbyn.  While many assert that Corbyn has lost support across the party base, the Blairite plotters appear loath to take a chance on it.

Until a few days ago their preferred choice to challenge for leadership was Angela Eagle, former member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.  Her changes of success, slim a week ago, are now close to zero.  Just a few days ago a long gestating report on the conflict in Iraq delivered a devastating critique of the Blair government, and Eagle was among those Labour MPs that voted in favor of the war.

As of early July Corbyn’s PLP enemies find themselves lacking a candidate to replace him and lacking the support to elect that candidate if they find one.  At stake is not competence or electability.  The fight is over who will control the Labour Party and for what purpose.

The Blairites seek the removal of Corbyn in order to reestablish late 20th century neoliberalism as the political philosophy of the party.  Corbyn and his supporters would move the party forward to social democracy for the 21st century.

Neoliberalism versus social democracy, it really is that simple as I will elaborate in my next article.





Alone Now: From Hope to Brexit Despair

By John Weeks

Original cartoon appeared in the Evening Standard June 1940 after Dunkirk evacuation & surrender of France, by David Low with caption “very well, alone then”.
Original cartoon appeared in the Evening Standard June 1940 after Dunkirk evacuation & surrender of France, by David Low with caption “very well, alone then”.

A Tale of Two Summers

The summer of 2015 brought a spectacularly bright ray of progressive hope to the United Kingdom: the increasingly obvious likelihood that a socialist would soon lead the near-moribund Labour Party. After almost 20 years of Thatcher-lite neoliberal policies, the grassroots membership voted overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn to take leadership of the Labour Party.

The progressive victory proved short-lived. Less than year later, the far Right would achieve its greatest victory in British electoral history, winning the IN/OUT referendum on the European Union through a campaign of flagrant xenophobia and racism. Attempts to portray the referendum result as a rejection of globalization, an opening for “progressive nationalists,” or a recapturing of democracy lost to Brussels confront an extremely inconvenient fact: the most reactionary UK political party drove the OUT campaign with a message of fear of foreigners and especially of Muslims (see UKIP poster).

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage standing in front of a UKIP poster showing a crowd of alleged EU immigrants with an obvious implication of a Muslim horde.
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage standing in front of a UKIP poster showing a crowd of alleged EU immigrants with an obvious implication of a Muslim horde.


That the overwhelming majority in Scotland, the most social democratic region of the United Kingdom,  favors  remaining in the European Union,  further indicates the reactionary politics of so-called Brexit. As the consistently progressive and anti-racist UK journalist Gary Younge wrote,

[The Leave campaign] unleashed a range of demons it could not tame and then refused to face them honestly, preferring to wade to the finish line through a toxic swamp of postcolonial nostalgia, xenophobia and general disaffection

What OUT Did Not Mean

The post-referendum misrepresentations rival and reflect the lies peddled during the campaign. First and foremost, the suggestion that the British Isles would enjoy more “sovereignty” outside of the European Union  is nonsense. The grain of truth in that campaign assertion is that capitalists operating in Britain will enjoy less regulation, because UK consumer protection, guarantees of workers rights, and restrictions on environmental degradation are far stronger in EU law than British law.

Second, the infamous and eponymous “Brussels bureaucrats” exert almost no influence, much less control, over British economic policy. The British government refused to join into the package of fiscal rules that are the most pernicious element of the EU Treaties (Britain has a formal “opt-out”, as does Denmark). The savage policies enforced on Greece and to a lesser extent Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain would be impossible to implement in Britain, because they derive from membership in the eurozone (the British government also negotiated an “opt-out” from the requirement that if it meets specified criteria a country must join the eurozone).

Third, for better or for worse with the exception of Scotland the referendum outcome will not encourage separatism in the European Union. On the contrary, the boost of right wing parties will lead to them overwhelming the few substantial separatist movements on the continent, most obviously in Spain.

Fourth, I am very skeptical that British withdrawal will prompt “reform” of EU governance of any type (see the hopeful article by German parliamentarian Norbert Röttgen, no doubt sincere but fanciful). The German government’s power over EU decisions varies between strong and hegemonic. That power and the austerity policies it has forced upon the continent very much serve the interests of German industry and banks.

Domestic austerity keeps wages and thus export costs down; austerity for the rest of the eurozone enforces the servicing of public debt held by German banks. More likely than German led reform is German enforced consolidation of a smaller European Union around appallingly reactionary domestic policies and a mercantilist trade strategy.

What the Referendum Did Mean for the British Isles

Above all the referendum outcome means strengthening right-wing political parties and ideology on the continent and in the British Isles. This fallout from a campaign of overt xenophobia and thinly disguised racism should surprise no one.

Progressive forces in the British Isles have suffered a triple blow. First, the strong OUT vote in England (53%) and stronger IN vote for Scotland (62%) lay the basis for a second Scottish independence referendum. In 2014 the independence referendum lost 45% to 55%.

However, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, perhaps the canniest politician of the British Isles, may read the Brexit result as a harbinger of success for a second referendum. Should a majority of Scottish voters choose independence it would prove virtually impossible for the parliament in London to prevent a breakup of the United Kingdom.

The consequence for progressives of a “Great Britain” made up of England, Wales and Northern Ireland would be dire. The likelihood is extremely low of the Labour Party winning a majority of the parliamentary seats in England. In Wales, the Labour Party holds most of the seats, but they are few in number—only 40 of 650 (with 59 in Scotland).

For decades, the Labour Party could hope for Wales and Scotland to cover its losses in England and Northern Ireland, but Scottish independence would mean either a near-permanent Conservative majority in “Britain” or a Labour Party re-conversion to neoliberalism to court voters in the South of England.

The second blow arrived quickly: an attempt by the center-right of the Labour party to depose Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership. Since the moment of Corbyn’s election as head of the party the so-called Blairites have conspired to undermine his leadership. Their objection to Corbyn is political: he fights for a re-invigoration of social democracy based on trade union support, and the Blairites seek to maintain neoliberalism in the interest of capital.

Those Labour Party MPs who led the coup have more in common with the Conservative Party than with Corbyn. They favor renewal of the country’s nuclear weapons, reduction of the fiscal deficit through expenditure cuts, and support for the financial sector. Right-of-centre Labour abhors the policies that won Corbyn the leadership: commitment to terminate nuclear weapons, end austerity, and tight regulation of  “the City”.

As I write this article, the Parliamentary Labour Party is in the process of voting overwhelmingly to pressure Corbyn to resign. Because of his grassroots support and the rules for electing Labour leaders, the vote, likely to be more than two-to-one against Corbyn, cannot in itself depose him. But at best Labour’s first social democrat leader in decades will be severely weakened.

This intra-party challenge to Corbyn follows directly from Brexit. Perhaps even more serious is that the OUT victory has unleashed a wave of overt racism. Only four days after the referendum, the soon-to-be-replaced Prime Minister David Cameron found it necessary to denounce what he called “despicable” acts against foreigners throughout England (watch speech on the BBC). Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian journalist, pointed out the irony: Cameron ran a pro-EU campaign with a promise to reduce migration and now is forced to denounce the xenophobic results of that promise.

Independence of Scotland leaving a neoliberal rump Kingdom, near-fatal weakening of a progressive leader, and a rising wave of racism—these are the fruits of victory for the pro-Brexit forces.

What the Referendum Did Mean on the Continent

If anyone hoped that Brexit would strengthen progressive forces on the continent those hopes quickly evaporated. Quite the contrary has occurred with alarming rapidity.

On the Sunday after the UK referendum Spain held its second general election in less than a year. In December 2015 Europe’s largest progressive coalition, Podemos, came close to an electoral break-through. It won 20% of the vote in its first entry onto the national scene, less than two percentage points short of replacing the Socialists as the leading opposition party. The inability of any grouping to form a government resulted in a second election, held last Sunday.

Polls suggested that the broadened coalition, Unidos Podemos, would leap past the Socialists to second place nationally, laying the basis for a new Spanish government committed to end austerity. In the event the Right gained. Seats won by Unidos Podemos came from the Socialists, a swap within the left of center. After substantial losses in December 2015, the right-wing Peoples’ Party gained fifteen seats and will continue its hold on government.

Elsewhere in Europe the Brexit vote emboldened the ultra-right. In France Marine Le Pen, leader of the neo-fascist National Front, immediately promised an OUT referendum. In the Netherlands, the virulently anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders called for a referendum on EU membership. Were this to occur, it would follow closely on the Dutch electorate’s defeat of a referendum for closer links between the European Union and Ukraine in which Wilders played a prominent role.

The Reality of the UK Far Right

A majority of working class and poor white English men and women voted to leave the European Union. To consider that vote as progressive because of its class origin represents the equivalent of taking a favorable view of Donald Trump because he harvests the votes of white working class Americans.

Gary Younge, quoted above, succinctly summarized Brexit:

Not everyone, or even most, of the people who voted leave were driven by racism. But the leave campaign imbued racists with a confidence they have not enjoyed for many decades and poured arsenic into the water supply of our national conversation.

It may be that this surge of the Right and weakening of progressive movements will prove a passing moment, soon to be replaced by a blossoming of Brexit-provoked grassroots democracy and social democracy throughout the British Isles and the European continent.

But don’t plan on it, because there is no indication of it.

John Weeks is a professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.