The Saga of Jeremy Corbyn: A Primer for an American Audience

By Petr Knava | Politics | September 13, 2016 | Comments ()

By Petr Knava | Politics | September 13, 2016 |


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I sit here on this hungover Tuesday and it occurs to me that while there is always a deluge of news arriving from your side of the Atlantic, I can never be sure of how much information percolates in the other direction — and of what nature. So I sit, and I glug coffee, and I think: we are about to head into September, an important month for politics here; just how much do the Yanks know of the saga of Jeremy Corbyn — lone man of virtue in a den of iniquity? Perhaps it might not be the biggest waste of time for me to glug some more coffee, force a keyboard in front of my hands, and provide an easy-to-follow primer for an American audience?

So then, this here is the story of how last September Jeremy Corbyn’s life got flipped turned upside down; how through and around him a movement was born; and how his party and the media have tried to silence and destroy him with scorn.

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Our story begins on September 12th, 2015, when one Jeremy Corbyn, a backbench Labour Party MP with a thirty-year history of opposing war and championing social justice and democratic socialism, unexpectedly wins the Labour Leadership Election to become the party’s leader.

He wins with the largest mandate in the history of the party. He wins by more than three times the number of votes of the candidate in second place. And he wins the first round of the election by such a wide margin that party rules state there is no need for a second.

You might be wondering how such an overwhelming victory can be called ‘unexpected.’

It’s at this point we should take a little detour.

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It can be called ‘unexpected’ because Corbyn’s victory was not like the explosion resulting from a projectile whose inexorably unfolding ballistic trajectory one could clearly see and track; rather it was as the build-up of invisible seismic forces that lead to an earthquake. It was unexpected because Jeremy Corbyn’s name should not even have been able to make it onto the ballot of the Labour Party — a party that has become over the decades a ‘labour’ party in name only as it shifted further and further to the right and enthusiastically embraced policies in line with the Reagan-Thatcher-created global neoliberal ‘consensus’. Tony Blair, the charismatic young new hope of Labour who won a landslide general election in 1997, was once referred to by Margaret Thatcher as her ‘greatest achievement.’ He was, it turned out, no hope for anyone but a specific class of professional, PR-trained politicians who wanted to continue the transformation of the Labour Party into a friendly partner to big capital and a vehicle for their own advancement.

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Between 1997 and 2010, the Labour Party won three general elections under Tony Blair, but at the same time lost five million votes. Whole swathes of the country, sickened and disillusioned by its desertion of its core values, gradually abandoned it; allowing the Conservative Party to win the election in 2010 — though without an outright majority. Luckily for them, an opportunistic Liberal Democrat Party allowed them to form a coalition, which meant they could assume power and subsequently begin to enact a suite of punitive, ideologically-driven, and economically illiterate austerity policies. For years, even as economists turned against it, and later even otherwise regressive governments and the IMF abandoned it, the Cameron government forged relentlessly ahead with the austerity agenda. Destroying local services; gutting welfare programs; and beginning the final push for the privatization of the National Health Service — the aggressive attacks against the poorest and most disadvantaged in British society could have been seen as almost comical in their scope were they not deleteriously and brutally affecting the lives of millions.

The Labour Party, desperate to get back into power, began a campaign of cheap imitation, running on a ‘Tory-lite’ platform of mimicked slogans and watered-down policies. They no longer had the slick charm of Tony Blair, however; and the public, too, had by this point grown wise to its facade and — sick of the lack of an alternative set of policies being put forward — deserted it even more, instead turning to smaller, fringe parties that spoke — at least on the surface — to their troubles, or leaving off voting altogether.

If there was still any doubt as to which way the wind was blowing, the general election of 2015 put paid to that. Scotland, that most stalwart Labour holdout, historically the safest of safe seats for the party, delivered a damming verdict on its direction. In the course of a few hours Labour went from holding forty-one seats there to just one. Scotland let ring the cry loud and clear: Labour’s desertion of its values was now common knowledge, and unless it began to offer a genuine alternative it was a spent force. The Conservative Party’s victory in that election also spoke of a wider truth: the public’s general disengagement from party politics. It won a majority this time, but it did so with just 36.9% of the vote — not exactly a sign of a healthy democracy, whatever your political persuasion.

This, then, was the landscape in which the Labour Party — disheartened and desperate — shed its then leader, Ed Miliband, and held a leadership election in the summer of 2015. In order to secure a place on the ballot an MP had to get thirty-five other MPs to sponsor their nomination. Three figures emerged, all essentially identical, policy-wise; and all straining to channel that illusive Blair ‘winning charm’. A fourth candidate — a bearded backbencher as distinct from the young, slick things as is just about possible — added himself almost reluctantly. Quiet and unassuming, but deeply passionate about social justice and carrying a potent legacy of activism, seeing Jeremy Corbyn’s name added to the ballot was received wildly differently by people depending on their personal political inclination.

Just within the Labour Party itself the spectrum of opinion proved considerable. Corbyn’s addition to the ballot was partially criticised by party insiders as giving a platform to an ‘outdated, unelectable’ figure; welcomed by those few progressive MPs who remained; and partially secretly celebrated as a cynical PR move designed to give the appearance of a broad spectrum of choice, and of a dialogue going on within the party. The idea of him winning, of course, never entered anyone’s mind. One of the right-wing candidates would instead naturally lope to victory and business as usual could continue. Struggling to achieve the required thirty-five nominations, Corbyn just managed to pass that post — two minutes before the deadline. Months later, many of the right-wing MPs who had put their name down in support of Corbyn’s nomination as a cynical ploy would come to regret that move.

For you see, the Labour Party — desperate for voter engagement — had previously changed its rules so as to allow anyone who paid £3 to have a say in its leadership election. As a result, thousands upon thousands of people, from older Labour supporters long grown jaded with the party to the young people who had never before seen the point of engaging with politics, signed up to vote for a politician of principle and conviction. Jeremy Corbyn won by a landslide.

And, that, I believe is where we came in.

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The Parliamentary Labour Party, having long ago become a home for politicians diametrically opposed to the kind of principles upon which the party was founded, is apoplectic at Corbyn’s win. How dare the public try overturn its managerial, top-down style of politics? It goes on the attack. The media, too — so long comfortable hosting a debate that stretched no further left than the Blair-worshipping Guardian newspaper would allow — joins the hostile chorus. The attacks run the gamut from mockery to dismissal to slander. Lies and distortions are slung at such a rate so as to defy belief; proving almost a case study in the lighter touch propaganda model that the Western media peddles so well. The prestigious London School of Economics (LSE) would later produce an empirical study titled ‘Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press’. In it, it would conclude:

Our analysis shows that Corbyn was thoroughly delegitimised as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate and even more so after he was elected as party leader, with a strong mandate. This process of delegitimisation occurred in several ways: 1) through lack of or distortion of voice; 2) through ridicule, scorn and personal attacks; and 3) through association, mainly with terrorism.

All this raises, in our view, a number of pressing ethical questions regarding the role of the media in a democracy. Certainly, democracies need their media to challenge power and offer robust debate, but when this transgresses into an antagonism that undermines legitimate political voices that dare to contest the current status quo, then it is not democracy that is served.

You can watch a short video on this here:


Jeremy Corbyn and the Press from Chris Lincé on Vimeo.

(To comprehensively cover the instances of systemic media bias and slander would require this article to be ten times longer than it is. For a more in-depth look aside from the study above, you can go here.)

Nevertheless, with Corbyn at its head, hundreds of thousands of people join the Labour Party, encouraged by his message, and feeling as if for the first time in a generation or more they may actually have a voice. Within a few months it goes from having 200,000 members to over half a million, becoming largest political organisation in Britain, with more members than the rest combined. It seems at times that the more shit is flung at Jeremy Corbyn, the more ordinary people flock to support him.

This does not deter his detractors and opponents, however. The lies and abuse keep coming. During all this Corbyn somehow keeps calm and — forgive the rancid cliché — carries on. He never responds in kind to any abuse, and he focuses on his job and the people he is meant to represent. He grows in confidence and ability in the Commons. Under his leadership the party forces the Government to back off from several of its most damaging austerity policies; it makes them backtrack on a controversial Saudi prison contract; it wins local elections; it wins four major Mayoral elections — including London and Liverpool.

Then the E.U. referendum happens, with Labour’s official stance being Remain. The victory in the end, of course, goes to Leave. The media finds in this yet another opportunity to heap opprobrium upon Jeremy Corbyn: he ‘didn’t do enough’; he ‘sabotaged’ the campaign. This all despite the fact that Corbyn’s campaigning delivered a decisive victory for the Remain campaign among Labour voters, with the same swing towards Remain as the Scottish National Party — whose leader, Nicola Sturgeon, gets praised in the very same outlets for the same result.

Truth, never a particularly important player in the game, has by now been disregarded completely, and Labour insiders use this pretext of imaginary failure to stage a coup against Corbyn. They appear on the BBC, timing their walkouts for maximum damage and exposure. Hour by hour they release pre-prepared statements with variations on the same message: the E.U. referendum showed that Corbyn lacks the necessary leadership qualities to remain at the head of the party. The manufactured storm rages. At a time when the Conservative Party is at its most vulnerable to a united attack from the opposition — David Cameron having resigned following the Leave victory — large swathes of the Parliamentary Labour Party see fit to prioritize launching a coup against their elected leader. Not long after the resignations start flying it is revealed that not only had the coup been arranged via WhatsApp well ahead of the referendum results being announced, the ‘impartial’ BBC had also conspired with the plotters to inflict maximum damage on Corbyn’s leadership over the longest amount of time.

A vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn is called by the Parliamentary Labour Party, who are by now frothing at the mouth. The call goes out to ordinary members of the party and any other Corbyn supporters: June 27th, meet at Parliament Square; Jeremy Corbyn has dedicated his life to fighting for you; now you have to fight for him. The call goes out on June 26th, and in less than 24 hours it is answered. Ten thousand people descend upon Parliament Square while the Parliamentary Labour Party meets in secret inside Westminster.

Hell, I was there too. Corbyn t-shirt and all.

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We listen to a series of speakers and we chant and we cheer. Finally Corbyn himself appears and confirms what we already know: no matter what the result of the vote, he will not be resigning. The vote has no constitutional legitimacy; his democratic mandate stands. The MPs who called this knew it. So why call it? Intimidation. Psychological warfare. But Jeremy Corbyn isn’t a starry-eyed babe in the woods. A short while later he releases a statement:

In the aftermath of last week’s referendum, our country faces major challenges. Risks to the economy and living standards are growing. The public is divided.

The Government is in disarray. Ministers have made it clear they have no exit plan, but are determined to make working people pay with a new round of cuts and tax rises.

Labour has the responsibility to give a lead where the Government will not. We need to bring people together, hold the Government to account, oppose austerity and set out a path to exit that will protect jobs and incomes.

To do that we need to stand together. Since I was elected leader of our party nine months ago, we have repeatedly defeated the Government over its attacks on living standards.

Last month, Labour become the largest party in the local elections. In Thursday’s referendum, a narrow majority voted to leave, but two thirds of Labour supporters backed our call for a remain vote.

I was democratically elected leader of our party for a new kind of politics by 60 per cent of Labour members and supporters, and I will not betray them by resigning. Today’s vote by MPs has no constitutional legitimacy.

We are a democratic party, with a clear constitution. Our people need Labour party members, trade unionists and MPs to unite behind my leadership at a critical time for our country.

So then: No hope in no confidence for the anti-Corbyn wing of the Labour Party. What other challenge could they mount, less than a year into his leadership? Another election! Yes, bring out the gladiators to topple Corbyn: the Monster of the Mandate! And so they came, the gladiators: Angela Eagle and Owen Smith.

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It didn’t take long for Angela Eagle, identikit Blairite Unit No. 654, to drop out, leaving Owen Smith — identikit Blairite Unit No. 799 — standing as the establishment’s man against Jeremy Corbyn in the upcoming Labour Leadership election on September 23rd. Smith, a former PR man for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer with zero substance or personality, we are now being told by the panjandrums of the Labour Party, is who should lead the party — ‘anyone but Jeremy Corbyn,’ is their message. The media, of course, falls in line. Pilfering Corbyn’s policies and repeating them word-for-word and with zero conviction, the press nevertheless report Smith’s delivery of them while consistently ignoring or ridiculing Corbyn’s. The cosmic ballet, leading into the election, continues.

But wait! There’s more! Far be it from the Parliamentary Labour Party and its ruling body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), to allow an election to just happen. You don’t want to get too democratic, after all. No, first it attempts to twist the wording of the party’s rulebook to keep Corbyn from automatically being on the ballot for the leadership challenge. Because, ‘the incumbent, when challenged, should automatically drop out,’ seems to be their reasoning. A court rules that Jeremy Corbyn, as incumbent, should of course be on the ballot. Okay, in that case, step 2!: The NEC bans over 130,000 new members of the party from voting in its leadership election. Because how dare members of a party get a say in who runs their party? The decision is taken to a high court, where it is overturned as an ‘affront to members’ rights.’ The Labour Party, not satisfied with this decision, seeks an appeal. Shockingly this is granted, meaning that members’ money has just been used on expensive legal procedures to prevent members from voting. On top of that the party then sets up a committee to comb through social media, barring anyone deemed ‘hostile’ or ‘abusive’ from voting. The definition of those words of course being flexible enough to include expressing your love for the Foo Fighters on Twitter. Reports like this keep flooding in; members being suspended for seemingly arbitrary reasons, with one pattern emerging clearly: they are all Jeremy Corbyn supporters. Union leaders are barred. Journalists are barred. Comedians are barred. The party then, as a final slap in the face to working people, amends the old rule that meant anyone who paid £3 could vote in its leadership election. The price is raised to £25. Democracy for sale, if you can afford it.

The list goes on and on.

So it is in the wake of this tidal wave of manufactured horrors and undemocratic nonsense that we head into the second Labour Leadership contest in just over a year, to be held on September 23rd. Jeremy Corbyn, politician of principle and compassion, stands challenged by Owen Smith, PR man-for-hire, wheeled out by party insiders. The ruling body of the Labour Party is trying its damnedest to shake off the strange, bearded creature that has given it a renewed sense of purpose, energized giant swathes of the country, and provided a real alternative to the nonsensical and callous neoliberal agenda being otherwise followed by all major political parties. A victory for Jeremy Corbyn this September — previously all-but-assured but now slightly less so following the party’s purge — will mean more battles ahead; but one of the main things that Jerermy Corbyn has done in his time in the spotlight is shown that some things are worth fighting for. And that there are multitudes who are willing to fight for them.


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Petr Knava
lives in London and plays music


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