In mid 2015, an imagined community of browsers came together around a new ritual: checking the index of every book about Britain from the past thirty-two years for any mention of Jeremy Corbyn. There was a reason to hurriedly mug up. Corbyn had been a Labour member of parliament since 1983, safe in the polyphonous jostle of his Islington North seat, without leaving a trace on the national consciousness. He had held no office, piloted no bill, made no visible change — not even to his scruffy-casual attire. Now, after consecutive general-election defeats, he was on his way to the party leadership. Where had he been all our lives?
After hundreds of blanks, a couple of academic works had the gist. Philip Cowley’s 2005 study of backbench rebellion notes Corbyn’s prolific defiance of Labour policy in the House of Commons, while Emma Crewe’s anthropology of MPs at work, published two months before Corbyn’s race to the top began, evokes a mild joust in 2007 with fellow London MP, Sadiq Khan, then new to the whips’ office. “Sadiq, at this point you are supposed to persuade me to support the party.” “Jeremy, I can’t be bothered. Would you consider abstaining?” “No, sorry, I can’t do that.” “OK.”
Corbyn also pops up in a handful of comrades’ memoirs or diaries. The left’s patrician moraliser Tony Benn, fellow veteran of marches and rallies, was wont to end a list of notable attendees with a cursory namecheck, as if for mere completion. Such meagre sources hint at a dedicated, reliable activist of invariant views; ever courteous and unassuming; devoted to expressive rather than practical politics; lacking distinction or presence. A future party leader? Unimaginable, including to his closest allies, until those stunning weeks when it became inevitable.
By 12 September 2015, when Corbyn became the eleventh man since 1945 to reach that position, a quietly mind-bending contrast — the guarantee of his appearance in every book henceforth written about British politics — went unremarked. Rosa Prince’s fine biography Comrade Corbyn, out in February, was first off a soon busy production line. The more immediate change he had wrought was already symbolised by the everyday scene of Jeremy beaming on a stage, basking in the acclaim of an eager throng. Only one Labour politician, Tony Benn at his 1980s zenith, has ever attracted so fervent and personal a following.
The latest iteration of this phenomenon was at the party’s upbeat conference in Liverpool late last month, presented as the final basecamp before the summit of power. Corbyn’s confident closing speech to the impressive gathering of 13,000 reinforced the sense of a pre-victory rally. A World Transformed, the ancillary festival of the busy Momentum network, showcased his project’s ambitions. This was in effect Jeremy’s fourth annual triumph after seizing the Labour crown in 2015, winning a spill a year later, then storming to near voting parity with the Conservatives in the 2017 general election.
If such details suggest a seamless ascent, in reality this period has been among the more volatile in the party’s history. Indeed, the repeated pattern of Corbyn’s leadership is a long slump punctuated by success. For that reason, and because so many contingencies are in play, few now rule out the possibility of Corbyn becoming prime minister. Jeremy himself, with his beatific demeanour and unbending optimism among the faithful, seems free of doubt. And amid all the bumps of these three years, his temperament in public remains equable (with relevant exceptions, some noted below).
Steady too is his core mantra, namely transformation: across economy, industry, society, power relationships and foreign policy (the last often described as his passion). Two omnipresent themes are a new type of politics and besetting hostility to the media, especially newspapers.
From his first leader’s speech (a “politics that’s kinder, more inclusive; bottom up, not top down”) to the most recent (“a long overdue change that will transform people’s lives and meet the needs of a twenty-first century Britain for all”) Corbyn’s uplifting visions ever carry an undertone of threat.
But where Corbyn has adapted since becoming leader, his much improved delivery apart, is in how he invokes the past. This includes slivers of Labour’s own history, unveiled as if wearing protective gloves: quoting the party’s first MP, Keir Hardie, elected in 1900 (“My work has consisted of trying to stir up a divine discontent with wrong”), or honouring its first woman cabinet minister, Margaret Bondfield, appointed in 1929. At the same time, the strikers and rebels, guerrillas and dreamers he has always honoured are now shepherded cautiously towards the Labour fold.
None of his four lengthy conference speeches as leader mentions a single post-Hardie predecessor in the job. True, his closing peroration in Liverpool conscripts three famous election victories to the cause: “[We] must take our message to every town, city and village. United and ready to win, ready to govern as we were in 1945, 1964 and 1997. So that when we meet this time next year let it be as a Labour government.” But he cannot bring himself to name those who led the party into 10 Downing Street on those occasions, and at their first attempt: Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.
The detail here matters less than what it says about Corbyn’s political character and where his project is taking Labour, a topic much discussed this year amidst escalating rows over anti-Semitism in the party, while others over misogyny went unresolved. But first, tracing Jeremy’s rocky road since 2015 provides necessary context for his and Labour’s very different situation today.
Even after Labour’s shattering loss in May 2015 under the ineffectual Ed Miliband, it took singular circumstances to turn that event into the prelude to a Corbyn coronation. These began in 2014 with a new one-person-one-vote system to elect the leader, which was triggered by a vote-packing scandal in a Scottish constituency and designed to reduce the trade union power seen as responsible. They ended with Jeremy, half-willing and half-pushed by parliamentary allies in the tiny Socialist Campaign Group to be its nominee, squeezing into the leadership contest seconds before the deadline at noon on on 15 June. In the three months between then and his defeat of three centrist rivals by a first-round majority of 59.5 percent, an astounding zero-to-hero metamorphosis unfolded.
The spectacle encompassed adulation from cross-generational hordes of supporters, a mass influx of avid new members for the cost of a cappuccino, the creation of the support movement Momentum (by Jon Lansman, an ancient 1980s comrade), and enough personalised brand accessories to make Naomi Klein weep (“Jez We Can!” t-shirts, posters, hashtags, poems). It was striking how much Corbyn basked in the acclaim and the contact: from pop-chorus chants to unstinting, often gurning, selfies. Having escaped the lab, the fossilised revolutionary operating on 1970s software had become rock star. He even spruced up. It was all utterly bewildering.
But how much did the turnaround change Corbyn himself? Far more seemed to be occurring around than in him. His campaign offer — Labour as social movement, committed to justice, equality, peace and ending neo-liberalism — was the same bromide-rich, detail-light sermon he had preached for decades. Now, it was evidently becoming a receptacle for widely felt longings, quasi-religious as much as political, seeking a home. This injected his effort with a magic ingredient of emotional lift-off, in turn creating a feedback loop of positivity.
One after another, fresh eyes and open hearts steamrollered decades of what, to people of memory — or premature anti-Corbynites — were implacable negatives. Being an unknown of minor status gave Corbyn appealing novelty; never having changed his mind about anything meant principled; a timeworn aura became vintage cool (he was fondly dubbed “magic grandpa” and “the absolute boy”); the whole anti-style package won the age’s supreme accolade, authenticity.
More prosaically, a hustings-centred format suited him: a promise of the earth wrapped in practised, repetitive language of homily and formula. And if years as a hyper-activist gave him an edge, so did the gulf between his outsider image and his shadow-cabinet opponents. Corbyn had no record to defend, no blunders to regret, no compromises to justify. The inevitable taint of having engaged in actual politics was absent. When items from his back catalogue were flung at him, they failed to land or bounced off. He was pure; they — Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall — were tainted. This was the moment of surging “anti-politics,” and Jeremy Corbyn surfed the wave.
Many premature anti-Corbynites argued that the new and empowered Labour membership, after eight fruitless years of anti-New Labour lectures by dismal Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, had embraced a sunk-cost approach and chosen a no-hoper, a dud, the anti-Tony Blair incarnate. As those astonishing weeks subsided, and Corbyn’s first two years brought unremitting bad news, their view was undisturbed.
Labour’s poll ratings wilted, Corbyn’s own figures continued dire with the wider public, local and by-election results were patchy, bouts of internal feuding were legion. But the Corbyn takeover, or asphyxiation, of the party slowly consolidated. Today the leader can count on a membership more than doubled to half a million, a docile shadow cabinet, allies in control of the party’s main bodies, and a tight inner circle whose Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray are alumni of Britain’s illustrious pro-Soviet left.
One group is an exception: Labour parliamentarians, of whom a majority saw Corbyn from the start as an ideological and electoral liability. His followers are working on that, planning to deselect the more recalcitrant MPs as part of a longer-term aim to make them all delegates of the popular (that is, activists’) will.
Corbyn’s unwelcome inheritance had been a frosty shadow crew and glum backbench cohort. A long-term opponent of the European Union — he was against party policy on this as on pretty much everything else — he tested these new colleagues’ patience to the limit by his studiedly equivocal stance in the referendum on EU membership. The United Kingdom’s narrow vote to leave in June 2016 triggered a major breach when Corbyn’s move to pre-empt a coup led to the resignation of twenty-one shadow ministers in damaging sequence. Stiffened in the inner sanctum, he survived this clear attempt to unseat him, then easily crushed a vapid contender, thus gaining room to secure his hold on Labour’s machinery by patronage, nepotism and purge.
After this exultant reprise of his initial campaign came another long period of drift, interrupted by the new prime minister Theresa May’s surprise announcement of a general election. All sides, even his own, anticipated Corbyn’s shattering defeat. But mid 2017 brought another epic reversal of fortune. Corbyn’s platform populism and easy sociability — backed by a manifesto cascade of free offers on child care, tuition fees, school meals, and lifelong education — upstaged the prime minister’s distant and content-free campaign. Tory attacks on his extremist links, lacking a vital case for democracy and security, misfired. For the second time in a year, British voters showed they don’t like being taken for granted.
Although his graft fell short, here at last was external validation of the Corbyn project. Labour now had real momentum against a suddenly infirm premier, at sea over Brexit and domestic problems alike; a 10 per cent jump in its vote share (to 40 per cent) brought victory into sight; a huge membership gave the party massive social weight against the shrinking, ageing Tories. Judged by outcomes alone, Corbyn had conjured an admirable feat for any opposition leader on 8 June 2017, not least for one who had spent thirty-two years on the Commons’ backbenches. Corbyn had written himself into those history books. Whatever the qualifications, no one can ever take that away from him.
His supporters’ glee had an extra, exquisite sweetness in the vanquishing of the hated “Blairites.” This catch-all term, hurled with impressive ferocity at any non-Corbynite MP, party official or journalist who criticised Jeremy, now reached its zenith. The Blairites’ sin was to have scorned not just Corbyn and his agenda, but also the very possibility that such a firm left-winger could raise Labour so mightily and shake (if not yet topple) the false gods of neoliberalism and military adventurism. Corbyn had proved the Blairites wrong, giving his followers — in an echo Corbynites wouldn’t find appealing — their equivalent of Tony Blair’s first victory in 1997.
A premier besieged, a blunder-prone government in emergency mode, party opponents fearful and fragmented: rarely since Margaret Thatcher, another unwelcome comparison, has a party leader in Britain been luckier in his or her enemies. In mid 2017, fate was telling Corbyn to refocus from protest to power. Instead, there followed a listless post-election year disfigured by furious discord over Labour’s new intolerance, in which Corbyn’s role looked permissive at best.
Election advance had thrown up strategic dilemmas. While much of Labour’s enthused new support base was urban, educated and in favour of Europe and immigration, the party was losing seats in poorer English working-class bastions that had voted to leave the European Union. In this respect, Corbyn’s dissembling over Brexit, a clunky version of Blairite triangulation that satisfied no one, also had a crude tactical logic: let the government stew and then seize the reins whenever the chance arises, most likely as unease sets in over any EU deal.
Under a first-past-the-post system in which love-bombing neighbourhood swing voters can pay national dividends, it made sense for Labour to look beyond Westminster. Yet key political and media battles still had to be waged there, from all-embracing Brexit through serious failings in economic and social policy to the shocking eruptions of Grenfell, Windrush and Salisbury. The post-election landscape demanded a recharge, one Corbyn and his low-grade shadow cabinet struggled to provide.
Behind the scenes were brighter signs, however. A more coherent Labour high command — bound to the reinvented party-movement, enriched with trade-union funds and membership fees, and augmented by Momentum’s motivated troops — was now seeking power by combining Jeremy’s permanent roadshow with a targeting of the marginal seats where the next election would be won. A cadre of community organisers would be the spearhead, bolstered by local unions and activists, with a gloss from the more plausible frontbenchers. The latter usually meant the sixty-seven-year-old shadow chancellor John McDonnell: twice a Socialist Campaign Group leadership candidate, hardest of Jeremy’s henchmen, now playing the eager-to-help bank manager with such ubiquity that it resembled an audition for the top job.
Such whispers aside, Corbyn himself had altered little. From mammoth Glastonbury to the toytown Labour Live festival, a rare PR embarrassment for his promoters, his insatiable applause-hunger was amply fed. But no longer a novelty, his lack of craft, agility or any repertoire of skills was all too familiar. That could equally be said of Theresa May; in effect, they were keeping each other in a job. The novelist Robert Harris, writing this August, put it well: “It’s a desperate and tragic coincidence for the UK that we should have the worst prime minister in our history at the same time as we have the worst leader of the opposition.”
If the Commons’ question-time bearpit was not Corbyn’s forte, impromptu media stand-ups brought out a peevish side. He avoided studio exposure to tough journalists, opting for the odd pat-a-cake set-piece, even there scarcely concealing his animus of domestic print and broadcast media. Anyway, he could now rely on a hyper-partisan, click-rich array of websites and social-media outriders coordinating lines with the leader’s team via WhatsApp, a baleful first in British politics and journalism alike. The silos in this case have melded, and it’s not good news.
Such allies were crucial in Labour’s endemic disputes over anti-Semitism, which may have dampened Corbyn’s already low poll ratings. In the approach to the Liverpool conference, Ipsos–Mori reported that 24 per cent of the public thought he was doing a good job, and even of party members just 48 per cent were now satisfied. Over three years, he had bested his Tory opposite number just once in a fortnightly choice of best prime minister. To up the pace, Labour’s backroom strategists had intended to use the August recess to sell the party’s juicier policy ideas. The plan was derailed as the anti-Semitism imbroglio continued, in part because a rummage through Corbyn’s own basement tapes was finding ever more unsavoury cuts.
After all, Corbyn’s real paper trail, and his video record, lay elsewhere, their very existence reflecting his peculiar career as activist-politician. In this connection, while those library and bookshop denizens of 2015 risked missing a trick, they also spotted early that the near absolute gap between Corbyn’s past and present, the very source of his appeal to a new fan-base, may also continue to define him in harsher ways.
The more accessible registry was found via Hansard, his House of Commons speeches and copious early-day motions equally divided between domestic affairs (railways a favourite) and foreign (often liberation struggles and neo-imperial designs). Next were periodic Fleet Street reports — sober in the broadsheets, outraged in the tabloids — of his chumminess with spokesmen of the Irish Republican Army, or his long-term championing of Palestinians jailed for bombing Israeli’s London embassy and a Jewish charity. More elusive were pamphlets and bulletins from the 1970s–90s gathering dust in the basement of Housmans bookshop or Warwick University’s archives, the Pythonesque sects that produced them long residing in the where-are-they-now file.
Rare broadcasting footage included a clip of a bearded, studenty thirty-two-year-old haranguing the Bennite faithful after Labour’s incendiary 1981 conference, where the far-left’s ascendancy had been checked. More sightings came when he co-founded (and later, for four years, chaired) Stop the War, a front movement set up in the wake of 9/11 by the small but energetic Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist-syndicalist sect. He struck an unassuming figure amid such groups’ predatory radicalism, but was never less than fierce against the unholy trinity (America, Britain, Israel) or other than soft on its foes.
A trickle of videos preserved Corbyn’s appearances on the propaganda station Russia Today (now RT) and Iran’s equally shameless equivalent, Press TV (which lost its British licence in 2012), He would continue to appear on the latter, receiving £20,000 (A$36,000) for an interview series in which he parlayed conspiracism about Israel and deplored BBC bias. More revelatory, even to those who keep a wary eye on the left-Islamist alliance that coursed through media and academia in Britain after 9/11, were meetings where Corbyn sat contentedly beside vile mouthpieces of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, his body language — and his own words — exhibiting not a speck of discomfort with the company or the setting, which were often parliamentary rooms that Corbyn, as MP and host, had hired.
Corbyn had come of age when “anti-Zionism” was in vogue among a younger left, as the 1967 war recast Israel’s image from kibbutz-centric (and Labour-led) socialist beacon to colonial oppressor and imperial outpost. The latter view was supercharged by the UN general assembly vote in 1975 (rescinded in 1991) to declare Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination.” The complex processes at work are anatomised in two essential works: Colin Shindler’s Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimization and Dave Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism.
A blend of reductive animosities — against Zionism and Israel, capitalism and racism — was on the market, its over-supply of kindling for outright anti-Semitism finding gruesome expression in West Germany during the febrile Baader–Meinhof years. In Britain’s 1970s and 80s the culture of anti-Zionism took hold among campus boycotters, local councils, factional newspapers (two subsidised by Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam’s Iraq) and Labour’s parliamentary fringe. In the far-left’s schismatic milieu, it even acted as a binding agent. For Jeremy himself, anti-Zionism was among the articles of faith clasped as a young adult and ever held to.
A Labour member at ease in the world of ultra-sectarian groupuscules, he was a rare specimen who consorted with Trotskyists and supped with Stalinists without making enemies. In 2002 he inherited Tony Benn’s column in the Morning Star, a valiant daily linked to the tiny Communist Party of Britain, remnant of the pro-Soviet faction when its parent split in 1991. The column continued until soon after the 2015 coup, though the paper itself remains a mouthpiece of the Corbynite worldview, which today means being on side with Assad, Putin and Maduro.
Jeremy’s anti-war activism would add a wealth of speeches, articles, and interviews to the archive. Though many were wiped from online sources, including his personal website, when he became leader, sleuthing has retrieved a good number. A valuable chronicle here is the accumulating Mr Corbyn in The Times, which has expanded beyond that initial remit to track in granular detail Jeremy’s (and by extension his chums’) before-they-were-famous file.
A perceptible feature is how, in every nationalist campaign, Corbyn identifies with the more radical, violent wing. In South Africa, the Pan Africanist Congress over the African National Congress; in Palestine, Hamas less so than the PLO as it turned peace-maker; in Ireland, the IRA and Sinn Féin, and not at all the Social Democratic and Labour Party (British Labour’s partner in Northern Ireland, as if such trifles mattered).
Few details are more luminous. To a certain kind of upper-middle-class, public-school English leftist (Milne and Murray are others), the vicarious romance of armed struggle remains compelling. So consumed are they by the crimes of “their own” side, so anti-patriotic, they are a pushover for the very worst of others. With no self-respecting “we” to uphold or understand in its own complexity, their idea of solidarity allows only for sycophancy. In many unexplored ways Jeremy Corbyn and friends are the last British imperialists: exemplifications of Jung’s axiom, drawing on Nietzsche, that you always become the thing you fight the most.
Why such information now, and so little before? After all, the spread of digitisation had made many of these older materials accessible to anyone who cared to seek them out. But few did. Corbyn was just not important or interesting enough. Dependable and congenial among his own, an affable constituency figure on his bicycle and allotment, he was fated — indeed seemed happy — to serve out his days on the backbenches, the MP as itinerant solidarity monger and neighbourhood social worker, a harmless soul forever at odds with but indulged by his indifferent party.
The new situation of Labour’s seizure by a committed anti-Zionist gave unlikely currency and legitimacy to Corbyn’s worldview. That held obvious risks which, assuming goodwill, only pre-emptive action might have had a chance of defusing. Instead, the Corbyn bandwagon with its fourfold rotation — of Labour’s leadership, membership, style and rhetoric — acted from the start as a fertiliser of anti-Semitic tropes, prejudices, and recycled materials.
The sociologist David Hirsh, author of a third indispensable book, Contemporary Left Antisemitism, anticipated this. In an open letter to Corbyn published days after his election as leader, Hirsh noted his “history of leaping to the defence of blood libellers and conspiracists, consorting with Holocaust deniers and politically embracing antisemitic organisations,” saying the “new Labour Party does not feel like a safe place for Jews” and asking for “new clarity on democracy and on anti-Semitism.” Hirsh, formerly aligned to a far-left group with, significantly, a libertarian spirit, concluded: “Maybe you can’t do it. Maybe you have supported and defended dictators, terrorists and antisemites because doing so really is core to your politics.”
In its mix of seedy bigotry, dissembling, and cronyism, the first major contretemps in March 2016 set the template for innumerable later ones. In the wake of the suspension of two Labour figures — Naz Shah MP, over past anti-Semitic posts, and Ken Livingstone, ex-mayor of London, after defending Shah by way of his own septic obsessions about Hitler and Zionism — Corbyn announced an independent inquiry into the extent of the party’s problem. An ill-starred process under human-rights lawyer Shami Chakrabarti, newly a Labour member, resulted in a hasty document whose public launch was hijacked by another 1980s comrade of Corbyn’s, who made an anti-Semitic insinuation against Ruth Smeeth, a Labour MP present. Distressed, she left; at the meeting’s end, Corbyn happily chatted to his old pal. Chakrabarti, visibly protective towards Corbyn, was soon elevated to the House of Lords and later appointed as shadow attorney-general.
By this stage, Corbyn’s bland deflection of questions about anti-Semitism was invariably to pair it with Islamophobia and declare opposition “to all forms of racism.” With the number of Britain’s Jews, at around 270,000, but a tenth of the country’s Muslims, the formula sounded an ambiguous note: in principle equalising and inclusive, but also smothering and belittling. It was as if the much smaller minority did not matter in its own right, as if anti-Semitism did not exist on its own account, as if — a short step — Jews did not have a valid claim on their own experience.
Such nuances torched the ear when Labour’s four Jewish women MPs — Luciana Berger, Louise Ellman, Margaret Hodge and Ruth Smeeth — were constant targets of bullying, threats and abuse, and copious other Labour-sourced anti-Semitic incidents emanated even from the party’s councillors, candidates, university societies and constituency officers. True, Corbyn often spoke the right words and promised action. At the 2017 annual conference, he endorsed the tightening of rules on anti-Semitic abuse proposed by the Jewish Labour Movement, an affiliated group of long standing; this year he twice used a Guardian article to pronounce on the issue (“People who dish out anti-Semitic poison need to understand: you do not do it in my name”); and in Liverpool he declared: “We will work with Jewish communities to eradicate anti-Semitism, both from our party and wider society.”
The words were weightless, however, for there was no follow through. In fact, Corbyn’s lack of urgency was the most palpable feature of the entire saga. This engaged and heartful leader seemed unable to stand by British Jews in their distress. And even when in April 2018 he did appear to make a personal investment, by joining a seder hosted by Jewdas, a spiky anti-establishment grouplet, the choice took on the aspect of a divide-and-rule snub to the wider community.
“Be clear and unambiguous about this and it will go away as an issue,” Hirsh had advised in 2015. Corbyn wasn’t and it didn’t. Throughout 2018, the debris washed ever closer to him. He had, for example, been a member of three online forums where anti-Semitic material freely circulated, and in 2012 sent a friendly message to the creator of a grotesque mural in east London, now facing erasure, which depicted hook-nosed plutocrats playing a board game over slaves’ naked backs. “You are in good company,” Corbyn wrote. “Rockerfeller [sic] destroyed Diego Viera’s [sic] mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.” Faced with his comment six years on, he said that the mural was “deeply disturbing” and regretted “not having studied the content more closely.”
In the same year, Corbyn had reconnected on PressTV with a Hamas pal now released from prison in Israel, who had helped organise a suicide-bombing in a Jerusalem cafe that killed seven people. “I met many of the [Hamas] brothers, including the brother who’s been speaking here, when they came out of prison, when I was in Doha earlier this year,” he fondly reminisced, before going on to question why “the brothers” — all convicted for terrorist offences, and now swapped for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — had been jailed at all.
Corbyn then appeared in photographs taken at a Tunis cemetery in 2014, holding a wreath and imitating the prayerful, palms-upward gesture of his hosts beside two memorials to fallen Palestinians, including Atef Bseiso and Salah Khalaf, senior PLO officers said to be behind the Black September group who perpetrated the Munich Olympics’ massacre of Israeli athletes. Corbyn disputed the details, but eventually, in an interview marked by exasperated eye-rolling, conceded to being present, while saying he was not “actually involved” in the ceremonials.
A comment in 2013 provoked the biggest reaction. At an event on Palestinians’ experience since the 1948 Nakba — where Stephen Sizer, who says Israel perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, was also on the panel — Corbyn launched into a gratuitous defence of the Palestinian ambassador to the Britain, Manuel Hassassian, who had been challenged at an earlier meeting by Richard Millett, an audience member on both occasions. Corbyn, angered that Millett and his companion had then “berated” Hassassian, addressed them as now “thankfully silent Zionists” with “two problems. One is that they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony either. Manuel does understand English irony, and uses it very effectively. So I think they needed two lessons, which we can perhaps help them with.”
Just once, it seems, Corbyn the Shropshire lad had taken pride in a native sensibility, but only to use it as a weapon: releasing its latent class and racial prejudice to “otherise” and exile one group alone from the national community, while appointing himself as the amiable border guard waving through the noble subaltern. For dissident culture studies or psychology grads, there was enough here for ten PhDs. For a fair few with residual liking for Corbyn, the incident proved the breaking point.
Even the discredited Chakrabarti report had warned of “the way in which the word ‘Zionist’ has been used personally, abusively, or as a euphemism for ‘Jew.’” Corbyn’s statement, back in character, passed on the blame: “I am now more careful with how I might use the term ‘Zionist’ because a once self-identifying political term has been increasingly hijacked by anti-Semites as code for Jews.” That might well be called chutzpah, as much as the man who traduces the BBC on Khamenei’s TV station might invite doubt over his grasp of, well, English irony.
The changeless man
In a previous era, the revelation of a political or ethical lapse of this nature could demonstrably wound or even topple a leader. In this still uncharted one, Corbyn survived the revelation of a dozen such episodes without a scratch. That owed something to a political environment now dominated by social media, where two ingredients — an inflation of outrage and a deficit of attention — fuse and fizz around the clock, procuring and suborning the historic rhythms and negotiated outcomes of democratic politics.
To shape this amorphous world in its interest, the adept Corbyn media operation employs, in that discreet coordination, a version of the hybrid media warfare refined elsewhere. With each incident of anti-Semitism, two things happen: while the comms team gives defusing reassurance that Jeremy’s intentions are all for the best, Corbyn’s online devotees go on the offensive, painting any fact as a smear and any critic as mendacious. As with Putin’s undeclared war, this strategy is about confusing not winning, sowing doubt not truth, exalting cheap slogans above entire histories.
Thus, beyond the precise matters at stake, did the anti-Semitism uproar also became a tool of the “vast polarising machine” dissected in a brilliant essay by the Guardian columnist Rafael Behr: “A structure that accelerates and promotes conflict is inimical to the conduct of democratic pluralism. It looks like a weapon of civic destruction.”
Corbyn the polarising populist, catching the leftwards flank of the zeitgeist, has benefited from this environment. But there is a catch. The use of social media, online networks, apps and data mining that contributed to his rise also helped in the retrieval and spread of information about his prior career. The man without a past who took British politics by storm in 2015 turned out to have an ever-growing one of a kind that came to make repeated demands on him, soliciting casuistry (Tunis cemetery, Press TV, Russia Today, the IRA) or banality (“lifelong anti-racist,” “always on the right side of history”).
This ever-present past, the price of Corbyn’s success, is ahead of as well as behind him. He will always have to navigate its reefs, which are still forming as, under his acquiescent eye, Labour’s intolerance festers. Jeremy’s double test here is to uphold the links between his own past and present, and the party’s: to naturalise his leadership as successor of Attlee, Wilson, and Blair, and to become a historic architect of Labour governance.
It’s a stretch, for the links have no fastener. This is not a matter of tale-telling, nor even probity towards voters, but of political character. Corbyn really is a far leftist drawn to autocrats, a type that, with good reason, every Labour leader and government has spurned. Anti-Zionism with its dark urges really does grip his thinking. He and his dear comrades really are in thrall to the world’s worst regimes.
Corbyn cannot own or disown his past, nor Labour’s. That would demand the impossible: seeing his political life as a continuum (thus justifying his views) or accepting its disjuncture (thus explaining their change). Either would require self-examination and accounting, which Corbyn has never gone in for.
“The important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair / to turn yourself inside out / and see the whole world with fresh eyes.” Not just the Marat/Sade sentiment, but the truths it might contain, are worlds away from Corbyn’s universe. So too the words of the great Hamburg balladeer Wolf Biermann, a man of hard-won political wisdom: “Only he who changes stays true to himself.”
Most salient of all about him, Jeremy Corbyn carries no sense of personal responsibility — for his beliefs, words, actions or associates. His irritable evasions when quizzed show it, as indirectly do his endless comfort-zone love-ins with approving crowds. But Jeremy can never change.
Where he is concerned, the responsibility is all on others. •