Jeremy Corbyn encapsulated everything that was deceitful about his campaign to be leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition when he claimed he wanted to prioritise “the needs of the poor and the human rights of us all”. From the point of view of the poor and the oppressed, his words were a grim joke.
Like many from the Left’s dark corners, Corbyn does not believe in the human rights of “us all”. He is concerned only with the rights of those whose oppression is politically useful. If the oppressed’s suffering can be blamed on the West, he will defend them. If not, he is on their enemies’ side.
A short and far from comprehensive tour of the regimes Corbyn has supported includes the geriatric Cuban dictatorship, the corrupt and extraordinarily incompetent Chavistas who have come close to bankrupting oil-rich Venezuela, and Russian imperialists who have used force to redraw Europe’s boundaries.
You will not understand how a sickness on the Left has spread from the fringes to the mainstream, unless you pause, take a deep breath, pour a stiff drink and contemplate the strangeness of that list for a moment. In the 20th century, it would have had a kind of coherence. Cuba was then and remains a Communist country. Far-leftists, and indeed many who were not Marxists, placed the Castro dictatorship’s record in providing healthcare above its record of denying democratic rights, human rights and trade union rights. Their refusal to confront oppression may have been scandalous. But they were socialists so you could understand how they could reserve their condemnations for fascistic or conservative regimes. No one in the rich world took much notice of Venezuela before the millennium. But if you had explained that a socialist party would take power, jail opponents and restrict press freedom, they would have understood that the same double standards would apply to Chavez. As for Russia, our time travellers would assume that by “Russia” Corbyn meant the Soviet Union, and once again, they would have slotted his support into traditional notions of Left and Right.
The malaise on the modern Left becomes evident only when you remember what century you are living in. Russia does not pretend to be socialist now. It is a dictatorial kleptocracy, whose oligarchs stash their stolen money in Mayfair, Saint-Tropez and Palm Beach, and whose leader sends his armies over Russia’s borders to grab the territory of neighbouring states. Putin boasts to the world that he wants to be the leader of its reactionary and illiberal forces. He is committed to adventurism and the repression of minorities, particularly homosexuals. Modern Russia is the heir to the Tsarist empire, which 19th-century liberals and socialists feared above all other powers.
Corbyn, like so many on the far Left, does not fear Russia. Nor does he care that UKIP and the French National Front defend Putin because they admire a regime that loathes the European Union as much as they do. The far left has never been comfortable with the EU either. However, it indulges Putin because, as Corbyn explained in the old Communist daily, the Morning Star, “the EU and Nato have now become the tools of US policy in Europe”. From this, it follows that all attempts by the former occupied nations of Europe to protect themselves from their old imperial master are American-backed provocations which goad a justly affronted Russia. Or as Corbyn put it, “The expansion of Nato into Poland and the Czech Republic has particularly increased tensions with Russia.”
We have a politician at the forefront of one of Europe’s great parties telling Poles that their country has no right to defend itself against an expansionist Russia. The man I suppose I now have to call the leader of the British Left is defending a classically reactionary power. Those who have kept their eyes open won’t be shocked. Opposition to the West is the first, last and only foreign policy priority of many on the Left. It accounts for its disorientating alliances with movements any 20th-century socialist would have no trouble in labelling as extreme right-wing.
Not just Corbyn and his supporters but much of the liberal Left announce their political correctness and seize on the smallest sexist or racist “gaffe” of their opponents. Without pausing for breath, they move on to defend radical Islamist movements which believe in the subjugation of women and the murder of homosexuals. They will denounce the anti-Semitism of white neo-Nazis, but justify Islamist anti-Semites who actually murder Jews in Copenhagen and Paris. In a telling vignette, Corbyn himself defended a vicar from the supposedly liberal and tolerant Church of England who had promoted the conspiracy theory that Jews were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Opponents who called for the church authorities to discipline him were not anti-racists fighting an ideology that had led to the murder of millions. On the contrary, said Corbyn, the vicar was the victim, “under attack” because he had “dared to speak out against Zionism”.
When the far Left shades into the far Right, I am tempted to hug the centre and treat it as our best protection against the poisonous and the deranged. Respectable commentators have urged Labour members to do the same. They failed to understand that in Labour’s case the centre ground is as polluted as any derelict site.
Whenever I argue with Labour people about Corbyn’s record of support for repressive and reactionary movements, most find comfort in “whataboutery”. What about the West’s support for Saudi Arabia? What about Palestine? I reply that they ought to defend universal human rights and support a just settlement for Palestinians, while fighting radical Islam at home and abroad, by condemning Saudi Arabia in one breath and Russia in the next. But few are convinced. Now that may be because they are so certain of their righteousness they cannot see a double standard when it is staring them in the face. Perhaps they are the left-wing version of UKIP’s little Englanders, who do not care how Venezuelans, Russians, Cubans, Ukrainians and Syrians are treated.
But maybe there are good as well as shabby reasons why Corbyn’s past has failed to detach supporters from his cause. Until now the hypocritical, and in my view despicable, strain of thought that Corbyn represents has been dominant in the universities, the arts, political comedy and much, but not all, of the left-wing media. In what passes for liberal culture it is commonplace to condemn Western crimes while ignoring or excusing the crimes of anti-Western regimes and movements. But, politically, what artists and academics think has had little effect. The attitude of a British government that puts arms contracts before human rights in its dealings with, say, Saudi Arabia mattered far more for the glaringly obvious reason that it was in power and the Left was not.
Friends and comrades have ignored those of us who warned for years about the ugly turn much of left-wing thought has taken. Why, they ask, should we waste our political energies on minor Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs who pander to anti-Semitism or writers who cheer on Islamists while hounding Muslim liberals? Real power, the power that mattered and needed opposing, lay elsewhere.
They did not understand that cultural power will eventually become political power, if no one takes the time to challenge it. Millions voted for UKIP because for decades civilised conservatives were too frightened or too lazy to take on the brutish arguments of the right-wing press. The rise of Corbyn represents the equal failure of a generation of moderate centre-left politicians and activists to recognise that ideology matters, and that if you do not take on your opponents’ ideas today, your opponents will take you over tomorrow.
Leftists have not listened for a second reason, which hardly anyone has mentioned. The centrist politicians they ask Labour members to admire can be as implicated with the world’s dictatorships as thoroughly as the far Left, not just for reasons of state when they are in office but as a means of personal enrichment when they leave it.
Do not think that support for Putin is confined to the extremes of politics. Peter Mandelson left government and founded a lobbying company called Global Counsel. Its clients include Putin’s tame oligarchs, most notably Oleg Deripaska. Lord Mandelson himself goes to St Petersburg to add what credibility he possesses to the propagandistic conferences Putin stages.
Jeremy Corbyn has never pocketed thirty pieces of silver. He says what he says because he means it, not because he has been paid to say it. This does not make him morally superior in my eyes. I distrust a convinced fanatic far more than I distrust an averagely compromised man. But my eyes are not the eyes of most Labour members. Mandelson has moved into a world they deplore. So has David Blunkett, who has joined the board of Oracle Capital, a group “dedicated to providing personalised services to high-net-worth individuals and their families,” with particular emphasis on offering advice to Russian and Chinese multimillionaires. So have dozens upon dozens of New Labour politicians and apparatchiks. So has, of course, Blair himself.
Peter Mandelson has only made enough to spend £8 million on a Regent’s Park home. Blair has made tens of millions advising regimes as corrupt and repressive as the dictatorships of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. We have seen nothing like this since Lloyd George’s day, perhaps not since the Georgian oligarchy. It is not just Labour members who are disturbed by the spectacle of an ex-prime minister using his contacts to join the global superrich. But Labour members find it more shocking than most. They expect their politicians to retire to chairs in academia, or to posts at the United Nations or some other international organisation or charity. They will not allow another generation of centrist politicians to use the Labour party as a stepping-stone to careers helping the rich maximise their fortunes. To put it another way, Blair has discredited Blairism, and Corbyn’s rise is a reaction to his decline.
In that decline you find a paradox as grotesque as the Left’s support for reactionary movements. However critical you were of Blair’s wars in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, his defenders could plausibly claim that he was sending troops to fight against tyrannical and, in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, genocidal regimes. By hiring himself out to Egypt, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, Blair has destroyed his democratic “legacy” more thoroughly than his enemies ever could.
If you step back and look towards the horizon, a dismal prospect comes into view. One wing of the Labour Party left office and latched onto a malign force in the world: the resource-rich states with large sovereign wealth funds and a vanishingly small concern for human rights. After the Western financial crisis, they were the freest spenders on earth, and Blair, Mandelson and dozens of others sucked long and heartily at their teats. Meanwhile, a second wing of the Labour Party latched on to equally powerful and equally malign anti-Western movements which hate not just the worst of our society but its best: democracy, human rights and sexual equality.
While writing this piece I have been uncomfortable using phrases like “the Left” or the “far Left”, and tried to add a few caveats. There are multiple Lefts in Britain, not one or two. I know many honourable Labour MPs and count good people in far-left groups among my friends. But the fact remains that the dominant movements in Labour politics over the past two decades have been, at best, indifferent and, at worst, hostile to the struggles of oppressed peoples. Unless Labour changes very fast and very soon, it will cease to be a force for good in the world. I hope I am wrong but I can’t see that change happening in my lifetime.