HEAD TO HEAD: Is Corbyn to blame for Labour’s problems?

Rory O’Sullivan and Rory O’Neill go Head to Head on Labour’s controversial leader



Rory O’Sullivan, Contributor

He has destroyed his party’s unity, and with it, any meaningful opposition to the government

Will Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour automatically support strikes in any circumstances? What will they do about Trident? How do they plan on winning Tory voters over? How will they be different to Ed Miliband? Would they try to negotiate with ISIL?

All of these questions are from Andrew Marr’s interview with Corbyn on the BBC on January 17th. HIs answers are incomprehensible; Corbyn likes to ignore questions, to waffle and obfuscate. One of my favourite examples comes from a poster that aims to show how the media twist Corbyn’s words ­ ‘How to speak Corbyn: a headline writer’s guide’. Asked if Tony Blair should stand trial for war crimes, he says: “If he’s committed a war crime, yes. Everyone who’s committed a war crime should be … Is he going to be tried for it, I don’t know. Could he be tried for it? Possibly.” The headline in T​he Express ​is “‘Tony Blair must face trial for war crimes’, says Jeremy Corbyn”. The headline may have been wrong, but Corbyn also completely failed to answer the question.

This might have been forgivable if Corbyn had not been Chair of the Stop the War Coalition (surely he has an opinion on this of all issues?) or if a major sticking point of his campaign had not been that he was somehow purer than other politicians, that he was authentic, that he was principled. We were told that Labour was going to introduce a new kind of politics, but now in January the new is looking awfully similar to the old. Corbyn’s “broad church” Cabinet – another major issue in the campaign – has been deemed too broad, and several Blairites have been ostentatiously removed. His old friend, John McDonnell, is the Shadow Chancellor; and his son, Seb Corbyn, is McDonnell’s Chief of Staff.

Apart from a flirtation with a local newspaper, he has never had a job outside of politics or political activism. The young people who voted for him, I’m convinced, thought they were getting an Owen Jones figure; they thought they were getting Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter. The extent of their mistake became clear when Corbyn, instead of bringing in Owen Jones, brought Seumas Milne into the strategy end of his inner ­circle: Seumas Milne, who has been a dedicated defender of the Milosevic regime in Serbia; who really genuinely regrets the fall of the USSR; who is so far left, so anti­-West, that his politics lead him to support fascists and ignore genocide. He is a thoroughly old hat.

The simple fact is that there isn’t a whisper of new in Corbyn’s Labour; it represents cobwebbed principles from a different century, and its claim to moral authority depends upon ignoring voters. It’s the kind of echo­ chamber where Trident rather than Health or Housing is the most important issue of the day, and where the Tories are the enemy rather than the political opposition.

It’s a party with doctrine rather than policy platforms, and with values so ridiculous to the vast majority of the British people that Corbyn can’t admit to them on ­air. In an earlier interview, Andrew Marr asks Corbyn if he’s a Marxist, and gets a string of non-­answers, featuring: “Does it all [Marxism] apply now? Well, obviously philosophy applies at all times”. The irony of this behaviour, of course, is that it’s exactly the kind of thing for which Blairites are condemned: diluting principles for political reasons. In so many areas, he simply won’t say what he believes.

Corbyn, of course, has avoided a lot of these difficult questions about his leadership. He’s avoided the Jewish Chronicle’s “The Key Questions Jeremy Corbyn Must Answer”, and cried “Media bias!” when asked why he thinks Osama Bin Laden’s death is a tragedy – while John McDonnell’s answer to a question at a Labour leadership hustings in 2010, in which he implies that if he could do one thing differently in the 80s, he would assassinate Margaret Thatcher, suggests that hers might not be to Corbyn.

He has been very keen in his career to meet with ‘friends’ in Hamas, Hezbollah, and the IRA, and though we’re told that each of these occasions were to do with negotiation and peace, there’s no evidence of his meeting any Israelis, or any Unionists, to follow through on these. He opposes bombing Syria because of potential civilian deaths, but doesn’t seem to have a way to reduce the number of civilian deaths caused by the targets of bombing.

He would never use a nuclear weapon even if it would avoid hundreds of thousands of deaths, as it did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In other words, he’s a man who cares more about being morally superior than he does about saving people, and who believes that that inaction and action, when the consequences of either are death, are different things. He’s a man who believes the enemy of the West is his friend, no matter how terrible they are.

None of this, however, is the worst thing about Jeremy Corbyn. The worst thing about Corbyn is that his leadership is completely incompetent. His tenure so far has been a farce to anyone who didn’t want him, and a betrayal to anyone who did. He clearly has no strategy. John McDonnell can produce Mao’s Little Red Book during the budget on his own initiative, the reshuffle takes days, Corbyn stands up after Paris and says he doesn’t believe police should kill terrorists mid-­attack like those in the cinema in Paris.

Maybe someone’s telling them to tone it down and they don’t always listen. Maybe Corbyn felt much more strongly about shoot-­to-­kill than he did about Marx or the Iraq War. Looking from the outside, however, it feels like the reason for all of this is that no one has a plan for getting Labour into government – that on some days he feels he wants to reach out to moderates, and on other days he doesn’t.

“The media” get a lot of criticism from Corbynites, who feel that the Daily Express and the BBC are in some kind of conspiracy to embarrass him, but in reality he doesn’t need them. As far as I can tell, Jeremy Corbyn has never said anything quotable in his life. He’s a man who uses his whim more often than his intellect. He is neither clever nor competent; instead of principles, he has anti­-principles; instead of reforming politics, he has destroyed his party’s unity, and with it, any meaningful opposition to the government.

Every serious analysis of the 2015 Election says that Labour lost because people didn’t trust them on the economy. Now, under Corbyn, people don’t trust them on security either. As long as the British people believe that a man firing at them with an assault rifle would not be killed by policemen to save their lives under a Labour government, the Tories will rule Britain.

Anyone who believes the same things as Corbyn should be deeply troubled by him, because he isn’t fit to run a country. Like Owen Jones, they should quietly start looking for someone else. The rest of us should hope the Tories pick Boris Johnson as their next leader instead of George Osborne.



Rory O’Neill, Contributor

The problem with Labour is not Corbyn, it is those trying to get rid of him

On the evening of Wednesday 2 December, the British House of Commons voted to undertake bombing action in Syria against ISIS targets, with 397 votes for and 223 against. 66 of those votes in favour of military action came from the Labour Party, with a significant section of the parliamentary party weighing in behind David Cameron against their own leader Jeremy Corbyn. Shadow Foreign Secretary Hillary Benn, son of the late, and much greater, socialist activist Tony, gave the closing speech in favour of bombing.

Benn’s closing speech in favour of bombing Syria was lauded as “electrifying” and “spine-tingling”. Martin Kettle of the Guardian compared Benn to “a great conductor” weaving “a symphonic argument”. Perhaps these matters come down to differences of opinion, but Benn’s speech seemed anything but extraordinary – he emphasised the need to “do our bit”, reminded parliament of how they “hold our values and democracy in contempt”.

This was a greatest hits of jingoistic, liberal-interventionist clichés. This is to say nothing of the merciless cynicism with which Benn appropriated the efforts of the International Brigades who went to Spain to fight fascism. Then, a series of opinion columns began to emerge hailing it as the speech “of a true leader” and one that could “transform the Labour Party”. It became clear (if it wasn’t already) what the split in Labour over bombing Syria seemed to be about – undermining Jeremy Corbyn.

There has been a media narrative constructed around Corbyn. It says that he is unable to unite the party, that the in-fighting is turning voters away from Labour, that the appointment of left-wing ally John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor has stripped them of credibility as an alternative government. Political commentators cannot conceive of an electorate that does not think the way they do.

It is obvious that the establishment is trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, but their ability to do so is hindered by how little they understand him or his supporters. The appeal of Corbyn’s left-wing programme to working class people, who have been sacrificed to pay for a crisis of British capitalism, is beyond their understanding.

Corbyn’s Labour has not swept aside all comers as his leadership campaign did. They are still behind the Conservatives in the polls, and it appears he is struggling to generate enthusiasm amongst the wider public in the face of such embittered media resistance. He has been unable to stop the rot in Scottish Labour, who stand little chance of wrestling back their support from the SNP. But the doomsday warnings of the political commentariat over the summer have not come to past.

The Oldham by-election in December, the day after Corbyn’s defeat on Syria, was to be the nail in the coffin, the moment it all came crashing down for the “loony left”. UKIP, it appeared, was ready to take the seat and expose the unelectability of Corbyn’s “poncified Labour”. Corbyn himself was named by the Daily Mail as “the greatest threat to Labour’s hold on Oldham”.

Labour, of course, won with a positive swing of 7.5% and a majority in excess of ten thousand votes. Before the by-election, when the media were predicting a UKIP victory, it was because of Corbyn. So it had to be that Labour’s victory was then in spite of him. Extra points to the Telegraph who, days afterwards, were still able to declare this victory “the beginning of the end for Corbyn” in a story slamming the Labour leader for his “hubris”.

The problem with such a transparent media campaign is that it’s easy to see through it. The most amusing aspect of the leadership campaign over the summer was that Corbyn’s support seemed to increase proportionally to the Labour establishment’s smears against him. The same phenomenon has not exactly repeated itself during his leadership, but the media’s prediction that Corbyn would reduce Labour to a shivering, unelectable mess has not been the self-fulfilling prophecy they hoped it would.

Corbyn’s victory was a defeat for the British establishment. With the rise of neoliberalism and its twin political expressions, Thatcherism and Blairism, politics has been defined around the notion that “there is no alternative” – to capitalism, to neoliberalism, to privatisation and deregulation, and now, in the wake of the economic crisis, to austerity. This is ideology; it is an understanding of society that has been moulded by and embedded in the state, political parties, the media and universities. Corbyn won a landslide victory with the message that there is an alternative to Tory cuts.

His greatest contribution so far has been to talk about politics in class terms and challenge the Conservative government on an explicitly left/right divide in a way no Labour leader has done for decades. The way in which Corbyn is lambasted for daring to speak of taxing the rich and corporations should earn sympathy from those of us in Ireland, where any mention of taking more from our scandalously undertaxed corporations is forbidden.

The essence of the establishment’s hatred of Corbyn is this: he represents a politics they thought dead and buried. The policies Corbyn stands for are in fact popular ones – an end to austerity, the nationalisation of public services such as the railways, disarmament of nuclear weapons, opposing war. They are not unrealistic, they do not challenge the fundamental structures of capitalism – his economic policies have received support from a number of moderate centre-left economists.  

But Corbyn is trying to tap into the idea of Labour as a workers’ party defined in unassailable opposition to the Conservatives. He wants to turn Labour into a “social movement” that can transform Britain along the lines of classic social democracy. As Richard Seymour has pointed out, Corbyn is polarising voters in a way no Labour politician has for years. This is politics divided on the axis of class, and we should have more of it. In an age of centre-right conformity, we should demand anti-war, anti-austerity politics.

We should expose the media’s attempts to stamp out Corbyn’s belief in a world better than this one, and at the same time be aware of the limitations of Labour to deliver that alternative. Corbyn ought to have resisted calls for a free vote over Syria and demanded that his MPs oppose war: this would have simply been imposing the democratic will of the Labour membership, up to 75% of whom opposed bombing Syria.

But under mounting pressure from all sides, Corbyn assented to a free vote that strengthened the pro-war faction’s hand. Corbyn’s politics are not Labour’s politics, and there are doubts over how long he can withstand the pressure to compromise more and more, lest he see his party fall apart at the seams.

The balance of forces within Labour seems too strongly aligned to British capitalism for Corbyn to overcome. SNP MP Mhairi Black said she would “never forget the noise of some Labour and Tory [MPs] cheering together at the idea of bombs falling.” This, sadly, is the Labour Party that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have bequeathed us.

In the five months of Corbyn’s leadership, we have seen little evidence that it can be transformed into a left-wing social movement. But one thing is certain: the problem with Labour is not Corbyn, it is those trying to get rid of him. Whether the fight within Labour is won or lost, the left must continue to organise around anti-war, anti-austerity struggles.

Could a Corbyn-led government even deliver a socialist Britain? The capitulation of SYRIZA in Greece should come as a warning to those seeking radical transformation of society through existing parliamentary avenues. Our political and state structures are not neutral terrain – they are fundamentally aligned to the interests of those who own and rule our society and economy. A Corbyn government would come up against the same pressures that every left-wing government has throughout history. In every case, the outcome has been compromise and defeat.

This does not mean the kind of society Corbyn talks about isn’t worth fighting for. We should reject right-wing attacks on Corbyn: their objective is to enshrine that there is no alternative to capitalism. But to deliver a socialist society, we have to look to the self-organisation of working people. These are not abstract questions – as the struggle inside Labour intensifies, these are the questions that will be posed to the new layers of activists inspired by Corbyn to fight for change.

Rory O'Neill

Rory O'Neill is a former Managing Editor of Trinity News, and a History graduate.

Rory O'Sullivan

Rory O'Sullivan is a former Contributing Editor and Comment Editor of Trinity News, and an Ancient Greek graduate.