Labour leadership contest: Behind the times? No, Jeremy Corbyn may be ahead of the game

On big issues, including climate change and poverty, the Labour hopeful could put Cameron on the back foot

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The Independent Online

When the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn first became evident a month ago, the immediate reaction in Conservative circles was a mixture of disbelief and exhilaration. It prevailed for a couple of weeks, but has now been replaced by a certain caution. This has little to do with any concern over his political stance and much more to do with the sheer size of the crowds he continues to attract. He is tapping into something not seen south of the border for at least a decade.

There is now a worry among some thoughtful Conservatives that a clear Corbyn win on the first ballot will mean that the Government will be facing a significant level of opposition backed by a substantial sector of public opinion, rather than a Labour Party not desperately different from the Government on many issues. The neo-liberal path of progress may even be at risk.

This change in attitude is reflected in the renewed vigour with which sections of the press are highlighting Corbyn’s support for radical causes, the most significant of these being international rather than national. This may be surprising, considering his strong opposition to domestic austerity, but the fact is that Conservative analysts are only too well aware that, as the experience in Scotland showed, concentrating on the inevitability of austerity policies is already beginning to lose credibility. 

Better, therefore, to look at his support for potentially unpopular movements overseas, starting with Hamas and Hezbollah but taking in his stance on Trident, Nato, and defence in general.

This is certainly the current pattern, although it is not done in the expectation that it will affect his electoral chances within the Labour Party, since it is now assumed that he will win comfortably. Instead, it is part of a process that will develop and intensify in the coming months, but it does raise the question of whether Corbyn is as vulnerable as so many pundits suggest.

For a start, Corbyn actually has a record of being ahead of most political thinking on a number of issues, including the Iraq war and the use of torture. On the “talking to Sinn Fein” issue, it may seem controversial, but at the time he was saying what the government of the day was already doing behind the scenes. Similarly, Hamas may be considered a terrorist group but the criticism of Israel’s recent Gaza war goes well beyond the traditional left.

On wider issues, Trident, Nato and conflicts in the Middle East all come to mind, starting with the assumption that opposing Trident renewal is a vote loser. In reality that may have been the case a few years ago, but a new generation has emerged and it is far from clear that it is any longer a key issue. The idea that international standing depends on being able to kill five million people in 45 minutes has much less traction than it did, and the huge cost of a Trident replacement, at a time of supposed austerity, is another factor that will be easy for Corbyn to highlight.

Nato is an issue where public opinion may not be strong either way, but where withdrawal would actually be less popular than ditching Trident. But Corbyn has made it clear that such an issue would be a matter for discussion and debate, rather than early imposition of policy across the party.  It is more likely that retaining membership will prevail, but with a demand for a fundamental rethinking of Nato’s functions, especially after the disastrous decade-long involvement in Afghanistan.

On the Middle East, one would expect that the links with Hamas and Hezbollah would be worthy of governmental emphasis, but the mood in the country is actually uncertain and unpredictable. There is now a widespread view, which is developing into a consensus, that the Iraq war was wrong in almost every sense and this combines with a deep suspicion of further involvements of UK forces in Iraq beyond the current air war. 

Over all this, though, is the much bigger issue of whether Corbyn is behind or ahead of the times, and this may well decide his future as leader of the Labour Party.

In foreign policy terms, it relates to two global issues, climate change and marginalisation. 

On the first, David Cameron’s government is now paying little more than lip service to green issues, and the UK has slipped way behind many other Western governments on renewables and related matters. However, December’s climate change summit in Paris and the current surge in global warming both mean that a vigorous party focusing on this issue may attract far more attention, and get more support, than expected.

In the longer term, though, it is the growing worldwide wealth-poverty divide that is more significant. Even 10 years ago, to talk of serious problems with the neo-liberal economic transformation of the previous 25 years was regarded as far-fetched. The 2007-08 financial crunch dented that view somewhat, but recovery seemed assured and it was back to business as usual by 2012.

Now, though, there is an international mood developing that mirrors Corbyn’s national critique of austerity. It may have been knocked back by European determination to force Greece to accept continued austerity, but even that has left an ugly taste which is reflected in increased support for anti-austerity parties in other countries.

That support might readily extend to a revitalised Labour Party, especially if the current worries about a world-wide economic downturn are realised. Chinese economic growth has slowed, Russia and Brazil are in recession, there is stagnation across much of Europe, and even the future of the unbalanced growth across much of the global south is now uncertain.

Corbyn, in short, may actually be ahead of the times, not behind them. Moreover, this could quickly come to a head if Cameron’s government insists on increased austerity through the coming winter. If the leader of the main opposition no longer buys into the model, and is backed by substantial public support, it may even be Cameron rather than Corbyn who ends up on the defensive.

Professor Paul Rogers is an adviser to the Oxford Research Group. His forthcoming book, Irregular War, will be published by IB Tauris next year.

Twitter: @ProfPRogers

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