Imagine a pub band that’s been slogging round the country since the 1970s, playing the same old songs in back rooms. No one expects them to make the big time, not even members of the band, but then something extraordinary happens. By some fluke – mainly because everyone has got fed up with manufactured boy bands – they have a hit single. That’s when the trouble starts.
This is roughly where the Labour Party stands under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Nostalgia can only take you so far, and his back catalogue has already moved from unfamiliar and charming, if a bit rough round the edges, to bizarre and alarming. What those of us with a long-standing interest in Labour politics knew before he was elected – that Corbyn is a man with positions, not policies – becomes more obvious by the day.
I remember the damage a previous generation of hard-left politicians inflicted on the Labour Party, creating divisions that took years to heal. Corbyn’s lack of support among Labour MPs is regarded by his supporters as a badge of honour, but it’s more plausibly a product of two things: one is a horrified awareness of how ineptly he handles disagreements, forcing him into a series of ‘clarifications’ which suggest he has no media strategy; the other is the fact that he hasn’t changed his mind on anything important since the 1970s.
None of that affects his core support, which is grounded in hostility to professional politicians (although that, ironically, is what Corbyn is) and unaffected by rational argument. Some of his supporters are sentimental and self-righteous by turns, demanding all kinds of things – free speech and the right to attack opponents – they don’t want to share with anyone else. If you disagree with “Jeremy” you must be a Blairite or a Tory, insults designed to marginalise the soft left who are his most dangerous opponents.
As so often, I can’t help wondering what Robin Cook would make of all this. Cook was neither a pacifist nor a “war-monger”, constantly interrogating his own politics in the light of events. Like many of us on the left, he took the idea of universal human rights as his starting-point, supporting British intervention in the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone but not the invasion of Iraq.
Cook was thoughtful and consistent in a good way, which isn’t something you can say about Corbyn. He is critical of Saudi Arabia, a view many of us share, but he doesn’t employ the same strictures towards Iran. That country is governed by a nasty theocracy which tortures opponents and uses the death penalty even more enthusiastically than the Saudis; according to some estimates, it’s on course to execute 1,000 people this year alone.
Corbyn visited Iran last year, arguing afterwards in the Morning Star that sanctions have been ineffective, but it’s his remarks on human rights abuses that deserve close attention: “When we raised this subject, both with Iranian all-party parliamentary groups and government ministers, they were concerned about double standards on human rights and pointed out, quite correctly, [that] the US torture camp at Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and atrocities in Iraq were also human rights violations which must be condemned.”
I don’t think you have to be an intellectual colossus to point out that none of this excuses hanging gay men from cranes or sentencing women to death by stoning.
A leader of the opposition needs to think quickly, but Corbyn doesn’t do that either. After the terrorist attacks on Paris, a savvy politician would have foreseen a question about Labour views on shoot-to-kill. Corbyn evidently didn’t, having to rummage around in his filing cabinet again: “Hang on, I’m sure I had a position on that. Ah yes, here it is, filed next to Bloody Sunday.” And so, he responded in the context of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when he was actually being asked what he would do if Islamist suicide bombers opened fire in a coffee bar in Manchester. Try explaining that on the doorstep in the Oldham West by-election.
No wonder so many Labour MPs are incredulous and angry. Corbyn is conducting politics as though he’s addressing his mates in the upstairs room of a pub, with no tough questions allowed and no need to link his statements to policy. The people around him are no better, reviving outdated ideas about the commercial sex industry that appal feminists in the party; the shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, and indeed Corbyn himself, have opposed attempts by female colleagues to criminalise men who pay to use women’s bodies. Fiona Mactaggart, a former Home Office minister who last year proposed an amendment on these lines to the Modern Slavery Bill, was one of the first MPs to say publicly that Corbyn’s leadership is unsustainable.
All of this has come to a head over Syria, which is not at all surprising, given Corbyn’s close involvement with the Stop the War coalition. That’s “stop the war” in a generic sense, which hardly suggests he has an open mind about situations in which the use of military force might be necessary. It fatally weakened Corbyn’s authority last week when he asked the Prime Minister whether an air campaign could be successful without ground troops: but does anyone seriously imagine that Corbyn would support putting British soldiers into Syria?
It takes a special kind of political incompetence to turn a debate about something as serious as extending British military action in the Middle East into a melodrama about the Labour Party. Personally, I can’t wait for this talentless 1970s tribute band to return to the obscurity it so richly deserves.
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