Labour of love? - GulfToday

Labour of love?

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Jeremy Corbyn

Although Corbyn doubled the Labour party’s membership, he is personally far more unpopular than Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn lost December’s Brexit election because he sat on the fence over Britain’s exit from the European Union. An old fashioned euro sceptic, Corbyn did not like the leave deals proposed by Conservative rivals but did not embrace voters who sought to remain in the bloc. Instead, he tried to court and keep Labour voters on both sides of the debate and was seen as weak.

Consequently, Labour suffered its worst defeat since 1935. Traditional Labour voters in the north-east voted Conservative and the pro-EU vote was split between pro-remain Labourites, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists. However, the Conservative pro-Brexit win was not as dramatic as it seems. If Britain had adopted proportional representation rather than the winner-of-most-votes-takes-all system, the result would have been quite different. The Conservatives received 43.6 per cent of the vote, while the three main anti-Brexit parties took 47.7 per cent. If they had been permitted to form a coalition, the Conservative campaign to impose Brexit without a second referendum would have been defeated.

During the campaign Corbyn said Labour would draw up a better deal and put it to the country in a referendum where voters could choose between his deal and remain. Although this was a logical and fair way to proceed, it did not impress illogical Britons who were — and are — totally bored and alienated by the never-ending Brexit debate and simply want to leave as a means to end rancour, recrimination and uncertainty. Voters bought Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson’s “Brexit now” slogan without thinking that they would have no control over either the process of leaving nor the outcome.

Although Corbyn doubled the Labour party’s membership, making it the largest political party in Europe, he lost the election for several reasons. He is personally far more unpopular than Johnson. Corbyn has remained true to his ideological commitment to democratic socialism: to building homes for the homeless, making health care free for all, upgrading schools and providing a welfare safety net for the poor. He said if Labour won it would “transform society” by reducing the stark inequalities of capitalism and rebuilding Britain to benefit “the many, not the few.” While his plans for taxing wealthy companies and individuals, creating new jobs in “green” wind turbines and expanding home care for needy elderly folk are popular, he is too low-key and uncharismatic to convince people he can deliver.

Media have contributed considerably to his unpopularity. Mainstream British newspapers owned by wealthy and conservative media moguls either distorted or misrepresented his views and used distortions to attack him during both the 2017 and 2019 election campaigns. During the 1980s he promoted a united Ireland and met Irish Republican Army leader Jerry Adams several times with the aim of working towards a peaceful end to the conflict. His actions were not forgotten or forgiven with the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement which ended the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Corbin had more current issues with the media. Although he has made it his life-long mission to oppose all types of racism, including anti-Semitism, he has been accused of failing to root out anti-Jewish sentiments in the party. This charge seems to have been inspired by his longstanding support for the Palestinian cause and his pro-Palestinian stands. He took part in commemorations in London of Israel’s 1948 massacre of Palestinians at the village of Deir Yassin, opposed the deportation of Raed Salah, a Palestinian activist falsely accused of libelling Jews, and attended an event memorialising victims of Israel’s 1985 bombardment of Palestinian Liberation Organisation Headquarters in Tunis. In May of this year he condemned “ongoing human rights abuses by Israeli forces” for shooting hundreds of Palestinians while they have been demonstrating in Gaza.

On other regional issues, Corbyn has taken positions unpopular with influential Britons. He opposed the 2003 US-led war on Iraq and called for former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair to be held accountable for joining the US in this war, branded “aggression” by Corbyn. He has called for lifting sanctions on Iran as part of the deal on Tehran’s nuclear programme and for decommissioning Israel’s nuclear arsenal. He has criticised Britain’s close ties with Saudi Arabia and urged the government to halt the sale of arms to the kingdom. Corbyn has also castigated Turkey’s repression of its Kurdish citizens.

While Corbyn has taken responsibility for Labour’s losses in the election, he continues to argue its policies are popular. This is true of some items in the party’s manifesto — such as reviving the National Health System, ending austerity and tackling inequality — but not re-nationalising Britain’s railways and other public services. This election was not about policies but about Brexit, and his refusal to take a strong stand against Conservative plans for Britain’s exit from the EU meant Labour did not squarely address this issue. Now that Johnson has his Brexit, he intends to adopt several populist Labour policies with the aim of retaining Labour voters who cast ballots for the Conservatives for the first time ever.

Corbyn has said Labour should pause for reflection before choosing a new leader and determining the course it will take in order to recoup its fortunes. However, if Labour is to be an effective opposition, it needs to change the party’s focus. The leadership contest is meant to begin early in January and last 12 weeks. So far, there are at least seven candidates for the leadership, five of them women. Whoever succeeds will have to not only deal with Johnson but also Corbyn ‘s leftist supporters whose adherence to party ideology has been at odds with the urgent issue of the day: Brexit.

Brexit will not go away if Britain formally exits the EU at the end of January. Brexit has to be negotiated and shaped. As this will involve struggle and compromise, Conservatives cannot be allowed to dominate and dictate the process.

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