If you spend much time on Left Twitter, the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn and his re-envisioned, far more leftist Labour Party did nothing shy of restoring karmic balance to the universe. Implicit in the rejoicing is the sober realization we’ve still got a ways to go—he’s not Prime Minister yet, after all. But until Corbyn’s rise, believing we’d see a western leader firmly situated in a political chart meme’s bottom left quadrant—particularly after decades of neoliberalism and reactionary conservatism—felt akin to hoping for the imminent return of Christ. Last week, that all changed, and light started creeping back into our shadow-ridden world order.
And while all the articles about Labour’s economic plans make me as happy as the next person, there’s another aspect to all this I think a lot of people should be more excited about.
If May’s hung parliament and her coalition with the too-ridiculous-to-be-real DUP ends up losing her Downing Street, and if Corbyn completes his stratospheric rise to the top, then the very foundations of western imperialism, interventionism and hegemonic insatiability are due for a shake-up. Jeremy Corbyn is the most vehemently anti-war politician to make it this close to truly significant power in generations. That’s as much cause for celebration as his utter rejection of austerity and vampiric corporatism.
This is, after all, the man who said Britain hadn’t fought a just war since 1945. If Labour’s current manifesto is adhered to on matters of foreign policy, it would signal a revolutionary shift toward exhausting any and all diplomatic, peaceful means of cooperation before warlike behavior is even considered. Labour looks a lot different now than it did in the days of Tony Blair, mostly because of Corbyn. The past proves he’s a man of his word, the present is already seeing a sea change in his favor and the future’s looking brighter because of it.
Where He’s Been
Now, if you’re expecting Corbyn to be Gandhi, you’ll invariably be disappointed. He’s not a total pacifist but he’s the closest thing the west’s gotten to that in a very long time. Since first making it to Parliament in 1983, he’s shown extreme dedication to diplomacy and caution over war and conflict. It doesn’t look like he’s got any plans to slow down on this front, even though it’s landed him in hot water plenty of times before
During the Thatcher years—despite the British government’s insistence on maintaining the racist status quo—he continually campaigned for sanctions against South Africa to end apartheid and was arrested for protesting it. While he represented a largely Irish constituency, he refused and still refuses to play into the black and white categories so many politicians assign to the Troubles.
His early perspective on the IRA carries over to how he talks about controversial groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as countries like Iran or Russia. As a result, he’s made it pretty easy for the right to attack him for his morally neutral positioning. Should he become PM, one can only imagine the “sympathizer” criticism amping up even more. This is just the same old conservative parlor trick we see anytime someone suggests that human beings are a mixed bag of good and evil no matter what country or group they belong to. Still, no one should be blamed if they find these positions and statements somewhat questionable. They are, by nature, controversial. Leftists are entitled to think as much as right-wingers.
Still, the problem with analyzing conflict realistically is that it allows those who think solely in moral binaries to insinuate you must be playing for the other team if you make anything close to a neutral or qualifying statement. Moral realism is not a popular position, particularly when it contradicts orthodoxy. Rest assured, Corbyn is far more devoted to nonviolence than he is to repping any particular group.
Take his position on Ukraine—he thought the situation was spurred on and exacerbated, at least in part by NATO’s eastward expansion. The British media and plenty of his parliamentary colleagues crucified him for saying this. But it’s not even a statement of support for Russia, just an assessment of reality. He went on to tell The Guardian, “I am not an admirer or supporter of Putin’s foreign policy, or of Russian or anybody else’s expansion.”
The same carries over to his thoughts about the west. He’s more willing to condemn the US and Britain for violence or imperialism, to express uncomfortable truths about traditional western enemies, and to generally admit more nuance in foreign affairs than the typical politician. But that doesn’t stop him from condemning the groups he ostensibly sympathizes with too. Violence is violence, war is war, Corbyn is Corbyn. His ethic remains consistent, no matter who he’s critiquing in a positive, negative or neutral light.
But for all Jezza’s questionable associations adding sweat to your brow, there are far more examples of him being on the right side of history. He was a vocal opponent of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He regularly attacked Tony Blair’s codependent relationship with the Bush administration in matters of foreign policy and has even called for Blair to be investigated for war crimes. Over the last eight years, he’s spoken out against intervention in Libya and Syria and decried ISIS strikes resulting in civilian casualties. The Saudi-led, US- and Britain-backed war in Yemen is also on his radar, and he wants it stopped.
Corbyn’s consistently proven he’ll approach foreign policy more realistically than conservatives or neoliberals. He won’t forgive his own government’s sins but nor will he turn a blind eye to others’ transgressions, although diplomatic solutions would need to be absolutely exhausted in order for him to even consider intervention of any kind. Clearly, the consensus view hasn’t worked, largely because it’s rooted in false beliefs about the world, at best, or unabashed greed and craven dealmaking, at worst.
He signals a reversal of course from both the good vs. evil rhetoric of the Bush / Blair years, the see-no-evil interventionism of centrist liberals and the cynical opportunism of the Trump / May administrations. The pursuit of peace and for Britain, the west and the rest of the world—is a far less costly, much safer option. To liberally paraphrase Chesterton, Corbyn knows this approach hasn’t been tried and found wanting. It’s been found difficult and left untried.
Where He’s Going
It’s all the more remarkable Corbyn made the strides he did in the wake of two horrific terror attacks in Manchester and on London Bridge. It goes without saying the odds usually favor the right in the face of such tragedies—people want to fall back on a strong security state in times of fear. As with so many other things, the liberal establishment went rightward on these issues too: more Middle Eastern intervention, more surveillance, more scapegoating of immigrants.
But two decades of failed right-wing policy on this front wound up with a wiser British public than May and her ilk anticipated. Even after she, her party and the British press insinuated time and again Corbyn was somehow a terrorist sympathizer, his nuanced message about the myriad reasons for these attacks—spurred on in part by Britain’s own foreign policy—resonated.
And he appealed to potential Conservative voters where they were at without sacrificing an inch of ground on principle. In their manifesto, Labour mentions how the Conservative government actually spent less on defense than the 2% NATO benchmark and cost taxpayers millions after scrapping certain new military technologies. They plan for a reversal. They’re also insisting on better treatment for British veterans and current military members.
The worldwide left would do well to note the simplicity of this equation. Right-wing parties worldwide regularly swipe at their opposition for selling out the military. For conservative voters, reverence for the troops is of paramount importance—any slight towards them is tantamount to blasphemy. The important thing is to critique right-wing policies regarding the military’s use while outdoing them in terms of respect for the soldiers themselves.
And isn’t this consistent with leftist ideology as a whole? Of course, veterans and current members of the armed forces should receive better treatment from the state—everyone should. Defense isn’t the problem, offense is; having a strong military isn’t a moral transgression, neglecting the citizenry because of it and using it improperly is.
This is an important re-orientation and it also lays the groundwork for previously skeptical conservative voters to reconsider the left’s messaging on war in general. The Labour manifesto indicates Corbyn is not one for weakness or troop-bashing, but nor is he one for unnecessary, futile wars and the death of innocents. It removes the foundation of May’s criticism completely: he wants a stronger Britain than she does and a more peaceful one. Not to mention, her new alignment with the DUP insinuates he now wants a more peaceful Ireland than she does too.
Obviously, his rhetoric here worked—Labour took 25 constituencies from the Conservatives and made their biggest net gain since 1997. Most importantly, it allows for Labour to start setting a far more progressive and far less imperialist agenda in terms of British foreign policy. His speech after the Manchester attack confirmed people are willing to hear out and accept that western intervention is causing blowback in the form of terrorism, so long as the utter nihilism and moral bankruptcy of the terrorists themselves and the need for a strong, new approach in addressing them are also acknowledged. Polls show the majority of British voters agreed with him.
It’s truly astounding how this simple message managed to flip the conversation on its head. And it wasn’t by going further right, it was by remaining consistently left. People accepted the rest of Labour’s anti-war, pro-Palestine, pro-refugee, anti-Saudi, anti-corrupt-bargains, etc. stipulations on these terms. Because… who wouldn’t?
We shouldn’t be surprised that consistency, honesty, intelligence and compassion win elections. If this sort of messaging continues, it’s really easy to envision a future wherein the left keeps winning more and more. If that happens, if Corbyn is just the first step toward a new future, then maybe the world will finally get a lot less violent at long last.
He ran against spilt blood and confiscated treasure, like St. George taking on a dragon. And the Obi-Wan Kenobe looking motherfucker pulled it off. Britain is giving peace a chance. One can only hope it keeps doing so and that the rest of the world follows suit.