With Brexit just six weeks away and the Conservative government led by Theresa May losing a parliamentary vote on the PM’s proposed deal with the European Union by a historically large margin most of the British media still seems more concerned with finding fault with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn than reporting on the complicated risks associated with a so-called hard Brexit in which the country leaves the EU without a deal.
Instead of behind the scenes investigative pieces about a Prime Minister who recklessly set the clock in motion on Brexit without presenting a plan until the deadline was just months away, the mild mannered Corbyn has been the one forced to face wave after wave of often personal attacks, from being accused of either being an anti-Semite himself or tolerating this evil in his own party (aired so often that the latter is now received wisdom in the British press, despite the fact that the Conservatives have more of a problem not only in this regard, but in terms of racism in general).to having served as a spy for Czechoslovakia at the height of the Cold War.
Even the hard Brexiters in May’s cabinet like former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who seems to have dropped out of a satirical novel skewering the British ruling class and has been just one among many Conservative spoilers throughout the process of trying to negotiate a deal, receive much less criticism than Corbyn does for trying to hold the government accountable, not just on Brexit but for all of its policies.
In mid-December one of these far right Brexiters, Dominic Raab, himself one of two former Brexit Secretaries, tweeted the kind of nonsense we’ve been hearing from these quarters since the 2016 referendum, “Remainers believe U.K. prosperity depends on its location, Brexiters believe U.K. prosperity depends on its character.”
This kind of fuzzy, even utopian, thinking is common among the hard Brexiters, yet it’s Corbyn’s intelligence that the British tabloid press makes a subject of debate
In some ways, starting with the truly odious Daily Mail and quickly filtering out through the right-wing press into the mainstream, the latest lines of attack on the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition show how little there is in his record that is objectionable and isn’t already widely known, as he’s held to almost all the same principles throughout his 40 years on the back benches of the country’s parliament.
The one inconsistency that really stands out in his record is the Labor leader’s submission to the will of the majority of his party in campaigning in 2016 to remain in the European Union that he was long a skeptic of from the left.
It shouldn’t be news that Corbyn has opposed much of the EU’s regulatory and legal frame work over time, not because he saw it as an affront to British ‘sovereignty’ like Johnson and Raab, but because it doesn’t go far enough to protect workers and the poor and might legally prevent a Labor government from addressing the U.K.’s many inequalities, which have only deepened since at least the Thatcher years.
It often seems that the centrists in his own party, along with the Conservatives and their media allies, are more afraid of a Corbyn government than they are of a hard Brexit, which would open a Pandora’s box of problems, not the least of which would be the possibility of a hard border between Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which might endanger the hard fought for peace in the latter.
May’s defeated deal would have dealt with this by creating a backstop on the border between EU member the Republic of Ireland and the North. This would allow for the free movement of goods and services between the two until further negotiations or technological solutions could be found to harmonize the different regulatory regimes that will be created by the U.K. leaving the Union. Thus, May’s backstop would in effect create a soft border with the whole of the U.K. and was unacceptable to the hard Bexiters in her own party and, if for different reasons, Northern Ireland’s Christian fundamentalist DUP party, whose votes she needs to maintain her parliamentary majority.
Despite the ongoing Brexit debacle, an epidemic of knife crime in many of its cities and other social problems in areas like healthcare and education directly linked to Conservative austerity policies lasting almost a decade, the Mail on Sunday last week led its coverage with its serialization of author and journalist Tom Bower’s latest biography, “Dangerous Hero: Corbyn’s Ruthless Plot For Power”.
You can see in the Mail’s 20 pages, part of whose lede I took as the title for this story, how desperate the British press, who ran stories and televised debates about Bower’s account for days after, are for new lines of attack on the Labor leader.
Instead of new revelations, we are given further details about mostly mundane things we already knew, such as Corbyn’s ability to live at points in his life on cold canned beans. Bower’s reveal? Corbyn might not differentiate between different brands of beans, by at least one account just as happy to eat those from retailer Tesco as those produced by Heinz.
While some evidence is presented that he was disorganized early in his career and seemed to expect the women in his life to share his somewhat quirky asceticism, faults of immaturity that close to his seventh decade he seems to have grown out of, these are about the only criticisms contained in the initial article that aren’t based on either opinion or attempted mind reading on the part of Bower.
Although the author of thos attempted hit job admits that Corbyn himself is always polite, he insists that this is just a facade, one he has kept to his entire life and that he is, in fact, with help from colleagues like John McDonnell, always stoking conflict behind the scenes like some kind of left wing Machiavelli.
At the same time, Bower, in something of a contradiction, also repeatedly claims that the leader of the largest political party by membership in the UK is unintelligent, mostly in asides and without offering evidence.
Having watched Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions for most of his time as opposition leader, seen him interviewed by countless interlocutors obviously hostile to him and his ideas and watched speeches spanning some 40 years, I haven’t seen examples of the slow wit that Bower and, by association, the Daily Mail attribute to him, only a humanistic idealism and occasionally, a sly sense of humor.
Another story attributed to Bower’s book, which also appeared in the pages of the Daily Mail, goes even further into the past, investigating the low grades in some subjects the now 69 year old Corbyn had in high-school. The piece also seems to find something unsavory in the then adolescent Corbyn’s interest in travel.
While arguing that Corbyn is a ‘Marxist Trotyskyist’ (a redundant turn of phrase in itself), the second article in question also claims the leader of the U.K.’s opposition is not a reader and was unwilling to engage with the written work of either, another seeming paradox that Bower leaves unanswered. While he may have been some kind of Marxist early on, as many on the left were at that time, one need only look at Corbyn’s policy proposals today to see that he’s more of a social democrat in the post WWII Labor Party tradition than the kind of wide eyed revolutionary he’s often portrayed as.
One of the things about Corbyn that sometimes frustrates supporters is that he barely acknowledges the attacks against him even as they become more and more viscous. Others argue that he is rightly focused on policy and that he demonstrated this once again in an open letter to the Prime Minister outlining his own red-lines in regards to Brexit, including remaining in the customs union, which would eliminate the need for the Irish backstop. Though she rejected his proposals, it must have been a bitter pill for Prime Minister May to swallow that the letter was well received by many EU officials.
More broadly, part of what makes the Labor Leader popular despite all the negative attention he receives is that in addressing the British public he shows compassion for the struggles of working people in ways you can’t imagine a leader of a mainstream political party doing there since at least the 1980s. He isn’t the smoothest public speaker but he is authentic and this is a part of the reason large crowds literally sing his name.
At the same time, the ceaseless, increasingly absurd accusations made against the party’s elected leader expose how deep into the gutters the British establishment is willing to go to stop a rejuvenated Labor Party, freed from the neoliberal dogmas of Tony Blair and his immediate successors, from returning to its roots as a party of and for working people as expressed most clearly in the party’s 2017 election manifesto.
As long as he’s the leader of the Labor Party, Corbyn will need to continue absorbing the smears that will come his way, made all the harder for him personally because, as many of us who have watched his unexpected rise to the leadership of his party have come to believe, Jeremy Corbyn is that rarest of things: an honest politician.