In an election filled with mud-slinging (most of it coming from one side of the political spectrum), one of the most despicable attacks made during the 2016 U.S. presidential election was the speculation about the health of Hillary Clinton, who some unqualified people on the right claimed had Parkinson’s disease after she fainted, probably from sun exposure, exhaustion or a combination of the two, at a 9-11 memorial ceremony in New York. One would have thought that this type of smear, based on rumor and anonymous sources, would be avoided in democratic elections in the future, but, as so often happens, a similar one has just been made across the Atlantic, in Great Britain.
Last Saturday, the Times newspaper published a front-page story quoting two unnamed senior civil servants who claimed that the leader of the country’s Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, 70, is “frail”, both “mentally and physically”, is being controlled by unnamed members of his party and is thus unfit to be the country’s prime minister.
The story was incredible for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the article shows civil servants breaking the traditional rule that people in such jobs are meant to remain neutral in terms of party politics. This is especially true considering that these two anonymous sources may find themselves working under a Corbyn government at some point in the future. Could they be trusted to perform their duties if they truly think the PM is unfit for the office?
Many of Corbyn’s colleagues dismissed the story, noting that the Labor leader still rides a bicycle to work, jogs and works out in a public park on a regular basis, with a party spokesperson saying, “Jeremy Corbyn leads an active life, running and cycling regularly, and is in good health. Reports to the contrary are scurrilous and a transparent attempt to undermine Labour’s efforts to redistribute wealth and power from the few to the many.”
The Speaker of the Parliament, John Bercow, a former Conservative member, made a public statement agreeing with this basic sentiment, if not the particulars, saying, “The leader of the opposition looks perfectly healthy to me. I’ve known him a long time. He’s a very healthy-living fellow in my experience.”
While this writer is not privy to Corbyn’s fitness routine, I have watched him week in and week out on Prime Minister’s Questions holding departing Prime Minister Theresa May’s feet to the fire and have yet to see any sign of dwindling faculties. On stages large and small, Corbyn presents as a real leftist leader with a depth of knowledge of the issues, on which he has been consistent in the same way both he and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have been for decades. Whether speaking about education, healthcare, foreign policy or most any other issue, his knowledge and dry wit is unmatched by the current prime minister or either of her possible successors.
It’s interesting that such a story would be published now, with the growing likelihood that Boris Johnson, a former mayor of London with a checkered history, who is sometimes compared to the current U.S. president, will be the country’s next prime minister. Worse, rather than holding a general election as we might expect, Johnson will likely become the country’s leader through a vote by his own party’s membership, 160,000 people in a country of well over 60 million (as a point of comparison, despite the constant criticism, membership in the Labor Party under Corbyn, with help from grassroots organizations like Momentum, has grown to over half a million dues-paying members).
Earlier in the same week that the Times published its ‘scoop’, first the tabloid press and then the airwaves of the country were dominated by news that the police had visited Boris Johnson’s south London home after calls from neighbors regarding an alleged domestic dispute in which a woman was said to have cried out, “Get off of me!”
Rather than quickly writing off a man who impregnated at least two other women during two different marriages, showing that the inconsistent consistency of so-called ‘conservative values’ is as prevalent in the UK as it is in North America, hosts, conservative guests and even some centrists on the BBC and elsewhere defended Johnson’s right to a ‘private life’, something they have never done for Corbyn, who is routinely criticized for much less significant things he is said to have done decades ago.
Johnson, a man who has used a regular column in the Daily Telegraph to keep himself in the public eye while dodging questions from the press (and even leadership debates), has said things about Africans that shouldn’t be repeated and has only recently compared women in the niqab to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”.
On the policy level, Johnson has also promised to go through with a no-deal Brexit (while insisting out of the other side of his mouth that he won’t have to) if an accord isn’t reached with the EU by the next deadline, at the end of October. That both prejudice and bad policy are fundamental to the beliefs of a man who could easily appear in a satire of Britain’s upper classes seems to be lost on his many defenders in the British press. Many of these commentators at the same time insist that Jeremy Corbyn, not a no-deal Brexit, is the greatest threat to the country and that bumbling Boris Johnson is just the man to stop him from creating some kind of communist dystopia.
Corbyn has also, somewhat more legitimately, come under barrage of criticism for Labor’s stance on Brexit. In his defense, in his role as opposition leader, he tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a solution to the crisis with exiting Conservative Party leader Theresa May.
It has to be understood that despite having to deal with a very real rift in his own party on the issue, Corbyn has shown himself to be a true democrat in wanting to consult with members and union supporters to try and reach consensus on the controversial issue of when or if the party will support a second referendum on leaving the EU. It probably shouldn’t surprise us that this has been portrayed as dithering in many quarters, a somewhat effective attack line that North American progressives should be aware of.
While the Labor leader has been hurt politically by the endless barrage of smears directed at him, there is still some hope that Corbyn may yet become the country’s prime minister. If he does, he has promised legislation to allow workers to buy, with government help, businesses that are being put up for sale or whose owners are looking to relocate them outside the country and turn them into workers’ cooperatives. This, and other ideas like it are what the British establishment really fears.