LONDON — The idea that an admirer of Hezbollah and Hamas should be a serious contender to lead the British Labour Party might seem fanciful. But amid the climate of confusion and self-doubt that plagues the freshly defeated opposition, this is exactly what is coming to pass.
Jeremy Corbyn, the 66-year-old hard-left activist who has made a career out of opposing “American and British imperialism,” is one of four candidates to succeed Ed Miliband as Labour leader. One poll, by the influential LabourList website, finds him the favorite, with his left-wing credentials and anti-austerity stance attracting unexpected numbers of Labour supporters eager to break with the legacy of Tony Blair.
But Corbyn has a dark side. Over the years, this old-fashioned Trotskyite — known for his ragged beard, shabby jackets and Leninist worker’s cap — has been linked to a range of extremists, from the IRA and 9/11 conspiracy theorists to Hamas.
In 1984, just two weeks after the Brighton bombing which killed five people and injured 31 (while narrowly missing Margaret Thatcher), he caused an uproar by inviting representatives of the IRA to the House of Commons.
More than three decades later, this instinct is undimmed.
Last year, James Thring, a notorious 9/11 “truther” and associate of the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, was allowed to take the stage at a pro-Palestinian event hosted by Corbyn in Parliament.
In his five-minute speech, Thring — who has referred to “Jewish elders” controlling the world’s financial markets — stated that a Palestinian army should be created, armed and equipped. He also boasted of having close connections to the Chinese authorities, whom he was also lobbying to provide weapons to the Palestinians.
When I questioned Corbyn about this at the time, he said that he had no prior knowledge that Thring was going to speak. The official speaker was, he said, running late, and Thring had taken the stage in his absence. Corbyn didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.
“This meeting took on a life of its own due to a late speaker,” he told me at the time, “causing much administrative confusion.”
But the fact that the platform fell naturally to Thring, and that he was not asked to step down from it, raises questions about the climate of the meeting. Moreover, the headlining latecomer, Max Blumenthal, was not exactly moderate; it was he who created the hashtag #JSIL, to equate Jews with the Islamic State.
In the House of Commons, few have taken any of this seriously. As one Labour insider put it, “the attitude is, ‘that’s just Jeremy being Jeremy.’”
But with fresh prominence comes fresh scrutiny. In recent weeks, footage of a speech that Corbyn made as patron of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign in 2009 has started to do the rounds on the internet.
“It will be my pleasure and honor to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking,” Corbyn said in the clip. “I’ve also invited our friends from Hamas to come and speak as well. … So far as I’m concerned, that is absolutely the right function of using Parliamentary facilities.”
Corbyn declined several requests for comment.
The speech is just the tip of the iceberg. As a campaigning international socialist, Corbyn has supported a wide variety of causes, including the anti-apartheid movement, the Hugo Chavez campaign, Irish unity and opposing the invasion of Iraq. In many cases, he has been vindicated; he backed the Guildford Four, for instance, long before they were found to be wrongly convicted of bombing a pub for the IRA in 1974.
But as traditional campaigning issues like apartheid and Irish republicanism have fallen away, solidarity with the Palestinians has become the left’s banner cause. And Corbyn’s approach, as one Labour insider put it, is “every enemy of Israel is my friend.”
The radical MP has cultivated strong ties to the notorious Finsbury Park Mosque, where the Islamist rabble-rouser Abu Hamza used to preach.
In January 2014, Corbyn was part of a group welcoming the Algerian preacher Abdallah Djaballah to the mosque. This controversial imam has called on his countrymen to “wage holy Muslim war” against Britain and the United States, and blames Israel for the 9/11 attacks.
Among the Labour mainstream, complacency about Corbyn has been replaced by a rising sense of anger. “He claims he is a socialist, yet the first principle of socialism is supposed to be equality,” says James Bloodworth, editor of the influential Labour website Left Foot Forward. “Is he deluded enough to think that anti-Semitic terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah care a jot for the human rights of women, of gay people and of Jews?”
Bloodworth continues: “He needs to clarify his past statements as a matter of urgency. If he still stands by the things he has said, anyone genuinely interested in human rights cannot support him.”
But he is not alone in his affection for hardline Islamists. A seam of similar feeling runs through the British political establishment, particularly on the left.
The Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) is a British campaign group that — according to the Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Terrorism and Intelligence Center — is affiliated to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2009, it welcomed the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as its guest speaker at its annual conference; and it has long enjoyed the patronage of MPs.
At a PRC event held at Parliament in 2013, Corbyn took the stage alongside Baroness Jenny Tonge, who was forced to resign from her position in the Liberal party after saying that if she were Palestinian, she “might just consider” becoming a suicide bomber; and Lord Nazir Ahmed, who after causing a deadly road accident by texting behind the wheel, blamed his prison sentence on a Jewish conspiracy.
A surprising number of other British politicians, including Andy Slaughter, Sir Gerald Kaufman and Crispin Blunt, have visited Hamas leaders in Gaza, and some — George Galloway included — have made sizable donations to the terror group. Now that Corbyn’s star is rising, this loose collective of pro-Islamist MPs may have a new representative at the top table.
Corbyn could not be elected on their support alone, however, and he is managing to reach out beyond his natural base. On June 17, he performed impressively during the televised Labour leadership debate, which revolved around the question of whether the party should discard Blair’s legacy or build on it.
In the aftermath of their humiliation at the ballot box, Labour supporters are divided between the Blairites and the anti-austerity left. Corbyn, despite his radically internationalist foreign policy, support for open-border immigration, and affection for militants, is starting to be seen by some as the only authentic, anti-Blairite voice.
During the debate, the loudest applause was reserved for Corbyn’s attack on Blair: “The elephant that’s in this room, and everywhere else, is why, oh why, oh why did Blair have to get so close to Bush that we ended up in an illegal war in Iraq?” He also argued for an end to austerity and a “national crusade” to solve Britain’s chronic shortage of housing. All of this was music to the ears of those fatigued by Miliband’s vacillations, and filled with resentment at Blairism. When the debate concluded, bookies had cut Corbyn’s odds from 16/1 to 12/1.
Further evidence of Corbyn’s broadening appeal emerged June 20, when he was the only Labour leadership candidate to attend a high-profile anti-austerity demonstration in London. His speech, made alongside singer Charlotte Church and comedian Russell Brand, was received with great enthusiasm.
“The dominant psychology of Labour is that it is gripped by self-loathing after years of betrayal under Tony Blair,” says Dan Hodges, a former Labour Party and trade union official who writes for the Daily Telegraph.
“Many in the party want to keep scratching that scar, and are determined to keep the left-wing flame alive after the disaster of the Miliband years. For them, Corbyn is a campaigning representative on Earth.”
Leo McKinstry, a journalist who campaigned alongside Corbyn for 10 years in the late 1980s and early 90s, is worried by his old comrade’s rise to prominence. “There’s something both naïve and gung-ho about Jeremy,” he says. “He has always been drawn to terrorism masquerading as an armed struggle. He has an eternal rebelliousness. He gets a thrill out of bringing radical groups into the august surroundings of the House of Commons. He’s never seen a left-wing campaign he did not like, nor a capitalist enterprise he did not despise.”
McKinstry continues: “I’ve been asking myself whether there’s any group that has been too violent and radical for Jeremy. I honestly don’t think there is. And it’s not inconceivable that he could win.”
One reason for Corbyn’s wide appeal is his seemingly down-to-earth, unostentatious persona. Elements of his ideology might be controversial, but there can be little doubt that he lives and breathes his politics — a rare commodity in Westminster. He has repeatedly stated that he could never be friends with anybody who wasn’t left-wing, and writes a column for the Morning Star, Britain’s communist newspaper. He is famously parsimonious, doesn’t own a car, and once held the record for the smallest Parliamentary expenses claim (£8.95 for a printer cartridge).
Most strikingly of all, in 1999 he divorced his first wife because she insisted on sending their children to a selective grammar school, which went against his principles. All this is a balm to many voters wearied by the crafted rhetoric of professional politicians (a number of whom, especially on the left, have championed the state education system while sending their own children to private schools). And it is this that seems to have inspired The Guardian, Britain’s foremost left-leaning newspaper, to lend Corbyn its support. “He is kind and gentle, yet almost invisible, as if he has sacrificed his personality to the cause,” the paper enthused last week.
Pollsters maintain that Corbyn hasn’t a chance of winning. But they got it badly wrong in May, and Corbyn’s campaign is snowballing fast.
The support necessary to secure his candidacy was scraped together just minutes before the deadline, when 12 MPs chose to back him without endorsing his politics, in a high-handed effort to “broaden the debate.”
Fast forward to the present, and in a survey of readers of LabourList, 47 percent of respondents favored Corbyn, compared to just 13 percent who supported Andy Burnham, his closest rival.
Moreover, the Labour leadership election is unpredictable, and can be dramatically affected by the grassroots. The rules allow anybody to pay £3 to register as an affiliated Labour supporter and cast a vote; this raises the possibility that Corbyn’s campaign might attract a fresh, left-leaning constituency, just as Bernie Sanders’ anti-corporate agenda is attracting a wave of unanticipated support from young people in the United States.
Even if Corbyn loses, as remains probable, his newfound popularity is likely to drag the party to the left — just as Sanders is shifting Hillary Clinton’s position on issues like inequality and free trade deals — and gain fresh legitimacy for his brand of iconoclastic radicalism.
In the long-term, however, Corbyn’s growing popularity may prove more of a hindrance then a help to the Labour Party. By way of illustration, another unlikely group of voters is rejoicing at his success: Toby Young, the mischievous conservative columnist, has encouraged Tories to pay £3, become an affiliated supporter, and vote for Corbyn. This, he says, will drag the party away from the center ground — which is where general elections tend to be won — and “consign Labour to electoral oblivion.”
According to James Bloodworth, however, Corbyn’s sympathy for Islamic extremists may yet prove to be his Achilles heel. “Unlike much of the left, the average person doesn’t have a fixed ‘worldview’ as such,” he says.
“So when someone like Jeremy Corbyn is seen praising anti-Semitic terrorists like Hezbollah, they are sensible enough to find it repulsive, as any right-minded person should.”
Only the results of the vote, to be decided in September, will show whether this is wishful thinking.
Jake Wallis Simons is a British journalist and broadcaster specializing in policy and global affairs.
- British media continues to obfuscate Jeremy Corbyn’s sympathy for violent right-wing extremists (ukmediawatch.org)
- Toby Crunches #ToriesForCorbyn Numbers (order-order.com)
- Why Tories should join Labour and back Jeremy Corbyn (telegraph.co.uk)
- Nothing changes (thejc.com)
- Labour’s Blair problem (blogs.spectator.co.uk)