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Stepping down as Labour leader, Corbyn can hold his head high

No mainstream politician in modern times has been as mocked and misrepresented as Corbyn - nor has any been proved right so often 
Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives for the annual Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey in London, Britain on 9 March (Reuters)

There is one cardinal rule of British politics, decreed the great British historian AJP Taylor: radicals and visionaries are condemned to be ostracised and despised in their lifetimes. They never get within a whiff of power, unless they sell out. They get stopped by the establishment. 

But there is one compensation. Their ideas win in the end. Not long after they leave the political stage, what once sounded heretical becomes the new orthodoxy. To put it another way, they lose the present but win the future.

Taylor’s analysis - set out in his superlative book The Trouble Makers, which reads as well today as it did when it was written six decades ago - applies exactly to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader who leaves office this weekend. 

Defying collective wisdom

No mainstream politician in modern times has been as mocked, misrepresented and eviscerated as Corbyn. But I can’t think of a single one who has been proved right so quickly - or so often. 

Defying the collective wisdom of the establishment, Corbyn led the campaign against the invasion of Iraq. Seventeen bloody years later, the US is still trying to find a way to extricate itself. Virtually everyone admits Corbyn was right.

He got the big issues right. The establishment will never forgive you for that

Corbyn warned against the invasion of Afghanistan. Nearly two decades later, the US has struck a deal with the Taliban and is on the way out, tail between its legs.

Corbyn was one of only a dozen British MPs who voted against former UK Prime Minister David Cameron and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Libya debacle. What a disaster. Once again, Corbyn was proved right. 

But it is on the domestic front that Corbyn has been vindicated most spectacularly of all. Throughout the course of his half-century political career, Corbyn has argued against what we today call neoliberalism. That is to say, he has consistently argued against the shrinking of the state, the removal of protections for workers and the privatisation of public services. 

Implementing Corbynomics

In recent years, that has meant that Corbyn has argued for the end of austerity, the reversal of privatisation and billions more pounds in public spending. As a result, he has been denounced by his political opponents (both in the Conservative Party and, more surprisingly, in his own Labour Party) as a demented Marxist hell-bent on the destruction of the British economy and the obliteration of Britain itself. 

Though I have been a strong critic of many of Corbyn’s economic ideas, I pointed out that he was asking for nothing more drastic than a restoration of the social democratic settlement that prevailed in Britain between the end of World War II up to the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

Corbyn demonstrates against the threat of war with Iran in London on 11 January (AFP)
Corbyn demonstrates against the threat of war with Iran in London on 11 January (AFP)

There is, of course, a rich irony at work here, for as Corbyn steps down from office, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is hard at work putting into effect an even more radical version of the domestic policies advocated by Corbyn in two consecutive general elections. 

Corbynomics was the term used in the Tory press. Unprecedented levels of government spending. Bailouts for failed businesses. An exponential increase for government borrowing. Renationalisation. All put into practice by the very same prime minister who repeatedly warned before the last election that Britain under Corbyn would suffer an “economic catastrophe”

Knives still out

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s measures have been praised to the skies by the exact same right-wing media who warned of economic obliteration if Corbyn ever became prime minister. This was true even of the spending splurge unleashed in his budget before the coronavirus crisis struck. 

Even more so afterwards. Although it is too soon to say for certain, coronavirus appears to be bringing about a radical change of attitudes towards carers, public sector workers, nurses, doctors, and it should be said, migrants. People are coming to realise that they are some of the heroes of British society. 

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This brings me to my final point. As he prepares to step down as Labour leader, his opponents are plunging the knife in one final time. 

In the Times, Matt Chorley sums up his leadership as “superficially well-meaning, yet bafflingly meaningless”. In the Spectator, Stephen Daisley’s denunciation of Corbyn’s “toxic legacy” is more direct: “Take your messiah complex and your dismal little cult and shove off.”

Tory and Labour grandees alike are not passing up a last chance to undermine the departing Labour leader. Lord Mandelson, the architect of New Labour, unsurprisingly branded Corbyn’s politics as “intolerance and factionalism”. This was some cheek from Mandelson, probably the most divisive figure Labour has ever produced. 

Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, called Corbyn “a totalitarian up to his neck” in the Yorkshire Post. He has been written off with utter contempt. 

The ultimate crime

Now, a new Labour leader is set to take over in the shape of Keir Starmer. He’s unproven, but I like the look of him. Many are advising Starmer to eradicate the legacy of Corbyn - to write him out of history, just as Tony Blair did to his predecessor, John Smith. But if Starmer has any sense, he will honour Corbyn and praise his legacy. 

Like it or not, the quiet and unassuming Corbyn has been a visionary leader of the Labour Party

Corbyn’s problem? Again and again, he committed the ultimate crime in politics. He got the big issues right. The establishment will never forgive you for that.

The fact is that, like it or not, the quiet and unassuming Corbyn has been a visionary leader of the Labour Party. Of course he made mistakes. Of course he got things wrong. But history will be far kinder to him than to Johnson, or Blair, or Theresa May. Corbyn can hold his head high as he steps down as Labour leader this weekend.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.