The Four Big Misconceptions
Although he could occasionally have done with responding more quickly, Jeremy Corbyn defended himself at a number of different points. On August 7, for example, he sought to correct “four misconceptions” which kept reappearing in the critiques of his campaign. Regarding critiques of supposed “deficit denial”, Corbyn stressed that he had actually “criticised George Osborne’s Budget for not doing enough”. For him, the current deficit had to be tackled, but not “by cutting the public services, benefits and tax credits, or squeezing spending out of the economy so that growth is slowed down”. He criticised the idea of setting an “arbitrary deadline”, and instead asserted that Britain needs “a strategy to grow the economy, increase tax revenues, and – if necessary – ask the most fortunate to contribute a little more”. The only people “in denial”, he insisted, were those denying “the true economic crisis – the crisis of rising poverty and homelessness, and falling productivity”.
The second point he addressed was his supposed ‘unelectability’, a falsity he criticised by highlighting that “Labour has to become a movement again to win in 2020” and that “the part of the electorate who we most need to speak to is those who didn’t vote – 34 per cent at the last election” (mostly young, working class, or from ethnic minorities). “An honest, straight-talking politics”, he said, could also “win back support from the Conservatives, Ukip, the Greens and SNP”.
Thirdly, Corbyn responded to suggestions that he was “anti-business” by stressing that he worked “with local businesses in [his] constituency, including some very promising high-tech businesses”. At the same time, though, he insisted that he was “absolutely not relaxed about a few people being filthy rich while others are destitute” and that “demanding tax justice” would actually be “a moderate pro-business campaign”, seeking to establish “a level playing field for all”. Furthermore, he asserted that he could “not ignore the exploitation of workers, the degradation of our environment – or tax dodging by multinationals, which creates an unfair advantage over local businesses”. At the same time, he noted that “many well-off people” he had spoken to had said they “would be quite happy to pay more tax” because they recognised “a more equal society is better for us all”.
Finally, he emphasised that he would seek unity rather than division, stating that he would not “want a Shadow Cabinet who all come from exactly the same political background”. For him, Labour needed to be “a democratic party that involves all MPs and party members” in order to develop “a more inclusive and united party”. Meanwhile, The Guardian asserted that a “Corbyn leadership would represent a seismic shift for Labour in terms of how the party is led and in terms of policy”, in part because the candidate had stressed that there had to be “an open debate” through “a number of open conventions on the economy, the environment, the constitution, social and foreign policies”. This suggestion, the paper said, was “causing heart palpitations among mainstream Labour figures”.
At the same time, Corbyn’s criticism of NATO (which had “not been heard from any frontbencher of either of the [main] parties for three decades”) was that it was “a cold war institution” with “quite extraordinary powers of insisting on 2% defence expenditure of all its member states”. Whilst “not an admirer or supporter of Putin’s foreign policy, or of Russian or anybody’s else’s expansion”, Corbyn asserted, there had to be “some serious discussions about de-escalating the military crisis in central Europe”. And, in a context of both “Nato expansion and Russian expansion”, he said, “one leads to the other, and one reflects the other”. For him, the West “should have gone down the road Ukraine went down in 1990, which was an informal agreement with Russia that Ukraine would be a non-nuclear state [and] would be non-aligned in its foreign policy”. The fact that such agreements were not turned into a formal treaty, he hinted, had been a big problem (resulting in large part from the desire of the new post-Soviet leadership in Russia to please and trust the West, regardless of the consequences).
On the economy, Corbyn insisted his plans were “modest”, with a focus on restoring the 50p top rate of income tax and stopping George Osborne’s cuts to corporation tax in order to end the “corporate free-for-all in which we are all playing catch-up with big corporations”. Again, he stressed that talk of him being an “obscure deficit denier” was “total nonsense”, name-dropping Joseph Stiglitz as a way of showing his mainstream economic support. At the same time, he criticised how economic growth was occurring “unevenly” on a “regional basis” (between the North and South) due to “unequal investments in infrastructure”.
Then, on August 23, Corbyn claimed the Tories were taking Britain “back to 1979”, and that the country needed “a strategic state leading the way” in order to “revive manufacturing and rebalance the economy”. Around two weeks later, he wrote at the Huffington Post about how a TUC analysis showed how the Budget “gives money to the rich, but takes away from the poor” like a reverse Robin Hood. While “bringing down the deficit” was “non-controversial”, he said, the current method of doing so (i.e. austerity) was simply a cover “for the same old Conservative policies” which sought to “run down public services, slash the welfare state, sell-off public assets and give tax cuts to the wealthiest”. For Corbyn, however, it was clear that “bringing down the deficit on the backs of those on low and average incomes” would mean only “more debt, more poverty, more insecurity, more anxiety and ultimately more crisis”.
Regarding right-wing claims of entryism in his party, he argued that he had “warned of the dangers of the new system from the outset” but believed that “only a small number of people [were] seeking to disrupt the contest”. If anything, he asserted, the only entryism that was taking place was that “of enthusiastic young people”. The process, he stressed, was one of “popular debate and popular discussion”. There was “no coup” and “no capture” taking place. On Aug 25, he said infiltration fears were “nonsense”, and “called for those barred from voting to have the right of appeal”, whilst contending that “Labour ought to be welcoming Greens, socialists and others on the left, instead of turning them away”. On August 12, at a point when YouGov President Peter Kellner claimed “he would be “astonished” if Corbyn did not win”, the leadership frontrunner argued that the positive “response to the Labour leadership race from party members and supporters” had been “proof of the optimism in the possibility of a popular, modern alternative to the Conservative government”. The party, he stressed, would have to focus on “channelling this extraordinary movement towards a united party”. Furthermore, he urged “everyone who opposes austerity to demonstrate at [the] Tory Conference in October”.
As the Labour Party leader who lost the 1983 election, Michael Foot is often remembered as a “complete disaster”. However, he demonstrated “to the social democratic right of the party” on a number of occasions that he was “no radical Marxist”. In fact, he “spent his time between 1980 and 1982 fighting the hard left as much as the social democrats”. The truth is that he was “not elected to win power” but to “guide the party through a time of civil war which had broken out under the remaining months of Callaghan’s leadership” (1976-1980). In other words, his election “was not the start of the fight”, and he actually “did very well in keeping Labour together because of his cross ideological appeal to moderate left and right figures”. With only these facts in mind, then, we can see that criticisms of Foot’s time at the head of the party are often very simplistic.
While some of Corbyn’s policies may be reminiscent of some proposed by Foot, the fact is that the 2015 leadership frontrunner is not simply a repeat of the latter’s very complex leadership in the early 1980s. And thus, Corbyn himself has affirmed that, although he was “very close and very good friends” with Foot, the “party leader he [admired] most” was actually “the cautious and establishment figure of John Smith”, who he said was “a decent, nice, [and] inclusive leader”.
Syria and the Refugee Crisis
On September 2, Corbyn criticised David Cameron for his “wholly inadequate” response to the unfolding refugee crisis, stressing that the UK was “being shamed by [its] European neighbours”. For him, it was Britain’s “duty under UN law, but also as human beings, to offer a place of safety, and play a role internationally to share our responsibilities, and to try to end the conflict” in Syria. Having “granted asylum to less than 300 Syrian refugees since the start of 2014”, The Independent highlighted, Britain was being embarrassed by Germany, which in 2015 was expected to register “up to 800,000 refugees”.
Two days later, the leadership frontrunner criticised the “faux drama” on the “theatrical stage of the House of Commons”, where many MPs thought it was “OK to be as abusive” as possible. And when he stood up in parliament on September 7, he did not seek to offend or attack, but instead to “welcome remarks by the Foreign Secretary” about how, “because of the new relationship with Iran, there was a possibility of a wider political involvement in bringing about some degree of progress, [and] possibly even a solution to the desperate crisis facing Syria”. At this point, he advocated the establishment of “a summit involving all the nations of that region, plus Britain, USA and Russia” in order to reach a settlement to the Syrian Civil War. [At the same time, “Cameron opted for attack” rather than respect, attempting to discredit Corbyn by alleging that he sympathised with Hamas and Hezbollah (while George Osborne and Theresa May engaged in “unstifled laughter”).]
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