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June 14, 2017



Corbyn and the rebirth of hope

If you are a progressive and follow global news, then it is fair to say that the last year has not been a pleasant one. The shock victory of the Brexit campaign in Britain exactly a year ago showed increasing support for xenophobia and an insular nationalism in Europe. This was followed by Trump’s spectacular win, an unprecedented upset in terms of how much of a deviation it was from the American mainstream. Then last month, Marine Le Pen, a neo-fascist, won over 11 million votes in the French presidential elections, the best performance by the Far-Right since the Second World War.


It is in the background of this pessimist global context that Theresa May called a ‘snap’ election to supposedly gain a vote for confidence from the public for the looming Brexit talks. But the actual reasons seemed far more cynical. With a 25 percent lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, Mrs May hoped to decimate any opposition to her rule by securing a thumping majority in the parliament.

The announcement of the elections was met with a universal expectation of impending catastrophe for the Labour Party. The official commentariat in the media began discussing whether it would be the greatest electoral defeat for Labour since the 1930s, and how Labour could have done better without an “extreme Left candidate” like Corbyn. Opinion polls seemed to confirm the chatter, with one poll after another showing a calamitous election for Labour. Reality appeared to be fixed in eternity and neatly aligned with the views of media pundits. And it all seemed to confirm the obvious enemy; it was Jeremy Corbyn, a political dinosaur who had refused to accept that times had changed, and whose inflexibility had become an embarrassment for Labour supporters.

On the 8th of June, we found out that the ‘reality’ from which Corbyn had allegedly deviated was itself constructed by the powerful. In fact, the media, the polling agencies and the political establishment had manipulated our perception of reality to limit what was deemed possible. Corbyn’s ‘Left-wing agenda’ existed far beyond the limits of this possibility.

It was this element of the impossible that provided the theatrical charm to the election results. While Labour came second, it increased its vote share and number of seats in parliament, while May, far from winning a thumping majority, failed to even secure a slim majority. The results signalled that Corbyn is here to stay, while Theresa May’s days in politics are almost certainly numbered.

The platform on which Labour contested the elections made much common sense, but seemed radically different from the logic of our times. He wanted higher tax on corporations, demanded an end to UK’s military interference around the globe and aimed to spend this extra money on healthcare, education, manufacturing jobs, pensions and other domains of social care.

At the tactical level, rather than relying on the power of the manipulative machines of the marketing sector, Corbyn’s election campaign was run by young people who seemed intent to defy the media pundits. I was fortunate to spend one day of campaigning in London with my friends Alex Wolfers and Joe Davidson, who, along with a few dozen people, were braving the rain to knock on doors to convince people to vote Labour. As with love, winning or losing seemed secondary to the act of affirming the truth.

Corbyn’s spectacular performance proved that the carefully carved out world of common sense had become too unbearable for young people under debt, for pensioners finding it hard to make ends meet, for workers working for less than a living wage. And when the status quo becomes unbearable for so many, the only option left for an authentic political campaign is to demand what is deemed impossible by contemporary wisdom. Corbyn’s refusal to accept the coordinates of the world as they exist has demonstrated what radical thinkers have known for a long time; contrary to the idea that politics is the art of the possible, a genuine political campaign is the ‘art of the impossible’ insofar as the impossible is what is prohibited by those in power.

In a deeper historical sense too, Corbyn’s ascent to political power is an unprecedented event. At the height of the anti-colonial movement against the British Empire, it seemed almost impossible for activists in the colonial world to gain support or sympathy from the leadership of the Labour Party. The refusal to oppose colonialism forced many anti-colonial leaders to condemn the British labour movement as being corrupt due to its attachment to Empire. To imagine an anti-imperialist MP leading the Labour Party seemed out of sync with the entire history of the party, and to a large extent, the British labour movement.

Here again, Corbyn defied not only his critics, but history itself. He has consistently supported the Irish and Palestinian struggles, and was one of the most outspoken critics of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, his refusal to scapegoats Muslims in the aftermath of the terror attacks, as well as a principled opposition to nuclear weapons, resulted in fears that a scared and gung ho British public would not support a dove in times of war. That he managed to not only hold onto those principles during the campaign, but also win over large swathes of the public opinion to his vision is testament to how a consistent and a principled position can unite diverse communities and overpower the politics of hate, fear and division.

It is this consistency that is perhaps the most relevant lesson to politicians in Pakistan. In an era where politicians’ views are more fickle than the British weather, Corbyn’s consistent positions on a variety of issues as an MP over the past 30 years appeared as a sign of stability for an unanchored public. For example, a video from a 1984 interview went viral where Corbyn heaps scorn on MPs who work tirelessly for rich lobbyists, insisting that the job of the MPs was to represent the people, not the corporations. As Labour leader in 2017, he ran his campaign on the same principles as those espoused back in 1984.

The results of the British elections must also teach our politicians the value of consistent principles over political ‘realism’ that has come to completely dominate our political imagination. Even those parties claiming to represent the desire for change are ready to make all sorts of compromises to welcome ‘electables’ into the party, since it is deemed that people are too naive to vote on any value other than electability. Such a patronising attitude towards the public needs to be discarded. Corbyn’s victory has demonstrated that people can be galvanised to expand the horizon of possibility if the political platform speaks to their concerns.

These results are being viewed by many around the world as a welcome exception to the right-wing resurgence around the globe. More young people, many alienated from mainstream politics, are flocking to the Labour Party as its most active members. What happens next is difficult to predict, but one thing is certain; the old world dominated by corporate elites, media tycoons and marketing companies has lost its vigour. The people have declared their willingness to begin constructing a new world incongruous with the cynicism, manipulation and greed of the status quo. Jeremy Corbyn is today the name of this popular desire for a new beginning.

The writer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge and a lecturer at the Government College University, Lahore.

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