Veteran parliamentarian Jeremy Corbyn, whose far-left credentials have found favor in his party even as his overtures to radical Islamists caused concern among British Jews, on Saturday overwhelmingly beat out his three younger and more centrist opponents to become the new head of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party. Corbyn, who has been empathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah — terror groups committed to destroying Israel — is widely regarded as one of the British MPs most hostile to Israel.
Winning 59.5 percent of the ballot in the first round — more than the half required — left Corbyn the clear victor, and negated the need for a second round of voting.
“Yes we did!” chanted his supporters as the new leader took the stage at a special party conference in London.
In his victory speech, Corbyn called for a “decent and better society” and urged party unity.
He hailed “our party and our movement, passionate, democratic, diverse, united and absolutely determined in our quest for a decent and better society that is possible for all.”
He also condemned “grotesque levels of inequality” and “an unfair welfare system” and called for the Conservative government to show more “compassion” in dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, saying he would attend a demonstration planned in London later Saturday.
Corbyn said Labour was “united and absolutely determined in our quest for a decent and better society that is possible for all.”
Party members and supporters had had until Thursday to choose between the 66-year-old left-wing veteran and his three rivals — all in their 40s. There had been little doubt among bookmakers, pollsters and at party headquarters that Corbyn would triumph as Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall — the three “reasonable” center-left candidates — floundered in the face of “Corbynmania.”
The battle-hardened, bearded MP who has stood for London’s Islington North constituency since 1983, is known neither as an inspiring orator nor a charismatic leader, but projects the image of a humble man who travels by bicycle and cultivates his own garden.
And while British Jews have expressed alarm over what they say are his somewhat dubious ties, Corbyn has hit back at criticism for his associations with pro-Palestinian figures who have espoused anti-Semitic views.
Calling Holocaust denial “vile and wrong,” Corbyn said last month a pro-Palestinian activist he donated money to had not publicly denied the Holocaust at the time of their meeting 15 years ago. Regarding ties to Israeli Islamist Raed Salah, he said the sheikh had not espoused anti-Semitic views at the time of their meeting.
A senior Jewish member of the Labour Party said in August that Corbyn’s views are cause for “serious concern.”
Ivan Lewis, the shadow, or minority, party cabinet minister who is also a former chief executive of the Manchester Jewish Federation, urged his party not to vote for Corbyn.
“Some of [Corbyn’s] stated political views are a cause for serious concern,” Lewis said in letter to his local party members on Friday, according to the Guardian. “At the very least he has shown very poor judgment in expressing support for and failing to speak out against people who have engaged not in legitimate criticism of Israeli governments but in anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
Last month, Britain’s top Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, claimed that Corbyn, who has ties to the Socialist Campaign Group, Amnesty International and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, was linked to “Holocaust deniers, terrorists and some outright anti-Semites.”
“We are certain that we speak for the vast majority of British Jews in expressing deep foreboding at the prospect of Mr. Corbyn’s election as Labour leader,” the newspaper editorialized.
‘Our friends from Hezbollah’
Corbyn, who six years ago offered to host representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah in the British Parliament, attempted to clarify his position in a July interview with the British TV station Channel 4.
The new Labour leader insisted at the time that he used the word “friends” in “collective way” to describe the extremist Islamist organizations during a 2009 speech, but did not endorse their views.
“I’m saying that people I talk to, I use it in a collective way, saying our friends are prepared to talk,” he said of his decision to invite representatives of the two groups to address MPs six years ago.
“Does it mean I agree with Hamas and what it does? No. Does it mean I agree with Hezbollah and what they do? No. What it means is that I think to bring about a peace process, you have to talk to people with whom you may profoundly disagree,” he said.
Corbyn said he had extended an invitation to the two organizations to facilitate dialogue in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
“I welcomed our friends from Hezbollah to have a discussion and a debate, and I said I wanted Hamas to be part of that debate. I have met Hamas in Lebanon and I’ve met Hezbollah in this country and Lebanon,” he said.
Drawing a parallel between the ideology of the militant groups and right- wing Israeli politics, Corbyn said that he had encountered Israelis with extremist views often times attributed only to Palestinians.
“I’ve also had discussions with people from the right in Israeli politics who have the same view possibly that the state of Israel should extend from the river to the sea, as it is claimed people from the Palestinian side do,” he said.
When Ed Miliband resigned as Labour head following its catastrophic defeat in the May 7 general election, the loudest critics were allies of former prime minister Tony Blair, who blamed the party’s leftward turn and called for a return to Blair’s centrist platform.
Now, only four months later, Labour has elected its leftmost member: the British equivalent of Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s former prime minister and head of the radical leftwing Syriza.
An heir to Tony Benn and Michael Foot, Corbyn made a name for himself in the 1980s as a rebellious pacifist and now advocates the renationalization of the railways and energy sectors, the re-opening of coal mines and an immediate end to austerity.
Many within the party believe it will be impossible to win the 2020 general election from Corbyn’s leftist platform, with former leader Tony Blair warning the party was on “the trajectory to becoming a pressure group.”
Some already predict the party will have a different leader by 2020.
“Very fine people who did not stand, such as Dan Jarvis or Chucka Umunna, could be seen as saviors,” said London School of Economics media professor Charlie Beckett.