LONDON — Experiencing near-record temperatures, Britons have basked in scorching weather this summer. But few have felt the heat more than Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour leader has faced a constant flow of revelations sparking negative headlines over his attitude toward Israel following the party’s adoption last month of a controversial and stripped-down definition of anti-Semitism.
In normal political times, the latest furor — over allegations that he attended a ceremony honoring the terrorists behind the 1972 Munich massacre — might have forced his resignation.
However, these are not normal political times, and, while barely concealing his fury at the media’s questioning, Corbyn looks set to retain his job and potentially become Britain’s next prime minister.
It is important to put Corbyn’s apparent decision to attend the 2014 ceremony in Tunis — in which, he insists, he participated to commemorate those who died in a 1985 Israeli raid on the PLO headquarters — into some context.
Last year, he emerged unexpectedly strengthened from Britain’s general election, when Labour deprived Prime Minister Theresa May of her majority in parliament, despite facing repeated criticism about his alleged links to the Irish Republican Army. The Irish terror group killed and wounded thousands of civilians and British soldiers during a bloody struggle to force the UK out of Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s.
But, for many of Corbyn’s youthful supporters, the high-profile bombings more than three decades ago of pubs in Birmingham, department stores in London, and Remembrance Day ceremonies in Northern Ireland are simply ancient history. So, too, are the tragic events at Munich.
Ignorance, however, is not the only explanation for why Corbyn has managed to weather so many storms. Instead, his survival owes much to the manner in which the UK’s politics have come to resemble those of the United States, with Corbyn and his supporters playing the part of Donald Trump and his most avid fans, albeit at a very different place on the political spectrum.
Until his election as Labour leader three years ago, Corbyn had spent most of his 35 years in parliament on the far fringes of British politics, an obscure backbencher devoted to hard left causes. During the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, when Labour won a series of general election victories by dominating the political center ground, he was utterly marginalized.
Corbyn’s rise to the top of British politics is arguably almost as unlikely as Trump’s ascent to the White House. His outsider status, like that of the US president, has similarly engendered a following which appears willing to dismiss, ignore or revel in almost any charge leveled against him. Much of Corbyn’s base believes that the “right-wing media” is intent on bringing down the Labour leader and views its stories about him as simply “fake news.”
And while the Labour leader does not engage in quite the same level of vitriol against the press as Trump, he is not averse to firing the occasional barrage.
In February, for instance, he responded to reports that he had held meetings with a Communist spy during the Cold War by charging that the “the media barons are losing their influence and social media means their bad old habits are becoming less and less relevant.” Accusing them of resorting to “lies and smears,” he warned, “Well, we’ve got news for them: change is coming.”
Corbyn’s shifting explanations for exactly what he was doing at that Tunisia cemetery — in the space of 24 hours he went from suggesting that he was “present” but was “not actually involved” in the ceremony to conceding that he did lay a wreath, but only for those who died in 1985 — appears to have done little to dent the faith of many of his followers.
At a rally in the city of Stoke on Tuesday attended by 400 supporters, a journalist reported that two Labour party members had told him, quite separately, that Corbyn could not be an anti-Semite because he had won the Nobel Peace Prize — a surprising claim, because though he presents himself as a man of peace, the Labour leader has never been honored for his aspirations in Oslo.
“The sense of belief (and how it manifests) is staggering — the only thing I can think of which comes close, is the relationship Trump has with his base,” tweeted Sky News’ Lewis Goodall.
Two party members, entirely separately, told me that Corbyn could not be an anti-Semite because he’s won the Nobel peace prize. The sense of belief (and how it manifests) is staggering- the only thing I can think of which comes close, is the relationship Trump has with his base. https://t.co/3FEqQv53xi
— Lewis Goodall (@lewis_goodall) August 14, 2018
The two party members’ confusion is, perhaps, understandable. Over recent days, the Labour party and Corbyn’s most devoted political and media cheerleaders have assiduously sowed doubt about Munich and those buried at the cemetery in a bid to blunt the media attack.
One Labour MP, for instance, told the BBC that the Munich killers were “alleged terrorists,” while, behind the scenes, the party spun the line that those buried in Tunis were not actually physically present in Munich so were thus not involved.
As many pointed out, this suggestion is “akin to claiming Osama Bin Laden wasn’t involved in the 9/11 attacks because he never left his cave in Afghanistan.”
Today, the Labour party — in what commentators are describing as a “highly unusual move for a senior politician” — has made a formal complaint to Britain’s press regulator about coverage of the story in six national newspapers.
Throughout the Munich story, many Labour MPs (with some honorable exceptions) have remained eerily silent. Just as Republicans on Capitol Hill have come to fear crossing Trump and his supporters and thus provoking a primary challenge, so Labour’s backbenchers quake at the prospect of incurring the wrath of “Corbynistas” in their constituency parties.
Labour’s rules currently make it difficult for sitting MPs to be denied renomination, but the hard left has made no secret of its desire to make “deselection” at the hands of local members much easier.
It is true that Labour MPs defied Corbyn before parliament’s summer break in overwhelmingly calling on the party to adopt in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. Next month, they are set to stage a vote reiterating that position.
However, Corbyn has proved before that he cares little about what his parliamentarians think. In June 2016, he defied a landslide vote of no confidence which triggered a new election for Labour’s top job just 10 months after he won the leadership.
In similar circumstances, other party leaders have stepped gracefully aside. Corbyn, however, ran in the ensuing contest, confident in the knowledge that party members would re-elect him.
It is probably only the trade unions that could unseat Corbyn at this time. They are formally affiliated with Labour, and, with their generous donations to the party, have much sway in its policy-making process and internal governance.
Some have signaled their unhappiness with the party’s handling of the anti-Semitism scandal; over the past week, three top union leaders have called for the party to adopt the IHRA definition in full, amid speculation that the party might be planning a partial climb-down.
But, even if they wished to, they lack the clout to topple Corbyn for so long as he retains the support of the all-powerful Unite union.
Its strongly anti-Israel stance — together with the doubts raised by its general secretary, Len McCluskey, about the very existence of anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks — make such a prospect fanciful in the extreme.
While indicating that he, too, favored the party shifting on IHRA, McCluskey is sure to further inflame tensions between Labour and the Jewish community with an extraordinary attack upon its leadership.
Writing for the Huffington Post, he accused the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and Jewish Labour Movement of “intransigent hostility” and refusing “to take ‘yes’ for an answer.”
Saying that he was “at a loss to understand the motives” of the communal leadership, McCluskey urged them to “abandon their truculent hostility, engage in dialogue and dial down the rhetoric.” But such rhetoric by one of Labour’s key players simply underlines the high command’s decision to double down in this ongoing row.
Corbyn does not set great store by opinion polls, having defied their predictions last summer. However, he will be aware that the past month’s row over anti-Semitism appears to have had little impact on his party’s ratings. Indeed, a new poll this week showed Labour edging narrowly ahead of the Conservatives.
Does this suggest British voters are unconcerned or unaware of the allegations that have dogged Corbyn?
Polling shows that while most voters are aware of the furor over the wreath-laying, opinions on the Labour leader’s conduct is sharply divided along political lines, with substantial numbers of the party’s supporters simply not believing the media reports.
Many pay scant attention to politics outside of a general election campaign, and even less during the holiday season. But crucial too is the US-style polarization of the country’s politics — a factor of which Corbyn is both the beneficiary and symbol.
The poison which entered the body politic during the divisive 2016 referendum campaign about Britain’s membership of the European Union still courses through its veins.
As the Tory right plots against Prime Minister May and the hard left tightens its grip on Labour, the political center ground has collapsed and voters have reverted to a more tribal politics.
Like Trump, Corbyn is no longer the mere leader of a political party, but the head of his tribe. Disloyalty to the latter is a much bigger deal than displacing the former.
Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”