Jeremy Corbyn Isn’t As Leftwing As You Think He Is

Which British political leader backs NATO, wants to ring-fence the defence budget, and won’t commit to scrapping the UK’s massively expensively yet strategically redundant nuclear deterrent? The answer, you may or may not be surprised to learn, is Jeremy Corbyn.

The fallout from the Sergei Skripal affair earlier this week has exposed a sizeable fissure on the Scottish left. 

Nicola Sturgeon supported the Tories’ aggressive response to the poisoning of an ex-Russian intelligence officer, allegedly by the Russian state, on British soil. Jeremy Corbyn said a more measured assessment of the evidence was needed before any action was taken. 

For the record, I agree with Jeremy: British politicians shouldn’t launch into ad hoc diplomatic wars with Russia without being able to say, with a very high degree of certainty, what Russia is actually guilty of. That’s not pandering. It’s not Putin apologism. It’s basic due diligence. 

However, the fact that Sturgeon and Corbyn are at odds on this issue does not, as a number of Scottish leftists have claimed, represent a dramatic swing to the right in nationalist thinking. 

Here’s what Conter’s David Jamieson wrote on Facebook on Wednesday night (and then repeated in a subsequent Counterfire article): 

“What we are witnessing now is [a] full blooded reversal … The SNP has set out over this Russia nonsense to present itself as loyal to UK geo-strategic interests on a range of fronts, from opposition to Brexit to hostility to Russia … Make no mistake, a river very like the Rubicon has been quietly crossed and it will be difficult for those on the party left to forge a way back.”

This is, to put it mildly, total bullshit.

First of all, the SNP’s position on Europe hasn’t been recast for the sake of “UK geo-strategic interests.” Its opposition to Brexit reflects a firmly held belief among the party’s leadership that Scotland’s future as an independent country lies within the EU. That has been the case since the late 1980s. It’s still the case today. Moreover, Sturgeon is the devolved leader of a country that voted by an overwhelming margin against Brexit and, to that extent, she has an obligation to make the democratic case in favour of Scotland’s continued EU membership. Anything less would draw (justified) accusations of negligence. 

Secondly, it’s wrong to argue that Sturgeon is noticeably more hawkish than Corbyn when it comes to foreign affairs and defence. To be clear, the nationalists want to abolish Trident, reduce defence spending, and keep Scotland in NATO; Labour – Corbyn’s Labour – wants to renew Trident, maintain (or increase, depending on how you interpret the numbers) UK defence spending above two percent of GDP, and keep Britain in NATO. 

I realise these positions aren’t necessarily Corbyn’s positions. But they nonetheless formed part of Labour’s 2017 manifesto. And that indicates either that Corbyn is too internally weak to change them, or that he thinks adopting a more progressive stance on defence would be electorally problematic – or both. 

At any rate, there is an obvious double-standard at work here. 

Over the past few years, on everything from income tax to land reform, Sturgeon has been remorselessly slated by the left for being a huge, centrist disappointment. (I’m acutely aware of this, because I’ve done a lot of the slating myself.) And yet Corbyn – whose policy compromises have been just as severe – hasn’t attracted anywhere near the same amount of scrutiny. But he definitely should.

Take Labour’s approach to immigration: not only is Corbyn relaxed about ending freedom of movement for EU nationals, he also intends – completely punitively, as far as I can tell – to block the spouses of non-EU immigrants from being able to claim benefits. 

Or welfare: according to analysis published by the Resolution Foundation in the run-up to last year’s election, Labour’s spending plans included £7bn worth of Tory welfare cuts, which seems brutally out-of-sync with Corbyn’s insistence that austerity is a political choice rather than an economic necessity. 

Or even the deficit: in 2016, in an effort to reaffirm its ‘fiscal credibility’, Labour pledged to follow an arbitrary and potentially restrictive five year timetable, during which the gap in Britain’s day-to-day spending would be eliminated (although I assume this pledge is now moot, given the gap has already been eliminated by the Tories). 

None of this discredits Corbyn.

What it does do, though, is put the limits of Corbynism as a political project into perspective. On the questions of immigration, welfare, and above all defence, there is a lot more continuity between New Labour and Corbynite Labour than Corbyn’s Scottish admirers seem willing to admit. As a result, far too many socialists hold Corbyn up as a radical alternative to Sturgeon without subjecting him to the same exacting standards of criticism.  

That’s fine, to some extent. Corbyn and Sturgeon are different politicians with separate overarching agendas. But sooner rather than later, this tendency will start to look more than a little reflexive and fetishistic. In reality, it already has. 

Comments (23)

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  1. bringiton says:

    England is a Tory country.
    In order to be elected to power at Westminster,parties have to adopt Tory policies.

    1. Kirsty MacLean says:

      Brilliantly put!

      Only additions I add is to say is that when labour do get elected, they get elected on tory policies.

      Corbyn will never get elected as PM, the English establishment supported by the press, bbc, power & money – old & new, even some within labour, will never allow it.

  2. india osaka says:

    >Take Labour’s approach to immigration: not only is Corbyn relaxed about ending freedom of movement for EU nationals, he also intends – completely punitively, as far as I can tell – to block the spouses of non-EU immigrants from being able to claim benefits.

    I think it’s worse than that. The sentence that commits Labour to replacing income thresholds with an exemption from recourse to public funds are surrounded by sentences that commit Labour to creating a new “migration management system” that does not discriminate on race, is transparent, “based on our economic needs” and “fair to everybody.”

    Exempting only non-EU/EEA nationals from recourse to public funds would require a tiered immigration system, one that retained the protections that EU/EEA nationals were granted as a product of the UK’s membership of the EU. If they are to be fair to everybody, then a Labour government will either have to apply the income threshold replacement to everybody or to no-one. Given the tone of the party towards foreign nationals, whether “British jobs for British workers” on the right or “the wholesale importation of underpaid workers… to destroy conditions [for British workers]” on the ‘left’, I’m not too confused about which way they’ll jump.

  3. Ken Ferguson says:

    This is a welcome piece in that it contrasts the image projected of a radical moving left Labour party with the reality of its actual political programme.

    However as a pro independence socialist and member of the SSP I believe that the challenge is much deeper in that both the big players on a (rather broadly defined) Scottish left the SNP and Labour fail to face up to the real challenges facing working people in Scotland.

    The SNP talks a good game but has still not delivered on pledges on poverty, fuel poverty and any serious break with the pro market economic consensus which keeps private railways and leaves highly skilled workers such as those at BiFab at the mercy of profit over the needs of the wider community.
    In their ten years in power there has been a remarkable absence of an alternative vision which would harness our still substantial skills base to production aimed at both creating skilled work and meeting need rather than swelling shareholders bank accounts.

    At the heart of the Corbyn project lies the weakness that the politics of England combined with the insane first past the post voting system and skewed boundaries–not to mention the massed ranks of anti Corbyn MPs–means that it will not win an election.
    Historically Labour has only won office on a radical programme when it has had the support of a mobilised people seeking change as with the forces votes in 1945 and the famous (undelivered) pledge to bring about an “irreversible shift in wealth and power” in 1974 amidst mass industrial militancy.

    The truth is that a Scotland putting its faith in UK Labour will get a reprise of the Thatcher years perhaps slightly softened by some Holyrood spending.

    The answer is independence based around a serious programme to challenge the failed privatisation model, using the power of the state to re-industrialise Scotland via developing new post carbon technology creating a skilled well paid work force and making real steps to dealing with the climate crisis.

    Such an independence however needs the creation of a vision of real change and a different kind of people before profit Scotland if it is to win the support needed to challenge both unionism and the failed politics of the market.

    Those contemplating a Corbyn vote need to look at history which clearly shows that there is no British Road to Socialism when the UK’s biggest nation opposes it.

    The urgent need is a programme seeking independence but based on a changed society putting the needs of both people and planet at its heart.

    1. David Allan says:

      Well put Ken couldn’t agree more.

      Change as part of an England dominated Westminster Union set -up isn’t going to happen. Corbyn or no Corbyn. Old Labour,New Labour,Corbyn Labour Militant or Momentum. Judge their record ! Scottish Labour supporting unionists are kidding themselves.

  4. Clive Scott says:

    Why do you bother with what Corbyn or “the Left” think or utter? What has this got to do with the cause of an independent Scotland? Nicola’s comments re the Russian nonsense were most likely pragmatic – just say something pretty bland and avoid loony yoon howling headlines the next day. She has much more important things on her mind than a failed assassination of a Russian traitor in Londistan.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      Do try harder to avoid sounding like a Putin-bot!

  5. Dennis Smith says:

    In general I’m sceptical about defining policies by taking a personal name and tagging on ‘ism’ to the end – Thatcherism, Blairism, Corbynism, etc. Most actual individuals hold an assortment of views which lack internal consistency and change over time, for good reasons or bad. This is particularly true of politicians with the job of holding together parties which embrace competing interest groups.

    But since the personalisation of politics is fashionable it is worth pointing out that Corbyn and May are in many ways very similar. Both are essentially backward-looking and retrogressive. Both want to revert to a golden age of clearly defined national identities. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that both long nostalgically for the 1950s. The difference is that they hanker for different aspects of the 1950s. Corbyn longs for a fully functioning welfare state with nationalised utilities; May longs for a powerful imperial state where different classes are united by one-nation Toryism and social deference. Neither will get their way because social and technological change cannot be reversed.

  6. Alexander Ritchie says:

    Sturgeon’s comments were am indication of the foreign policy if Scotland became “independent” in Europe…surely an oxymoron if there ever was one

  7. Willie says:

    Corbyn is a Brit. He is staunchly Unionist. He opposses independence.

    Corbyn support Trident and nuclear weapons. Bombs before ploughshare he is happy and supportive of the nuclear arsenal being located in Scotland, near Scotland’s biggest city.

    He’s a great man. Maybe he could take his nuclear arsenal and locate it on the Thames.

  8. Ro says:

    One question you should ask yourself is, “who the f*** is really left wing in today’s Scotland, UK, Europe or beyond?” Not many, to be sure. They’re a’ scared shitless to be lefty, in case they get found out

  9. Taimoshan says:

    I’m no longer surprised that the Britnats have managed to keep hold of Scotland, and plunder it’s resources for so long, when I read some of the ill-considered, juvenile twaddle written here. Reading between the lines and reversing anything the Brits tell you is the first rule to apply! They’ve proved how dishonest they are so many times i’m surprised anyone bothers with them at all. As George Galloway, someone i’m not too fond of, said recently the “British set the gold standard for hypocrisy” – mind you they probably think that is a complement. Wise up!!!

  10. David Allan says:

    Every generation of post-war Scottish Labour Supporter and Politicians alike say all the right things promise the right things support the right policies. (still not far enough left for me)

    Their History however for generation after generation tells a different story-failure to achieve power and when they do -failure to deliver what got them elected.

    Corbyn and his followers will be no different the idealistic younger generation who are attracted to Corbyn will be disappointed like many of their elders who have now realised where the real opportunity to effect change is. It’s not at Westminster.

    1. Alexander Ritchie says:

      Changing chairs isn’t change…just more of the same…at best..

      1. Willie says:

        With press like the Express listing all the weaponry, including the world famous Trident, that the UK has to deploy against Russia if needed, where do we think Mr Corbyn will stand if push comes to shove.

        Like Iraq, the WMD was the excuse, and the Salisbury tale has all the same hallmarks.

        At least with our world famous Trident system being located on Glasgow’s doorstep, we’ll be at the heart of any good going altercation.

        Certainly take our minds off austerity.

  11. John W Shaw says:

    Just this morning on Breakfast TV we had a government defence minister stating to P Morgan.
    That in this instance as opposed to Saddam and weapons of mass destructuion. We can have complete faith and competence in the government ‘s claim of Russian responsibility for the recent Salisbury incident. His reasoning well we are following the advice and information gathered from a team of experts in this field. But were H Blink and not just that in Iraq and Blair and his cronies choose to dismiss their expert opinion. Thankfully we have people like Corbyn advocating caution!

  12. Glasgow Clincher says:

    Corbyn is most certainly NOT in favour of Trident but he did not have a majority of left wingers on the NEC when the manifesto was draw up. That will change now as the Blairites are slowly weeded out. His whole career has been deicated to removal of the nuclear ‘deterrent.’

  13. Willie says:

    Labour policy is for the replacement of Trident.

    Jeremy Corbyn is the Labour leader and has said he will stand behind Labour policy.

    Say one thing, do another, that’s Labour as the UK consolidates it’s nuclear arsenal a few miles away from Scotland’s most populous city.

  14. Terry Callachan says:

    You have not quite reported the facts
    Nicola Sturgeon did not support the UK government in the Russian poisoning case
    she said that
    ” if it is true that Russia poisoned this man and his daughter she supports the British governments statement”
    As yet we have not had evidence to show that Russia are responsible
    Theresa May simply said that as it was Russia that developed the particular poison that was used then it must be Russia to blame but the poison was developed thirty years ago and is now actually manufactured by a company here in the UK near Salisbury so excuse me if I pick you up on your awful mistake.
    It is worth mentioning that when the brother of the leader of North Korea was murdered not long ago in honk Kong with a poison that was originally discovered and manufactured by UK there was no report here that the UK was to be held responsible and must have killed the man.
    Your journalism is so poor it convinces me that you did this poor piece on purpose which begs the question why ?
    I think you are eager to nudge blame and bad stories about Nicola Sturgeon when the opportunity arises and you think it won’t be noticed.
    I noticed.

  15. The Glasgow Clincher says:

    When has he backed NATO? He’s just been presented on the world Service as pro-Russian and anti-NATO.

  16. Edoardo Piras says:

    Half English Half Italian Corbyn supporter commenting here. What is forgotten in the article is that before Corbyn became leader, the Labour Party had been a tory-lite party for over 30 years. Naturally, it will take some time to transform or should I say revert it back into the socialist party it was created to be. True, Corbyn wants to scrap Trident, but rather than cut off his nose to spite his face, he has to compromise. However, in the years ahead as the party changes these policies will also change. And just because England has elected tory like governments in the past by no means that will happen in the future. The tory supporting MSM is not as powerful as it once was now we have the internet. A lot of tory voters are also above 50 years old, every year more of them die off. And finally, do you think that the new young voters replacing them will vote tory when they can’t buy a house, rents are sky high, inequality is hitting new highs etc.

  17. John Griffin says:

    Corbyn/McDonnell (plus Rayner, Thornberry, Starmer etc) are in the middle of completing a coup at Labour HQ, but have a huge battle on their hands with the independently funded BLiarites in Progress and LabourList. There will always be a major commitment to defence as the expansion and modernisation of the Armed Forces is a priority (my ex-RAF security expert son says neither RAF nor Navy fit for purpose and privatisation has shattered capability), while dumping Trident is simmering – partly awaiting a plan to mollify the unions over Scottish job losses. No realist expects miracles, but until you grasp the depth of the pit these countries are in and realise it will take DECADES to repair the harm, you will criticise even centrist social democratic policies. And yes, most of the Labour centre and left expect extra-legal manoeuvres to disbar Corbyn and Labour from gaining power.

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