Corbyn, like the rest of the current British hard left, presents himself as incredibly radical at times, yet at others as essentially moderate in approach, depending on the intended audience. He gets away with this in much the same way Donald Trump manages to land his wild vacillations: by throwing everything at the public so fast and so full of conviction each time, with no hint that a recently held position may have just been grossly contradicted, that rebuttal becomes difficult. Difficult, but not impossible.
Corbyn has never personally described his politics as anything other than as socialist, throughout his entire political career to date. As he said to John Major in the House of Commons on January 13, 1993, in a quote that also gives insight into Corbyn’s career long Euroscepticism:
“Does he (the Prime Minister) concede that the whole basis of the Maastricht treaty is the establishment of a European central bank which is staffed by bankers, independent of national Governments and national economic policies, and whose sole policy is the maintenance of price stability? That will undermine any social objective that any Labour Government in the United Kingdom—or any other Government—would wish to carry out. Does my Hon. Friend recognise that the imposition of a bankers’ Europe on the people of this continent will endanger the cause of socialism in the United Kingdom and in any other country?”
To Corbyn, bankers and other mechanics of the capitalist system are engaged in a constant, direct and fully conscious battle against the poor and unfortunate. Only by taking power away from bankers and the like and handing it to a centralised, socialist government can the pain and suffering of these poor and unfortunate people be alleviated, in the Corbyn world view. The ECB is evil to Corbyn because it is detached from national politics; it represents a decentralisation of politics, a privatisation of it in some real or imagined sense, which to him is key to everything. It is an interesting wrinkle on the same argument the Right often uses to disparage the ECB; it has to do with detachment from national politics as well. For the Right, it is about the supremacy of national politics over supranational politics as a means of making power responsible to a working demos; for Corbyn, it is simply about the ability to impose socialism. And this brings us to the question of what Corbyn defines as socialism.
Corbyn has spoken a great deal during his life about Venezuela and Cuba as model political and economic systems which the West should emulate. When Hugo Chavez died in 2013, Corbyn talked a great deal in the immediate aftermath about his perceptions of Venezuela and the changes that Chavez had brought to the country. His remarks were unqualifiedly positive.
“Chavez showed us that there is a different and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice and it’s something Venezuela has made a big step towards.”
He tweeted during the same period:
“Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world.”
Even with Venezuela spiralling into chaos under Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, Corbyn still holds the country up as a model of how to do things. Despite the fact that the economy contracted by a third during Maduro’s first full year as president, or the fact that inflation has run at 700% during his time running the country, Corbyn still stands by the Venezuelan regime.
“When we celebrate, and it is a cause for celebration, the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education but above all its role in the whole world as a completely different place, then we do that because we recognise what they have achieved,” said Corbyn at a “Solidarity with Venezuela” event in 2015, shortly before becoming Labour leader and about two years into Maduro’s presidency. I could go on and on with examples of this, even if I limited myself to the recent past. Corbyn seems to view Venezuela and Cuba as the two best examples of how a modern state should be run. He has been a long-time supporter of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign as well as the pro-Venezuelan organisations in the UK, at many meetings of which he has described Castro’s Cuba in much the same glowing terms as he has described Venezuela under Chavez.
There is an argument that says that Corbyn’s glowing impression of the governments of Venezuela and Cuba are taken out of context by those on the Labour right or on the Right proper who wish to denigrate his leadership. Often a form of moral equivalence enters this position: many western governments are in friendly relations with countries that are dictatorships with appalling human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, so Corbyn should be given a break for his support of countries like Venezuela who supposedly aren’t nearly as bad in this respect. This is very clearly a straw man argument. While Theresa May’s government, for example, may have friendly relations with the government of Saudi Arabia, it is impossible to imagine her (or any other Conservative Party leader for that matter) giving a speech in which she would suggest that Britain should become exactly like Saudi Arabia, down to announcing that sharia law would be coming into effect from the following week and everyone not subscribing to Wahhabism would be imprisoned forthwith. The point of Corbyn’s love of Venezuela is not that he thinks we should be nicer to the Maduro regime; he believes Venezuela is a model for the West, something we should transition towards as soon as possible. This viewpoint is not at all the same as arguing that pragmatically having relations with countries you have ideological differences with is an unfortunate necessity. You can argue against the latter, but that does not make it equivalent to the former.
This reminds me of an argument that Newt Gingrich once made about the possibility of a mosque being built in Lower Manhattan. He said that the US should not allow this to happen so long as there are no “churches or synagogues in Saud Arabia”. What made this statement so ridiculous is that Gingrich was essentially saying that America should hold no higher standard in terms of religious tolerance than the Saudis, which is a very low bar indeed. Corbyn holds himself up as vastly morally superior to the Tories he speaks so lowly of; attempting moral equivalence with their actions makes no inherent sense given the other parameters of his political outlook.
More crucially, Corbyn’s implorations for the West to be much more like Venezuela and Cuba show us what kind of prime minister he would be. His heart seems to lie with Latin American socialism – which is worrying.
Shortly after becoming Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn was asked where he would like to live were he to move away from Britain, and he hinted at Bolivia.
“I admire what Bolivia has achieved particularly in the elimination of poverty, sustainability on the environment and sharing out its mineral wealth. It’s very interesting what’s happening in Bolivia, it’s a re-flowering of the indigenous cultures in Bolivia which I find absolutely fascinating. I went to Bolivia first when I was nineteen. I went back two years ago, very interesting.”
Under the leadership of Evo Morales, who became president of Bolivia in 2006 and is still in that role at the time of writing, Bolivia’s economy has tripled in size, while poverty has halved. This sounds very impressive – until you make some basic comparisons. Bordering Paraguay, who in the same twelve-year period has been ruled by the same right-wing party that governed Paraguay for most of the latter half of the 20th century, only broken up by four years of rule by a former Roman Catholic priest who ran a centre-right government before impeachment, saw almost exactly the same uptick in its economy. In fact, Paraguay’s economy has performed slightly better than Bolivia’s during the past decade. Morales, to some extent, has ridden a wave of commodity price boom in the third world, which has helped all Latin American economies, even Venezuela (to the extent that a basket case like Venezuela can be helped by external factors, at least). Another factor is that Morales ran what was called the National Development Plan until 2010, something which was a lot like the Bolsheviks’ similar sounding National Economic Plan – it was essentially a carry on as you were under liberal capitalism for most industries. Nevertheless, I suppose we can credit Morales a little bit for not completely destroying the economy of Bolivia Chavez/Maduro-style.
And for almost matching Paraguay’s growth over the past decade, what have Bolivians had to give up in the way of freedoms? As ever, this is the crunch question for any socialist society: what degree of totalitarianism becomes necessary to keep the show on the road? During Morales’ first presidential campaign, Morales proposed a series of changes in order to devolve more power to regions; upon becoming president, he not only reneged on this, he described such reforms as “bourgeois” and an attempt by the wealthy in areas outside of La Paz to cling to power. Regional autonomy activists, some of whom previously counted themselves amongst Morales’ base of support, began to protest. Morales sent in the army to deal with it. He has continued to cope with these protests heavy-handedly to this day.
When he first became president in 2006, Morales held a referendum – he is particularly in love with referenda, Morales – on a new constitution. Despite his economic plan at the time being fairly tepid, the constitutional changes he ushered in were fairly radical: it guaranteed every Bolivian’s right to water, food, free health care, education, and housing (although how this right is to be practically claimed by the citizens of Bolivia remains up for debate); separation of church and state, which was a large step for Bolivia; and a two-term limit for the president. The last item there is of note: Morales is currently serving his third-term as president. He has hinted he wishes to see out a fourth term. Morales tried to change the constitution to abolish term limits for presidents; the people voted it down in a referendum in February 2016. It looks like he’ll run again anyhow.
Morales’ Bolivia is not a great place to be a journalist. Better than Maduro’s Venezuela, of course, but that is saying little. In 2017, Bolivia passed a “defamation” law that looks to curb what journalists say in terms of criticising the government and Morales in particular. Vice President Álvaro García Linero has openly called for some journalists to be incarcerated for being hostile to Morales. In December of 2016, the government distributed a film nationwide called Cartel of Lies which sought to defame certain journalists and news outlets that had been critical of Morales. As an added bonus, anyone could watch the film free of charge throughout the whole of Bolivia.
When I think about Britain under Corbyn, it is Bolivia that seems the most relevant, the most probable model from Latin America. There would be no attempt to nationalise everything, at least not right away, but freedom of the press would get even worse in Britain than it already is, with many outlets becoming quasi-forcibly nationalised. I can see the need to cling to power being relevant to the current leadership of the Labour Party, partly because Corbyn also personifies the hard left’s approach to democracy (good when it produces the “correct” result only), partly because Corbyn has clung onto power with the Labour Party against prevailing etiquette already.
Things don’t get better when we look at John McDonnell, Corbyn’s shadow chancellor. If anything, McDonnell is a much more died in the wool socialist than his boss. On the question of Venezuela, McDonnell goes even further than Corbyn: he is of the opinion that Venezuela’s problem is that it is not socialist enough. As he said at Davos in early 2018: “I think in Venezuela they took a wrong turn, a not particularly effective path, not a socialist path. There are lessons to be learned on the mistakes all around.” Despite not feeling they were ever Marxist enough for his refined tastes, McDonnell is a long-time supporter of the “Hands off Venezuela” campaign group, which its own website describes as “established in December 2002. At that time the Venezuelan reactionary opposition had launched another attempt to overthrow the government of Hugo Chávez and put an end to the Bolivarian revolution.”
During the 2017 general election campaign, McDonnell announced that he would be “the first socialist Labour chancellor”, all while spelling out tax rises for a large portion of the British working population. Asked in an interview back in 2006 who the greatest influences on his worldview were, McDonnell, answered “The fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, basically.”
Of course, what Labourites will point to as at least a partial repost to all of this is the 2017 general election manifesto. It was very middle of the road and hardly pointed to a radical socialist agenda by any means; it was a sort of reheated Ed Miliband era document, without even a commitment to reverse Tory public spending cuts. The Lib Dems could have taken up the same document at most recent general elections, with the only offending passage being the one on Brexit. Yes, I will grant Labour and their supports that the 2017 manifesto was hardly terrifyingly radical – yet I point back to two things I’ve already elaborated on. One, in many of the Latin American countries that have taken up socialism in the past ten to fifteen years, many toned down their radicalism to get into office. Morales in particular avoided using the terms “socialism” at all until he was actually president of Bolivia. Also, is it not reasonable to examine the track record of those involved at the top of this project, look towards their dislike of basic Westminster conventions and think that perhaps they wouldn’t feel terribly bound by whatever manifesto they put forth?
It isn’t just that the leadership is now committed to socialism: the majority of the membership is as well. In the run in to the local elections in May 2018, Beth Foster-Ogg, Momentum’s national training organiser, wrote an article in the Guardian with the headline “Pragmatists can’t defeat austerity. Labour needs radical local councillors”. In it she spoke about the supposedly wonderful exploits of two Momentum backed Labour elected officials, one in Salford and one in Preston, saying they recognised that “market capitalism is failing people from all walks of life”. Foster-Ogg said in the same article that these were the types of candidates Momentum “intend to train, encourage and develop – not only before they become elected representatives, but after.” She finished off by saying that “we need a whole new layer of Labour councillors embedded in communities and committed to an overhaul. In the past few years, we have seen that the old politics is increasingly unacceptable to millions of people. Our work is all about ensuring that Labour councillors aren’t waiting for change to arrive from on high but building socialism from below.”
While trying to substantiate what a Corbyn-led government would in actual fact do in office is as tricky as I’ve just outlined, it is worth understanding in as full a manner as can be hypothesised. If a radical agenda lies beneath the bluster here, it will have a profound effect on all aspects of the way Britain is run. Even people on the British Right are surprisingly blasé about this.