Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK’s Labour Party, has made a remarkable comeback after his political obituary had been written and widely accepted as recently as seven weeks ago. Although the Tories, led by Theresa May, will still have the largest number of seats, they have lost their majority, after calling the election in the belief that they would increase it. Labour has picked up at least 29 seats. The result is a hung parliament, and it is not yet clear whether a coalition government will be formed or new elections will have to be held.
Observers have pointed to various historical causes that have brought Corbyn to his leadership position and kept him there, such as the failure of the centrist, neoliberal project of “New Labour” to provide economic security or even much of a future for the party’s working class base; or Tony Blair’s deeply unpopular foreign policy, including the Iraq War and the lies on which it was sold.
Many have made the comparison to Bernie Sanders, who despite losing his primary bid last year is currently the most popular active politician in the US, and is especially well-liked among younger people. The appeal of these two senior citizens to youth is striking, and it bodes well for the future.
But one of the most important lessons of the Corbyn comeback is that the truth, so often dismissed as the first casualty of politics, can be an effective weapon. After the Manchester terrorist attack, Corbyn said something that no party leader in the US would say during an election campaign:
“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home.”
Corbyn opposed UK involvement in the wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and Syria.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a Trump-like buffoonish character with the moral compass of a sewer rat, responded in character, saying that Corbyn’s statement was “absolutely monstrous” and that it was “extraordinary and inexplicable in this week of all weeks that there should be any attempt to justify or to legitimate the actions of terrorists in this way.”
But these dishonest attacks, echoed by some of the UK’s largest media outlets, didn’t stick because people knew that Corbyn was telling the truth. A poll this week for The Independent in the UK found 75 percent in agreement that “interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have made atrocities on UK soil more likely.”
There is an important lesson here: the only way to prevent the right from constantly capitalizing on, and perpetuating, the cycle of terrorism and foreign military intervention is to explain to people what is actually happening.
President Obama actually said it for a few seconds in an interview with Vice News back in March 2015:
“ISIL is direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which grew out of our invasion.”
But the major media looked the other way; in the US, it was the more right-wing outlets and blogs who took note because they thought it was scandalous and would hurt Obama.
Of course, Obama could have gone further and explained that al-Qaeda itself, including Osama bin Laden, was a product of billions of dollars of US support for jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s; not to mention Washington’s close alliance with what remains the ideological center and major financier of Islamic extremism: Saudi Arabia.
“[T]he only way to prevent the right from constantly capitalizing on... the cycle of terrorism and foreign military intervention is to explain to people what is actually happening.”
Few have the courage to say that the West’s threat from terrorism is overwhelmingly blowback from its interventions because they are afraid of responses like those of Boris Johnson and the UK media. But it needs to be said here too, not least because the “War on Terror” is the last refuge for discredited, right-wing politicians like Donald Trump, who is otherwise on the road to self-destruction. Republicans used the build-up to the Iraq War to keep the US Congress in 2002; and despite the fact that the war was already a disastrous failure by 2004, it helped George W. Bush get re-elected.
The “Labour Manifesto” was also an act of courage, sticking to the principles of economic and social justice that had long motivated the party’s base as well as most of its voters. It proposed a substantial expansion of the national health service, government-provided child care, labor rights legislation to increase the bargaining power of workers, prevented increases in the retirement age, and increased public investment. Taxes on corporations, high-income earners, and financial transactions would be increased to pay for new social spending.
As with Bernie Sanders’ proposals for free college tuition, universal health care, and taxes on Wall Street, it has been a mass movement led by younger people that put these popular reforms on the political map.
The UK election also, unfortunately, shows the power that the mass media has over what many people think, and therefore over electoral possibilities. In the US, the major media helped keep Bernie from the Democratic nomination mostly by giving him relatively little coverage. The UK media, especially the newspapers read by millions, are more aggressively partisan and they have engaged in a war of character assassination against Corbyn. By April 18, when Prime Minister Theresa May announced the elections, the media had almost succeeded in finishing off Corbyn and ensuring a Tory landslide.
What gave Corbyn new life was partly the Labour Manifesto, which allowed many voters to see that he stood for things that they believed in. And he also got a boost from electoral laws regulating the TV media that kicked in at the beginning of May. These are intended to give equal television time to the contending parties.
We will need a more fair and impartial media in the US, among other reforms, if we are going to move toward a more democratic political system. But the most important lesson from the UK election is that some of the most important truths that the media won’t touch are not necessarily to be feared by genuine political leaders.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and the president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the book “Failed: What the ‘Experts’ Got Wrong About the Global Economy” (2015, Oxford University Press). You can subscribe to his columns here.