Beyond rhetoric – exploring the differences between Blair and Corbyn

When nominations for the Labour leadership election shut on June 15th, many would have been forgiven if they didn’t recognise the name ‘Jeremy Corbyn’. The meteoric rise of the staunch socialist, from a-lesser-known backbencher to leader of the Labour Party has led to mass hysteria throughout the British mainstream media. From a virtual unknown to a “threat to national security”, a “terrorist-sympathiser” and Chairman Mao wannabe, to “anti-British” and even a threat to the Premier League; substance has been subordinated for sensationalism.

As the ballots were first announced, nobody believed Corbyn had a chance; he had been nominated to widen the debate, not to pose a serious leadership challenge. Then the polls began to come in. Labour membership begun to grow and the success of the latest initiative, to offer Labour ‘supporters’ the opportunity to vote for a fee of £3, was unprecedented. Labours’ shadowy elite awoke as they realised the popularity of a return to true Labour values was widespread. Past figureheads wormed their way out of the woodwork to warn how unelectable Corbyn would make their Party. Blair told Corbyn’s supporters they were in need of a “heart transplant”, John McTernan called them all “morons”; there was even talk of a coup led by moderates” if the hard left” MP were to win the leadership race. It was at this point the establishment’s media-wing began the flow of the aforementioned scare-mongering and mud-slinging.

It should be noted that the vocal critics of Corbyn coming out of the Labour Party itself all fall under the Blairite bracket, terrified of a return to traditional Labour values and a reversal of the New Labour revolution led by Tony Blair, which moved Labour to the centre-ground and made them almost indistinguishable from the Tories. The wider party however, and the hundreds of thousands of Labour supporters for whom Corbyns’ message inspired them to register, are clearly on a very different page. Elected with the largest mandate of any political leader of any political party in British electoral history, what is it that distinguishes what Jeremy Corbyn offers and the old New Labour’s values?

The most-glaring difference represented by Corbyn’s monumental rise is his stance on Trident. His lifelong commitment to the anti-war movement and a leadership campaign which clearly highlighted his position on the issue have been a major factor in winning his mandate, yet many on the right and throughout the media claim this stance makes Corbyn unelectable. Those who take this stance tend to argue that national security is the paramount concern of any Prime Ministerial hopeful, thus anybody aiming to achieve such a position must be prepared to take any action in defence of the Nation; including using nuclear weapons.

Whilst those on the right and centre, including both current and Ex-Labour MP’s, argue Corbyns opposition to Trident is an unfavourable stance to take for those wishing to gain power, it is clearly a popular issue with the electorate. Corbyn’s social media campaign centred on the disaffected, the young and those who, like Corbyn, have idealistically opposed nuclear weapons for a lifetime. Such people lacked realistic representation in England until Corbyn’s rise, except in the form of the Green Party. In Scotland the issue received greater attention as the SNP committed to scrapping Trident, although with the central issue within the Scottish elections of 2011 clearly the promise of a referendum on independence, it is difficult to judge Tridents effect on the voters’ decision-making.

What is clear however is the mass opposition to the renewal of Trident and a key difference between New Labour and Corbyn’s Labour. Although Blair wrote in his biography, “the expense is huge, and the utility in a post-cold war world is less in terms of deterrence, and non-existent in terms of military use”, and it is “frankly inconceivable we would use our nuclear deterrent”, unless the US had given the green light, he was all for renewing the Trident system. On the other hand, Corbyn has spent a lifetime opposing not just nuclear war but war in general. A leader of the Labour Party who is a longstanding member of the British anti-war movement marks a stark contrast to the New Labour leader, whom many believe is guilty of war crimes in Iraq.

In a further attempt to smear Corbyn we have also heard much concerning his acknowledgment of morally political groups as “friends”, namely Hamas and Hezbollah. His suggestion that the lack of any attempt to bring Osama bin Laden to justice under a legal framework was one in a long list of “tragedies”, including the 9/11 attacks and the illegal invasion of Iraq, highlighted him as a “threat to national security” according to David Cameron. Yet his willingness to sit around a negotiating table with those groups widely recognised as ‘terror organisations’ shows one similarity between his and New Labours approach. Whilst premier, Blair also showed his readiness to negotiate with a terrorist network, in this case a group which posed a direct threat to British national security, even taking controversial steps to ensure the peace process, sending the “on the run” letters which essentially pardoned almost 200 IRA members.

In addition to his enthusiasm to negotiate with the IRA, many will recall the infamous images of Blair snuggling up to Colonel Gaddafi. It has since been revealed in the wake of the overthrow of Gaddafi and subsequent discovery of government documents, that the relations between Blair and Gaddafi’s regime were intelligence-based. In exchange for information of Islamist terror cells throughout North Africa and the Middle East, Gaddafi would be allowed to promote the interest of his regime in Britain – even through intimidation of political dissidents taking refuge in Britain. Furthermore, during his time as New Labour leader and Prime Minister, Tony Blair had close relations with many dictatorial/morally inept regimes; including that of Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan, whose human rights violations and relations with Britain were thoroughly detailed by the Ambassador at the time, Craig Murray.

It is clear then that the overarching condemnation of Corbyn’s position on Hezbollah, Hamas, the IRA and his de-contextualised comments on Osama bin Laden and 9/11, do not cause moral outrage because they suggest dealing with immoral regimes (all we need look at is the extensive list of human rights abusers we trade with) but as they dare to question the status quo and suggest that a new approach is needed. As we learnt with the IRA, ignoring, or just continuing the fight, will not encourage disarmament. In the long run, war only breeds more terror.

It is here, on the question of ‘a new approach’ where the chasms between Corbyn’s new, “kinder politics”, and that of the Blairite and Cameron eras are so clearly highlighted. Whilst Corbyn is attempting to reinstate the Labour party as a serious socialist alternative, actively encouraging debate and holding the government to account in their position as the opposition, the Tories, encouraged by their leader and many Labour MP’s holding on to the Blairite dream, cannot help but engage in the mud-slinging, childish approach we have been subject to for years. Such a situation is most aptly demonstrated by the roars of laughter generated on the Tory benches from simply reading a question from a genuinely concerned member of the public.

The out-of-touch nature of careerist politicians and the pro-establishment stance of the mainstream media meant Corbyn was written off as a hopeful in the Labour leadership race. Even after his monumental rise, garnering the largest mandate in British political history, he is given little chance of leading Labour to an electoral victory. As a result of such coverage and a stark refusal to be interviewed by his publications, Corbyn will certainly be without the support of one of both Blair and Cameron’s most valued backers, Rupert Murdoch.  We know how influential the mainstream media, especially the Murdoch press, has been in past elections – even leading to the headline it was “The Sun wot won it” in reference to the 1992 general election. However, the reach and effectiveness of social media campaigns has grown exponentially in recent years, with Corbyn’s leadership campaign standing as a solid example of the success of a targeted social media campaign.

Where Corbyn differs most plainly with the Blairite generation and the centre-right represented by Cameron is on economics. Employing a man who lists “fermenting the overthrow of capitalism” as one of his goals as his Shadow Chancellor was always going to be a brave move in a capitalist democracy, yet Corbyn’s economic ideas have gained widespread support; especially the proposal to renationalise the railway networks. Such an idea flies fully in the face of the neoliberal commitment to “free market”[1] economics which have dominated the Western world since the 1980’s, yet it has harnessed widespread support amongst British voters. In another anti-laissez faire outburst, Corbyn called upon David Cameron to intervene in the dispute over Chinese manufacturers undercutting British steel producers. He failed to act. For Blair, the first British Prime Minister to speak at the Chicago Economic Club, a place of homage for neoliberals and Milton Friedman enthusiasts, such statements would have been unthinkable let alone popular.

In addition, Corbyn has criticised the lack of council house building under previous governments, promising to make ‘affordable housing’ a central policy of Labour under his leadership. In a further assault on the anointed ‘free market’ system of neoliberal capitalism, Corbyn suggested one way in which housing could be made more affordable was through rent-caps, which incidentally would reduce the housing benefit bill. Yet, unsurprisingly, the capitalist press has shouted down what they call a return to “1970’s economics”. In a further break from the status quo, Corbyn seeks to “put peoples’ values back into politics”, supporting affordable house-building whilst imposing rent controls and tougher regulations on private landlords to ensure it.

Whilst Blair introduced tax credits in an attempt to alleviate the working poor and low-paid parents tax contributions, the austerity-politics which have taken a grip over much of Europe in the wake of the banking crisis of 2008 are threatening the very existence of the system. With the government using hyper-inflated statistics in order to claim that the rise in expenditure itself is justification enough to cut the scheme, it is now Corbyn’s Labour Party who fervently defend the Blairite policy in opposition and attempt to hold Cameron to account over the promises he made in the election campaign. Although there are many differences between the two, Blair must appreciate the staunch defence one of his flagship policies by the “hard-left”, “terrorist-sympathising” leader of “morons”.

[1] There are various arguments as to how “free” the market really is. Corporate tax-breaks and subsidies lead many to conclude the market is only “free” up to a certain point, after this business’ become too big to fail and rely on government handouts.

Author Biography

Ben Hogg is a graduate in International Relations and Politics and is currently in application for a Masters Research programme. Aspiring researcher and author who’s academic and research interests include: global finance, EU-US relations, Middle Eastern relations, corporatism and democracy, global resistance movements, open-source information/education.

Cover image: David Holt under a CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license

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