For decades, Jeremy Corbyn was among the EU’s strongest critics. Today, he is the last line of defence against Britain leaving the bloc on Oct. 31 without a withdrawal agreement.
In 2009, a little-known British politician declared he didn’t want to live in a European empire of the 21st century.
The speaker was Jeremy Corbyn, then a backbench Member of Parliament (MP) on the hard left of the Labour Party. He was addressing a rally against the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty that gave Brussels greater powers.
Today, Corbyn is his party’s leader and he is fighting a very different campaign: Preventing Prime Minister Boris Johnson leading Britain out of the EU, “do or die,” on Oct. 31.
Corbyn’s journey – from Eurosceptic to last line of defence against leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, from Socialist rebel to leader of an opposition united against Johnson – is among the most improbable in modern British history.
In a backbench career spanning more than three decades, Corbyn voted against his own Labour Party over 400 times. He became Labour Party leader in 2015.
Corbyn was at his most rebellious during fellow Labour member Tony Blair’s premiership in 1997-2007, opposing closer economic and political ties with the EU, which is viewed by some on the hard left as a “capitalist club,” and voting against the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He has called members of Hamas and Hezbollah “friends.” He once described the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a “military Frankenstein.” Corbyn’s Labour is being investigated for anti-Semitism by Britain’s human rights watchdog after a surge in complaints since Corbyn took office. Labour has said it will cooperate fully with the inquiry and Corbyn has promised to tackle the “poison” of anti-Semitism.
Labour MP Neil Coyle, who backed Corbyn to become party leader in 2015, sums up why for many people he is a divisive figure, and why he came to regret lending Corbyn his support: “He has 30 years of baggage on dodgy issues,” Coyle told Reuters.
Corbyn, 70, declined to be interviewed for this article. Reuters spoke to half a dozen people who know Corbyn well, including some of his closest allies, and reviewed past speeches, his parliamentary voting record, and overseas trips to paint a picture of the man who could be Britain’s prime minister after an election expected in weeks.
Colleagues described a principled politician with little personal ambition who became the Left’s candidate for the Labour Party leadership in 2015 simply “because it was his turn,” a political activist more than a parliamentarian, a firm believer in the redistribution of wealth and drawn to any “liberation struggle.”
Since becoming leader, Corbyn has appeared to change tack on some issues. He has said he opposes leaving the EU on terms that will hurt ordinary Britons and believes any “Brexit” deal must be put to a popular vote. He has supported Britain’s commitment to NATO and said he regrets calling members of Hamas and Hezbollah friends.
Corbyn’s opponents are unconvinced. They believe he still harbours dangerous, hard left views on the economy and foreign policy. Corbyn has a deep-rooted antipathy to Brussels that is unlikely to have changed, these people say. One of Britain’s longest-serving and most respected MPs, Ken Clarke, has known Corbyn for 30 years. “He doesn’t modify his views,” observed Clarke, a former Conservative minister.
The Labour leader’s critics, including some within the party, say he hasn’t done enough to challenge anti-Semitism.
The making of the man
Corbyn grew up in a middle class family in the rural English county of Shropshire. His father, David, was an electrical engineer. His mother, Naomi, taught maths. Corbyn’s parents met in the 1930s at a local meeting in support of the Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascist rule. They shaped Corbyn’s Socialist beliefs.
“Both committed Socialists and peace campaigners, my mum’s inspiration was to encourage girls to believe they could achieve anything in their lives,” Corbyn said in a speech to the Labour Party conference in 2016.
Dennis Skinner worked alongside Corbyn in the Labour Party’s Socialist Campaign Group of left-wing lawmakers. One of nine children, and the son of a miner, Skinner embodies Labour’s working class roots.
Skinner said Corbyn came from a very different Socialist household. “They probably didn’t sit around a table with four or five brothers all arguing the toss about this, that or the other. I can imagine his father would say, ‘Now it’s your turn Jeremy, do you want to make a contribution?’”
When he was 15, Corbyn joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an advocacy group that wants the UK to get rid of its nuclear weapons and opposes NATO. He would later become vice president of the disarmament group, a position he still holds.
At the age of 19, Corbyn became a teacher in Jamaica, then travelled around Latin America – the start of an enduring fascination with the region. It was the late 1960s, when leftist groups were on the rise. Corbyn was in Santiago, he has said, when “the great” Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity party were readying for power. Last December, Corbyn flew to Mexico for the inauguration of leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has called Corbyn his “eternal friend.” Corbyn’s third wife is Mexican lawyer and activist Laura Álvarez.
On the back benches
Corbyn was elected to parliament in 1983 as MP for London’s Islington North, a patchwork district of multi-million pound Georgian homes and social housing. He has increased his majority from just over 5,000 in 1983 to more than 33,000 now. Friend and ally Jon Lansman says Corbyn cares deeply about his constituents.
“He did a lot of stuff on housing, on migration, poverty, benefits,” said Lansman, who worked on Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign in 2015 and co-founded Momentum, a pro-Corbyn movement.
Mike Gapes, a former Labour MP who now represents a small, centrist party, was also on the Left of Britain’s politics in those early days. Like Corbyn, Gapes voted in a 1975 referendum to leave the forerunner of the EU, the European Economic Area. “We wanted to introduce import controls in the siege economy, a form of Socialism in one country,” Gapes said.
Over the years, Gapes went on, “many of us moved on from those delusions” but a few kept the faith. “One of them was Jeremy Corbyn.”
Ronnie Campbell, MP for the northeastern English constituency of Blyth Valley, first met Corbyn in 1987 and remembers how the new MP’s scruffy appearance, in particular his refusal to wear a tie, challenged parliamentary tradition. “The Tories would get up and say, ‘Mr Speaker, there’s somebody in this chamber not properly dressed.’ And it was Jeremy sitting in the back with no tie.”
Campbell described Corbyn as an “inquisitive” man who would talk to pretty much any protest or rebel group because he wanted to “hear it from the horse’s mouth.” Some of his meetings got Corbyn into trouble. He drew all-party criticism for inviting Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams to parliament in 1984 at the height of violence in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein was the political arm of the Irish Republican Army that fought a decades-long war against British rule.
Campbell said some of Corbyn’s allies were “mortified” when they found out he was talking to Adams. Corbyn responded, “We’ve got to get to know what their cause is and what they want, and that was his argument at the time,” Campbell said. “We’ve got to try and understand these people.”
Corbyn was one of the sponsors of the Stop the War Coalition, a campaign group set up in 2001 when George W. Bush announced the “war on terror.” Stop the War says it opposes the British establishment’s “disastrous addiction to war.”
“He has 30 years of baggage on dodgy issues.”Neil Coyle, Labour MP, speaking about Jeremy Corbyn
Corbyn has spoken openly about his “difficulties” with Tony Blair, who became Labour Party leader in 1994 and prime minister in 1997. Blair distanced Labour from its Socialist roots and drew the party towards the middle ground. Blair also backed Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
In 2015 at a question-and-answer session, Corbyn was asked by an audience member whether he shared any of Blair’s qualities. “Tony Blair and I were never close,” he said to laughter. “I am sorry, I have a lot of difficulties with Tony Blair.” Corbyn listed his reasons: Blair’s “obsession” with selling off state-owned industry and “with being very close to the U.S. and the neo-Cons, the war in Iraq, and all the problems that have come as a result of that.” Blair has said he believes it was the right decision to join the war in Iraq.
The Socialist Campaign Group had tried and failed to get one of its members on the Labour leadership ballot for years. At a meeting of the group in 2015, one of Corbyn’s closest allies, John McDonnell, persuaded Corbyn to enter the Labour leadership contest. McDonnell has since become Labour’s finance policy chief. Campbell recalled McDonnell telling Corbyn: “It’s your turn anyway. Get on the paper, at least try to get on the paper. And Jeremy said, ‘OK, I’ll have a bash at it’.”
Lansman said Corbyn was a good choice because he “didn’t have any enemies. Everybody liked him. He was seen as a principled guy, no kind of side to him.”
Corbyn’s expectations of getting the required 35 nominations were so low that he had no qualms about agreeing, people close to him said. To the surprise of many, he passed the threshold.
In the contest that followed, Corbyn’s criticism of U.S. influence and Conservative austerity policies, introduced after the 2008 global financial crisis, won over many young voters. Labour Party membership surged, and in September 2015 Corbyn won the leadership with almost 60% of the vote.
But Corbyn’s Socialist agenda alienated Labour MPs in parliament. Many of them occupied the centre ground and were loyal to the ideals of Blair, one of Labour’s most successful post-war leaders.
Coyle, one of the MPs who nominated Corbyn, declared less than a year later that he regretted his backing, having concluded Corbyn was a weak leader with a mistaken sense of priorities. There were resignations among Corbyn’s parliamentary team. Health policy chief Heidi Alexander was the first to quit in June 2016.
“As much as I respect you as a man of principle, I do not believe you have the capacity to shape the answers our country is demanding, and I believe that if we are to form the next government, a change of leadership is essential,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
Corbyn defeated what his supporters called a disgraceful coup attempt by MPs. Labour Party members re-elected him as party leader in September 2016.
Charges of anti-Semitism
During Corbyn’s time as leader, Labour has been beset by accusations of anti-Semitism. In May, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission said it was launching an investigation into whether Labour has discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish.
The commission acted after receiving “a number of complaints and allegations of anti-Semitism in the party.” It said its inquiry would seek to determine whether the party or its employees had committed unlawful acts and whether the party had responded to complaints efficiently and effectively.
Corbyn has said he is determined to “confront this poison” of anti-Semitism. But he has also drawn criticism that his own comments and actions have created a space for anti-Semitism to flourish.
In March 2018, Corbyn apologised for sending a supportive message to the creator of a London mural after local officials ordered it should be destroyed. The mural depicted Jewish bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of the poor. Corbyn conceded the image was “deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic.” In August 2018, he apologised over an event he hosted in 2010 where a speaker compared Israel to Nazism. That same month, a photograph emerged from a trip by Corbyn to Tunisia in 2014. It showed Corbyn at a ceremony where the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes were honoured by a Palestinian delegation. Corbyn said he was there as part of a wider event about Middle East peace and wasn’t involved in the ceremony.
“We want to change the party and change the country and that is a long-term project.”Jon Lansman, who worked on Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign in 2015
MP Luciana Berger quit Labour earlier this year, saying the party had become “institutionally antisemitic.” She was one of nine Labour MPs who left the party within one week saying it had been “hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left.” The MPs also accused the party leadership of “being complicit in facilitating Brexit.” Corbyn expressed disappointment at their decision.
Corbyn, a lifelong peace campaigner, has changed tack on defence.
Throughout his decades on the parliamentary back benches, he questioned why NATO wasn’t dismantled after the Cold War and accused the alliance of forcing member states to spend heavily on arms that perpetuate war. He consistently argued against Britain’s nuclear weapons system, Trident.
But in a foreign policy speech in 2017, Corbyn said it was vital that Britain maintained “a close relationship with our European partners alongside our commitment to NATO.” And he now accepts the Labour Party’s long-standing policy to maintain Trident, although says he remains committed to achieving a “nuclear-free world” and would not use such weapons.
Labour’s foreign affairs policy chief, Emily Thornberry, explained that Corbyn has “been on a journey” since becoming party leader. Critics say he is playing hide-and-seek with his policies, appearing to agree with the party line while not bending on his long-held views. “He really hasn’t moved on much,” said Coyle.
Corbyn is at his most confident when criticising the government over economic austerity. He has vowed to break with the public spending curbs of successive administrations and create a Britain for “the many, not the few.”
In the country’s 2017 general election, he campaigned to bring key sectors of the economy under state control – the railways, the postal service and some public utilities, such as water. He promised greater investment in public services, including healthcare and education. He said he would raise taxation for the top 5% of earners. Students would no longer have to pay for their university education.
More recently, Labour announced plans to redistribute wealth by forcing companies with more than 250 employees to transfer 10% of their shares to workers.
The Labour Party manifesto was credited along with Corbyn’s energetic campaign with winning considerably more votes than Corbyn’s detractors believed was possible, cementing his position as party leader. Lansman says there is no turning back. “We want to change the party and change the country and that is a long-term project.”
An Improbable Journey
By Elizabeth Piper
Photo editing: Simon Newman
Design: Catherine Tai
Edited by Janet McBride