Jeremy Corbyn has, we are told, “shaken up politics” with his surprise campaign for the Labour Party leadership. Unwittingly, perhaps, he has done much more than that. His campaign and its popularity has demonstrated more than anything else that there are far too many politicians who pay lip-service to democracy and democratic values.
The personal attacks, the attempts to discredit his political beliefs, the accusations of “anti-Semitism” due to his favouring justice for the Palestinians over the colonialism of the Israelis; all have brought out the worst in his opponents. Unable to cope with the fact that here is a politician who is garnering incredible support from ordinary people across the country, they’ve resorted to character assassination and threats. He will be “ousted on day one” claimed Simon Danczuk, the right-wing Labour MP for Rochdale. Labour supporters who vote for Corbyn “need a heart transplant” said Tony Blair (who must know about such things; he sold his to the devil years ago). Corbyn will be alone and Labour MPs should vote against his policies, claims Lord Roy Hattersley, the latest Labour grandee to attack the veteran MP.
The reality is that here we have incredible popular support for a politician and other politicians — in his own party, can you believe it? — can’t accept it. In all honesty, though, how can they? They are members of a political class which has come to believe that they and they alone know what’s best for the country. Theirs is a top-down approach that belies the democratic principle of “government of the people by the people for the people.”
We should not be too surprised at all of this, for Western democracy and the politicians who practice it are famed for riding roughshod over democratic values when it suits them to do so. The current “war on terrorism”, for example, involves governments destroying values such as justice and freedom of speech in order, they claim, to protect those very values. To defeat the amorphous concept of “extremism”, governments are taking extreme stances against people and views with which they disagree. Voltaire must be turning in his grave; when did you ever hear David Cameron declare, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?
The same Western governments make bold statements about establishing democracy around the world, usually in places where their national “interests” necessitate “attention”. Such claims are all too often a precursor of military engagement. Undemocratic governments in, say, Saudi Arabia or the UAE, are tolerated because they are compliant with Western hegemony, so we sell them arms but don’t invade them. Iraq’s Saddam Hussain, despite being “our man” against Iran in the late eighties who was sold arms and the components for making weapons of mass destruction, outgrew his usefulness and so had to go. The pretext was that he had “weapons of mass destruction”; Kafkaesque, don’t you think? Or simply the expedient nature of Western democracy?
Egypt has no natural resources worth dying for, but it is strategically-important for its president to be on-side to protect Israel. Hence, a democratically-elected president with Islamic credentials also had to go, and the general whose military coup ousted him is backed despite running the most undemocratic government possible, with human rights abuses which should draw down the opprobrium of the democratic West but doesn’t. Indeed, the said brutal dictator is not only showered with military aid from the US (when the citizens of Egypt could really do with more economic aid to put food on the table), but has also been invited to visit Britain by the prime minister who is leading the attack on those who don’t subscribe to undefined “British values”. Since when has support for a murderous thug been a British value? Actually, probably since the last murderous thug we supported, like the aforementioned Saddam Hussain. There’s a lesson in there somewhere for President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi but he won’t learn it until it is too late.
One thing that we can learn from history is that such undemocratic democracy is nothing new. In 2006, Hamas — to the surprise of its leaders, Israel and the West — won the free and fair democratic elections in Palestine. The democracies of the Europe and the US had pushed for the elections in the firm belief that the compliant Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement would win, and Israel’s interests would be protected. The Hamas victory upset that calculation, so the result was rejected and the movement has been boycotted ever since, at great cost to the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, who have been collectively punished for voting the “wrong” way. (But there isn’t a right and wrong way to vote, is there? You win some and you lose some; isn’t that what democracy is all about?)
Go back a few decades and we can see that this was always going to be the case; the West has never been keen on “the Arabs” having too much democracy because they aren’t trusted with it. In the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War One, and the years leading up to the Second World War and the creation of the state of Israel in Palestine, America and Britain made great store about freedom and democracy; the world was in the mood for de-colonisation and nations were gaining their independence. In the Middle East, though, this was meant for Jews who had survived the Nazi Holocaust and not the Palestinian Arabs whose land was earmarked to pay the price for European anti-Semitism; the Jews had to have their “free and democratic Jewish commonwealth”, it was said. “American Zionists proclaimed their ‘unequivocal devotion to the cause of democratic freedom and international justice’,” wrote Ussama Makdisi, “although they refused, once again, the idea of one-man-one-vote in Palestine until a Jewish majority had been achieved.” (Faith Misplaced — The Broken Promise of US-Arab Relations: 1820-2001, p179)
Perversely, “militant Zionists equated a Jewish state in Palestine with the end of anti-Semitism and the advent of a ‘new democratic world’.” (Makdisi, p180) The fact that the “democratic” state in question had to be achieved through distinctly undemocratic ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population was irrelevant then and, to the democracies of the West which still give Israel “staunch” support for its murderous colonial policies, is irrelevant today.
This is the apparently inherent hypocrisy of the democratic system; it is only really comfortable with those who toe the political line, despite paying lip-service to diversity of opinions. Play the game (to paraphrase Miles Copeland in The Game of Nations) and you can stay at the table; rock the boat more than “they” allow you to, and you are out.
That’s what Jeremy Corbyn is facing now. As a very popular and successful MP for more than 30 years in an inner-city London constituency, his left-wing politics were tolerated by the party, even after Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997 took Labour to the right. The possibility of Corbyn actually becoming leader of the Labour Party is anathema to democratic politicians for whom being in power is all that matters.
Hence, in an age when political and religious dissent is being rooted out by draconian legislation intended — so we are told — to combat undemocratic “extremism”, Jeremy Corbyn’s colleagues on the Labour benches in parliament are intending to reject the democratic will of the party’s membership and supporters in order to impose their will on the people. If they were Muslims rejecting the government’s imposition of, for example, its Prevent programme, they’d be facing the wrath of the authorities and all sorts of media-led attacks to discredit their position. Instead, even the right-wing media is on their side in an anti-Corbyn frenzy to influence the vote.
This is why Jeremy Corbyn is doing us all a favour, whether he becomes Labour leader or not, by making it even more obvious that democracy is a bit of sham for anyone who doesn’t fit in with top-down governance of the “do as we say, not as we do” variety. Just as “interests” dictate whether or not we in the West care about human rights abuses in foreign lands sufficiently to do something about it (think of the different Western approaches towards Israel, Syria, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example), so too do they dictate how much democracy the people can actually be allowed to have at home. Remember this the next time someone tells us that Jeremy Corbyn cannot be allowed to win for one reason or another. What they are really saying is that we should just put up and shut up and let the politicians tell us what is best for us and our country. Government of the people by the people for the people? Leave that to the idealists. Undemocratic democracy rules, OK?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.