Jeremy Corbyn’s relegation to the ash heap of political history is unmitigated good news for Britain, its democracy and common sense—but I would urge my British friends to temper their cheer by looking at the poisonous legacy Corbyn’s reign has left in the rest of Europe.
Tallying up the damage starts by realising how Corbyn’s clinching of the Labour leadership in 2015 looked in some parts of the continent, not least in my home country of Spain. To left-radical outlets, Ed Miliband’s defeat to David Cameron in May 2015 was conclusive proof that the third-way, Blairite social liberalism they’d blasted as indistinguishable from neoliberal austerity wasn’t cut out to beat a conservative party at the polls.
Corbyn’s stunning victory a few months later seemed only to reinforce that conviction. For radical leftists across Europe that running on a platform of unfunded spending promises, confiscatory tax hikes and vague pledges to right the wrongs of capitalism could get you within reach of power, even with a closet full of extremist skeletons and only the vaguest grasp of policy.
That’s not to say the Corbyn template for mainstreaming radical anti-capitalism was necessarily followed across the Channel. Though Britain’s electoral system and longstanding two-party duopoly always meant a challenge was likely to come from within Labour’s ranks, in Europe it was a new breed of left-radical parties that led the charge. Rather than hijacking their centre-left competitors—although that was accomplished by Benoît Hamon in France—the upstarts’ roadmap was to tap into the growing anti-elitist, populist anger on the fringes to leapfrog the established parties.
However, seeing a fellow radical take over the Labour Party—historically revered for its visionary Fabian roots and for building a pioneering welfare state under PM Attlee—no doubt emboldened the likes of Spain’s Podemos, La France Insoumise (Rebellious France) and Italy’s 5 Star Movement that the time was nigh for radical leftwing politics, albeit through a different route.
When Corbyn became Labour leader, Podemos’ pony-tailed chief, Pablo Iglesias, penned an op-ed in The Guardian welcoming him into “Europe’s fight against austerity”. Today, he runs a wide array of social policies as deputy prime minister in Spain’s coalition government led by socialist PM Pedro Sánchez. In Italy, the 5 Star Movement’s outflanking of the centre-left Partito Democratico in the polls was labelled ‘un sorpasso’, or an ‘overtaking’ (a term originally used to describe Italy surpassing Britain’s GDP back in 1987).
The Corbyn effect also meant left-radical parties felt little compunction about their sympathy for some decidedly unpleasant autocrats, particularly Venezuela’s larger-than-life Hugo Chávez and his inept successor, Nicolás Maduro. Even as late as 2014, when the misery and chaos their failed socialistic experiment had visited on Venezuela became clear, Corbyn still stuck to the absurd fiction that US sanctions were to blame for the country’s economic problems.
And even now in Spain, with its huge influx of Venezuelan refugees, Podemos still shows no sign of rebuffing Maduro. Most worrying of all, recent reports suggest that dark money from the tyrant’s narcotrafficking cronies, laundered through Podemos’ coffers, may have played a role in softening Spain’s stance vis-à-vis Venezuela and its opposition to further sanctions.
But Corbyn’s most poisonous legacy is the way he allowed identity politics and communitarian hatreds to hijack Labour, driving scores of Jewish members to flee the rampant anti-Semitism within the party and question their place in British society. The situation is equally serious in France, wheer anti-Semitic violence is at historically high levels. That didn’t deter Corbyn’s far-left ally Jean-Luc Melenchon from blaming Corbyn for showing “weakness” over anti-Semitism – not by failing to fight it, but by acknowledging it existed at all. Accoring to Melenchon, the numerous allegations were in fact “churlish..claims from England’s chief rabbi and various influence networks linked to Likud”.
To left-radicals across southern Europe, Corbyn’s stunning win in 2015 and his surprisingly strong performance at the 2017 snap election will remain an invigorating roadmap, a sign that radical anti-capitalism can carve out a role for itself at the centre of politics. Those same parties are less likely to learn the lesson of Corbyn’s equally stunning loss last year, namely that such radical utopianism can turn off the very working-class electorate it aims to fire up, especially when mixed in with Labour’s anti-democratic position on Brexit.
But even if they follow Corbyn’s fate into oblivion, the likes of Pablo Iglesias and Jean-Luc Mélenchon will have polluted their countries’ politics with anti-semitism, radical anti-capitalism and friendly ties to left-wing autocrats. Corbyn’s exit is a blessing for Britain, but when you bring Europe as a whole into the picture, there isn’t much reason for cheer.