Meet the "British Bernie Sanders": Now this is how you push back against the right

New UK Labour leader outlines strong leftist platform in first US TV interview, criticizing war, xenophobia, & more

Published December 10, 2015 12:56PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Andrew Yates)
(Reuters/Andrew Yates)

Jeremy Corbyn has made history, taking British politics by storm — but the U.S. media has largely ignored him.

Corbyn, 66, was elected leader of the U.K.'s Labour Party in September in a historic landslide, earning 60 percent of the vote — over 40 percent more than the runner-up. He won with a larger percentage than any other Labour leader in history.

While the far right is on the rise throughout Europe, Corbyn has helped revive the left. The longtime British parliamentarian's robust leftist policies and firm opposition to the ever right-leaning status quo have led some to characterize him as the "British Bernie Sanders" — or, rather, to dub Sanders the "American Jeremy Corbyn." Given the more progressive political climate in Europe, however, Corbyn is even further to the left of Sanders in many ways.

In the 1990s, the Labour Party, mirroring the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton, took a turn to the right, adopting neoliberal economic policies not unlike those pursued by Thatcher or Reagan. Just as Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist, has in the past year reinvigorated the U.S. left, Corbyn, also a self-identified democratic socialist, has injected a shot of adrenaline into the moribund Labour Party.

Corbyn has promised to return Labour to its democratic socialist roots. He has pledged to renationalize public transportation, make university tuition free, institute strong rent control, and establish a national maximum wage, in order to cut back on enormous economic inequality.

Unlike many other progressives, however, including even Sen. Bernie Sanders, Corbyn also has a staunch anti-war record — and a long and accomplished one, at that. A former chairman of the U.K.'s Stop the War Coalition, Corbyn recently led the push back against the British bombing campaign in Syria.

Moreover, during the tenure of Prime Minister Tony Blair, Corbyn was one of the most outspoken critics of Labour's backing of the internationally illegal U.S.-led war in Iraq. Much more knowledgeable about Middle Eastern conflicts than most of his politico peers, Corbyn warned Western politicians in the 1980s not to arm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. He has also criticized Israel's war crimes and illegal military occupation of the Palestinian territories, and supports elements of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on behalf of Palestinian human rights.

In the 1980s, Corbyn was a key figure in the movement against South African apartheid, at a time at which the white supremacist regime was an ally of the U.K. and U.S. and few politicians dared criticize it. He served on the National Executive Committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and is proud of the fact that he was arrested in 1984 at a protest outside of the South Africa House in London.

On Dec. 8, progressive news outlet Democracy Now broadcasted the first U.S. TV interview conducted with Corbyn since he was elected as leader of the Labour Party. In the lengthy segment, Corbyn discusses a panoply of issues, covering the gamut from war to climate change. The new British Labour leader articulates a strong leftist platform that could permanently shake up establishment politics as we know it.

The following are summaries of Corbyn's stances on the crucial issues he addresses:


After Labour lost the election in May 2015, Corbyn lamented the party was not "offering a sufficiently radical alternative to the austerity agenda being put forward by the Conservative and Liberal Democratic government." In response, Corbyn said he would consider running for leadership of the Labour Party.

"Initially, we were completely written off by the media. I don’t know if you do gambling, but we were given odds of 200 to one," he told Democracy Now. But he won — and by an enormous margin.

Corbyn's supporters launched a grassroots campaign that got him elected in the historic landslide. In the past six months, membership in the Labour Party, which had previously been on the decline, more than doubled, reaching 400,000.

Under Corbyn, Labour has become one of the few mainstream left-wing political parties in Europe that can challenge the harsh austerity measures that have dominated since the financial crisis of 2007-08.

The right-wing British government expects people to "work harder, longer for a lower quality of life on lower wages," Corbyn declared in September. But "we're not having it. Our Labour Party says 'no.' The British people never have to take what they're given."

Bombing in Syria

In early December, the British government voted to begin launching airstrikes in Syria.

Corbyn, who strongly opposed the bombing campaign, decided to not tell the entire Labour Party to vote against it. "I’m a leader, not a dictator," he said. "I want to persuade people rather than threaten or control them."

He wrote an email to all 400,000 members of the Labour Party. "We got a huge response," Corbyn recalled, "which was 75 percent against bombing."

In response to his opposition to bombing, right-wing Prime Minister David Cameron accused Corbyn of being a "terrorist sympathizer." Corbyn asked Cameron to apologize, but the prime minister refused to do so. "I think it demeans his office to make remarks like that," the Labour leader said on Democracy Now.

"I'm not interested in bombs. I'm not interested in wars. I'm interested in peace," Corbyn maintained. "What happened in Paris was appalling, disgraceful, disgusting," he stated, referencing the Nov. 13 attacks that were claimed by ISIS. But "is the response to that to start bombing Syria, or is the response to that to actually bring about and speed up a political dialogue, which at the end of the day is the only thing that’s going to bring about peace in Syria?" Corbyn asked.


Corbyn argued that it is only by reaching a political solution in Syria that the threat of ISIS can be dealt with. "Can we bring enough of them together to get at least a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war and real isolation of ISIL for its money, for its arms and for the way it sells its oil?" he asked.

"I'm also concerned about the issues of where the financial support for ISIL comes from," he later explained. "And so what I've done is asked our government, as indeed we ask all governments: look into your banks, look into your banking system. Who is laundering this money? Look at the manufacturers' labels on those weapons that are used by ISIL. They didn’t all come from nowhere. Somebody's been selling those weapons."

"All that I’ve read indicates that the bombing campaigns over the past few months against ISIL — or years, I suppose — has actually increased the number of recruits, has fueled the allure of ISIS," Corbyn added. "We have to find a different and better way of doing it."

Corbyn's views have been corroborated by French journalist Nicolas Hénin, who was held hostage by ISIS for 10 months. "At the moment, with the bombings, we are more like pushing people into the hands of ISIS," Hénin has warned. "Strikes on ISIS are a trap... We are just fueling our enemies and fueling the misery, the disaster, for the local people."

These concerns, about the potential of bombing to in fact backfire, have also been echoed by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Wars in the Middle East and beyond

In lieu of bombing, Corbyn proposed seeking a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. He wants all the parties involved in the fighting to participate in the Vienna Conference — at which there are currently no Syrians.

"Are we going to go into a proxy war between all those competing groups in already what is a four-way civil war in Syria?" he inquired. "I support the political dialogue, not the military intervention."

Western military intervention in Syria was not the only form of militarism Corbyn condemned. He drew attention to the fact that both former Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Barack Obama have admitted that the U.S.-led war in Iraq destroyed the country, destabilizing the region and leading to the spread of extremist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

"Again, it was Western policy that decided on that, just as much as Western policy after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 went on the de-Baathification policy, which actually destroyed all normal civil structures of society, which have taken more than 10 years to rebuild, and they're not rebuilt yet," Corbyn lamented.

Beyond Iraq and Syria, Corbyn also drew attention to the catastrophe left behind after NATO bombing in Libya. "We have to remember not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but also think of Libya," he emphasized. "The West went in to bomb Libya to protect the people of Benghazi against an apparent immediate threat from the forces led by Colonel Qadhafi. They then went on to a bombing campaign across the whole country. All of the state infrastructure was destroyed. All the system of government was destroyed. And we now have a huge country which is dominated by a series of competing factions and is an ever-present problem for everyone in the region, for Tunisia and other countries around there."

Corbyn stressed that disastrous U.S. military conflicts like these have fueled the worst refugee crisis since World War II. "What goes around comes around," he told Democracy Now. "We've got to think very carefully about the policies we've had over the past 14 years, ever since 9/11."

"We bombed Afghanistan. 14 years later, Britain, mainly, has left Afghanistan; the U.S. is still there. Is it a country at peace?" Corbyn asked. "No, there are many people now fleeing from Afghanistan because of the continued instability there."

"Surely, the future of this world has to be looking into the fundamental causes of these conflicts, not just dealing with the symptoms," he added.

Refugees and Islamophobia

Corbyn vociferously opposed the xenophobia and Islamophobia that have recently taken hold in Europe and the U.S. Western countries must "look at the question of how we treat communities across the world, so that we isolate ISIL for what it is, but we don't blame people in the Muslim community or any other communities," Corbyn stressed. "Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism are all part of the same degree of intolerance. We’ve got to oppose those and bring communities together."

He was very welcoming of the refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. "What we've got to do is, first of all, ensure those people have decent conditions in which to live," Corbyn said. "They’ve got to be allowed to remain in Europe."

"Various countries should be prepared to open their doors for them. Britain has so far refused to join in with the European refugee program on Syria," Corbyn pointed out. The U.K. has pledged to take 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years. Germany, on the other hand, expects to have taken one million people by the end of this year.

"I think we've got to both open up and take in far more of the Syrian refugees, but also take in those people that are living in these desperate camps, because it is inhuman," Corbyn remarked.

"People are refugees for lots of reasons — from war, from environmental degradation and disaster, from natural disasters," he continued. "We're not going to secure the world’s future with razor wire and electronic surveillance of borders. You only secure the world’s future if you deal with the desperate levels of inequality in the world and deal with the disproportionate effect of environmental change around the world."


The leftist Labour leader was also critical of U.S. policy in Guantánamo. President Obama was elected on the promise that he would close the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, in which scores of Muslims from a variety of countries have been detained, many without charge or trial, for years. Many have been tortured. Almost seven years later, the prison remains open.

"What on Earth are we doing in this world, where we lock people up for now 14 years in Guantánamo Bay, with no charge, no trial, no process, no habeas corpus?" Corbyn asked in distress. The prison is "a legal black hole, of the equivalent there is in outer space, where we don’t know what goes on there. It's simply wrong. It has got to be closed."

Condemning the U.S.'s double standards, Corbyn continued. "You cannot put people in prison for that length of time, treat them in that way, and call it justice and say we're in favor of a world based on rules and laws. You can't do it. It's got to be closed."

Corbyn has been working for years to pressure the American government to close Guantánamo. He helped secure the release of the British nationals and residents who were being held there. Most recently, in November, Corbyn was involved in the freeing of Shaker Aamer, who had been imprisoned without trial since 2002.

Saudi Arabia

Corbyn also criticized what is somewhat of a sacred cow in Western politics: the oil-rich ally Saudi Arabia and its horrific human rights record.

"I’ve been concerned about the sale of weapons within the region, a massive sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia," Corbyn said. Many of these weapons, including more than $100 billion worth of arms deals from the Obama administration in the past five years, have been used to target civilian areas and commit war crimes in Yemen, human rights organizations have warned.

"I've also raised, a number of occasions, the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia," Corbyn noted. The Labour leader expressed concerns about "a British prison contract that was being sought in Saudi Arabia."

He also excoriated the Saudi monarchy for sentencing protesters like young Shia activist Mohammed al-Nimr, among others, to be beheaded and even crucified for going to peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrations.

Climate Change

The new Labour leader additionally spoke of the importance of acting on climate change. He drew ties between wars, Western economies' desire for cheap oil, and environmental destruction.

"Look at the brutality of it, the brutality of the way in which oil drilling has been done in a number of countries, in Latin America, the thirst for oil all over the Middle East and the thirst for oil in other places," Corbyn stated. This thirst for oil has led to policies with disastrous humanitarian and environmental consequences, he explained, but "we need a sustainable planet."

Consistent with his anti-war and environmental views, Corbyn reiterated his complete opposition to the use of nuclear weapons. "I’ve spent my life opposing nuclear weapons," he told Democracy Now.

"Embrace the future for all of us by challenging global warming, by challenging environmental destruction, by challenging global inequality," Corbyn concluded.

Jeremy Corbyn Quotes Ruthless Dictator At Christmas Party

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

MORE FROM Ben Norton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aol_on Bernie Sanders Democracy Now Guantanamo Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party Syria Syrian Refugees