Keir Hardie, James Maxton, George Lansbury, Michael Foot, Tony Benn. These were some of the ‘hard’ left firebrands in the British Labour party. They won acclaim for their leftist stances but their political career ended in dismal failures having to abandon the Labour bandwagon at one time or the other for a different platform. Could the fate of Jeremy Corbyn be the same in the near future? He who occupied the backseat of Labour for almost three decades is today propelled to the centre stage as leader of her Majesty’s loyal opposition and may become Prime Minister in 2020 if Labour is electable.
Within minutes of the election announcement, some members resigned from the party arguing they could not work with an ‘extremist’ while the British print media almost had a field day slamming Corbyn in a ferocious denunciation of his radical positions but focusing much more on his admiration for extremism. With a Labour government led by Corbyn in the 2020, the press argued Britain is likely to become more vulnerable, putting at risk the safety of the British people and the security of the country. Perhaps, the remarks of Tony Blair that “the party is walking with eyes shut, arms stretched over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below” helped unleash a frenzy bedeviling Corbyn who soon after his election promised to pursue “a new kind of politics” after what seems, according to British observers, an “antiausterity revolt” which has found expression in a very unexpected way.
The British press may have reasons to fear the rise of Corbyn who is described as a “direct heir” of Keir Hardie, the founder and the first member of the Labour party in Parliament. The Labour party, Hardie said, was founded “as an uprising of the working class”. A highprofile agitator and one of the first militants to preach socialist ideology in Britain, Hardie was dubbed as a “scoundrel” by King Edward VII. In a letter to the viceroy of India, the King wrote that this “scoundrel is making my blood boil” when he stirred up Indians to fight for selfrule and called countries in Europe in a universal brotherhood of men to stand up against wars.
Hardie was a staunch pacifist just like Maxton and Lansbury, leftist members of Labour in the first half of the last century. Lansbury was even prepared to go out of his way to talk to Hitler and Mussolini in pursuit of peace but his intention attracted the wrath of his people and party colleagues to the point that he had to abandon the leadership of the Labour party after being taken over from Ramsay MacDonald in 1932. Corbyn, too, is said to be a pacifist, renounces nuclear weapons and favors disarmament. His condemnation of Tony Blair for supporting the US invasion of Iraq earned him some political mileage from the British people. Yet, the sharp burst of virulent criticism that descended on Corbyn is not so much against his robust welfare agenda as his support of organizations that are seen as the “nation enemies”.
Corbyn may be riding a wave of popularity at the moment securing almost 60 % of vote, doing better than Blair in 1994 in the leadership contest but that does not necessarily mean that this surge of popularity will be translated into an electoral victory for the Labour party in 2020.
Preaching the gospel of idealism on a political platform and facing ground realities are two things apart. In politics, it is said, those who are idealistic always end up remaining in the opposition or are simply driven out. Keir Hardie, who died exactly 100 years ago on 26 September 1915, made the sad experience. He was a hard left-winger who believed in an egalitarian society openly stating that “I am an agitator” and that his mission was “to stir up divine discontent with wrong” whenever there was the need. He supported the suffragettes’ movement led by Sylvia Pankhurst. No doubt, his speeches whipped up passion and excitement in an emerging industrialized society. He nurtured Labour into the position of a mainstream party that was going to pose as a threat to the two centuries old Liberal and Conservative parties.
But troubles for him began when he criticized the royal family for their privileges and for the time wasted by parliamentarians in sending messages congratulating the King on the birth of the new born Edward VIII when 251 men killed in a colliery explosion, he said, were simply ignored with no message of sympathy and treated with callous indifference. Hardie campaigned against the British intention to wage war against Germany in 1914 by holding mass anti-war demonstrations. When Britain in fact declared war on Germany, Hardie’s working class supporters surprisingly rallied round the government and came “hooting and hustling” outside his flat in London with shouts of “Turn the German out”. He was not even supported by the party colleagues. A depressed man with failing health, he resigned from the Labour party, not without referring to the working class as a “feckless mass”. Hardie died penniless, his family having to seek help through an appeal for public subscription.
The history of the British Labour party demonstrates that left-wingers though acclaimed as mass heroes enjoyed only a brief spell because of the “civil war” in the party very often rent by ideological differences as the Corbyn’s election has proved. Only those moderates and those on the middle path like Clement Atlee whom Churchill said was “like a sheep in sheep’s clothing”, Ramsay MacDonald, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan could claim to have achieved a measure of success by making it to the prime ministerial position. Rebels like Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams broke with Labour in 1981 to form the Social Democrats party (SDP) which became like a rickety chariot gradually evaporating in the London mist never to be heard of again.
The radical Jeremy Corbyn is singing the same kind of mantra as Keir Hardie 100 years ago. Is he destined to endure the same fate as his venerated hero?