Jeremy Corbyn has serious question to answer about his commitment to democracy. That’s quite an assertion, but one I think the evidence supports. Let me be entirely clear – Jeremy Corbyn is not an enemy of, or a threat to, British democracy. Nor is he ideologically opposed to democratic institutions – he’s not a revolutionary Marxist. But he has defended, and associated with, a concerning number of ultra-authoritarian regimes. In short he has defended enough that, whilst I don’t doubt his commitment to democracy in the UK, it’s far from clear that he supports it in all developing countries. Some of the regimes he has defended have been of the left – most notably the ‘communist’ dictatorship which rules Cuba and the authoritarian left-wing Government which controls Venezuela. But some aren’t. He has also defended ultra-authoritarian Governments of the far-right, in particular those of Iran, Hamas and Hezbullah (which can reasonably be treated as a Government on the basis that it de facto controls parts of Southern Lebanon). These regimes have little in common with Corbyn’s ideology, beyond opposition to ‘Western’ values and institutions.
I’ll start with Corbyn’s more ideologically explicable, if no less morally indefensible, association with ultra-authoritarian Governments of the far-left. Corbyn is a longstanding supporter of the Cuban Solidarity Campaign (CSC), a British group which supports the Cuban Government. Indeed, on 11 July 2016, the day when Theresa May became Prime Minister, Corbyn chose to address a CSC meeting in Parliament. Unfortunately Cuba is an authoritarian dictatorship – its Government persecutes political opponents, including independent labour organisations. Amnesty International reports that ‘government critics, including journalists and human rights activists’ are ‘routinely subjected to arbitrary arrests’, with the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reporting that 8,600 politically motivated detentions occurred last year. Amnesty also notes that the Government controls ‘access to the internet…limiting access to information and criticism of the state’, whilst subjecting critics to ‘politically motivated criminal prosecutions’. Corbyn needs to explain why he hasn’t just defended an authoritarian dictatorship, but gone out of his way to do so.
Corbyn didn’t just vocally support the government of Cuba, he also supported its authoritarian counterpart in Venezuela. Now admittedly Venezuela isn’t quite a dictatorship of the Cuban model, but it’s no liberal-democracy either. Amnesty International’s 2015/16 report on global human rights stated that ‘Human rights defenders and journalists continued to face attacks and intimidation. Political opponents of the government faced unfair trials and imprisonment’. Corbyn though had a rather more rosy view of the Venezuelan Government, and in June 2015 lavished it with praise as he addressed a rally of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, a left-wing pro-Chavez group. Once again he went out of his way to support an authoritarian regime, and one which had a track record of taking its country in a more autocratic direction.
Corbyn was also prepared, on 1 June this year, to address a May Day rally in London which featured multiple communist flags, including those of the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain), and even banners depicting Lenin and Stalin. Perhaps Corbyn didn’t see the Communist flags. Perhaps he doesn’t have eyes. In any case an ardent democrat would clearly object to having communist flags waved in support, in the same manner that they would if flags of the British Union of Fascists were flow. But Corbyn didn’t. It’s inconceivable that even a junior Conservative backbencher would address a rally featuring fascist flags, and portraits of Mussolini or General Franco. And yet the Labour leader is prepared to address a rally featuring Communist flags and banners of Bolshevik tyrants.
As I mentioned earlier Corbyn doesn’t just associate with Governments of the authoritarian left. Even more shockingly, he is prepared to defend those of the radical (usually religiously fundamentalist) right. Take for example Iran. Corbyn has been a regular on the state funded Iranian Government propaganda channel Press TV. This isn’t a TV station which happens to be based in Iran, it’s one which actively promotes the positions of the Iranian Government. And the Iranian Government is a dictatorship, one which butchered pro-democracy protestors in 2009. It’s a Government that believes homosexuality should be prohibited, sometimes even punished by death, and that the state should regulate what women can wear. It is, in short, an appallingly reactionary religiously conservative dictatorship. Any true defender of democracy and human rights would run a mile. And yet Corbyn does the opposite. In 2012 he even spoke at an Al-Quds day rally in London, Al-Quads day being the annual event initiated by Ayatollah Khomeini to protest against Israel. Hezbollah flags, and other extremist symbols, are regular features of these rallies.
Corbyn has also had associations with Hamas and Hezbullah, the Palestinian and Lebanese Islamist groups which rule Gaza (as a dictatorship) and parts of Lebanon (though unofficially). Corbyn has referred to representatives of both groups as his ‘friends’, and invited them to meetings. Hamas is institutionally anti-Semitic, and runs Gaza as a theocratic dictatorship. According to that neo-conservative stalwart Amnesty International, Hamas in Gaza restricts ‘freedom of expression, including by arresting and detailing critics and political opponents’. It has also ‘used force to disperse some protests’, whilst ‘torture and other ill-treatment of detainees is relatively common’. Both Hamas and Hezbullah deliberately target civilians, predominantly Israeli, during periods of conflict. And yet Corbyn has described them as ‘friends’ of his own free will. He was under no pressure to do so. It’s not like when Conservative Cabinet Ministers are compelled, for diplomatic reasons, to find warm words for authoritarian regimes. Corbyn chose to do so, and it’s revealing that of all the regimes in the Middle East he has associated with some of the most authoritarian, whilst reserving his sharpest criticism for the country, Israel, which has the strongest democratic and liberal institutions.
So Corbyn has serious questions concerning his commitment to democracy – and so far he has singularly failed to address them. Whilst there’s no suggestion that he’s ideologically opposed to democracy, or in any way a threat to democracy in the UK, he has chosen to defend and associate with a worrying number of dictatorial regimes. Some of these have been on the hard-left, others the far-right. Nothing unites them beyond a dislike, which Corbyn at least partly shares, of the ‘West’ and its values. Corbyn’s opponents for the Labour leadership need to draw attention to this, and make it clear that he’s not just (fortuitously) unelectable. His past associations make him morally unacceptable as leader.