'Stay hopeful': Jeremy Corbyn on Palestine and the UK election

Illustration - In-depth - Corbyn/UK election/Palestine
7 min read
02 July, 2024

Jeremy Corbyn has, for many decades now, established himself as one of the UK’s loudest proponents against war and the arms industry. Since 7 October, he has not disappointed, consistently advocating for a Gaza ceasefire both in Britain’s Parliament and in public.

Having served as leader of the UK’s Labour Party from 2015 to 2020, Corbyn now stands as an independent candidate for his parliamentary seat of Islington North, which he has represented since 1983. Between him and Labour rival Praful Nargund, it is a two-horse race with everything to play for in the upcoming general election.

Perched in a Finsbury Park patisserie, Corbyn sat down with The New Arab to discuss his optimism for Palestine amidst his busy electoral campaign. With a cappuccino and almond croissant in hand, he jokingly questions whether he has become the very thing he fears most: the liberal metropolitan elite (a twinkle in his eye).

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“I'm running here in Islington as an independent because of the undemocratic behaviour of the Labour Party,” says Corbyn. “Our campaign has gathered enormous support because of people’s anger at Labour’s leadership. But also because we’re offering a message of hope for people living locally who are in poverty, as well as our international message of opposition to the wars in Sudan, Yemen, Congo, Gaza, and Ukraine, none of which will be resolved by shipping over more weapons.”

If he wins, Corbyn says that he will act as a voice against the economic duopoly being offered by the two major parties, which he describes as “largely indistinguishable from each other”. In the first weeks of the new parliament, there will be euphoria and relief that the Conservative Party is gone, he says.

“We’re very tired of having to listen to their unbelievable rubbish and dishonesty. But the problems are going to set in very quickly for the incoming Labour government.”

Rome did not fall in a day

Corbyn was born in 1949. He remembers the Suez Crisis, the Six-Day War in 1967 and the October War of 1973.

“You would turn on the radio or TV and hear a BBC expert discussing the future of Israel with someone from the British or Israeli military. It was as if the Palestinian people didn't exist, not to mention the racist language that was used against Palestinians, even at the Labour Party conferences,” says Corbyn,

It was only in 1982, some 34 years after the Nakba, that the Labour Party conference first discussed Palestine with a high level of seriousness, explains Corbyn. “It’s been a slow process, but things have and are improving. In fact, I’ve never seen such national and international solidarity for the Palestinian people.”

Corbyn emphasises that victory takes patience via consistent and persistent campaigning.

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“I remember in 1969, I was protesting South African apartheid from my small town in Shropshire. There were three of us out in the street, giving out leaflets. We got an unbelievable load of abuse, but we went on to organise demonstrations in London,” says Corbyn.

There in the capital, the anti-apartheid movement grew and grew, though it was not a popular cause until the mid-1980s when Nelson Mandela visited parliament. “When Mandela arrived you couldn't move for ministers who had reimagined their own history, claiming to have always marched against apartheid. Everybody wanted to help Mandela across the winning line, but only when it became favourable to them,” explains Corbyn.

In terms of Palestine, Corbyn says that the cause is moving in the right direction, pointing to the fact that the vast majority of countries recognise Palestine, both at the UN General Assembly and the Security Council (excluding nations with veto power), as well as South Africa taking Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) this year.

“People of all faiths and from all countries have shown their humanity for Palestine over the last nine months. It's a political movement that hasn't got a name, leader or organisation,” says Corbyn.

But leaders are also very effective, therefore begging the question: what will the Left do when Corbyn leaves politics? “I'm a very young spring chicken. Why are you worried?” he retorts. “Tony Benn always said: don't go around looking for leaders. When you achieve change, remember you did it yourselves.”

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In the UK, hundreds of thousands of people have marched for Palestine on a weekly or biweekly basis, achieving change in more ways than many may realise. “We’ve never seen such numbers and diversity, and such a huge Jewish bloc for Palestine. The understanding of the Palestinian cause has gone way beyond the politically conscious and become a popular one, something that’s highlighting the ever-growing and glaring discrepancy between Westminster and the people they claim to represent,” says Corbyn.

The UK is a country with more pro-Palestine demonstrations than any other nation in the West. “This doesn't come from nowhere, but from the consistency of a significant minority of people who opposed the Gulf War, the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq War. And that legacy lives on,” adds Corbyn.

Meanwhile, in most parts of Europe, support for Palestine is patchy, at best. The consensus of the EU political establishment, particularly Germany, has been powerfully resistant to a Gaza ceasefire.

“They don't seem to understand that the killing of so many people in Palestine is disgusting and disgraceful at every level. And for those who survive the rubble of Gaza, what's their future and mentality going to be like if all they’ve seen is their homes destroyed and their families killed?” explains Corbyn.

jeremy corbyn
Having served as leader of the UK's Labour Party from 2015 to 2020, Corbyn is now standing as an independent candidate for his parliamentary seat of Islington North. [Getty]

Historic levels of repression

By giving Israel carte blanche, the West is empowering the worst political elements across the globe, says Corbyn, something that could have a destabilising effect on global security, as well as domestic stability.

“Our governments are more interested in suppressing pro-Palestine protests than they are getting a ceasefire. They're more worried about students camping on campuses than they are about the reasons behind it. I've got a lot of respect for those students that have risked a great deal, far more than those equally brave students in the 1960s for Vietnam,” adds Corbyn. 

Unlike in the 1960s, university students today are facing administrative punishment (suspension or being expelled). “I was talking to students at the LSE and other places and they’re really terrified of what's going to happen to them after they graduate. Will they be debarred from working because they've allegedly undertaken criminal acts by camping on campus?” says Corbyn.

“I’ve never seen this level of oppressive legislation around the right of free speech. This country prides itself on being democratic. It's just not true anymore. When Suella Braverman tried to ban that big Palestinian march, it was the London police who hit back and defended the right to free speech and protest. Absurd. These are dangerous times,” he adds.

Corbyn says that he does not believe that the Conservative Party and ministers like Suella Braverman actually believe the “rubbish they're spewing, but that it suits them to call our protests marches of hate and we've got a media that buys into it”.

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The right-wing press has cheapened Palestinian lives, but the problem runs deeper. “We so rarely see reports of the war in Sudan, Congo, and Yemen, despite the involvement of our arms industry, especially in Yemen. But if a war happens in Ukraine, then we care. It's appalling and wrong”.

Another part of the problem here, according to Corbyn, is the lack of education about the origins of the Palestinian cause and the crisis in Gaza today. “Teaching history in school is better than it used to be, but it's still not very good. Our kids don’t understand the role of Europe in drawing lines all over the map in 1918. They don't know Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration. They need a crash course, as many people still think the Middle East is Lawrence of Arabia, jumping off trains and things.”

Corbyn was quite alarmed in parliament recently when a number of MPs on both sides of the House began discussing a quasi-colonial solution for Palestine, namely, the instalment of a British protectorate or governing body in Gaza. “Sounds familiar. Maybe they can even call it Mandatory Palestine,” says Corbyn, wryly.

History must be remembered (and shared), accurately, adds Corbyn. There is still a statue near parliament of Robert Clive, a man who killed thousands of people in India on behalf of the East India Company.

“Clive committed terrible crimes against humanity and then committed suicide at 49. I doubt he slept with a clean conscience. Let’s teach people more about that.”

Sebastian Shehadi is a freelance journalist and a contributing writer at the New Statesman. 

Follow him on Twitter: @seblebanon