Last week, I sat next to former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn during a Tube journey in London. He was going to a protest gathering in central London supporting the ‘Palestine Liberation movement’. Passengers threw at him a barrage of questions on a range of issues. An Arab woman shook hands with him for standing by Palestine. Then came the oft-repeated question: “Don’t you think that the war was started by Hamas?”
This has been one of the most frequently asked questions thrown at pro-Palestinian voices in the mass media and social media discussions over the past five weeks.
“I’m against violence of any form but I don’t think this war was started by a Palestinian force,” Corbyn said calmly, adding that the history of the region could not be missed while identifying the aggressor.
He pointed out how “millions of Palestinians were displaced for good” after the creation of Israel in 1948 and how Israel has been occupying Gaza since the 1967 war. “Palestinians have been victims of brutal persecution for decades, not to speak of the ongoing ethnic cleansing,” he said.
Britain has been witnessing huge anti-war demonstrations since early October. Almost every Saturday, hundreds of thousands of men and women are marching in support of Palestine. Corbyn, the former Leader of the Labour Party, has come to take the centre-stage in these anti-war protests.
Right after October 7, when Britain was still in a state of shock following the Hamas attack, when the pro-Palestine sentiments were not yet visible in the country, Corbyn lost no time in taking a bold stand against Israel. From walking in protest marches and addressing one public meeting after another, the septuagenarian leader has been in the thick of action.
It also seemed the massive public participation in anti-war protest events in the UK has given the 74-year-old new hope. He has been an associate of the Stop the War Coalition right from its inception. He feels Britain has gone back to the days of anti-war protests from a couple of decades ago.
“Look at the streets! Even amidst the mainstream media’s support for the war crimes of Israel, hundreds and thousands of people are joining every anti-war march,” he told this writer, adding, “The time is ripe for upholding the politics of the British Left.”
His activism resulted in him facing the heat from his own party. The charges of anti-Semitism that caused his suspension from Labour back in 2020 resurfaced. Even though Corbyn was already barred from contesting for the Labour Party, the current Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has emphatically declared Corbyn ineligible for contesting the next election on a Labour ticket in response to Corbyn's refusal to call Hamas a terrorist organization.
Corbyn, the best-known face of the British Left, a member of the parliament (MP) from Islington North for 40 years, appears unfazed. While the media tried hard to squeeze out of him a statement condemning the Hamas attack, he has maintained that it is impossible to address the question without delving deep into history.
I met Corbyn at several protest events. That day, he was travelling from an event hosted by a voluntary organisation at Islington, his constituency in the north of Greater London, to an anti-war rally in central London. He owns no car and is happy with a “fine bicycle”. He agreed to have an informal conversation with me after the event and on his way to the rally.
As we walked from the venue to the tube station, talking about issues like the Intifada and the importance of Yasser Arafat, Corbyn remarked, “Nelson Mandela said that the freedom of his people was incomplete without the liberation of Palestine. How true he was! The global progressive struggle would remain incomplete if we don’t stand by Palestinians.”
At a time when the entire British political establishment, including the government and the opposition, has announced their clear stance in favour of Israel, Corbyn is swimming against the tide. Though cornered in his party, Corbyn seems to gain new popularity among the youth.
“Corbyn has provided the British left with new oxygen,” said Adam Griffith from the Socialist Student Union, adding, “It is mainly because of him that the Palestine issue has become one of the most talked about issues in the country. Regardless of what the Labour Party thinks, Corbyn has his personal acceptance among the masses.”
A large number of Jews are also turning up at the anti-war protest marches, holding the banner of ‘Jews voice for Labour’. Esther, a 28-year-old anti-Zionist Jew, called Corbyn an inspiration. “Two people in my family had been in Hitler's concentration camp. We know the horror of the Holocaust. And that's precisely why we do not want Gaza to turn into an open concentration camp. We are saying — not in our name,” Esther said.
Corbyn’s hope for a revival of the British Left with the anti-war protests comes at a time when his party is suffering from internal turmoil over the issue. Fifty-six Labour MPs voted for a ceasefire, going against the official stance of the Labour Party as repeatedly affirmed by Starmer. At least 10 frontbenchers in Starmer’s shadow cabinet have resigned over Starmer’s decision not to back an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
While Corbyn had publicly called upon Labour MPs to vote for a ceasefire, all the dissident Labour MPs may not share his strong views of the Israel-Palestine problem. Corbyn has called the “end of Israeli occupation” as the only solution to the conflict, with which many labour MPs may not agree. But so many labour MPs at least stood up for a ceasefire nevertheless.
“Corbyn has always stood beside the oppressed people of Palestine. The Israel lobby inside the Labour Party has conspired against him. It is them who have turned Labour against him. These are open secrets that everyone knows,” Alex Gordon, the current president of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), told this writer.
The pro-Palestinian stand has, indeed, cost him much politically. A book published earlier this year is self-explanatoryly titled ‘Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn’. Corbyn surely knows what it takes to swim against the tide. But the presence of such a prominent face in the protest rallies infused new energy in the anti-war movement on the UK’s soil.
(Arka Bhaduri is a freelance journalist currently based in the UK on a research project. Views expressed by the author are personal.)