Can Europe Make It?

Corbyn: the European media react

Press comments on the Continent openly betray editorial lines – impartiality on the new Labour leader has proved nigh on impossible.

Alessio Colonnelli
17 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn. Demotix/Guy Corbishley. All rights reserved.When I was invited by openDemocracy to produce an account of Europe’s reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s appointment as Labour leader, I thought this would be an opportunity to highlight attitudes towards anti-austerity measures. In my brief report, you’ll see how left-leaning publications rejoiced at Corbyn’s success; and how conservative ones kept quiet, their dismissiveness appearing rather ill-concealed.

For a start, did you see the enthusiasm oozing from Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’ article in the Guardian? As you might have guessed, Spain has been tuning in on the Labour race station very regularly in recent times, the volume blasting. Anti-austerity is big in Spanish politics. A keen interest in Corbyn is only natural.

“Corbyn’s election revives the PSOE-Podemos fight for the left,” was the immediate reaction of El País. In an effort to claim to be closer to Corbyn than the rivals, PSOE’s general secretary Pedro Sánchez reminded the public of Iglesias’ continuous mantra: there isn’t such a thing anymore as being right or left. Sánchez thinks such remarks undermine the very essence of social democracy (and can you really argue with that, Mr Iglesias?)

The conservative El Mundo’s opening headline describes Corbyn as an indignado. The piece underlines that the new leader is there to open up a debate, not to cause the party to split. One of the first to ‘celebrate’ Corbyn’s victory, albeit in his own special way, was George Osborne, who said that Labour have secured “a generational step… backwards” with this election.

Did anyone else appreciate the courage of an unconventional new leader? MicroMega certainly did. Writing for the Italian cultural magazine’s blog, Pierfranco Pellizzetti pointed at the massive support for Corbyn as something the Italian readership at large didn’t suspect: the presence of a large section in British society which feels indignant, like in Spain, Greece and Egypt’s Tahir square. (But where do the Italians live? On planet Mars? Is there a problem with a privileged class of Italian journalists unable to report from real-life Britain?)

La Repubblica focused on Corbyn taking on the Conservatives with the unions’ right to call strikes – a  head-on collision, according to Rome’s daily. Italy used to be a heavily unionised country, with CGIL still playing a major role. This trade union firmly opposes prime minister Matteo Renzi, who’s widely known for being an enthusiastic fan of Tony Blair and New Labour.

Worldwide-known Der Spiegel said that “in addition to party members, ‘registered followers’ could also participate in the primary election – for just three pounds. Corbyn’s supporters in particular made very good use of this chance.” On Saturday 12, the Hamburg weekly readily highlighted how New Labour shadow cabinet members like Jamie Reed had walked out, the now new left course having become unpalatable to them.

Jochen Buchsteiner, London political correspondent for the austere Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, goes right to the heart of Labour’s big conundrum: what to do with that leaping-frog ‘beardie’ now? His analysis begins with a straightforward question: “How will the party deal with a leader who’s been [constantly] mocked by the political elite as a dinosaur? Coup plans – the majority of the ‘moderate’ faction in Westminster could topple him effortlessly – don’t appear to be on the cards for the time being.”

Le Monde correspondent Philippe Bernard compared Corbyn’s movement to Podemos’: the grey-haired, sinewy politician has captured the mood and fears of a youth battered by austerity and tossed around by precarious employment; he’s given the ideals of post-1945 social justice a new life. The ascetic-looking old pacifist has conquered a new audience and changed the party’s profile.

“He seems to have hit home, especially among young people, who weren’t around in the 1970s and 80s, during which time the radical speeches of Labour leaders, swallowed up by the unions, precipitated the country into the arms of Margaret Thatcher,” is Bernard’s pivotal remark.

“The victory of ‘leftist’ Corbyn, an earthquake for Labour,” claimed the conservative Le Figaro. Florentin Collomp, penning for the Parisian right-wing daily, was quick to stress that “despite his triumphant election, the new Labour leader is already facing threats of coup and dissent.”

“His score of nearly 60% of the activists’ vote – better than Tony Blair in 1994 – contrasts with widespread  hostility inside the party. At the announcement of the result, in a London conference centre, some Labour caciques didn’t even try to smile. Some suggested it’s been a ‘disaster’, while others hastily made their way towards the exit…,” wrote Collomp. As if to say – reasonable people can’t really endorse any of this.

One aspect quite clearly emerges: Corbyn’s appointment has come across as either good or bad, depending on each paper’s general editorial line. Hardly surprising. Is striving for totally objective journalism a pointless effort in this day and age?

A final (and partisan, what the heck) consideration, if I may. Seeing what Labour has become since 1994 – post the Iraq war and recommendations of undergoing an organ transplant if your heart beat for the Islington North backbencher –, the implications of such a new leadership on Scottish and EU politics and the wider foreign policy in the Middle East are going to be interesting to watch. This is a shake-up for everybody, within and without Labour. Even Russell Brand will be tempted to go and vote from now on, with the other big Jeremy (Paxman) giggling from a distance.

All of this has to do with austerity, first and foremost; and secondly, with New Labour, as a post-7 May appendix. Ed Miliband went in with a slab under his arm, but lacking the required full-force impact: the marble was too heavy to carry and the door just wouldn’t open.

Austerity goes against economic wisdom and is all about ideology: telling the poor where their place is and rubbing it in their face. To portray the poor as undeserving for having brought destitution upon themselves is plain dishonest. To say that poverty is their own fault, due to personal failure, is downright offensive. Corbyn will try and counteract such widespread, damaging and highly divisive ways of thinking. Aside those prospering in a privileged, parallel society, this new politics shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

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