Benighted Corbyn: The Labour leader’s slap in the face

Human rights lawyer and barrister Jonathan Cooper reflects on the evolution of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn’s New Year makeover appears to have stumbled. He didn’t even survive Round One with John Humphrys on the BBC’s Today Programme. Self-effacing Humphrys engineered the news, the Leader of the Opposition failing (again) to set the agenda. As the underdog, Corbyn arouses sympathy. He presents as a wounded victim of the establishment. If only he could be allowed to get his message across.

Is Corbyn a victim? Or are his detractors right and he is a straw man, which means the big beasts of journalism can manipulate him barely lifting a paw?

Corbyn’s miserable experiences with those that challenge him might just reveal inexperience. What is at his core? Does he have the metal to lead Labour and go on to run the country? Unexpectedly, the New Year Honours list gives insight into Corbyn and reveals much about the man.

An unknown Labour MP gets a knighthood in the New Year’s Honour list. Dog bites man. No news there. But it turns out that the knighted Labour MP has consistently voted against LGBT equality, including even supporting the retention of the infamous Section 28, which targeted gay men and lesbians by requiring local authorities not to support LGBT rights, thus confirming the social pariah status of homosexuals. It goes without saying that the MP voted against LGBT adoption rights, as well as equal marriage for LGBT people.

For those interested the MP is David Crausby. He’s been an MP for Bolton North East since 1997. He has had an unremarkable Westminster career to date, but he was a union man and he was in local government before being elected to the Commons.

What does Crausby’s knighthood say about Corbyn’s commitment to LGBT equality and, in turn, does Corbyn’s support for Crausby give insight into Corbyn himself? Crausby could not be honoured without the Labour Leader’s approval.

Corbyn was elected as an MP in 1983. The full magnitude of the AIDS crisis and its impact on gay men was about to hit. Terry Higgins had died the year before. The already persecuted gay community was living in fear. The gay and lesbian community had little or no support from those in authority. And then along came Jeremy Corbyn; a national politician prepared to speak out. He offered true and genuine comfort.

The nightmare for gay men continued as loved ones perished, often in the most demeaning circumstances, and then in 1988, when the gay and lesbian community was at its most beleaguered, Thatcher’s Government passed the notorious section 28 of the Local Government Act forbidding the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. Labour, to its credit, did oppose it, but one of the most sonorous voice against Section 28 was Jeremy Corbyn’s. Corbyn was carving a name out for himself. He stood for the vulnerable, the marginalised and dispossessed. He was a champion, highlighting injustices against LGBT people. He could be relied upon to speak out. In many respects, Corbyn made his name off the back of the besieged LGBT community.

It seems unfathomable therefore that Corbyn could support the honouring of a man whose career is distinguished by its opposition to LGBT equality. Or is it? Has Corbyn’s support for Crausby given us a genuine insight into Labour’s leader today?

The British state no longer torments its LGBT citizens. The change in attitude towards us has been a marvel. It is one of the most remarkable shifts in societal behaviour ever. Within less than 20 years LGBT people have gone from being outcasts to being embraced. Hate by some is not yet in the past, and LGBT integration remains an ongoing project, but as far as the British state is concerned there is a commitment to full equality.

Corbyn should feel proud of the role he has played in bringing about this equality. He was after all that lone voice for so many years, but yet he now fetes anti-gay people and continues to support those who lead regimes that brutalise LGBT people. Castro’s regime in Cuba was vicious towards gay people. They locked up people with AIDS. Castro’s death coincided with World AIDS Day events. Yet there was no acknowledgment of the misery Castro caused to gay people from Corbyn in his eulogies of the former Cuban leader. Cuba has advanced on gay rights and Castro followed suit, in rhetoric at least, but that does not mean Castro’s crimes against LGBT people are expunged.

Might it be that, because the LGBT community is no longer persecuted by the British state, Corbyn no longer has any interest in us? Or worse: our cause has become so mainstream that our greatest champion of late was until recently a Conservative Prime Minister. Crausby’s knighthood is a slap in the face because it was authorised by Corbyn. The hell people like Crausby subjected us to is still too recent for us to forget. Of course we forgive, LGBT people are marked out by our extraordinary ability to forgive, but if it’s evidence of our forgiveness that Corbyn wants, he should not be testing us in this way. Does Corbyn’s new found indifference to LGBT issues stem from the fact that Labour can no longer depend upon the LGBT vote? Worse still for Corbyn, did Cameron win his majority at the last election because of his determined commitment towards equal marriage? Cameron has definitely evolved on LGBT issues but he didn’t just protest on our behalf, he provided us with our first real taste of equality, something Crausby voted to deny us.

Has Crausby’s knighthood revealed something that is at the heart of Corbyn’s character? Corbyn’s new cavalier attitude towards LGBT people post our equality feels callous. Does Corbyn have a mercenary streak that puts his politics first, despite the human cost? The Corbyn who stood against Section 28 would simply have been unable to support Crausby’s knighthood under any circumstances. What happened? Were all those speeches just rhetoric? Were they a bluff? The real fear is that it turns out Corbyn is not so different after all and rather mediocre at that.

Has the Crausby affair burst the Corbyn bubble? Is Corbyn just an opportunist, for whom the persecution of the LGBT community was a convenient vehicle? If Crausby’s knighthood reveals Corbyn’s lack of principles, it is no wonder commentators find him so easy to demolish.

Jonathan Cooper is a barrister specialising in human rights at Doughty Street chambers. He is the former Chief Executive of the Human Dignity Trust.