Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Venezuela is clear and principled. But, irrespective of the statement he delivers his critics will never be placated, says Will Singh.
Let’s play spot the difference:
Statement One: “It is a tragedy that so many people have lost their lives in protests in Venezuela. We’re clear that urgent action must be taken to stop the situation getting worse. The UK has repeatedly called on the Maduro government to work with the opposition, release political prisoners and show respect for democracy and human rights.”
Statement Two: “I’m very sad at the lives that have been lost in Venezuela…The people who have died – either those on the streets or security forces that have been attacked by people on the street – all of those lives are terrible for the loss of them…There has to be a dialogue and a process that respects the independence of the judiciary and respects the human rights of all.”
The first of those is Downing Street’s statement, the second is Mr Corbyn’s. Is there really such a monumental difference that one can be recognised as sensible statesmanship while the other is evidence of an “infatuation” with dictatorial socialism?
I suspect some people would never be happy with Mr Corbyn’s statement unless the lifelong socialist leader of the Labour Party had stood on the steps of St Paul’s setting fire to a hammer-and-sickle and renouncing his sins. For those that read his statement, it was classic Corbyn. No, he did not roundly denounce Venezuelan socialism. Neither did he defend the Maduro government.
He did, in fact, go so far as to say that there were “partly structural” economic issues behind the instability. Weather you pin “structure” down to socialism as an idea or the decisions of a particular government, the idea that he is infatuated with the policy of the government is fanciful.
Let’s get the basic semantic analysis out of the way. Denouncing violence on all sides does mean a denouncement of the government’s actions. It is a simple Corbyn statement of the albeit-slightly-hippie line that every life lost is a tragedy and the situation in Venezuela is “very sad”. Clearly some will take that to mean an equivalence of blame on the part of both the government and opposition – but that is not really what was said. The Corbyn statement basically boils down to two principles:
These are both entirely reasonable. Divorced from the predispositions of people towards Jeremy Corbyn, they are what would be expected of any statesmanlike politician.
Lost in this hasty criticism of Corbyn is one of his famous “principles” to which he has stuck so readily. The tradition of anti-imperialism on the left exists partly as a response to the endless interventions of Western governments in other parts of the world, not least in South America. For a man regularly criticised for being unconventional and unstatesmanlike – see ‘do-up-your-tie-gate’ – Corbyn’s response was a surprisingly mature political decision. It is not appropriate for foreign governments to actively endorse one side of a political situation in the middle of an election. This is obvious, and when the likes of Theresa May parrot the same lines in regard to Trump’s USA, Saudi Arabia, etc the acceptance is instant from much of the political class.
I think Corbyn’s view is roughly that it may well be that there are critiques to be made of the government of Venezuela, more so than any other side, but those will be addressed in the proper course. This is another from the classic Corbyn principle playbook – an almost nostalgic belief in international organisations to do their jobs as forums for international justice and cooperation. If the Venezuelan government is guilty of crimes against its own people, Corbyn I suspect honestly believes that they will, or should, be dealt with in that proper legal arena; not diplomacy-by-press-release from foreign politicians.
What are the alternatives that he could have said? He called for a “dialogue and a process” to reconcile differences. Other options are either saying “vote for the opposition”, which would be the kind of interference he opposes, or a call for non-dialogue reconciliation to political differences – and what on earth would that mean? The only thing he could plausibly have said would be a somewhat more sternly worded rebuke of the government itself. Again, I’m not sure what this would achieve, nor whether it is appropriate, nor whether it wouldn’t constitute a tacit endorsement of the opposition and hence exactly the same kind of involvement.
To be absolutely clear: it is a great failing of political tribalism, of which the left is often the guiltiest, to refuse to criticise one’s own side. A true socialist believes in democracy and freedom, and should oppose some of Maduro’s so-called ‘constitutional reforms’ more staunchly than anyone else, and just as staunchly as the best left-wing thinkers have always denounced the authoritarian nature of regimes claiming the name of socialism.
If Jeremy Corbyn had actually said what critics seem to want to pretend he said, I would be joining the chorus of criticism at the front of the queue. But he plainly didn’t. He was speaking off the cuff, not in a pre-spun written statement, and was doing exactly what would be expected of foreign politicians lacking all the evidence of another country’s election, just as Downing Street’s own statement was. For once, Mr Corbyn was being a tad Prime Ministerial.