Who is Jeremy Corbyn? According to the polls he is about to become the next leader of the Labour party in the UK. According to Pablo Iglesias, leader of the new Spanish party Podemos, Corbyn represents the new politics of Europe in rebellion against the austerity measures of Angela Merkel. And according to three times British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, Corbyn is a dreamer who belongs in Alice in Wonderland…
The sure thing is that until a few weeks ago the name of the 66-year-old-veteran left wing Labour MP was relatively unknown. Despite more than 30 years in the House of Commons he was little known outside Westminster.
He has never been a minister and has voted more than 500 times against the official party line. He was one of the most unlikely candidates to become leader of the Labour party and yet his election could have profound consequences for the UK and other European countries, especially Spain.
Corbyn´s links with Spain are strong, almost existential. His parents, both solid left wingers, met in the 1930s on a march in support of the Second Spanish Republic during the civil war. And like parents, the son: Corbyn has been a leading campaigner against racism and fascism all his life.
An archive photo of Republican soldiers fighting during the Spanish Civil War. Photo: STF / AFP
His second wife was Colombian with whom he has children who are bilingual. The link with Spain was strong too here. His wife’s grandfather was the Spanish consul in Chile when the civil war broke out in 1936 and he returned to fight for the Republic.
After the Republicans were defeated he returned to Latin America where the family lived in exile. And when General Pinochet came to power the family was forced to flee again, this time to London and Madrid. Earlier this year, Corbyn married again, this time to a Mexican.
The links between Corbyn and the Hispanic world are not confined to his marriages. Corbyn embraced the liberation movements of Latin America with gusto. Solidarity with Chile, solidarity with Nicaragua, solidarity with El Salvador, Corbyn was a leader in them all. When most other British people could not even place these countries on a map, Corbyn campaigned to liberate them from dicatorships.
Several years ago I met Corbyn by chance on a flight from London to Madrid. He was taking one of his then young children to stay with the grandparents who lived in Madrid and, at the same time, took the chance to speak at a meeting about the Western Sahara.
He invited me to go along so off we went to a community centre in the south of Madrid where we spent a hot afternoon with a handful of people discussing one of the most intractable problems in the world. There are few British MPs that would spend an afternoon in Leganes discussing Polisario and a just solution for the Sahwari people.
But that is typical of Jeremy Corbyn. No cause is too small for him. If it is about the oppressor and the oppressed, the strong against the weak or the rich against the poor Corbyn will be there. And he always takes part with impeccable manners and serenity. Personal insults and shouting, so apparent in the Spanish political arena, are anathema to a man who behaves more like a saint than a revolutionary.
Corbyn only stood for election at the last minute – he only managed to attract the necessary number of nominations amongst his fellow MPs minutes before nominations for the leadership election closed. He said that his aim was merely to broaden the debate about the future direction of the Labour party. Few people imagined that Corbyn would become leader and that group did not include Corbyn himself.
Pablo Iglesias the leader of Podemos has endorsed Corbyn. Photo: AFP
Yet like Podemos in Spain, Corbyn’s campaign has lit a political fuse. Hundreds of thousands of new supporters have participated in the vote and his public meetings have been full to overflowing. Like Podemos in Spain it is too early to say if Corbyn will lead to real lasting change. But what we do know even now is that they are both evidence of a profound transformation in the politics of the left in Europe.
David Mathieson is a regular columnist for the Vocento regional newspaper group in Spain and founder of SpanishSites.org – a project which organises battlefield tours of the Spanish civil war. He was Special Adviser to former UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and tweets @mathiesonmadrid
A version of this article was published in Spanish by Vocento