What’s next for Comrade Corbyn?

Rosa Prince gives us Corbyn’s modest, decent past but shies away from speculating about a mind-boggling future

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup Rosa Prince

Biteback, pp.384, £20, ISBN: 9781849549967

‘Ah, Jeremy,’ remarked Tony Blair at a smart dinner party in Islington not long before he became prime minister, ‘he hasn’t made the journey.’ As it turned out, this was something of an understatement. And yet here we are, 20 years on, and the Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn is leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. It is as if New Labour never happened. You couldn’t make it up.

How do we explain the miraculous rise of a man who, before he emerged blinking into daylight from the political shadows, had made not the merest ripple on the national consciousness? Who, despite more than 30 years in parliament, had rarely featured in the public prints or seen the inside of a television studio? A figure so marginal that during the 13 years of Labour government he voted against the official line a record 428 times?

If Rosa Prince is to believed, the rise of Corbyn is yet another of the unforeseen consequences arising from the invasion of Iraq. Iraq was the moment that the public fell out of love with New Labour. It led to the creation of a vast diaspora of politically aware, idealistic (mainly but not only) young people utterly alienated from mainstream politics, and in Jeremy they have found a hero.

Of course, there were other factors. Luck played a part. Ed Miliband’s decision to open the selectorate to anyone willing to stump up three pounds was significant, although in the end not decisive. That and the fact that Corbyn was up against three lacklustre mainstream candidates, all to a greater or lesser extent tarred with the New Labour brush.

Above all, in this age of spin, there was a thirst for authenticity and Corbyn provided that in spades. Modest, decent, regarded by friend and foe alike as an outstanding constituency MP, he has led a life entirely consistent with his principles. Even to the extent that his refusal to send his children to a grammar school contributed to the break up of his marriage. And unlike many on the left, he is not a denouncer, and is tolerant of those who do not share his views.

A biography of so elusive a figure was always going to be a challenge, and some of the stuff about the early years is somewhat bland and over-reliant on press cuttings. But on the whole Prince has produced a well- researched and balanced account of the rise of this most unlikely politician. Inevitably, the man himself has not co-operated (‘Jeremy doesn’t do personal’), but many of his friends and relatives have.

Corbyn was born to ‘a chaotic, bohemian family’ who lived in a rambling house in a beautiful part of Shropshire. Middle-class, but not posh (his father was an electrical engineer), both his parents were active Labour supporters, though this did not prevent them from sending young Jeremy to a local prep school and later to boarding school in Newport. As children, Jeremy and his brothers were encouraged pretty much to do their own thing (he briefly developed an interest in manhole covers). He scraped two A-levels, which was just about enough to get him on a course in trade union studies at North London Poly, but he dropped out after a couple of years.

Eventually he found a job as a union organiser, at the same time becoming active in the turbulent world of north London Labour politics. In 1983 he was elected MP for Islington North, seeing off not one but two sitting MPs in the process. He has been there ever since.

In the past 30 years there has been scarcely a picket line, a demonstration or an anti-war protest at which Corbyn has not featured. Be it solidarity with Chile, Venezuela, Palestine or any one of a long list of leftist causes, Jeremy was there. Come Iraq, he emerged as a leading member of the Stop the War campaign, and for once he was part of a genuine mass movement. The contacts he made through Stop the War would go on to become his core supporters when the time came to put his hat in the ring for the Labour leadership.

Never has there been a more reluctant candidate for high office. Not until three weeks after the starting-gun had been fired did Corbyn diffidently allow his name to go forward. At the outset, never for a single moment did it occur to him, or anyone else, that he might actually win. Indeed, he secured the last of the necessary 35 nominations with seconds to spare, and then only with the support of a dozen MPs who were not intending to vote for him.

The rest, as they say, is history. Using sources in the camps of all four leadership candidates, Prince meticulously reconstructs the long-drawn-out summer campaign as the realisation dawned (terrifying for all concerned, Corbyn included) that he was going to win. It was a popular uprising. At every stage the Corbynistas outclassed their opponents. Donations from well-wishers flooded in; volunteers adept in the use of social media flocked to his banner; his public meetings became a triumphal progress. It reads like a thriller.

The big question, only briefly addressed, is: what happens next? To be elected Labour leader with the support of perhaps only a tenth of your parliamentary colleagues is downright scary. The art of government, or indeed opposition, requires compromise and that is something of which Corbyn has no experience. To be sure, the learning curve is steep, but there are tentative signs of progress. He has mastered the autocue, comes over well in interviews and has done better than expected at Prime Minister’s Questions. His appearance, albeit looking uncomfortable, in white tie and tails at a Buckingham Palace state banquet was surely a seminal moment in British politics.

Might he conceivably become prime minister? It is one thing to appeal to the converted, but quite another to convince a sceptical electorate. To do that he must address the nation rather than the party and progress on that front has so far been slow. A Corbyn government? The mind boggles; but in politics you can never tell.

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  • britbob

    Corbyn has been a regular at the Argentinean embassy where he has given oxygen to their mythical Malvinas claim. Google: ‘Falklands – Some Relevant International Law’ to see why he’s barking up the wrong tree.

  • gillardgone

    By the time Jeremy Corbyn and his Marxist chums has lulled the electorate into a false sence of security he will be past his sell by date, please God.

    • MrUnclevanya

      He already is, you can see the green hairy Mould of leftist Politics already infesting the body politic of the Liarbor Party…………

  • Aliass

    I disagree with almost everything the man stands for, and wish him no success whatsoever, but I respect his lack of hypocrisy, and admire his willingness to tolerate (within limits, which we have seen) opposing viewpoints.

    • SkyBluePM

      What “lack of hypocrisy”? He WANTS eu exit, yet is campaigning to stay in! He CLAIMED he is happy for dissent in his cabinet – only to try and deselect / fire anyone who disagrees with him!

      There is NOTHING this hypocrite will not roll over on – even Trident submarines whom he stated he did not want, all of a sudden he wants to keep the submarines!

      Feckless humourless talentless integrityless. The “man” is a disgrace!

      • Oriental Imp

        I don’t doubt your sincerity but, unless done humorously, upper case = NUT CASE.

        Just thought I’d let you know.

    • SkyBluePM

      He hasn’t tolerated ANY opposing views! Just look at his face at the Syria bombing vote – he LOST the argument – then acted like a spoilt petulant child!

      He is NOT a leader – never was! And if you GENUINELY think he lacks hypocrisy – WHY has he sworn an oath of allegiance to the queen – TWICE ? He MUST have done so to enter Parliament and then again last year – THIS from a man who swore he would NEVER swear such an oath!

      How is this NOT hypocrisy?

    • trobrianders

      You must be joking

    • OmnipotentWizard

      “…I respect his lack of hypocrisy…”

      Wizard Rule 25: An unprincipled pragmatist will be the person most likely to make the right decision.

  • bengeo

    Post Modernist Labour?

  • ButcombeMan

    “A Corbyn government? The mind boggles; but in politics you can never tell”

    Yes you can Chris.

    Britain has never elected a hard left government and PM. It is not about to do that anytime soon.
    Corbynomics convinces none but the extreme faiithful.
    Middle England is not that stupid.

  • Philsopinion

    He won’t become PM because he is already finding his current job too difficult. The plan is to hand over to someone like Lisa Nandy in the not too distant future.

    • Oriental Imp

      Interesting idea that has occurred to me. He probably plans to leave quite suddenly, once he’s sure the left have a secure footing in the Party and he can get his, doubtless much younger, replacement in pole position.

      In fact I’d go so far as saying that that is his current plan. But power has a funny way of changing people. If he starts to believe his own hype – and he strikes me as a particularly credulous man – he may start to think he has a chance in 2020. But, despite what Chris Mullins thinks about Politics, he really doesn’t.

    • trobrianders

      Lisa Nandy is mindless

  • trobrianders

    This filthy cockroach refers to decent centre-right politicians as ultra xenophobes and of course the insult goes unchallenged by the BBC. These people are not my country. I look forward to the right wing backlash that sees these traitors hung from lampposts.

    • Ed

      Well that won’t happen, sweetheart. Try taking your pills for today. Incidentally those ‘decent centre-right politicians’ are currently allowing the poor to rot as they withdraw their benefits, dismantle the NHS, and suck up to corporations like Google – but let’s face it, you don’t want to face that, and won’t be able to until the nice nurse gives you today’s injection.

      • trobrianders

        The “poor” are not a defenceless blob as you socialists prefer to think of them.

    • disruptivethoughts

      I can’t stand Corbyn either but you’re almost as obnoxious!

      • trobrianders

        I wish you didn’t have to put up with me or Corbyn!

  • OmnipotentWizard

    Is Corbyn still here – we haven’t heard much about him lately.

  • MrUnclevanya

    Comrade Corbyn and his corbynistas’ will soon be relugated to the dustbin of History, just like Michael Foot when he walked that lonely road into obsurity after the Most Sainted and Most Worderful Thatcher Hilda lady got into office. The ‘corbynistas’ of those days became apoplectic, spat into their Free Beer, beer, and made all sorts of funny gurgling noises….lol

  • MrUnclevanya

    UK Liarbor Party, Lefty Luvvies, Socialists, maoists, Pol-Pot-its and those of that ilk really must stop quaffing vast quantities of Cillit Bang, Toilet Duck and cans of Brasso!!

  • boiledcabbage

    How can relatively brilliant people like Brian Eno support such a non-entity?

    • post_x_it

      Brilliant people in the arts have always been peculiarly susceptible to airy fairy ‘progressive’ politics. The reasons are complex and varied.
      I remember an article about this in the Spectator not long ago, and unfortunately I can’t seem to locate it in the archive. I think it was written by Peter Phillips and his theory (specifically in relation to musicians) was that until quite recently they were effectively bonded serfs who depended on the patronage of a monarch or wealthy aristocrat and therefore sided with the underdog when the revolution came.