He has not changed his mind in 30 years. That is rigidity, not consistencyby Philip Collins / February 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Jeremy Corbyn conundrum is best explained by Thomas More’s only recorded joke. The title of More’s Utopia is a play on Greek words. Does More mean eutopia, the good society, or outopia, nowhere, the impossible society? It is the challenge to every socialist dreamer that ever was. Can they really imagine the nation voting for their revolutionary nirvana? The Corbyn of Rosa Prince’s necessarily provisional biography is a man who appears to be heading for the same place whence he came, which is to say nowhere.
The character study written at pace while events are still unfolding is a form that is bound to be unsatisfying. Poised precariously between journalism and scholarship, it can never quite be sure which draft of history it is. At times, Corbyn is too small a figure to bear the weight placed on him. The chapter on Iraq, for example, reads as if it is has been scripted by Spike Milligan: “Iraq—Jeremy Corbyn’s Role in its Downfall.” The text is heavily reliant on a few interviewees of the second rank and Corbyn himself declined to help and apparently encouraged his supporters and friends to be similarly disobliging.
The form, though, is flourishing. There is now a minor cottage industry in the memoirs of attendant lords in politics and instant biographies. Within the inescapable limits of this unpromising genre, Prince has done a fine job. Her prose is pacey but, unlike almost every other similar book, more or less devoid of cliché. The tone is studied and the judgements cool. Her intention is to explain Corbyn and, as someone convinced that he will prove to be the least successful Labour leader since the wretched George Lansbury, I appreciate the intelligent neutrality.
Destination hard left is quite an odd journey to embark on. Clearly, Corbyn does come, as we all do, from somewhere. He lived as a child, always in comfort and sometimes in splendour, in Wiltshire and Shropshire. He comes across as a rather priggish adolescent. In 1966, the England football team was preparing for the World Cup in Lilleshall, a few miles from the grand manor house in which the Corbyn family lived, but there is no sense that young Jeremy so much as looked up from the minutes of the Wrekin Young Socialists. “I can’t remember having a laugh with Jeremy,” says David Mann, his childhood friend. The nearest Corbyn ever seems to have got to a joke is the Early Day Motion he once tabled in Parliament congratulating the House of Commons canteen on an “excellent bean casserole.”
The Corbyn surge was predicated, at least in part, on Corbyn’s refreshingly anti-political demeanour. Prince has therefore pricked the bubble simply by relating the endless political obsession that is the only narrative here. The domination of politics is suffocating enough for the reader, let alone the people in Corbyn’s life. He met his first wife, Jane Chapman, while campaigning for Harold Wilson (the name, incidentally, they gave to their cat). As Chapman later said, laying bare the full extent of the excitement: “He was out most evenings, because when we weren’t at meetings he would go to the Labour headquarters and do photocopying.”
“He just says what is in his head… which is also the most pungent critique of him”
Corbyn’s first two marriages both seem to have been victims of his obsession with politics and the second also of something more disturbing. Throughout the text we hear that Corbyn refuses to compromise. When we arrive at the main drama, the summer of hustings which propelled him to the leadership of his party, this uncompromising adhesion to principle looks like a virtue. In the right light it probably is. But in the wrong circumstances a refusal to compromise is just another way of saying that someone is stubborn to a fault. Corbyn’s second marriage seemed to fall apart because he disapproved of his wife sending his son to a grammar school a few miles from their home. He dislikes academically selective education, and would rather his son had attended a fully comprehensive local school.
This question of unbending principle really is the key to Corbyn. One of Prince’s best chapters is an extended critique of the errors made by the pre-race favourite, Andy Burnham, who seemed to have two opinions on all those topics on which he didn’t have three. Until she decided to attack Corbyn, Yvette Cooper was a split-the-difference politician, liable to say that she would quite like a coffee but wanted to say a word for the pleasure of drinking tea. By contrast, Corbyn just said what was in his head.
Which is also the most pungent critique of him and it is present between the lines throughout. Margaret Hodge, who as a former leader of Islington council knows Corbyn well, is quoted as saying that a speech Corbyn gave in 2015 was the same as one she had heard 30 years earlier. He appears to have changed his mind on little, if anything, during that time. Prince quotes a friend who says that Corbyn’s trip to Jamaica with Voluntary Services Overseas at the age of 18 (he seems to have been the only person in history to manage a year in Jamaica without smoking anything) helped to arrest his intellectual development: “I personally have always seen Jeremy as a Peter Pan figure, just not a grown-up.”
Surely that is not intellectual consistency. It is highly suspicious rigidity. To have precisely the same views in 2015 as one held in 1983 is bad enough. For them to be a replay of the Labour Party manifesto of 1983 is worse still. David Mann rather unkindly says “Jeremy never struck me as the brain of Britain.” Indeed, his academic record is undistinguished. After 2 Es at A-Level he briefly followed a course in Trade Union Studies at the Polytechnic of North London, before abandoning formal study altogether.
The only acquaintance with ideas as a source of pleasure, rather than a political weapon, is Corbyn’s brief attendance at a seminar known as the Independent Left Corresponding Society, held at Tony Benn’s house in Holland Park for Ralph Miliband, Perry Anderson, Tariq Ali and Andrew Glynn, the economist. Even at this gathering, Corbyn was reported as not really saying much.
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The rigidity of his views might be partially redeemed if, as an elected politician, his opinions had ever commanded wide support. This will become the central question of his leadership. Is he heading for a good place, with a battalion in tow, or is he marching nowhere, with a small band of brothers? The auguries are not good. About Neil Kinnock’s leadership Corbyn said, irrelevantly, “People are saying that the job of the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] is to go for the middle suburban vote, but the Campaign Group must be there on the picket lines, and at the workplace level.” Just before the 1997 election, Corbyn warned his party there was a danger of upsetting their core vote and losing the election. Labour was, at that point, on 60 per cent in the polls. For the moment, enough people regard Corbyn’s views as refreshing for him to remain in place. Yet it is becoming apparent that he holds opinions on defence, immigration and welfare, for example, that are a long way from the main thoroughfare of British politics. He comes across, for the most part, as sweet and thoughtful in Prince’s account but utopian and naive.
There are two significant exceptions to this benign verdict. The first is the set of
judgements that Corbyn makes about foreign policy. Long ago, I was a member of the Labour Party in Corbyn’s constituency and watched him perform at a series of arcane management committee meetings. I can confirm the testimony of almost every witness in Prince’s biography. Corbyn is indeed a courteous man, although that too raises the second reservation, to which I shall return. No, it was not how he said what he said that gave us pause. It was what he was saying.
It was a rare occasion when Corbyn wanted to talk about national domestic politics. Beyond a few trite nostrums about defending the rights of the workers he appears to have no specialist interest in healthcare or education. The subject that exercises him is foreign policy, on which he manages to be either wrong or hopelessly ineffective, having chosen the utopian path of the protestor rather than the power politician. The best example of all these tendencies is one place where, due to geographical proximity, Corbyn managed a walk-on part.
It is very hard to avoid the verdict, after Prince’s excellent chapter on Ireland, that Corbyn should have been more aware of the violence of those he was associating with. From the beginning of his time in Parliament, Corbyn’s willingness to identify himself with the Republican cause set him apart from most of his colleagues. Corbyn’s defence of his conduct, which included his invitation to Gerry Adams to launch a book in the House of Commons, was that these talks led to the peace process.
The claim is almost too risible to be taken seriously. Prince has interviewed the distinguished historian Paul Bew: “He [Corbyn] was to a large degree irrelevant. He was so far out there. Everyone knew to keep a distance from Corbyn.” The eventual settlement in Northern Ireland was predicated on self-determination by consent but Corbyn had always taken the Sinn Féin line that the troops should leave unconditionally. As Bew rather caustically says, Corbyn has never really grown out of singing Irish protest songs in north London pubs. An anonymous source from the security services has told Prince: “I think he was very naive, Jeremy Corbyn. It’s easy to look across [from England] and not have any depth of know ledge about it all.”
“On the wedding day of Prince William and Kate Middleton, Corbyn told viewers to watch Russia Today”
There are areas, notably Latin America, where Corbyn’s knowledge is greater but it never, alas, extends as far as wisdom. He cannot see a country without making the wrong people his ally, as his support for the egregious Hugo Chávez in Venezuela amply shows. On the day of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011, Corbyn caught the public mood by recommending viewers “Try Russia Today. Free of royal wedding and more objective on Libya than most.” It is telling that Corbyn’s notion of objectivity comes from the television station owned and run from Moscow by the Russian state. At the time of writing, the reports that President Vladimir Putin was behind the murder, in Britain, of one of his political opponents has drawn no comment at all, let alone a condemnation, from Corbyn.
Perhaps we should be thankful that, in 30 years of political protest, Corbyn has no achievements to his name at all. He is not really interested in the world outside. That is why all his causes are things he has no capacity to change. He is interested not in change but in politics. The anti-political candidate turns out to have no motivation other than politics. Change demands compromise and intellectual flexibility, qualities Corbyn does not have. What he has instead is an incredible tenacity, consistency and patience to stay in the room when everyone else has given up.
“The idea that an MP is elected under a party banner and that he might owe some degree of loyalty to that institution appears alien to Corbyn”
That really is the key to the politics of the left-wing factions which are, inevitably, relayed at some length. The mood that obtrudes is the pervasive intolerance that threatens Corbyn’s image as an all-round teddy bear. As Philip Harris, who knew of Corbyn’s seeming involvement in trying to drive moderates out of a constituency Labour Party back in the day says now: “This is where the nice guy bit slightly frays at the edges. Although he wouldn’t be personally nasty to people, he would be part of whipping up an atmosphere of hostility.” During the dreadful battles of the 1980s, Corbyn could be relied upon to be on the wrong side, the utopians that were leading Labour to oblivion rather than the practical radicals. In 1981, Corbyn was a member of Hornsey constituency when the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee refused to permit Tariq Ali to join on the grounds that he had recently been a member of a rival hard left party, the International Marxist Group. The battle got very nasty but Corbyn remained steadfast behind Ali’s right to join, even issuing him a membership card in defiance of the NEC ruling.
Later on, when he had become the initially reluctant MP for Islington North, rebellion hardened into a habit for Corbyn who became the MP most likely to rebel against his own party in government in the 1997-2001 parliament and then again between 2001 and 2005. Over 13 years of Labour government, Corbyn defied the Labour whip 428 times. The idea that an MP is elected under a party banner and that he might owe some degree of loyalty to that institution appears alien to Corbyn. His loyalty was owed to his own conscience and nothing else. Whether you regard him as a hero or a nuisance rather depends on the stance you take on utopian politics. It will, though, make it all but impossible for him, as leader of the Labour Party, to call up his own authority as a means of disciplining his backbenchers.
It is already as clear as it can be that Corbyn is horribly ill-suited to the task of leadership. He surely knows it himself. One of Prince’s best revelations can stand as a metaphor for this strange, eventful history. As Corbyn was watching his friend John McDonnell speak, as Shadow Chancellor, to the Labour Party conference he texted his ex-girlfriend Diane Abbott to say, “Can you believe me, you and John are here?” No, Jeremy, you and me both.
There is no precedent for a politician languishing in obscurity on the backbenches and then turning out to be a strangely hidden genius. The paradox of this biography is that Corbyn is more interesting as the title of a political phenomenon than he is as a political figure. There is every likelihood that this first biography will also be the last. Rosa Prince has invented and completed the subject. It is more than likely that Corbyn is, as he clumsily puts it in the media interviews he hates so much, going nowhere.