His speech at last night's rally was staggeringly ineptby / June 28, 2016 / Leave a comment
After work last night, I wandered down to Parliament Square to see the pro-Jeremy Corbyn rally. I went along curious and with an open mind, I hope. I joined Labour as a student in 1999—recruited, as it happens, by prominent Corbyn supporter Richard Burgon MP—but left after the Iraq War. Since then no leader—not Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband—had impressed me much. When Corbyn was elected leader last year, my interest in Labour was reignited. I live in the constituency next to him and knew he was an excellent local MP; he seemed principled, unafraid to back unpopular but noble causes like the plight of refugees; and I understood the members’ urge to sweep away the half-baked careerists standing against him for the leadership. Part of me hoped that, like the unfancied Emperor Claudius, he would be dragged unwillingly to power and then grow into the role. Perhaps he wouldn’t conquer Britain, as Claudius did, but he might nudge the centre of gravity further leftwards.
That hasn’t happened—and last night’s rally showed part of the reason why. In his speech, the Leader of the Opposition displayed a staggering ineptitude. Through its own hubris, the Tory government has led the country over the top into Brexitland. There is a constitutional crisis. There will be more austerity. The markets are tumbling. There might be a recession. The world is looking at us with bemusement and frustration. The country is rudderless. Yet Corbyn did not talk about any of these issues at all. The words European and Union did not pass his lips. He simply repeated the same stump speech he gave when running for leader: welcome refugees, worry about inequality, oppose the Tories. Fine sentiments that have never felt more hollow and unachievable.
Corbyn’s problem, it seems to me, is his barnacle-like passivity. He sees himself as a vehicle of other people’s hopes—a prophet of the ignored. To compromise or box clever, to set traps for his opponents or make unexpected alliances—in other words to do politics—means betraying his people’s dreams. Emotionally, as much as intellectually, he cannot countenance this. His colleagues seem to realise this—hence the countless resignations, by no means all from the right of the party. (Some of these MPs haven’t covered themselves with glory either, by the way, especially a former PPS in the shadow education team Jess Phillips, who wrote a comically illiterate resignation letter.)
Corbyn’s defenders at the rally—“We luv you Jez”; “Sack the Bitterites” read the placards—claim that the rebellion is stopping Labour mounting an effective opposition. It’s all about defending Tony Blair from Chilcot next week, they say. But if Corbyn had showed the charisma and intelligence required of a leader—even just an iota of each—the party would have backed him. Not all of it, but enough. Nothing breeds support like success. And Blair? Being lambasted by Corbyn next week should be the least of his worries.
Parliament Square was about half full, the crowd notably racially mixed, and undoubtedly heartfelt. There were the usual left-wing activists but also mums with their children and students. Some were having terrific fun, booing the Tories and the Blairites, cheering when Corbyn said nice things about the NHS or praised his old girlfriend Diane Abbot standing behind him. One young man, a university student, was telling a friend that it didn’t matter that £2tr had been wiped off the global markets because ordinary people didn’t see that money anyway: it was all for the 1 per cent, he said.
I spoke to one elderly Asian man who said it all went wrong when George Bush invaded Iraq. There has been no justice since then, he told me, and he trusted Corbyn to set things right. This mattered to him. What I wanted to reply was that fighting the last war was pointless: what about the crisis now? And what about Corbyn’s disastrous Syria policy, shaped by Assad apologist Seumas Milne, which is to leave the country to burn? But I said nothing. He was getting emotional and I didn’t want to upset him.
That, I suspect, is how Corbyn feels. How can he give in to his enemies when his supporters still feel so passionately about him? Don’t they deserve to be represented? Yes, they do. But not by Corbyn. When he stopped speaking, most people drifted away to local pubs to face the disappointment of the football. I walked past the statue of Oliver Cromwell, an English radical who outmanoeuvred his enemies with ruthless skill, and recalled his famous words to the ineffective Rump Parliament in 1653: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” It’s time for Jeremy Corbyn to become a martyr to his cause.