The choice of two punctuation marks is deliberate – the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader just over a week ago was both a shock (well at least compared with what the pundits were saying at the start of the leadership race) and raises some interesting question. Numerous political journalists, politicians past and present and the great British public have already weighed in. So following the crowd, here for what it’s worth (£3 perhaps – the cost of affiliating to the Labour party and securing a vote in the leadership election) are my thoughts on the success and future of the Corbynistas.
In essence I think there is a lot right with Corbyn’s victory and his persona as a party leader, while some of his policies are plain wrong. So what’s there to like about the man?
Firstly it is a blow against the ‘cult of youth’. The tendency in recent times has been for our political parties to elect leaders in their early 40s, who are telegenic, sharp-suited and products of public schools (yay verily posher than PGS), and Oxbridge though admittedly Tim Farron the new Lib Dem leader does not at least fall into the public school/Oxbridge classification. Corbyn by contrast is 66 years old, the product of a state grammar school and briefly attended North London Polytechnic for a year. Lovers of British political history should recall that many of our most famous politicians first became Prime Minister or party leader in their sixties or late fifties: Churchill, Disraeli and Gladstone all spring to mind. Clement Atlee leader of the first ever majority Labour Government following the 1945 election was 62 on taking office. So Corbyn’s victory could be seen as one of experience (albeit entirely backbench) over youth.
Secondly, he is a serial rebel and that’s no bad thing in life or politics, at least in moderation and when undertaken with courtesy and a marked absence of tub thumping rhetoric. The most rebellious among Labour’s MPs in Parliament during the years of New Labour, he has consistently stood and voted for what he has believed in sincerely. No one could ever accuse him of being a political careerist or an opportunist. It is refreshing to see someone elected to a high office who is not part of the political establishment, the bookie’s favourite or selfishly ambitious. Whether that serial rebel can exercise leadership effectively is of course another matter entirely.
Part of the rebelliousness, indeed most of it, stems from his deeply held principles. Like Margaret Thatcher before him, Corbyn is a ‘conviction politician’. He has contrarian views on a wide range of issues: British involvement in foreign wars (he has only just resigned as chair of Stop the War Coalition), the monarchy, privatisation and nuclear weapons to name just a few. Whether you agree with him on these issues or not is beside the point. Full marks for someone who is prepared to defend often unpopular positions on issues that conceal a genuine debate. For my part, I think a proper rational debate about the logicality and affordability of the replacement of the Trident nuclear submarine is long overdue. I lament the apparent consensus among the political establishment for probably wasting vast sums on a weapon that will nothing to make our country safer against the likes of IS or al-Quaeda. But doubtless the political and defence establishment will scaremonger us otherwise….. I also applaud him for not singing the national anthem. As a republican, why should he? As a moderate Christian and monarchist, the lyrics are not problematic for someone like me; for the likes of Corbyn I can see perfectly well why he stood in respectful silence. It wasn’t as if he was playing Candy Crush on his iphone! The lack of tie/matching jacket and trousers are hardly grounds for treason either. Yes, it’s doubtless an image, all clothing is to an extent, but again it is not affected. He is the stereotypical trade unionist/lefty uni lecturer/Trot type: why should he conform to the sartorial norms of others? So, as a man of principles (and as a keen commuter cyclist), he ticks that box too for this author.
Now all that I have written so far could be construed as a ringing endorsement of Corbyn and his policies. That is not the case. He is plain wrong on some of the things I do feel I have some knowledge about, not least his opposition to selective education; comprehensive education represents misguided socialist idealism and social engineering at its absolute worse. I’m also far from convinced that austerity in much of the welfare budget is such a bad thing either. I’m no expert in economics, but I doubt ‘Corbynomics’ will create greater wealth or promote sustainable economic growth. What really excites me though is that we might actually have clear divides and policy debates in the run up to the next election. A triumph of substance over style in political would be a refreshing tonic from political contests that often appear to have more in common with X-Factor or BGT.As a politics teacher, I warmly applaud the result; it makes my job easier and more enjoyable. But in truth I fear that Corbyn’s election will change little despite the opportunity his election has brought. Why?
Firstly, uniquely among modern political leaders he has the active support of only a fraction of his party’s MPs. I just don’t see him turning the PLP (Labour MPs) round to his way of thinking on many issues. New Labour will become the ‘New Rebels’. True, many party leaders face considerable internal opposition which normally grows over time, but Corbyn starts from a uniquely poor starting point. Consider how much trouble he had even putting together his Shadow Cabinet. Secondly, the political establishment will inevitably make him conform more: what odds of a white poppy on parade at Remembrance? Finally, expect no mercy from the right wing media. He will be lampooned, vilified and misrepresented by the tax exiles and ex-pornographer who own the Mail, Telegraph and Express (the Rothermere family, Barclay brothers and Richard Desmond respectively) and only lukewarm support from the left. So will it end in tears? Personally for Corbyn probably yes, but equally I don’t think he’ll be surprised or upset. As a true believer, for him the truth is largely concrete and eternal; opposition and persecution merely proves how scared non-believers are……
Historical comparisons are always interesting up to a point. I have read pieces comparing him to Thatcher (also an outsider when elected and a conviction politician) and to Atlee (Corbyn’s policies now seen as hard left, appear quite mild when compared to the ‘moderate’ Major Attlee) but a comparison with Keir Hardie, first leader of the Labour Party (or more accurately the Labour Representation Committee as it was then called) is perhaps most apposite. Both were anti-establishment figures attached by the Daily Mail, eschewed sartorial norms (Hardie wore a deerstalker hat instead of a topper), were pacifists and sported beards. More importantly as this article (click on link) suggests, both might be entirely right or longsighted with some of their policies but unable or unwilling to comprehend completely where those they are leading or seek to lead, the average British voter, truly stand on many issues. They cannot comprehend their prejudices, selfishness and how they are easily satisfied and diverted by small pleasures – fish and chips/fastfood (George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier claimed that dish helped avert revolution in 1930s Britain), TV soaps/reality TV and social media websites. In such a society, true leftwing populism probably will remain a minority interest regardless of who is leading the Labour Party. Unless of course our economy goes the way of Greece, or if Facebook starts charging…. The people’s flag is palest pink, it’s not as red as you (or Hardie or Corbyn) might think!