Book review: Comrade Corbyn
There were two political shocks in Britain in 2015 – the Tories being able to form a majority government and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. In retrospect both were possible given the circumstances and the electorate.
Rosa Prince is a political journalist who cut her teeth as part of the Telegraph team that broke the 2009 MPs expenses scandal. She is thus fondly remembered by MPs of that generation! Instant biographies nearly always suffer from the weakness of being based on selective interviews, hearsay, and newspaper articles and profiles. This is no exception although Prince has made a valiant effort to find out what makes Corbyn tick.
The man himself refused to cooperate – like his mentor Tony Benn he doesn’t do “personal” except of course both do. Members of his family, friends, colleagues and critics have been prepared to talk. But Corbyn has denounced the biography because it is “riddled with inaccuracies”.
Is there some missing part of the Jeremy Corbyn life which can explain his overwhelming victory over the other leadership candidates? In retrospect there is and it is rather crucial. In nineteen years as an MP your reviewer came across Corbyn on a number of occasions in Parliament, sharing with him an interest in foreign affairs and defence policy, although not from the same perspective - he seemed all too frequently to support or apologise for some rather unsavoury organisations.
He came across as a very committed, focused activist who was polite and pleasant. He didn’t seem a natural parliamentarian and was a key member of Labour’s awkward squad.
What Rosa Prince achieves is a documentation of Corby’s political life – he has few interests outside politics and his family. A lot has been made of his middle class and “privileged” background by many commentators and opponents, but more significant was he came from an activist Labour family and his brother Piers is cut from the same cloth.
Corbyn became a member of the Labour Party aged sixteen and was radicalised by VSO work in Jamaica. He wasn’t qualified to go to university and there is a suggestion of arrested development. Apart from newspapers, pamphlets and some books his thoughts are based upon his experience of activism, campaigning and listening to others in the so-called Corresponding Society led by Tony Benn.
You get the impression form this book that Corbyn’s “world view” had been established by the time he had become an MP in 1983. His core beliefs which give him a coherent political outlook remain to help the underprivileged, a belief in the universal welfare state and the promotion of peace and human rights on a global scale. His campaigning and political opinions came together in the socialist milieu of north London in Haringey, Islington and Hackney which gained a reputation in the 1970s and 1980s of being a home to the “looney left”.
Throughout his political life Corbyn has displayed a talent to avoid confrontation but let others do the business and support them – his great friend and ally John McDonnell relishes that role. His marriages have suffered from his political commitments and he has been happy to live an austere existence, oblivious to personal possessions including clothes. No hobbies apart from working on his allotment, and no intellectual curiosity beyond his Marxist/Socialist world vision which includes anti-Americanism, pro-Palestinian and pro IRA beliefs.
There can be no criticism of Corbyn as a constituency MP. At his best he actively supports local people and at his worst campaigning for a wide range of hard left causes which in some cases undermine democracy.
Elected to Parliament in 1983, he joined the hard left Socialist Campaign Group, backing Heffer rather than Kinnock for the leadership. He defended Militant and wanted to overthrow rather than reform capitalism. Throughout his parliamentary career he has formed, along with a few like minded colleagues, a mini opposition within the PLP. Between 1997 and 2010 he voted against the Labour government in 428 votes.
In fact not only did Corbyn have little in common with Labour ministers but little in common with the majority of Labour backbenchers. Corbyn was not seduced by parliament, he is not clubbable and has few parliamentary close friends.
Corbyn took over from Tony Ben and kept a high profile amongst all the hard left campaigning groups outside Parliament. By the time of the 2015 election Corbyn was “clean”. He had never made any compromises with either the Blair or Brown governments, had consistently voted against the Iraq War and welfare cuts and was untouched over the parliamentary expenses scandal.
Rosa Prince is particularly good at describing how almost by chance Corbyn became the candidate of the left for the leadership and the momentum he gained through a widespread rejection by many Labour Party members of the “establishment” candidates and the influx of the new Momentum membership.
Corbyn’s decades of working amongst so many campaigning groups and his anti-establishment image gave him momentum. His supporters were enthusiastic, used social media, and knew what they wanted – and it wasn’t any of the other leadership candidates and what they represented.
So the crisis for the Labour Party is a leader swept into office by a newly enlarged membership, supported by the Unions, but alienated from the majority of the PLP. Looking back on this account of Jeremy Corbyn one is struck by how his “world view” gives him a certainty and coherence, and throughout his career he has shown determination and grit when he decided on a course of action.
Corbyn is no woolly thinking sandal wearing, tree hugging leftie. His core beliefs are founded on Marxist – Leninism and he intends changing the Labour Party and then the country.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland. Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup is published by Biteback.