‘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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