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100 days of Jeremy Corbyn: It's a little early to tell

The most a historian can say confidently about Corbyn at this moment is that he is a polarising figure. 

When political historians think of a leader’s first hundred days, they think of FDR and his blizzard of New Deal legislation, designed to repair the American economy in the midst of the Great Depression. The first hundred days has become a political cliché, used to assess not only the effectiveness of political leadership but also its style and tone. In the 1964 election campaign, Harold Wilson promised 100 days of dynamic action: in reality, his tiny majority curtailed any radical changes, and his first three months were mostly spent trying to sort out Britain’s balance of payments problem. Perhaps mindful of this lesson, Tony Blair rejected any talk about the magic hundred days before the election; nevertheless, by the end of August 1997, he had granted independence to the Bank of England, offered more constitutional freedoms to Scotland and Wales, and banned handguns, among a number of other reforms.

Of course, Jeremy Corbyn has not been in government for the last hundred days, but has instead been leading a Labour party shell-shocked after a largely unforeseen Conservative victory. It was far from clear that Corbyn would win the leadership election, and when he did there seemed to be few plans in place to manage the party’s transition into its new identity. Whilst Corbyn seems to have managed to maintain a significant body of supporters, with Labour party membership at its highest point since 1997, the opinion polls seem to show that many, even within his own party, do not think that he would make an effective prime minister.

At the moment, Corbyn’s first hundred days are hard to call. Were his cabinet appointments a sincere and principled attempt to reduce the power and influence of the ‘big four’ positions, or a failure to understand that a lack of women in top posts would be perceived as a dismissal of gender issues? Of course, the press furore about his ‘disrespectful’ bow at the Cenotaph was ridiculous (and echoed previous manufactured hysteria at Michael Foot’s donkey jacket, reputedly much admired by the Queen Mother): but could his principled refusal to sing the national anthem, and the will-he-won’t-he issue of the Privy Council, have been handled better? The Syria debate highlighted divisions in the Labour party, but Corbyn’s decision to allow a free vote was vindicated by the 152 Labour MPs who voted against airstrikes; whilst Hilary Benn may have received plaudits for his oratory in favour of bombing, it is not overly cynical to point out that it is easy to convince people that you are a great speaker whilst you are telling them something that they want to hear. Ideological divisions at this stage do not necessarily harm leaders in the longer term; Blair lost his initial fight to scrap Clause IV at the party conference inside his first three months, but went on to win the battle the next year.

It is hard to get a handle on what the country thinks of Corbyn, and there is no consensus among the British media. On the right, he has been cast both as a dictatorial ideologue and a dithering ineffective leader. Of course, there are also those who perceive him as a man of principles and courage, who could return Labour to its mythic, authentically left-wing past (and thus undo the apparent trend of Labour leaders being significantly less left-wing than much of the grassroots membership). The most a historian can say confidently about Corbyn at this moment is that he is a polarising figure. The historical narrative will be shaped by how long he holds on to the leadership, and whether he contests a general election – and, of course, the result; Gordon Brown’s first hundred days as leader, when he enjoyed support from media and public alike, are now a footnote to the election loss in 2010. If Corbyn leads the Labour party to victory, these last few months will be poured over far less than his first hundred days as Prime Minister. 

Charlotte Riley is lecturer in Twentieth Century British History at the University of Southampton.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.