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Corbyn at Glastonbury, more Brexit variations, and why it's too late for goodbyes

What the Labour leader has at present, the party should bottle – a sense of hope.

Is there another contemporary British political leader who could have enchanted a crowd as Jeremy Corbyn did the hipsters and hippies at Glastonbury last weekend? Perhaps only Tony Blair in his “a new dawn has broken” pomp? The adulation did not last long for Blair. Less than a year after he became prime minister and with the cult of Cool Britannia already tarnished, the NME, then still an influential magazine respected for the quality of its writing and its political seriousness, turned on the Labour prime minister in an issue of March 1998, the cover line of which was: “Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Blair, like Corbyn, had courted the youth vote. He spoke at the Brit Awards and, like Corbyn during the election campaign, chose to be interviewed in the NME. But the music paper was unhappy about the advent of tuition fees (introduced at £1,000 per year), the absence of drug reform and the introduction of welfare-to-work, which would have forced unemployed musicians to take any job after six months. So it took its revenge on Blair, prefiguring how, in time, he would be perceived more generally by those who were alienated by the Iraq War and the excesses of the later New Labour years. The seeds of Corbynism were planted a long time ago, it seems. Et ego in Arcadia vixi.

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Corbyn’s Glastonbury speech was cheery enough but essentially banal, as if scripted by a latter-day Chauncey Gardiner. He mocked Donald Trump (always a good idea), praised his host (Michael Eavis, the farmer on whose land the cash-generating festival takes place), spoke of the need for togetherness and for bridges to be built instead of walls, and recited a few lines from “The Masque of Anarchy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the left’s favourite public-school Romantic-radicals.

All of this led to his being received with a kind of rapture. (Imagine Theresa May, Philip Hammond or David Davis in the same setting.) What struck me above all else was how happy and chipper Corbyn seemed, in his open-necked, untucked blue shirt and white chinos. He loves posing for selfies and he genuinely likes meeting people, especially those who share his convictions. This seems to be in striking contrast to the Prime Minister who, as the novelist Robert Harris tweeted at the height of the Grenfell crisis, seems comfortable only with fellow card-carrying Conservatives or people in uniform.

At present, Corbyn radiates a saintly aura: he has suffered, his detractors inside and outside the PLP have been humiliated, and he has endured. The students love him. He has inspired many to believe that the future can be socialist, if only in one non-EU country.

The substance of what he says, as in the Glastonbury address, may not stand up to much scrutiny but he says it with conviction and dogged persistence. And he is gloriously unafraid. What Corbyn has at present Labour should bottle – because he conveys a sense of hope when many are feeling hopeless. Young people in particular believe him and in him, or at least they seem to want to. The harder tests lie ahead, of course – such as settling on a coherent Brexit strategy for Labour, when Corbyn is a Brexiteer who leads a party of Remainers. But, hey, that can wait – for at least six months, because by then, as Corbyn is reported to have told Eavis, the Labour leader will be prime minister. For now, as Chic’s Nile Rodgers also put it while performing at Glastonbury, let’s enjoy the good times.

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More Brexit variations. One I neglected to mention last week was of course our glorious leader’s appeal for a “red, white and blue Brexit”. Thank you to Helen Lewis for reminding me of that one: how could I have forgotten? As for Mrs May, today it is unfortunately, for her, a case of “never glad confident morning again” – especially so when you compare her former authority, when she had the wind at her back and the Mail was in full flow denouncing “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people”, with her present diminished status as she scrambles to hold on to power in alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party.

Elsewhere, the Spectator’s James Forsyth has tweeted about what he bafflingly called a “full fat Brexit”, while a group of Labour MPs led by Chuka Umunna has warned against the pursuit of a “hard-right Brexit”. I’m grateful to our alert correspondent Nigel Lack (see Correspondence, page 11) who, during last week’s BBC Question Time (no longer essential viewing for me) heard reference to a “legal Brexit”, an “illegal Brexit”, a “collective Brexit” and a “tolerable Brexit”. Keep them coming, please.

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Last week I mentioned the John Lennon song “Nobody Told Me”, which I said was popularised by his son Julian. It seems I got this wrong. Rob Burley, the editor of The Andrew Marr Show and the man who belatedly nudged me into joining Twitter seven years after most of my colleagues, has been in touch to say that Julian never recorded it. (Rob is a renowned Beatleist and was a quiz machine maestro back in his student days.) Rather it was recorded but left incomplete before Lennon was murdered in 1980.

The song was completed in 1983 by Yoko Ono and released in 1984, the same year Julian Lennon released his debut single, “Too Late for Goodbyes”, which reached number six in the UK singles chart. I remember well both “Nobody Told Me” and “Too Late” and somehow contrived to believe they were ­recorded by the same person, which is most peculiar, mamma. Perhaps “Too Late for Goodbyes” would also work just as well as “Nobody Told Me” as part of the soundtrack to the Brexit debacle? As I said before, these are strange days indeed. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.