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The rebel’s revenge: Corbyn has created the conditions for Labour to win again

These are new times, as we keep saying. Now to try to understand them.

Just before Christmas, I spent a day in Prague with Jeremy Corbyn and his entourage. Corbyn was a speaker at a conference of European socialist parties and he turned out to be the star turn: everywhere we went in the communist-era conference hall he was received with adulation by young activists of many different nationalities who were eager to have selfies taken with him. His charming wife, Laura, and I looked on as the Labour leader bantered and chuckled and generally had a good time.

As the pale winter light faded on a cold day we drove into northern Bohemia, where we visited Terezín, the site of a Nazi concentration camp and a Jewish ghetto. It was a harrowing experience, and on the return journey Corbyn seemed subdued as we discussed the challenges ahead.

Earlier in the afternoon, Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s chief strategist, revealed that he had a plan: in the New Year Corbyn would be “relaunched” as an unashamed radical populist, in the style of Bernie Sanders or, indeed, Donald Trump. Good luck with that, I thought, and returned to London more convinced than ever that Corbyn – whom I likened to a Prince Myshkin-style holy innocent or fool – would lead Labour to defeat.

Nothing I heard when I spoke to Labour MPs during the campaign changed my mind. They were fearful and expected to lose badly: and yet they did not. “Corbynism was never about Jeremy,” one of his closest allies told me this week. “It still isn’t. It is about policy! We should now draw inspiration and deploy our creativity to push out everywhere – Kensington shows there are no no-go areas.”

Yet without Corbyn, Corbynism would not have been possible. He has been misunderstood and underestimated: these are new times, as we keep saying. Now to try to understand them.

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I first interviewed Corbyn in the heady summer of 2015 when he was campaigning to be Labour leader. He had begun the contest of four as the 100-1 outsider but something was stirring when we met in a café close to Euston station in central London.

We had an animated 44-minute conversation (I had been promised 30 minutes) and then Corbyn left to catch a train to Bristol but missed it because, I was told later, he was mobbed by well-wishers on the station concourse. My colleague Xan Rice headlined my subsequent piece “Time of the rebel”.

​***

The Corbyn leadership can be divided into three distinct phases, I think. Corbyn 1 was the outsider who emerged from the Bennite wilderness to capture the Labour Party and promise a socialist transformation. This Corbyn was the radical campaigner familiar from a long career of backbench agitation; a serial rebel who could never command the respect of his parliamentary colleagues.

The Labour civil war had begun. Yet this was also a time of euphoria for the left, as Labour began to reinvent itself as a mass-membership, anti-neoliberal movement. Young people, who knew little of the IRA and the political conflicts of the 1980s and cared even less, were enraptured by Corbyn’s rhetoric and sincerity. Corbyn 1 unlocked forces long repressed on the left which perhaps even he didn’t fully understand.

​***

Corbyn 2 was embattled, the head of a dysfunctional opposition party and under daily assault in the media. Supported by a cabal of hardened left-wingers as well as the Unite super-union, this Corbyn failed to unite his party or persuade his detractors.

He had never run anything apart from his constituency office and it showed. The Labour Party became a standing joke. Even his early left-wing media cheerleaders – George Monbiot, Zoe Williams, Owen Jones, Caitlin Moran – abandoned or denounced Corbyn. (They are cheering now.)

Yet bolstered by John McDonnell and Diane Abbott and supported by some of the emerging younger MPs such as Angela Rayner, Corbyn 2 survived.

He was a long-standing Eurosceptic, and so his leadership in the EU referendum campaign was lacklustre. There followed a botched coup by the PLP to oust him and another period of chaotic party management. But he stayed on to contest a general election from which Theresa May complacently expected to emerge with a 100-seat majority or better.

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Corbyn 3 is today’s triumphant populist leader who, after inspiring a sensational campaign turnaround, is unassailable in the party. His enemies and detractors in the PLP have fallen silent or into line behind him.

The armies of online Corbynites boast about slaying the beasts of the MSM (mainstream media) and abuse anyone who dares to remind them that Labour did not win the election.

However, Corbyn 3 has created the conditions for optimism and national transformation. As I write, these are two of the newspaper headlines in front of me: “Austerity is over, May tells Tories” (the Times); “Tories and Labour hold secret talks on soft Brexit” (Daily Telegraph).

Tory triumphalism has been silenced and so have the independence-fixated Scottish nationalists. There is now no majority for a “hard” Brexit in the Commons, nor in the country. The new buzz phrases are “open Brexit” (Ruth Davidson) and “sane Brexit” (Andrew Adonis). One wishes someone might consider “No Brexit”.

In one of the most poignant moments in all of Shakespeare, King Lear, close to death, speaks of having been “bound upon a wheel of fire”. Jeremy Corbyn has been abused and traduced. He has correctly been held to account for the idiocies of his past associations and default oppositionism.

Along the way, he has also changed and been more flexible and pragmatic than most thought possible. His patience and resilience are perpetual. You could say he has been bound on a wheel of fire. He has come full circle and he is still here, still leader of what is now a revitalised Labour Party. This indeed is the time of the rebel. Call his the rebel’s revenge.

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 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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