Comrade Corbyn: a morality tale, of sorts

Stephen Bush reviews Rosa Prince's biography of Jeremy Corbyn. 

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Jeremy Corbyn is responsible for the worst meal I have ever eaten in my life. A month after the Islington North MP got on to the Labour leadership ballot at the last minute, a good friend was celebrating his birthday party at a restaurant in central London. The same day, I’d published details on the Staggers blog of not one, but two private surveys putting Corbyn in a commanding position in the race for the leadership.

It was a mixed gathering, but dominated by Labour people. Some were supporters of Yvette Cooper – who thought my story was a fix by Liz Kendall’s campaign to hurt their candidate. Others were backing Kendall – and thought the private poll was a ruse by Cooper to knock out her female rival. A few were supporters of Andy Burnham – who weren’t sure who’d made up the story, but were certain it had been done to do them harm. Comments ranged from the awkward to the openly hostile, but had one thing in common: disbelief.

Two months later, Corbyn was elected leader in a landslide, in an election that few had prepared for, predicted, or expected. Although all three defeated candidates were surrounded by a constellation of friendly journalists, any of whom might have written a biography in their sleep, Corbyn disdains personality politics and has cultivated few contacts in the press. In writing Comrade Corbyn, therefore – the first in-depth biography of the man, Rosa Prince faced a double challenge, demanding first-class detective work as well as a rapid turnaround. In the hands of many other writers, the result would have been a rush job, with poor insight and worse prose. But after over a dozen interviews with the leader’s friends and opponents (he himself would not speak to her), she has produced an accomplished study and the most lucid explanation yet of the Labour Party’s present state.

Corbyn’s rise bears all the hallmarks of a Victorian morality tale: here is an Anglo-Saxon work ethic coupled with unfailing politeness. If he weren’t so courteous, his neighbouring MPs David Lammy and Emily Thornberry – who share constituency borders but not his politics – would never have put him on the ballot.

Corbyn’s good manners seem to spring from his comfortable home life, “a middle-class boy born to highly unlikely socialists”, David Corbyn, an engineer, and Naomi Josling, a scientist, who lived in a house that Prince describes as being “so posh that it doesn’t have a number, just a name”. David and Naomi were unlikely bohemians in the Wrekin, the Shropshire constituency where the young Corbyn got his first taste of political organisation, helping to arrange campaign volunteers for Gerald Fowler, the Labour candidate who won the seat in 1966. That was the last time that Corbyn celebrated a Labour victory without caveats – he rapidly became disillusioned with the government of Harold Wilson, and its perceived unwillingness to criticise the United States over the Vietnam War.

Courtesy may have got Corbyn on to the leadership ballot but without hard work he wouldn’t have won once he was in the race. After flunking his exams (he is the least academically distinguished of the Corbyn brothers) he discovered his real talents – hard graft and political organisation – as an organiser for the tailors’ union. The figure who emerges from Comrade Corbyn is not someone with a grand theory of the state of Britain or the world, but a tireless worker.

As Lammy, the most thoughtful and quotable of the interviewees here, puts it, Corbyn’s ability to reach beyond the Labour Party to the wider left is down to how, though the story has faded from the news and the battle seems lost, he is “still there”, marching, speaking, working. Indeed, he is “still there” in the Commons though he is past retirement age.

But the question Prince raises most interestingly is: was he waiting? As she shows in the most gripping section of the book, his victory in the leadership race is not the first time that he has surprised his opponents.

By 1983, when he was selected to stand as Labour’s candidate in Islington North, the seat had been at the centre of a battle for power for close to a decade. His predecessor Michael O’Halloran owed his position to the influence of the Catholic Church, then a power player in Labour politics, but was a lacklustre representative. He spoke just twice in the Commons in a 14-year career, and new local activists who were less deferential to the Church, and less tolerant of their absentee landlord of an MP, had been trying desperately to get rid of him.

By the time they succeeded, all of the key players in the deselection had been forced to disavow any interest in the seat – leaving Corbyn, then living in Haringey, a free run at it. How did it happen? He was seen, as Toby Harris recalls, as a “24-hours-a-day driven” politician – someone who sacrificed all interests and free time in the service of politics – but a back-room boy, not a candidate for office. Yet his seizure of the seat surprised his allies as much as his opponents.

Frustratingly, Prince leaves unanswered the question of whether Corbyn is a principled workhorse or more cunning than many of his detractors and starry-eyed supporters believe. She gives us a better idea of what he did and where he came from than any other writer has done so far, but we never quite get inside his head. His thoughts, concerns and motivations remain a mystery.

When, and how, did Corbyn go from being a man who returned borrowed books unread to being a fan of Ben Okri? Across three decades, his focus on politics lets one marriage founder, and then a second, not out of rancour, but from neglect. Even Diane Abbott, no stranger to the fray, finds him a little too intense. Then we learn that during the leadership race, he was incandescent at the perceived intrusion of a relatively minor story about his third and current wife (the Mail on Sunday claimed that her coffee-importing company was exploiting its Mexican growers). Clearly, the passage of years changed Corbyn – but when?

That we never quite get to know the man is one of two blemishes on the book. The second concerns Northern Ireland. Steve Richards wrote of Tony Blair that he “was not an expert on Iraq when he backed President Bush’s war, but he was a world specialist on why Labour lost in the 1980s”. The lesson he took was that, for Labour to win, it had to march in lockstep with US presidents. Corbyn was not then and is not now an expert on Northern Ireland, but he was an expert in the balance of power in the London Labour Party, and Northern Ireland ran right through it. It led him to stand shoulder to shoulder with terrorists and for John McDonnell, his closest ally, to call on activists to use “the ballot, the bullet and the bomb” to secure a unified Ireland. Just as Blair’s war in Iraq – and Gordon Brown’s pact with the financial services – eventually brought about a political Waterloo for Blair, Corbyn and McDonnell sooner or later will reap a terrible price for their relationship with the IRA.

Yet the sections on Northern Ireland, rather than explaining the motivation of Corbyn or his allies, is devoted to probing the question of whether his meetings with the IRA contributed to the peace process. The author concludes, rather unsurprisingly, that they did not. It is a measure of Prince’s success, however, that it is difficult to see another book doing better where this one falls short – unless she herself decides to write a second volume in 2020.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war