ENOCH Powell, writing in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain, said: ‘All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’
Jeremy Bernard Corbyn must be unique in that his political life started in failure as well as ending in failure, with little but failure in between. Corbyn’s normal demeanour seems to reflect this sense of failure; he always looks as though he has just had a custard pie in his face and is trying to maintain a semblance of dignity until it can be cleaned off.
Corbyn was elected to his safe seat of Islington North in the General Election of 1983, the one that saw the massive Conservative landslide under Margaret Thatcher. There is a kind of symmetry then between the beginning and end of his Parliamentary career. The failure continued during the 1980s. This was the decade where socialism nationally and internationally was in full retreat after the high point of the mid-1970s. Occasionally Corbyn would pop up on regional news television to provide ‘balance’, and this is when I first became aware of him. Corbyn was the go-to guy to attack any initiative in London, large or small, that was initiated by business or central government.
In the House of Commons, Corbyn positioned himself to be as far away from the opposition front bench as he could be and still remain in the chamber, a location he seemed to share with George Galloway. The ‘awkward squad’ benches below the gangway, populated by Dennis Skinner and the like, must have seemed to him to be far too conformist. His interventions always appeared deliberately contrarian, as if his socialist viewpoint was consistently the polar opposite of what was being proposed.
Corbyn came to national notoriety when, barely a fortnight after the IRA tried to murder Margaret Thatcher with a bomb planted at Brighton’s Grand Hotel, he invited two convicted IRA terrorists to the House of Commons. He then slipped back into relative obscurity for almost two decades, but never wasted a moment to share his extremist beliefs amongst fellow-travellers; he is an assiduous networker. Corbyn typified the ‘loony-Left’ culture that infested Labour in London, which was a contributory factor in Labour receiving a drubbing in 1987 which was almost identical to that four years previously. For this failure, Corbyn and his kind do have to take responsibility.
Why didn’t then-leader Neil Kinnock expel Corbyn in 1991 as he did Dave Nellist and Terry Fields, who were as extreme as Corbyn? How did Corbyn survive when George Galloway was kicked out of Labour in 2003 by Tony Blair at the height of Gulf War, despite his involvement in the Stop the War coalition? To understand why is to understand Corbyn. He was always The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Corbyn was dreary, his speaking was as dull as ditchwater. He had three main styles, first the soporific monotone when interviewed on camera, to be broken only when interrupted by agitated demands to the interviewer to let him finish speaking. Then there was the speech voice, also used during Prime Minister’s Questions, where he was rarely able to deviate from Seumas Milne’s prepared text. Finally there was his use of emphasis and repetition to make a nebulous point seem specific, as seen at his final turn facing Boris Johnson: ‘I will be around, I will be campaigning, I will be arguing, and I will be demanding justice.’ https://bit.ly/2UBPamb.
It was this vanilla extremism that meant he could associate with numerous Left-wing groupings who are usually at each other’s throats over minute differences of ideology or method. Corbyn was friends to them all by just turning up to meetings but saying very little of significance, as if he were not actually there. But there was a reason for this superficiality. According to his first wife, he hardly read up on the ideology, saying he never read a book while she knew him. Splits are usually about the fine detail of belief. Corbyn did not go into that detail. Left-wing intellectual he was not. He was therefore the natural choice to be chairman in 2011 of the communist front organisation Stop the War Coalition where these ironically warring factions needed a mediator. Nellist and Fields were expelled because they were activists for the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, Galloway for inciting British soldiers to disobey orders. Corbyn never went as far as them.
He did, however associate himself with an organisation called London Labour Briefing which contained elements of Trotskyism, and whose newsletter in the 1980s printed articles with words as extreme as Galloway’s. Kinnock’s problem might have been that the London Labour Party had been hijacked by a hard Left faction that was distinct from Militant, but had been so successful that to purge the extremists would leave a large hole or cause another damaging party split to rival the SDP. Militant was small enough to purge. The London Tendency was too large, having secured control of the GLC. It is noteworthy that Islington resident Tony Blair could look to being a candidate only in seats well outside London, such as Beaconsfield (where he lost in a 1982 by-election) and Sedgefield (where he won in 1983). Sedgefield has now been lost by Labour to the Conservatives, a prime example of Corbyn’s continuing failure.
But it was Corbyn’s blandness that saved him from the ire of Kinnock and Blair. It was also seen as a virtue by those who see this affected ordinariness as quasi-divine. Corbyn tried to project the image of an average man who had been moved by events rather than conviction into taking action. He was not so much a firebrand as a damp squib, and played on this dampness. While he obviously shared the beliefs of the unsavoury regimes and organisations with which he happily associated, he never said so in public. While he willingly shared platforms with numerous extremists the world over, he was only there in body, not in voice, so he could avoid Galloway’s fate. And so because he had few deep associations and said and did little of consequence, he was never expelled. While he had fixed beliefs, he rarely articulated them outside bland platitudes and utopianism. He leveraged his position as an MP amongst activists and little more. When he was at a meeting, he was rarely the most important person in the room.
Another Corbyn tactic was to pretend facts that were inconvenient to his ideology did not exist. So he did not support Russia bombing Syrian hospitals, Hamas murdering Israelis, or Maduro starving Venezuelans by acting as if these did not happen. His so-called engagement in peace processes was actually collaboration for one side, be it the IRA in Ulster or Hamas/Hezbollah in the Middle East.
Not being open and candid saved Corbyn’s career to the point that Labour MPs thought it was safe to donate their nominations to him for leader in 2015, reckoning no one as boring as him could win, while pretending to open the debate about the party’s future after two successive defeats. They did not reckon with Len McCluskey’s support and Ed Miliband’s party reforms which allowed such a rush of extremists into Labour that vetting them all was impossible by back-office staff.
But it was Labour’s failure that propelled Corbyn to the top spot. New Labour could not function in the recession created when its cash cow, the banking sector, foundered, and by 2010 it had lost the intellectual argument by trying to pretend that necessary cuts to services to lower a ballooning deficit were actually ‘savings’. Miliband’s Labour had no credible alternatives to replace Blair’s vision and holed the party below the waterline in 2015. Faced with an ideological vacuum, Labour could only shift further to the Left or abandon socialism altogether in a time of austerity. Corbyn did not win the battle of ideas. The communist playbook is simple, to wait and wait and wait for weakness in institutions and then ruthlessly exploit the collapse. Labour in 2015 had nowhere else to go, as Cameron’s Conservatives had captured their social democratic ground, leaving Labour with rump socialism.
Corbyn’s relative success in the 2017 General Election was also based on institutional weakness, when a Conservative Party which had supported UK membership of the EEC/EC/EU for over half a century was being forced by the voters to reverse course. The resultant chaos of a government in turmoil and an unexpected vote let Labour into numerous seats, but these just marked part of the transition of support for the party from old heartlands to new ones. Labour was failing to hold on to its traditional voters. Corbyn and his supporters misinterpreted this failing as support for his attempt to normalise Marxism.
Corbyn made his brand of revolutionary socialism boring, which was perhaps a way of desensitising the public to its true horror. Because he was always short on detail, it was almost impossible for any interviewer to pin him down and he had a virtual free run at sloganeering. The deliberately unfocused manner of speaking meant that he was rarely caught when being dishonest, being pinned down only on Labour’s structural anti-Semitism, which he enabled, and on laying a wreath for anti-Semitic terrorist murderers while a backbencher. Corbyn hid behind a facade of believing in total equality to equivocate over the gross acts of those regimes and organisations which he supported over the years and with whom he collaborated, blaming all sides in any given conflict rather than the one he supported, a tactic he clearly acquired from Gerry Adams. He came unstuck when Russia blatantly used a weapon of mass destruction on British soil for the second time this century. Faced with having to condemn Putin and Russia in the Commons on live television, the cornered Corbyn tried his usual tactic of equivocation and found it could not save him. It showed to even the most disinterested voter that the man who wanted to be Prime Minister appeared little more than a stooge for interests hostile to this country.
Corbyn demonstrated his unsuitability for the challenges of high office when he tried his equivocation trick during the EU referendum to hide his Bennite opposition to the UK’s membership. He refused to share platforms with politicians from other parties and also his own in the main Remain campaign. Had he not gone AWOL with his own low-intensity unfocused campaigning, this might have tipped the balance and denied a Leave victory. Corbyn also tried to be equivocal and opportunistic as his party split into Leave and Remain camps, which was a disaster for Labour last December. It was a form of moral cowardice, ducking out of making a stand on a personally difficult issue. This compounded on his own deserved unpopularity with the voter which he did nothing to fix during his four years in charge.
And what of Corbyn’s future? I incorrectly speculated that he would have the job of Labour’s Life President or some such, despite the failures, but Corbyn failed to live up to my expectations of authentic socialist leadership. His valedictory defiance means that he might be a permanent embarrassment to Keir Starmer, as it will provide easy copy for a cub journalist to tail Corbyn around the country and use his antics to bash the new Labour leader. While previous retiring leaders have disappeared into obscurity, Corbyn has, in usual contrarian mode, pledged to do the reverse. Failure has not stopped Corbyn in the past and the risk of sabotaging his successor, especially if the party is purged of the entryists he encouraged, may not stop him in the future.