Listen to this article
Jeremy Corbyn, the man at the centre of Britain’s “populist moment”, has achieved the rare feat of enjoying a political honeymoon measured in hours: the brief period between being elected as the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party on September 12 and — in the words of his friend John McDonnell — the “tsunami of sh*t” that quickly engulfed Corbyn and his “new politics”.
Corbyn arrives in Brighton on Saturday for the Labour party’s annual conference and what should be a political triumph. Instead, two weeks after the 66-year-old socialist’s remarkable election, the political death notices are already being prepared and one question is on the lips of those gathering by the English seaside: “How long can he last?”
Britain’s anti-austerity, populist moment has been as chaotic as Corbyn’s critics predicted; two weeks of PR disasters, political comedy, policy reversals and abject apologies. When the new Labour leader addresses his party in Brighton, he faces the challenge of proving that he cannot only get a grip on Britain’s opposition party but that he is a credible future prime minister.
“I’ve been in this movie before,” says one former Labour cabinet minister. “I genuinely fear for the party. It’s that serious.” Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister, has warned that Corbyn will take his party off a cliff; Jon Cruddas, former Labour policy chief, claims Labour risks turning into a “1980s Trotskyist tribute act”. Chris Leslie, the party’s former shadow chancellor, says: “I keep thinking I will wake up and Bobby Ewing will step out of the shower.”
The slight, bearded and beige Corbyn is the worst nightmare of many senior figures in the Labour party: a veteran ban-the-bomb socialist and advocate of higher taxes and spending, a denizen of Westminster’s fringes more likely to be seen at a rally or warming his hands on a picket-line brazier than mingling with fellow MPs. “It’s like he’s just stepped out of a bubble and into the real world,” sighed one Labour MP.
Many other Labour MPs — a substantial number of whom have never even spoken to Corbyn during his 32 years at Westminster — fear that the 115-year-old party of Tony Blair, Harold Wilson, Clement Attlee and Keir Hardie risks becoming a party of protest: an angry voice shouting from the sidelines but never threatening David Cameron’s Conservative party.
“The British public prefer opportunity over privilege and fairness over entitlement, but we are an economically and socially liberal country,” says Peter Mandelson, the architect of three Labour election victories for Blair. “Jeremy will have to drop all traces of his quasi-Marxism if he wants Labour to be elected.”
But while Corbyn may be despised by the Labour establishment, he arrives in Brighton with a huge personal mandate: victory by a clear margin in the contest to succeed Ed Miliband, who quit after Labour’s disastrous defeat in the 2015 general election. It is this split, between Corbyn’s enthusiastic army of grassroots supporters and the sullen ranks of Labour MPs, which makes the situation so volatile. While almost 60 per cent of those who voted in the leadership contest backed Corbyn, he won the support of fewer than 10 per cent of Labour MPs, a far-left clique.
However, Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn and one of those who nominated — but didn’t back — Corbyn, believes he has “energised” a large part of the electorate which was previously disengaged with politics. “A quarter of a million people have spoken and, as a democrat, I respect that. In my area we have had 1,000 new members since he became leader, and most of them are under 30,” she says. “I supported Andy Burnham for leader but Jeremy has created a buzz around politics.”
“We have to give him time to fail and to make it clear to all his supporters that this cannot work,” says one moderate Labour MP. “There can’t be a coup now: we would have blood on our hands.” Supporters of Tony Blair remain ominously silent in the background; elections in Scotland, Wales and London in May 2016 could be a moment of truth for the new leader.
From David Cameron’s point of view, the longer Corbyn stays in the job the better. At their first encounter at prime minister’s questions, Cameron deployed tactical respect to his new opponent, a nod to the “new politics” Corbyn represents and the public’s desire for a less confrontational style in the House of Commons.
“There’s nothing to gloat about,” says Sajid Javid, business secretary. “It’s the election of a serious person. He has shown he can motivate people. We should take him seriously.”
Privately the Tories say something else. “This is proof that God is a Conservative,” says one Cameron ally. The Cameron/Osborne strategy is to hope that Corbyn remains leader as long as possible and that years of leftwing-inspired chaos will cause irreparable damage to the Labour brand.
“We haven’t even started going back through his Morning Star columns,” adds the Cameron friend, referring to the Labour leader’s writing in the far-left newspaper.
Corbyn’s first appearance at prime minister’s question time was therefore a surreal affair; behind him were scores of Labour MPs who would dearly love to get rid of him, in front of him Tory MPs who want to keep him in post for as long as possible. Conservative party managers normally order Tory MPs to create a wall of noise in the chamber — but not this time.
“We told our people to shut up,” says one Conservative whip. “We don’t want to give Corbyn a hard time — we want Labour MPs to own Corbyn. It’s much harder to get our lot to be quiet than to get them to make a noise.”
Osborne is obsessed with the idea of persuading voters that Corbyn is not an aberration, rather that he is the new-look Labour party. Ministers have been told not to even mention Corbyn by name in interviews but to stress that his ideas are in fact Labour ideas. “If you mention Corbyn you get a black mark,” said one Tory insider.
But Corbyn is convinced that he can harness the energy unleashed by his leadership campaign — an intoxicating mix of anti-austerity policies, higher taxes on the rich and an end to British military entanglements abroad — and extend his appeal beyond the Labour left to the public at large.
Graham Brady, a senior Conservative MP, concedes that Corbyn should not be lightly dismissed: “The biggest message in the whole thing is that it’s a further reminder of how very volatile and unhappy large sections of the public are: they don’t like the offer of all mainstream politicians.”
Corbyn straddles a precarious divide between his idealistic supporters and the mainstream views of his parliamentary colleagues. He can take one of two paths and both are fraught with risk. If he sticks to his principles on issues like the abolition of the Trident nuclear deterrent or printing money to fund new roads and schools, he will find himself in conflict with the majority of his MPs.
He could try to tighten his grip on his party at Westminster by attempting to purge his critics — a tactic of the Labour left in the 1980s — packing local parties with his supporters and deselecting those moderate MPs at Westminster who make his life difficult.
If that happens there would be civil war. Tom Watson, Corbyn’s deputy, has already warned the new leader not to go down that path: “Mandatory reselection of MPs . . . is an inherently intolerant mechanism,” he said shortly before Corbyn’s victory. “History has shown it even has the potential to be a destructive and destabilising force.” Watson, who helped to organise a coup for Gordon Brown to topple Blair as Labour leader, is not a man to be messed with.
But the Labour leader is showing some signs of following the second possible path: adjusting his ideals to try to meet his MPs halfway. In his first week in office the man who has never compromised in 32 years at Westminster began showing flexibility: he started to look a bit like a normal politician. While still clearly reluctant to sing the national anthem, he not only finally agreed to wear a red poppy (the symbol to honour Britain’s war dead) but bowed under pressure from moderate colleagues to fight to keep Britain in the EU.
Meanwhile John McDonnell, his political soulmate and the new shadow chancellor, dropped his idea of a 60p top rate of tax and says Corbyn was never serious about leaving Nato. For his part, McDonnell went on television to apologise for his suggestion in 2003 that IRA bombers should be “honoured” for their part in securing a political settlement in Northern Ireland.
But by compromising, the new Labour leader faces danger not just from Labour moderates who want to return to the centre ground but also his friends on the left if he tacks too far. “The right of the party won’t be disappointed in him — we have no expectations of him,” says Conor McGinn, a Labour MP. “It’s the people on the left.”
Peter Mandelson says even compromising will not work if Corbyn remains intent on delivering key policies such as the renationalisation of the railways. “I think his strategy is to sound emollient and consensual, allowing his frontbench to say what they like so as to appear a broad church,” he says. “The public are not going to be taken in by this. He has no interest in mainstream politics. He was elected as a symbol, not as a leader.”
A poll in the Independent newspaper this month found that three in four voters could not imagine Corbyn as prime minister, and that his election as leader has made one in five people who voted for his party at the May general election more likely to vote Conservative next time. Overcoming such problems would challenge the most agile of leaders — and Corbyn has never run anything in his life. “It’s going to go wrong,” says another senior Blairite former minister. “We just don’t know when.”
Earlier this month, Corbyn was in a more familiar and friendlier world. Surrounded by almost 1,000 supporters at a converted North London church, he was not yet Labour leader, but was about to be. Holding court in a sweaty side room he explained his plan to put up taxes on the rich, renationalise swaths of the economy and embark on a money-printing spree to pay for new schools, hospitals and transport. The candidate smiled when asked whether readers of the Financial Times should fear a Labour party led by him.
“They will love the idea of a more equal society,” he told the FT, his tired eyes twinkling. “The poor will be better off and those people who are rich will pay a bit more in tax. They will be delighted that we will go after uncollected tax.” According to Corbyn, there is a money tree containing £120bn which will fall into the government’s lap with a bit of shaking. McDonnell joined Corbyn on the stage. “I’m worried I’m going to wake up in a minute,” he said. “It’s a dream I’ve had for decades and it’s coming true.”
Corbynmania blindsided the British political establishment — but in hindsight it is perhaps less surprising: he was channelling three powerful global political forces.
First, Corbyn unambiguously rejected austerity and the “austerity-lite” policies of his Labour opponents. His election campaign had many of the ingredients of campaigns run by upstart insurgents — Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in the US.
Second, he is a political anti-hero for an anti-politics age. His disdain for political equivocation, media spin or image gives him an authenticity that voters seem to crave. Corbyn and Donald Trump have that, if nothing else, in common.
And third, Corbyn’s supporters, accustomed to protests and populist campaigns, grasped the power of digital campaigning, harnessing social media to galvanise a grassroots movement of people — particularly the young — who were turned off by the old way of doing politics.
So who exactly is this jam-making, five-times- winner of the “parliamentary beard of the year” title, and how did he execute a coup that swept away Tony Blair’s New Labour brand?
Jeremy Bernard Corbyn was born on May 26 1949 to idealistic parents — peace activists who met campaigning for an end to the Spanish civil war. The youngest of four sons, he grew up in a large house in the Shropshire countryside, attended a private prep school and then a local grammar school. “They were very happy days and they taught me a great deal about life and about people,” Corbyn told the FT; he became vegetarian after spending time at a pig farm. He went to Jamaica as a volunteer and then worked for a series of trade unions before becoming Labour MP for the part-gentrified, part-gritty London seat of Islington North in 1983.
Corbyn has spent his life pursuing unfashionable causes but has often ended up vindicated; he backed the jailed Nelson Mandela, spoke up for the people wrongly convicted of the 1974 IRA pub bombings in the UK and opposed Blair’s decision to invade Iraq. Engagement with “friends” from Hizbollah and Hamas earned criticism, but few have questioned his integrity.
His refusal to compromise was on show in 1999 when he split amicably from his second wife Claudia Bracchitta, a Chilean exile, after she insisted on sending their eldest child Ben to a selective grammar school; Corbyn favoured a local comprehensive school.
Before Bracchitta, with whom he has three sons, Corbyn was married to Jane Chapman, a fellow Labour councillor. In 2013 he married his long-term partner Laura Alvarez, a Mexican émigré who runs a business importing fair trade coffee.
Although his politics are sharply divisive, he has few enemies on personal grounds. “I’ve never seen him lose his temper or be rude to anyone,” says Ken Livingstone, the leftwing former Labour mayor of London. “He’s the most laid-back person I know.” David Davis, a Tory right-winger and civil liberties campaigner, says: “He’s a nice bloke, a decent bloke. He’s good company and he has a sense of humour. He’s quite self-deprecating.”
When not attending rallies, constituency meetings and picket lines, Corbyn likes to tend to his allotment, make jam, eat cheese and read about railways. He seldom drinks and does not own a car, preferring to cycle. He is also a keen photographer of manhole covers — but, naturally, only ones installed by public sector bodies.
This almost comically unspun Corbyn is Labour’s accidental leader. He was pressed into putting his name forward at a meeting of the leftwing Campaign group, which concluded there was nobody else. A reluctant Corbyn conceded: “It’s my turn.” John McDonnell, who unsuccessfully mounted leftwing leadership challenges in 2007 and 2010, recalls proudly: “This is the kind of leader you want — someone you have to force to become leader.” Nobody thought he would even get on to the ballot paper.
McDonnell duly became the Corbyn campaign manager — but as the noon deadline for nominations approached, the socialist duo sat in the office of the parliamentary Labour party still short of the required 35 signatures from Labour MPs to make the ballot paper.
In retrospect, it seems bizarre that some of Corbyn’s political opponents “lent” their names to the leftwinger to “broaden the debate”. McDonnell recalls: “We had five people who said they would sign if we got to 34 names. Ten seconds before the close of nominations two cracked — Andrew Smith and Gordon Marsden.”
Smith says he has no regrets, even though he actually supported Corbyn’s moderate rival Yvette Cooper. But John McTernan, a former aide to Tony Blair, is less forgiving. He says Labour MPs who put Corbyn on the ballot paper — even when they believed he had no chance of becoming prime minister — have “betrayed their responsibility to the party”. He adds: “To call that behaviour moronic is quite mild.”
The story of Corbyn’s victory is also the story of the final defeat of Tony Blair’s New Labour project: the triumph of the rumpled little guy over the sleek, multimillionaire former prime minister, who did all he could to stop Corbyn’s rise. “Get a transplant,” Blair chided Corbyn-inclined Labour members toying with the idea of voting with their heart.
Blair’s election as Labour leader in 1994 represented a rout for the Labour left, ushering in a sharp-suited, pro-enterprise style a world away from the picket lines and smoky trade union meetings frequented by Corbyn, McDonnell and their fellow socialists in the 1980s. But New Labour ran out of steam, exhausted by the feuding between supporters of Blair and Gordon Brown. The Iraq war wrecked the Blair legacy and the 2008 financial crash helped to bring down Brown. By 2010, the Conservative leader David Cameron was in power.
Many Labour modernisers blame Ed Miliband, Labour’s hapless opposition leader from 2010-15, for failing to defend the Blair/Brown years. An early harbinger of the Corbyn triumph came in 2011 when Miliband mentioned Blair’s name at a party conference and the hall filled with boos. Miliband smiled indulgently at his activists and the Blairites fumed. “He could have stopped the speech,” says McTernan. “He could have said that Tony Blair won three elections for this party and as a consequence changed our country. But he didn’t.”
The intellectual exhaustion of the centre-left was laid bare after the 2015 election. The Blairites thought that the defeat of Miliband would herald a return to New Labour, but they were wrong. Not only were they unable to find a strong candidate to contest the leadership, they failed to identify any clear lines of attack against Cameron and Osborne. Liz Kendall, the eventual Blairite candidate, ended up with just 4.5 per cent of the vote; centrist candidates Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper ran into the sand. Len McCluskey, leader of Britain’s biggest trade union Unite, said Kendall, Burnham and Cooper were so dull that “if I had had a sharp object, I would have slit my wrists”.
Osborne compounded the misery of the moderates with a politically devastating summer Budget which invited Labour to back him in making £12bn of welfare cuts; fatally, the Labour leadership decided to abstain. This vote on welfare gave Corbyn the cause he needed. While his rivals sat on their hands, he voted against the Osborne cuts, joined by his friend McDonnell who vowed to “swim through vomit” to defend the welfare state. Overnight, the leadership contest was transformed: Corbyn emerged as apparently the only one with the guts to stick it to the Tories.
Still, nobody expected Corbyn to get this far. When the candidate arrived at London’s Queen Elizabeth II conference centre to be named as Labour’s new leader, he had swept 59.5 per cent of first preference votes. And while he appeared to have acquired a new blue suit, his rambling speech — name-checking union backers and attacking the media for intruding into his family life — was familiar.
Corbyn left the hall to cheers before heading to the nearby Sanctuary pub (although he does not drink) to join a victory party and partake in a rendition of “The Red Flag”. In his wake lay the shredded ambitions of his mainstream rivals. Paul Kenny, a trade union leader, proceeded to give one of the most Freudian television interviews of all time: “It’s a very divisive, er . . . decisive vote,” he said. “It’s a very good revolt . . . er, result.”
By the time Corbyn left the pub, it was clear he had entered a new world. “This isn’t the Sunday league now,” says Conor McGinn. “This is the Premier League.”
Corbyn is under pressure to raise his game, but he has struggled to adapt to the scrutiny. The Labour leader — who initially shunned the official car available to opposition leaders but later agreed to take it — appeared harassed as television reporters challenged him on why he had not appointed more women to senior positions in his shadow cabinet and ducked out of a series of scheduled interviews. His media operation was initially non-existent.
Assembling his team became farcical as a number of senior figures refused to work with him. Too late, he realised that he would be criticised over the lack of women in top jobs and showered the additional title of shadow first secretary of state on business spokeswoman Angela Eagle. His appointment of his friend McDonnell as shadow chancellor was opposed by even his closest allies, while other key jobs were given to people he barely knows. “I’ve never, ever met or spoken to him,” tweeted Lucy Powell, the new shadow education secretary.
Corbyn’s appearance before the parliamentary Labour party was a tense affair, during which he faced tough questions on his attitude to Europe, Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Nato and his approach to poppy-wearing. Even an apparently straightforward address to the Trades Union Congress, about the easiest audience he could face, was lacklustre. “He’s just talking to the same audience he’s been speaking to for 40 years,” said one Labour MP.
Only a competent debut performance at prime minister’s question time — he recited a number of questions from among 40,000 suggested by members of the public — gave Corbyn some respite after 72 hours of chaos. One veteran Labour MP commented: “He’s not going to make it till Christmas at this rate.”
However, British politics has become so volatile — witness the dominance of the Scottish National Party north of the border — that predicting where the unheralded Corbyn phenomenon will lead is little more than a Westminster parlour game. Nobody knows.
Cameron’s allies ponder whether Corbyn can hack the responsibility, the pressure and the mental strain of his new job and the need for constant accommodation and compromise with his party. “Cameron’s mentally extremely strong and even he can find it tough,” says one friend of the prime minister. “Corbyn’s 66. He’s never faced anything like this.”
But Dave Prentis, head of the union Unison, says Corbyn has the stamina to survive the coming months. “He has done 100 rallies this summer. I have seen a man who, wherever he has gone, has shown commitment and fortitude,” he says. “Do I think he has the stamina for this? Yes.”
Speaking to the FT, Corbyn claimed that his unlikely revolution could not only change his party but could transform Britain. “Of course we can win, if we’re able to bring enough people with us,” he said, ahead of his final leadership rally. He insists that Britain is ready for a party which builds homes, takes care of the young as well as the elderly, and builds a fairer society. Does he really believe he can become prime minister? He smiled reproachfully: “I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.”
As Labour gathers in Brighton this weekend, the sea air will be thick with rumour and speculation about Corbyn’s longevity.
There are those such as Tulip Siddiq who believe that he may yet be able to pull people behind him. “I think a lot will depend on his conference speech, although it’s too early to tell,” she says. “He is already making a big effort though — you can see him chatting to Blairites in the atrium, patting their backs, trying to be inclusive.” Corbyn could yet break with recent habits and produce a brilliantly crafted speech that reaches far beyond the walls of the Brighton conference centre and resonates with voters across the country. Yet for many Labour MPs the only consolation is a mordant gallows humour.
Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley and Broughton, says this will be the most unpredictable party conference he has ever attended. “It’s absolutely fascinating — none of the normal rules of politics are being followed,” he says. “Although, as someone who would like to see another Labour government, it is horrifying at the same time.”
Stringer, a Labour veteran, says Corbyn could last anything from a fortnight to seven years — although he is unimpressed by the apparent disarray in the shadow cabinet. “There is a lot of black humour and manic laughter and also a great deal of wait and see,” he says.
Many MPs are loath to appear too disloyal on the record for fear of being blamed for undermining the new leader. Tom Harris has no such qualms. Having lost his seat of Glasgow South in May, he hopes Corbyn will be deposed within months. He admits that Labour is historically bad at political assassinations, having failed to shake off Michael Foot, Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband. But he says an “assassin” needs to be found to rid his party of a leader who has all the faults of Tony Benn and none of his strengths. “The prognosis could not be worse,” he says. “If we keep him it will be cataclysmic. If we replace him we can minimise our losses. We can’t have a leader like Jeremy Corbyn and not expect to be wiped out.”
For many of Corbyn’s younger supporters their first scent of red-blooded socialism has been intoxicating. But for most Labour MPs their new leader’s “new politics” is leading them down a wearyingly familiar path to defeat.
George Parker is the FT’s political editor. Jim Pickard is the FT’s chief political correspondent
Photographs: Benjamin McMahon; Rex/Shutterstock