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Expert Comment: Winning was the easy bit for Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn Monday 21 September 2015

Former Politics Professor at Liverpool Hope University Dr Bill Jones comments on the challenges facing new Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. 

Way back on 3rd June, Corbyn managed to enter the race for Labour's leader. Initially, he had accepted in conversation with his friend John McDonnell MP, that it was 'his turn to be the sacrificial lamb' on behalf of the hard left. But candidates needed to attract 35 nominations and he could only muster 22. Always a bit of a loner, Corbyn perhaps lacked the friends to bridge the gap; however a number of his colleagues felt the contest would be too limited if it lacked any input from this wing of the party. He made the cut only two minutes before the deadline and the mountain still seemed impossible to climb. In the Commons for 32 years, Corbyn had never held ministerial or even shadow office and was regarded by many as a slightly eccentric obsessive supporter of lost causes. The cause of 'socialism' in the Labour party, it was widely believed, had been roundly defeated and expunged by the likes of Mandelson, Brown, Gould and Blair. Bookies offered him at a no-hoping 200-1, but the odds soon changed. 

The other three candidates, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendal were all 'mainstream' party members, the first two having served in Cabinet under Gordon Brown and the third perceived as a leading 'Blairite'. However, their performances on the stump and in televised hustings lacked impact being redolent of the deeply unpopular politics, whereby words are carefully calibrated and arguments formed like weather vanes to maximise support and avoid gaffes. Corbyn however, was nothing like this. An unreconstructed leftwing maverick, who had rebelled 533 times against the party whip, he was sure of his arguments and explained them lucidly, courteously and avoiding any personal attacks on his rivals. His transparent modesty and decency shone through, and attracted young people despairing of the falseness of much political discourse and yearning for that key quality - authenticity. He also tapped into the anger felt by so many at the privations imposed by the years of Tory austerity policies. In addition, leader of super union Unite Len McCluskey was a passionate supporter and helped drive the campaign onwards.     

Soon his meetings were attracting hundreds, with meeting halls overflowing so that he needed to address those crowds outside who could not get in. Over 16,000 volunteers joined his cause and to work for his campaign. 'Real socialism' was back in business, much to the chagrin of Blair, Mandelson and Brown. Their warnings that electoral oblivion loomed under Corbyn were ignored and seemed, if anything, to have a reverse effect. His campaign reached out to long-standing party members, affiliate members and the £3 supporters, and the euphoria soon mounted. Meanwhile, the other candidates either neglected or failed to gather support for their centrist arguments. 

After three months of campaigning, the mountain had miraculously been climbed. On Saturday 12th September, Labour announced Corbyn’s remarkable victory on the first ballot. He won 60 per cent of the votes, and a majority in each category of membership. Former Brownite spin doctor Damian McBride, wrote in The Mail on Sunday the following day that Corbyn could ‘follow in the footsteps' of Labour's greatest prime minister, also 'unfashionable, disdainful of the media': Clement Attlee.

Former 'guru' to David Cameron Steve Hilton, wrote sympathetically in The Observer: "Corbyn’s answers may be wrong, but many of his questions are right. Instead of patronising his supporters, the insular ruling elite and their allies in big business and big finance should realise they are the cause of Corbyn."

The left justifiably celebrated their sensational win. From the furthest periphery of Labour politics, they had been catapulted back into the dead centre, in the person of the most leftwing leader the party has had since before the second world war. However, if, as some critics claim, the left have been occupying a parallel universe in which the impossible is made possible, then now reality comes crashing in. A series of challenging tests await.

As Andrew Rawnsley noted (Observer 13/9/2015): "It was a great advantage during the contest never to have been sullied with any responsibility. Now he will have to make a dozen difficult decisions before breakfast. He will face a level of pressure that his friends acknowledge will be many, many multiples more intense than anything he has known."

Firstly, will this ingénue at running things be able to take the strain? Will he, for example, be able to master the intricacies of economic policy when he has never show much interest in it before?

Secondly, will he be able to unify the party? Already eight shadow cabinet members have resigned and, given only a score of people felt able to nominate him, will he be able to stop them rebelling in the way he habitually did when he disagreed with party policy? His decision to appoint John McConnell as Shadow Chancellor has already been divisive and poses a whole new set of problems for the future.

Thirdly, how will he handle the big questions? Quite a group of Labour MPs are in favour of bombing Isis in Syria. Will he, can he, the first pacifist to lead Labour since George Lansbury, persuade them not to? Will he be able to do the same over the EU referendum, withdrawal from NATO and abandoning Trident, when even his deputy Tom Watson disagrees strongly with him on all three issues? How will he stop some MPs voting with the Tories on some issues, a danger which cannot be ruled out?

Fourthly, when criticising the media three times in his acceptance speech, he perhaps appeared a little thin skinned. The media will certainly see this as an incentive to pile on the pressure and they have so much to work with. During his career as a rebel MP, Corbyn has given so many hostages to fortune. The first Tory attack email on the afternoon of his triumph quoted his statement that the killing of Osama Bin Laden was a 'tragedy'. Also, his habit of welcoming speakers from groups engaged in fighting as 'friends' has opened him up to accusations that he supports the terrorism of Hamas and the like. His refusal to condemn Isis offers even more potential for denigration by the multiple Conservative attack agencies.

Fifthly, Attlee was able to shun the media in his day, but in the 24-7 media world this is not possible. When you consider what the media did to Michael Foot and his 'donkey jacket' (it wasn't) and to Ed with his bacon sandwich, what fun will they have with Jeremy's total lack of dress sense, for example, his wearing socks with open sandals? Moreover, despite his aversion to talking about his private life, won't the media accuse him of hypocrisy over his own private primary and secondary education?

Finally, how will he handle the expectations of his friends? What if long-expected shadow appointments are not made? As Rawnsley again points out: "His support was big. That is not a guarantee that it will necessarily be enduringly solid. He won in part because these are volatile times. Some of those currently intoxicated by his victory are going to end up feeling terribly disappointed by him. For that is the fate of all leaders. Then will come the first accusations of treachery. That won’t be a nice experience for a man who devoted his previous life to crying betrayal at all his predecessors as Labour leader."

His first few days in the job started badly, with a needless own goal over refusing to sing the national anthem at an event commemorating the Battle of Britain. But it improved on Wednesday 16th September, when his new-style PMQs - where he asked questions emailed to him by members of the public - actually did make them more sensible, adult and democratic. But they also gave Cameron the kind of easy ride he will never refuse. Corbyn has yet to settle into the job, but even at this early stage it is obvious this shy, artlessly innocent man desperately needs an experienced media manager to help him navigate the malevolent waters of Westminster politics. 

Picture: By Garry Knight (Jeremy Corbyn No More War.jpg Jeremy Corbin) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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