Thursday 21 November 2019

Corbyn is no monster – he could well be Labour’s saviour

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn

Mary Riddell

Somewhere between election defeat and the likely crowning of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, Britain’s Labour has become the Frankenstein party. Such is the mistaken conclusion of a hierarchy trying to work out what blend of chemistry and alchemy within their ranks created the monster poised to seize control.

Let us be clear: Mr Corbyn is a monster only in his enemies’ imagination. Even those who abhor his politics concede that he is a model of courtesy compared with a hectoring hierarchy that has tried in vain to scare his disciples into submission. If the Labour leadership election resembles a Gothic horror story, that is the fault of his detractors.

Party grandees from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown have speeded Mr Corbyn’s ascent with their apocalyptic warnings. David Miliband has swept in belatedly to endorse Liz Kendall, who is likely to come last, while his brother Ed has (wisely) fled the country without comment. Meanwhile, the camps of Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have resorted to a scrap more reminiscent of playground hair‑pulling than political debate.

Amid the fracas, no one has identified which evil genius is responsible for creating the Corbyn phenomenon. The answer is George Osborne, whose austerity laboratory brewed up the catalyst for the breakthrough. As the sole leadership contender to oppose the government’s £12bn (€16.25bn) welfare cuts, Mr Corbyn owes his success to the chancellor’s unwitting help in reviving a moribund Opposition.

Like Victor Frankenstein, Mr Osborne has imparted life to non‑living matter. The socialist resurrection has horrified Labour centrists and thrilled Conservatives, who think an opposition pledged to combat austerity would cement the Government in power. The Tories should stop smirking, and Labour should stop panicking. Only then would both sides realise that Labour could be looking at long-term revival, rather than an existential threat.

The force propelling Mr Corbyn towards the leadership is not simply an upsurge of the far left. While some Trotskyites are surely trying to infiltrate the contest, YouGov polling has shown him as the first choice of 49pc of existing members, 67pc of trade union sign-ups and 55pc of those who paid £3 (€4) to vote.

More tellingly, the Corbyn campaign bears a close resemblance to that of Tessa Jowell, an impeccable Blairite who remains the favourite to win the London mayoral nomination. Although their politics are very different, their methods are similar. Both understand how to create mass movements and inspire grassroots loyalty, and both despise the control freakery of the old guard. Neither is young (Jowell is 67 and Corbyn 66), but both have mobilised a new generation of voters and activists.

Insiders claim that Ms Jowell has little patience with the shroud-waving of her fellow Labour grandees. “This isn’t tribal,” says a Jowell ally. “People are voting for Tessa, and they’re voting for Jeremy. It’s not a left/right thing.”

As the widely respected Corbyn backer Jon Trickett has noted, Labour rebuilt itself in the 1930s through book clubs, a cycling movement and the rank-and-file activity that created the bedrock for the Attlee revolution. While Labour’s future will not be decided in knitting circles, the party’s wiser heads know that the era of the omniscient leader is finished. Both Ms Jowell and Tom Watson, the likely deputy leader, hope to bring back Arnie Graf, the American community organiser sidelined under Ed Miliband, to help regenerate Labour at street level.

Mr Corbyn’s task, should he be elected, is to redefine the role of leadership. Insiders say he would not bend his views to those of his parliamentary colleagues, seeking approval from the membership instead. “He’ll stick to the view of the majority of the party,” says one insider. “There would be no top-down compromises.”

Tory politicians gloating at the Corbyn ascendancy should beware of the damage he could do them. While this approach will alarm his enemies further, their anxiety is misplaced. If Mr Corbyn wins, as looks probable, he may not survive for long. Even some admirers think a Corbyn leadership would last for two years at most. The hurdles that could finish him include the “main gate” decision on final approval for Trident renewal in 2016 and the EU referendum. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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