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Eilis O'Hanlon: Corbyn sees off slick PR types


Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn


Jeremy Corbyn

Ageing bearded leftie beats the odds to sweep to power. Gerry Adams must have thought Christmas had come early when he saw the headlines. Instead it was Jeremy Corbyn who was celebrating after being elected new leader of Britain's Labour Party, in a move both utterly stunning and entirely predictable at the same time.

Because the thing about Corbyn is that it's not hard to understand why he won. For starters, his opponents were insipid, lacklustre and robotic, which always helps, and those who might have made a better fist of it ducked the challenge. Corbyn was up against slick PR merchants who represent everything that disillusioned voters have come to despise. People want something that feels more authentic, more normal. Corbyn was the beneficiary of that justifiable disenchantment.

That's one reason Donald Trump's doing so well in the race to be Republican candidate for US president, and Bernie Saunders, an avowed social democrat in the Scandinavian mould, is giving consummate insider Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the other race. Mavericks appeal by looking and sounding different to their opponents.

Corbyn's supporters would hate to think so, but they're part of that same global anti- politics movement.

In truth, it's ridiculous to think of Trump or Corbyn as outsiders. One is a billionaire, and the other a professional politician who's been in Parliament over 30 years, three times as long as Tony Blair was before he became leader. If he was bringing down the system from within, Corbyn's been taking his time about it.

He seems a decent chap, but his supporters now face the most difficult question of all: What now? Winning over a narrow, self-selecting group of activists isn't the same as winning power in the real world.

Say a quarter of people are dyed-in-the-wool free marketeers, a quarter are minded to give socialism a go, and a quarter don't vote. That means all elections are won with the backing of the remaining one in four who can be persuaded to lean either way. It's hardly unkind to point out that a Corbynite Labour Party may struggle to win round those people, considering they voted Tory at the last election.

Corbyn would win a vote on Twitter every day, but can he win in Torbay, Trowbridge, Tewkesbury? That's the dilemma. The #JezWeCan campaign proves that enthusiastic, organised comrades can seize control of a major party, but it doesn't mean they can turn it into victory in the shires.

It's the same in Ireland. With social media in a frenzy, people on the left, who only ever talk to others who agree with them, have seriously overestimated their broader appeal. They certainly make the most noise, but that doesn't mean they have the numbers.

The problem is that people may say they want change, but they're not always delighted when they get it. They warm to someone like Corbyn who's rough around the edges and simply says what he thinks rather than testing his opinions on focus groups - but will the same people be so forgiving when he starts putting his foot in it, making gaffes, stumbling over details?

He'll be put on the spot about some of his less popular political stances, and they might not like what comes out of his mouth when he is. A man who dislikes austerity is one thing. A man who stood for a minute's silence for dead IRA terrorists is quite another.

Corbyn has won. The Militant left has achieved what it dreamed of for decades by wrestling control of Labour. Now whatever happens, they have no one else to blame.

Not that this inconvenient fact will stop them whinging if the Marxism hits the fan, but that's politics for you. The Blairite modernisers who've been in Labour their entire lives, but whom self-righteous activists who signed up five minutes ago have taken to insulting as neo-Tories, are in despair, but they should see this as a necessary catharsis.

The Labour Party always does this, shooting itself in one foot, then the other, before finally looking for bandages. Right now they've decided they hate Tony Blair the way a spoiled teenager hates daddy, but eventually they'll wake up in a cold sweat and remember the scary fact that he was their only leader to win a general election in the past 40 years.

In future, they'll either look back on this as the moment the entire political paradigm changed, or the day when they collectively ignored reality. Either way, it'll be fun. Corbyn's definitely different, and it's refreshing to be reminded that politics can still be exciting in this age of bland uniformity.

It will also galvanise the left in Ireland who are cut from the same cloth. From People Before Profit to Sinn Fein, Corbyn has given anti- establishment parties a confidence boost before the 2016 election - and he did it without a symbolic centenary to concentrate discontent. It's doubtful the Tories will be scared, but Fine Gael and Labour probably should be.

Sunday Independent