Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 3pm: I am moderating the Labour leadership hustings in a conference centre at Elland Road stadium in Leeds, standing at the podium to explain that one of the candidates is running a little late, but is on his way from the Durham Miners’ Gala. He will shortly be joining his fellow contenders Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall and…
…the doors burst open. The heads of hundreds of Labour members turn to see Jeremy Corbyn and his entourage enter with all the unlikely brio of a boxing champion and his corner-men. A ripple of applause grows into a rapturous welcome. I can feel Burnham, Cooper and Kendall shuffling awkwardly in their seats only a few feet away.
The candidates to succeed Ed Miliband, and the four Labour MPs seeking the deputy leader’s job, all make their pitch. But the day belongs to Corbyn. He reads the room, and owns it. This selectorate has had enough of the Blair-Brown era, and of its children. It craves some old time left-wing religion, and it has found its preacher-man. On the way out, one of the moderate contenders comes up to me to deliver their verdict: “We are so fucked”.
Scroll forward to September 2017: I’m walking up from the seafront in Brighton where Labour is holding its annual conference, celebrating Corbyn’s unexpectedly strong performance in the snap general election called by then Prime Minister Theresa May. Defying the polls and the pundits, he has secured 40 per cent of the vote and plunged the PM into the arithmetic hell of a hung parliament.
I am stopped in my tracks by a young man wearing cheese-cloth shirt, ancient cords, sandals and a combat jacket to which many militant badges are pinned. But he is not aggressive in any way. He grabs my wrist with both hands and says, in rapture: “Isn’t Jeremy amazing? Just amazing?”
I babble something about having an urgent appointment at Pret a Manger and head off, leaving the true believer to his pavement bliss. This is not politics as usual. This is cult.
On Thursday, the Passion of St Jeremy will reach its conclusion – in an electoral execution or, if the polls are wrong again, a moment of true political transfiguration. It is Corbyn’s chance to make history, or to become one of its footnotes. Half a century of socialist activism will be rewarded as he becomes the Labour Party’s seventh prime minister. Or, if the polls are right, not.
Oddly enough, the first question one is forced to ask is this: does he really want the job? In December 2017, after his destruction of the Tories’ majority, he insisted that he was ready to finish them off in the second election that he expected soon. “I will probably win,” he said. “I’m ready to be Prime Minister tomorrow”.
Earlier this year, however, in a gathering of independent advisers to discuss the practicalities of moving into Number 10, the first issue raised was not the nuclear codes or the structure of Whitehall, but “Jeremy’s allotment.”
Could he carry on living in Islington as prime minister, in order to be close to his vegetable patch? And if not, could he dig a new allotment in the Downing Street garden? Apparently not, his team was told.
This is scarcely the priority of a politician straining at the leash to take the most powerful job in the land, let alone to hit the ground running and change the country completely. Compare and contrast John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who has been immersing himself assiduously in the inner wiring of the British state, acquainting himself with the big players in the City, and working out what, exactly, he would do to make himself unchallenged master of the Treasury.
It is legitimate to ask whether, in practice, a Labour government, hemmed in by the arithmetic of a hung parliament, and certainly constrained by the practicalities of the Whitehall process, would be able to act as radically and as quickly as Corbyn suggests. On tax, spending increases and the nationalisation of privatised utilities, he might find that the gap between rhetoric and reality was dispiritingly great, and that, however hard he pushed, the pace of progressive change was more pragmatically Blairite than revolutionary Marxist.
For now, however, this is a problem with which he does not have to wrestle. The core mystery of Corbyn’s conduct in this campaign has been his failure to communicate his plans with anything approaching urgency, or a visible hunger to convince the unpersuaded and the politically homeless. He does not look or sound impatient, or like a man on the brink of destiny.
“Jeremy’s greatest problem is that he thinks that all the things he believes in are manifestly true,” one long-time colleague tells me. “He is genuinely puzzled by the contrary position to his own on most things. He sees socialism as revealed truth rather than something you have to argue for.” Where does this come from? “I’m the stupid one in the family,” he once told one of his inner team. “That’s why I had to go into politics.”
Born into a middle-class family in Shropshire in 1949, he was always conscious of being out-performed by his three older brothers: David, who became an electrical engineer, Andrew, a mining engineer, and Piers, a meteorologist.
Leaving school with only two Es at A level, he feared oblivion. But the defining experience of his life was to be supplied by a stint in Jamaica working for Voluntary Service Overseas between 1967 and 1970. Notionally a teacher, Corbyn spent most of his time absorbing the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial politics that were spreading across the island – thanks, in no small measure, to the Guyanese radical, Walter Rodney – and signing up to the full suite of international Marxist beliefs.
Mesmerised by Fidel Castro in Cuba and the legends of Che Guevara – recently executed in Bolivia – Corbyn had found an absolutely clear set of convictions in which to invest himself. Seen through this ideological prism, the world was easily understood in binary terms: divided into the oppressors and the oppressed, pro- and anti-America (and Israel), for the capitalists or for the people.
It is a dualistic style with which Corbyn remains most at ease. In his campaign launch speech on October 31, he declared that “the big question of this election is: whose side are you on?” Surely not “on the side of the tax dodgers, who are taking us all for a ride?” Or the Duke of Westminster? Or Mike Ashley? Or Crispin Odey? Or Rupert Murdoch?
Especially when discussing Brexit, Corbyn claims that his primary objective is to “unite our country”. Yet his behaviour is that of an old-fashioned Marxist dialectician. He seeks and thrives on division.
The rigidity and simplicity of the ideology he absorbed in the Caribbean explains every aspect of Corbyn’s career. In 2017, old-school socialism enabled him to see the consequences of austerity and its political significance with a much clearer eye than Labour centrists or Conservatives. “It was not so much that he discovered all the pain out there,” says one former shadow cabinet member. “It’s that he knew it would be there. That’s just what capitalism and the Tories do, in Jeremy’s worldview.”
For a few months in the summer of 2017, that worldview and the feelings of the nation came close to meshing. He was feted at Glastonbury. His name was chanted deliriously and associated with the so-called ‘youthquake’. Those who mentioned his past associations with the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah were ridiculed by his young fans as hopelessly out of sync with the times. Whatever the ‘Centrist Dads’ said to the contrary, Jeremy was the ‘absolute boy’.
Witness, too, his response to the Grenfell fire: Corbyn knew immediately where he was supposed to be, how to act, and how outraged the electorate would be by the systemic failures that underpinned the tragedy.
But ideological certainty has served him much less well in other respects: in particular, his abject inability to grasp the nettle of racism against Jews – and to confront the hurt and fear caused by his own behaviour and that of many others in his party.
The long and disastrous scandal that has gripped Labour for almost two years – from his failure to see the profound anti-Semitism of an East End mural to the appalling incidents described in the Jewish Labour Movement’s submission to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission – is now bleakly familiar. What still puzzles some is why Corbyn, an assiduous anti-racist in every other regard, should have acted so badly and neglectfully with respect to bigotry towards Jews. In truth, however, there is no mystery at all.
In the hard Left worldview Corbyn swallowed whole in his travels, Jewish people are on what the sociologist David Hirsh has called “the wrong side of the line: powerful, white, aligned with imperialism.” This version of socialism is about power before it is about values. And it was turbo-charged in 2001 when the UN conference in Durban designated ‘Zionism’ as a form of white racism. Over many months, Corbyn has been forced by media attrition – and the departure of MPs such as Luciana Berger, Louise Ellman, and Mike Gapes – to issue grudging apologies for anti-Semitism in his party. But it has always been clear that he does not believe he has done anything wrong: reinforcing the impression of a superannuated student politician who cannot see beyond the end of his ideological nose.
Which is a problem when you’re leading a party. According to one person who has worked with Corbyn closely for years, “his certainty about his beliefs makes taking decisions as a leader very, very stressful and confusing.” He is entirely lacking in nimbleness and agility, or a zest for gaming out complex situations.
As one shadow cabinet member put it to me: “When it came to Brexit, he was completely at sea. He’d never liked Europe much and so he was easily swayed by talk of not upsetting Labour leavers. But he also didn’t like the way in which Keir [Starmer, Shadow Brexit Secretary] and Tom [Watson, Deputy Leader until November] were urging him to embrace a second referendum and steer him towards a Remain position.”
What seemed like normal strategic discussion to his colleagues felt to Corbyn like intellectual bullying. Why couldn’t they all keep things simple?
It has been widely rumoured around Westminster that Corbyn is ill, perhaps even suffering from vascular dementia. For what it is worth, every one of the dozen or so sources to whom I spoke for this piece – who spoke on the condition of anonymity and included MPs, former shadow cabinet ministers and senior Labour officials – denied this. According to a former leadership contender: “Look, Jeremy is repulsive, wrong and stupid. But that’s not a medical condition. It’s just very bad news for Labour.”
Indeed, the more you ask about Corbyn, the less there is to see. Instead of filling out, he grows more translucent. He emerges as a figure who, though obliged to declare his readiness for Downing Street, struggles to conceal his exhaustion and his limitations. More often, the person described even by his foes is Pooterish in his pathos rather than Stalinist in his menace. Yes, Corbyn – like most party leaders – has a temper, and is capable of pettiness. But even his opponents are less likely to describe moments of aggression or outright nastiness than of gaucheness and a frequent inability to rise to the occasion.
On the day that MP Jo Cox was murdered in June 2016, the Labour whips’ office filled with stunned colleagues and friends, many of them weeping. According to one present, Corbyn and, his closest adviser, Seumas Milne, seemed incapable of responding to what was obviously a pressing need: “In the end, Tom Watson said a few words. It was embarrassing. You felt that Jeremy wanted to say something but didn’t know how, or what.”
On another occasion, after the Brexit referendum, the air was thick with doubts about Corbyn’s future as leader and his responsibility for Remain’s failure. Yet in a long car journey across London, with several of his most senior colleagues, “all he could talk about were these man-bags that he liked and how brilliant they were. It was completely surreal.”
After a vote of no confidence by the Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn faced the humiliation of a full-blown leadership election. In September 2016, he prevailed against his (scarcely impressive) challenger, Owen Smith – but only by 62 to 38 per cent.
Almost every other main party leader in living memory, faced with such personal indignity, would have found an exit in reasonably short order. Instead, more than three years later, Corbyn is going head to head in a hugely consequential contest with Boris Johnson, now reinvented as a hard-hitting leader of the populist Right, surrounded once more by the shock-troops of the victorious Vote Leave campaign and ready to do or say anything to entrench his grip on power.
Why? Why has Corbyn stuck with it? His absolute faith in his beliefs is not matched by an absolute faith in himself: quite the opposite. But that doesn’t matter, according to one well-placed source.
“The point is not to see him as a leader at all, but as the creature of a ruling faction. The faction is what counts, not the person who’s its notional head. The figurehead is exactly that: a figurehead.”
This analysis is echoed by another Labour veteran who compares Corbyn today to Ho Chi Minh in his declining years: “He’s become like ‘Uncle Ho’, the Dear Leader, who is pushed out occasionally by the Vietnamese generals to smile at the crowds. But he’s not the one with the power.”
The ‘Faction’ – it deserves the uppercase F – comprises a tiny group of senior party and union figures: Karie Murphy, executive director of Corbyn’s office, and head of the party’s election campaign; Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite (widely-expected to step down once the line of succession is clear) and his union colleague, Jim Kennedy who sits on the National Executive Committee; Jennie Formby, Labour’s general secretary; Milne; and a handful of others, whose power ebbs and flow with the political tides. (Interestingly, several sources told me that Milne’s importance, though real, has been exaggerated by the media, mesmerised by his notorious charm and the presence of a fellow journalist – Milne used to work at the Guardian – at the apex of the party apparatus).
Ask what the Faction wants, and we arrive at the heart of the matter. “They are not especially competent at campaigning or all that interested in governing,” says one who has worked with them. “Without even being conscious of it all the time, they are totally playing by the rules of Leninist culture. It’s all about control of the party apparatus.”
The first and most important step in this march through Labour’s institutions was the simplest: the observation that, when the acting Labour leader, Harriet Harman, allowed £3-a-head supporters to vote in the contest to succeed Ed Miliband, she had handed huge power to individual campaigns to sign up voters for their own candidates.
The brilliant opportunism of Corbyn’s team in 2015 was actively to encourage members of the public to pay the £3 supporter’s fee – specifically so they could vote for the left-wing candidate (which they did).
To this day, Labour moderates curse themselves for not following suit. “We need to stop talking about new parties,” says one well-known figure of the Labour centre, “and finally get on with recruiting thousands of new members who would elect a mainstream leader. The shortest route back to sanity is not a new organisation, but new members and less fatalism.”
This is indeed the point. In the past four years, Labour’s centrists have won some battles – notably forcing the party to commit to a ‘final say’ Brexit referendum. But, in most other respects, the internal Labour scorecard records triumph after triumph for the hard Left.
For instance: its champions recognised very early on that Corbyn’s Labour would need a provisional wing, so to speak: a separate but connected movement acting alongside the party, always on hand at local level to assist with constituency deselections, or to help the leadership in its digital battles, free of obligations to constituents or the constraints of a 100-year-old party rulebook. Hence, in October 2015, was born Momentum, now 40,000-strong (the party itself has 485,000 members).
One by one, the party’s key decision-making bodies have been colonised by the hard Left: since 2018, the all-important National Executive Committee; the crucial decision-making groups at the party’s conferences; and, naturally, candidate selection where ideological purity is now often at a higher premium than likelihood to win. “They would rather win five out ten seats with leftwing candidates,” says one NEC member, “than ten with people they considered ideologically unsound.”
Total victory for Corbyn? Not exactly, not in the personal sense. Before Tom Watson’s departure last month, there were occasions where he and Corbyn found themselves on the same side in NEC debates over particular candidates – but were voted down, at the instigation of Karie Murphy. In other words, Corbyn has complete control of the party – as long as he does the bidding of the Faction.
Humiliating? Perhaps. Yet for a politician who has devoted himself to the notion of the collective and to a non-negotiable ideology, such instances of personal embarrassment are doubtless a minor irritant. In his own mind, he has done what he set out to accomplish, completing the conquest of the party by the Left after decades of internal exile.
Should Johnson win on Thursday, the hard Left is already preparing to back a candidate to continue and consolidate this work. Unite is leaning towards Laura Pidcock, the Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights, famous (if that is the word) for saying that she could not be friends with a Tory, and for borrowing Jesus’s words to urge compassion for Corbyn’s critics: “They will say some really hurtful things. Forgive them. For they know not what they do.” (Pidcock may not be so forgiving if the Tories succeed in their objective to unseat her in North West Durham.)
Momentum, meanwhile, is inclining towards Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary – though its membership’s support is far from locked in. But even if the movement does not back Rayner in a prospective leadership contest, it will certainly support a candidate of the Left.
Labour centrists insist that it is impossible to predict now how the party will feel if it is defeated in a fourth successive general election. The membership may yet ‘see sense’, says one, and back a contender such as Jess Phillips, the charismatic MP for Birmingham Yardley, who appeals to non-Labour voters as a person of normality and wit. The Left’s continued grip on the party’s machinery is not inevitable, Labour moderates say.
But then again, what is? For now, the Left is in the ascendant in the party and has no plans to yield an inch of terrain if Johnson holds on to power. It is more determined than ever to prevent the party from drifting back to some neo-Blairite centre ground, in hock to America, Israel, neo-liberalism… the list of enemies goes on and on. This is the legacy the Labour leader cares about most.
It all depends upon what you mean by ‘victory’. From the outside, Corbyn may look like a man suspended somewhere between tragedy and farce, waiting to discover what the cruel muse of history has in store for him. But that is not how he sees things; not at all. Something close to a cypher he may be, but, if so, he does not seem troubled by the role. For, even if he loses on Thursday, he’s convinced he’s already won.
All photographs Getty Images