07 June 2017


The improbable rise of Jeremy Corbyn

In late 2015 I had just arrived in London on sabbatical and was staying in a scruffy part of the city's north – full of cultural diversity and social disadvantage. On the first morning, as I emerged from my basement flat in search of the Sunday papers, a woman came towards me brandishing a greeting card and pen.

"Would you like to sign?" she asked. Just up the road was the strangely incongruous sight of a group of photographers pointing lenses at a modest '60s maisonette. "It's a congratulatory card," she explained, "from his neighbours to Jeremy. He's won."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn greeting supporters on the final week of the election campaign.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn greeting supporters on the final week of the election campaign. Photo: Getty Images
And then it dawned on me. I was lodging just along from the newly elected leader of the British Labour Party: Jeremy Corbyn. I signed the card, explaining I was only a temporary neighbour, but was overjoyed at his victory.

Corbyn's rise is a most improbable political story. A complete outsider more at home marching with the comrades than debating in the Commons, he fought against apartheid, welfare cuts, privatisation and successive Gulf wars. He was on the progressive side of every major vote in his long parliamentary career.

In this week's election Corbyn is pledging to create a million new jobs and to scrap zero-hours contracts. 

 In this week's election Corbyn is pledging to create a million new jobs and to scrap zero-hours contracts. Photo: Getty Images

 The grim technocrats who ran Labour for a generation despised him or, at best, saw him as a sort of harmless beatnik curio. In the era of spin, a man who bought his clothes from the co-op supermarket and spent weekends tending cabbages on his allotment was never going to be taken seriously as a politician.

He made it onto the ballot paper only because a few MPs with no intention of voting for him signed his nomination form. They wanted to broaden the debate, but Corbyn's candidature prompted thousands of supporters to join the party. Under a system where the votes of ordinary members carry considerable weight, he won by a large margin.

Corbyn took up the job as leader of the opposition with the support of only a handful of the MPs who sat behind him. Most were convinced he was unelectable: the complete opposite of the polished, poll-driven sound-bite savvy politicians they believed themselves to be. But these disgruntled parliamentarians sat on their hands for a year until a challenge could be mounted.

Then a second ballot produced another emphatic Corbyn victory despite the fact Labour MPs had lined up to deliver withering public denunciations of a sort that would have sent most of us under the doona, sobbing. He responded to these attacks with an almost saintly forbearance.

Corbyn's equanimity comes from a sense that his constituency is beyond Westminster; that it is possible to cut through the white noise of public life – and the bilious scorn of the tabloids – by speaking directly to working people in the old-fashioned language of redistribution and social democracy. When radical MP Tony Benn retired from parliament in 2001, he declared he now intended "to devote more time to politics". Corbyn too, sees politics as a vocation, not a career.
Like Bernie Sanders he has thrived on the campaign trail, delivering passionate stump speeches to adoring crowds, with plenty of spontaneity, warmth and popular engagement. Theresa May, by contrast, appears wooden, remote and scripted.

The media paint Corbyn as a hard left ideologue, but Labour's manifesto simply revives the Keynesian tax-and-spend politics of social democracy, an approach Tony Blair jettisoned in favour of neo-liberalism. There is nothing frightening or outrageous in promising more resources for public health, transport and education. The nearly 30-point opinion poll lead the Tories enjoyed early in the campaign has narrowed to just a few points in the lead up to polling day.

But to win the election Labour must court the sort of voters who preferred Trump to Clinton last year. Those from the rustbelt towns are suspicious of the inner urban cultural elite members, which are well represented among Corbyn's constituents in Islington. As Simon Kuper wrote in the Financial Times the poor and disenfranchised don't believe those who "talk equality while living privilege".

Although Corbyn has been described as looking more like a geography teacher than a leader of the working class, he nevertheless has the common touch. When asked whether he would move into Downing Street if he became Prime Minister, he said, "I did not become leader of the Labour party to get a new house. There are going to be pressures. Security issues, no doubt. But I like where I live.

My neighbours like me being there as well, most of the time." I can vouch for that.

George Morgan is associate professor in the Institute of Culture and Society and the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University.

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Preston, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
90 years old, political gay activist, hosting two web sites, one personal: http://www.red-jos.net one shared with my partner, 94-year-old Ken Lovett: http://www.josken.net and also this blog. The blog now has an alphabetical index: http://www.red-jos.net/alpha3.htm