It was only a matter of time before a biography of Jeremy Corbyn would surface. After all, his spectacular rise from relative backbench obscurity to leader of the opposition over the summer of 2015 was unprecedented and undeniably historic, made all the more remarkable by personal qualities of humility and decency we are unaccustomed to in our politicians much less leaders.
Jeremy Corbyn is someone who doesn’t just hold to collectivist ideas in the abstract, he lives and breathes them in everything he does and how he conducts himself. It means that for the first time in a generation a mainstream party in the UK has a leader who is shorn of personal ambition and the self-aggrandising traits of both his predecessors and counterparts.
The author of Comrade Corbyn, Rosa Prince, does at least capture this aspect of Corbyn’s character in her recently published biography of him, crediting the new Labour leader with authenticity and the refusal to relinquish core principles that have remained consistent throughout his political life. Both combine, she rightly identifies, to make him an antidote to the polished and contrived leaders that we’ve long been accustomed to, responsible in large part for a political culture that has succeeded in cultivating indifference and low expectations within those it is meant to inspire and engage.
The author is less successful when it comes to understanding the social and political factors responsible for Corbyn being elected on such an unprecedented mandate. This is evident as early as the book’s prologue when describing the moment the result of the leadership election is announced at a packed Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. Many in attendance, the author informs us, ‘were angry and bitter at the way the contest had played out’…‘the mood was fractious’…and ‘even Corbyn’s supporters seemed somehow joyless.’ As for the man himself, ‘he too seemed less gladdened by his victory than vindicated.’
This rendering accords with the response to it by right and Blairite wing of the party, wherein rather than the party’s rebirth Corbyn’s election marked its funeral.
Immediately after the result is announced, Prince, a former Telegraph journalist, leaves the venue, gets into her car, and horses it north up the motorway ‘into the heart of middle England’ to locate Corbyn’s childhood home. Now she’s an intrepid detective on the hunt for evidence of some dark secret and foul crime. Finally managing to locate the house along a ‘country lane’, she reveals that the place is ‘so posh it doesn’t have a number, just a name.’
How could any self respecting man of the people have spent his childhood in such luxury and comfort, we are being invited to ponder?
Seminal moments in Corbyn’s extensive political hinterland are covered, some more convincingly than others. The influence of Tony Benn in helping shape his politics and worldview is recorded, and Prince does at least do a decent job of covering the emergence of the Stop the War Coalition after 9/11 and Jeremy’s role within the organisation from inception. This section is particularly refreshing in light of the media smear campaign that was carried out against the organisation late last year.
Jeremy’s reputation as a dedicated constituency MP is also mentioned, as is his longstanding interest in international and geopolitical issues. ‘Corbyn saw it as his duty to represent not just his constituents in Islington North, nor even the working people of the United Kingdom, but also the underprivileged and persecuted in every corner of the globe.’
Though we could have been spared much of the focus on Corbyn’s private life – was it really necessary to describe Diane Abbott as his ‘former lover’ more than once? – the range of voices the author quotes, running from close allies to firm opponents, does at least ensure a modicum of balance when charting his career.
A striking irony contained in the book is that while none of the Corbyn allies quoted by the author quite manage to articulate the cynicism and opportunism of Tony Blair’s malign leadership of the Labour Party as a crucial factor in understanding his spectacular rise, former home secretary and arch Blairite Charles Clarke does, even if unintentionally, when he opines that ‘If he [Corbyn] had his way, we would never have reformed the party in the 1980s, we would never have had a Labour government in 1997.’
What Clarke and others like him really mean is that we would never have had ‘that’ Labour government in 1997.
Ultimately, the book’s abiding weakness is that in line with the views of people like Charles Clarke it fails to locate Corbyn’s politics in the lived experiences of ordinary working people, thus anchoring both him and them in reality. Instead the impression left is of someone who’s spent his entire political life on the margins, devoted to lost causes and campaigns that reveal him to be a well meaning if out of touch prisoner of idealism.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince is published by Biteback