Is the unlikeliest Labour leader a ruthless operator or an idealist whose views never really grew up?
Jeremy Corbyn: Does he lack a “hinterland”? (YouTube/RevolutionBahrain CC BY-SA 3.0)
Any book about the unlikely Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will invariably speculate on whether behind the amiable demeanour lurks a ruthless political operator. Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup (Biteback, £20) by the journalist Rosa Prince tentatively answers in the affirmative.
Jeremy Corbyn may be a naive idealist, but like most obsessives who lack what Denis Healey once called a “hinterland” away from politics he is an incredibly hard worker. Politics is his life, and for 40 years Corbyn has devoted nearly every waking hour to various forms of political activism.
Raised in a middle-class family, the son of a suburban solicitor, it was decided early on that young Jeremy was not to mix with the lower orders. Instead of being sent to the local primary school he was carted off to a posh convent school called St Margaret’s. Not that this brought out his studious side. Jeremy left education in 1967 with two E grades at A-Level, an insufficient result to get him into any form of higher education.
And so instead of further study he travelled to Jamaica with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), an initiative modelled on the Peace Corps. In return for two years’ labour Corbyn received a small stipend, basic accommodation and, importantly, something to take his mind away from academic failure. A friend of Corbyn tells the author that it was at this point, while still a teenager, that his political views were arrested. “I have personally always seen Jeremy as a Peter Pan figure, just not a grown-up,” the friend says.
In Corbyn’s favour, he does appear genuinely to care about the poor. The book is full of examples of him behaving with compassion towards those less fortunate than himself. The former Labour adviser John Mills tells Prince that Corbyn is the first dinner guest he has ever known to ask if he can take uneaten food away with him to give to the homeless.
But there is a dark side to the man. Corbyn may be caricatured as an amiable teetotaller who dislikes confrontation, yet he has a long record of flirting with thuggish groups. In the 1980s he invited convicted IRA terrorists to the Commons. He was branded a “disgrace to the Labour party” in 1999 by the International Development Secretary Clare Short after he opposed Nato efforts to prevent Serbian aggression in Kosovo. He called Hezbollah and Hamas his “friends”. He is an admirer of the late Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez, and was, until recently, a regular guest on Iran’s Press TV and Russia Today. He believes the roots of the Russian invasion of Crimea lie in Nato “belligerence”.
Corbyn is courteous to political opponents and will turn up to the opening of a fridge if he believes there is some benefit in it for the needy. The flip side of this idealism is a vicarious attraction to political violence that is strangely common to mild-mannered left-wing men.