Why Jeremy Corbyn Can't Be Measured Like Other Leaders
The Labour leader, in his own words, is "not a personality". And this, strangely, is his greatest charm.
Watch the trailer for Jeremy Corbyn: The Outsider, out on VICE News tomorrow.
Jeremy Corbyn, he insists himself, is "not a personality". In his peaked hat, which the Daily Mail calls a "Leninist cap", his nondescript mac and his perfunctory suit, he is anti-charisma as a matter of principle. He is the antithesis of what we are led to expect from a party leader. And this, strangely, is his charm.
After all, what party leader says of an election result, with unflappable cool, "we hung on"? By whose measure, one is supposed to think, does that constitute success? But Labour's first leader of the radical left isn't failing at this game. He's playing an entirely different one.
"One of the reasons Mr Corbyn attracts so much opprobrium from those whose orbit circles planet Westminster," the BBC's Mark Mardell suggested, "is he will not accept their measure of his worth."
In the Green Zone that is Westminster politics, what matters is the next headline, the latest Prime Minister's Questions, the battle for each news cycle and, often, the "confidence" of investors. But Corbyn is almost a negative ideograph of Tony Blair, a man notoriously adept at wooing the press and business leaders. Elected as a man of the movements, rather than the markets or the media, he sees the press as enemy territory – and not without reason.
Flanked by Seumas Milne, formerly a figurehead of the small number of left-wing journalists at the Guardian, Corbyn has had to contend with a savage press campaign since his first chaotic days as leader. From his failure to bow at an appropriate angle at the cenotaph to his alleged refusal (or willingness, depending on the smear du jour) to bow to the Queen, scurrilous reporting has chimed with a Tory strategy of representing Corbyn as an anti-Britain weirdo who can't even do up his tie properly.
In that context, it looks like the height of hypocrisy for journalists to complain, as Andrew Grice does in the Independent, about Corbyn's antagonistic relationship with the media. It also looks like inflated self-worth, epitomised in the fact that his refusal to answer journalists chasing him through deathly quiet streets in the night was widely reported as a "gaffe". But even sympathetic journalists have expressed some frustration with the Corbyn camp's unwillingness to establish a minimal working arrangement with the media.
This complaint might not matter if Corbyn had a ready alternative. He has praised social media as that alternative, in recognition of its role in helping him win the leadership. Fifty-seven percent of Corbyn voters depended on social media for their news. Now, his unofficial Facebook page reaches 11 million people daily. But many in the Corbyn camp still express frustration at the failure to capitalise on this and dedicate resources to a full-time social media team.
However, it is his political priorities that traditional commentators find most perplexing. Amid George Osborne's last budget disaster, there was an opportunity to grill Cameron during his statement to the House of Commons about refugees. Cameron ought, surely, to have been torn apart like a croissant and consumed for a light breakfast. Yet Corbyn disdained this easy line of attack, opting instead to keep up the pressure on refugees. In its way, this is admirable. Corbyn is trying to shape the agenda, and refuses to buckle to prejudice in a way that no other Labour leader would. But it is also frustrating. There are moments when focused aggression, against the Tories and even some of his own back bench belligerents, is what is needed.
Yet even by traditional standards, Corbyn's leadership has not been catastrophic in the way that his opponents had predicted. Corbyn was supposed to be flattened by Ukip in Oldham, where voters would reject a "poncified" Labour Party. He was supposed to cost Labour around 200 council seats, according to psephologists. Labour under his watch was supposedly capable of gaining the support of only "15 to 20 percent of the public", according to Blair's former speechwriter, Peter Hyman. It never quite worked out that way. Oldham saw a sizeable swing to Labour, the party's share of the vote gradually but discernibly increased under Corbyn, and even so voluble a red-hunter as John Mann MP conceded that the local election result was "reasonable". Even in narrow leeways for effective parliamentary opposition, Labour under Corbyn has exploited Tory divisions to force retreats on a range of policies, from tax credits to disability benefits.
But if the old standards no longer apply, what are the new metrics of success? What is it that Corbyn is doing when he appears so oblivious to the usual parliamentary game? He is trying to rebuild social democracy. Labour's crisis – despite what Corbyn's critics imagine – is far deeper than a leader or a set of policies. For decades, all signs have been increasingly ominous. Membership of both party and unions, voting base and party identification, have all been in a state of secular decline. New Labour was an attempt to address that problem from the right, but its legacy is a deeper set of pathologies. Corbynism is the first attempt to remedy Labour's problems from the left, by rebuilding the party's grassroots in the social movements.
It is all terribly fragile. Corbyn's leadership is in a spotlit enclave, surrounded by hostile forces. He needs time to achieve his objectives, but elections don't wait on anyone's long game. He needs space to develop a viable governing agenda, but that is the last thing his critics want to give him. He needs to shift the agenda in a country where it has for too long been set by the right, but news cycles move too fast for that. The only thing he has on his side is that the alternatives have already been tried, and failed.
Corbyn is not a personality. But his vaulting ambition, and the terrible odds against him, make his leadership the most fascinating thing to happen to British politics for years.
Jeremy Corbyn: The Outsider is out on VICE News tomorrow.
Richard Seymour is the author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, which is out now on Verso.
More from VICE: