'The Outsider' shows a surprisingly unsophisticated side to the Labour leader, writes Will Self.
For a mere three quid and with about three mouse-clicks I was able to register as a supporter of the Labour Party and so became able to vote in its last leadership election. Throughout most of my adult life I've regarded myself as to the left of the parliamentary Labour Party − but that isn't why I voted for Corbyn, whose principled socialist position would seem right up my proverbial alley. On the contrary: I voted for him because I was reasonably confident that if elected he'd prove so divisive the party would end up splitting.
Watching The Outsider, which follows the new Labour leader during the run-up to May's council elections, I found myself gripped by seemingly contradictory emotions: on the one hand colossal schadenfreude − I thought Corbyn and his team would cock things up, and there they were, in several inglorious shades of beige, doing precisely that; but I was also gripped by anger as he and his not particularly loyal band of followers missed opportunity after opportunity to attack a government utterly in disarray. This was the political equivalent of witnessing the England football team do what they do best: lose a penalty shoot-out at the final of a major championship, when the opposing team's goalkeeper has fallen flat on his face in the mud and there's a completely open goal.
What's the explanation for this − is it that the parliamentary Labour Party has proved too rebellious for Corbyn's cowboys to corral? Yes, in part. Is it that the national media haven't had such fun twitting a Labour leader for his shabby dressing since Michael Foot wore a donkey jacket to a Remembrance Day service? Yes, in part. Is it that there have been underlying social, economic and cultural changes in Britain that make it difficult – if not impossible – for Corbyn's "heirloom" socialism to gain traction? Absolutely; and I might add to this list: the profound constitutional instability Britain is currently facing − with the upcoming referendum on European Union membership, and the ongoing threat of Scots secession − is a phenomenon old-style lefties are peculiarly ill-adapted to respond to, except by making airy appeals to internationalism, and the brotherhood of man.
But despite all these agenda-setting handicaps, the astonishing thing about Corbyn is that he's managing to cock things up entirely on his own terms. What I mostly felt watching the documentary was anger − an anger which, as bathetic and pathetic scenes alternated, muted into annoyance, before finally curdling to become mere... pity, which is hardly a vote-winner. Corbyn and his team say they're determined to impose a new kind of politics on Westminster and the country at large − an open, inclusive, and non-divisive politics, expressive of their underlying socialist-democratic principles; but what the film depicts is a gaggle of incompetent advisors and ill-informed supporters, all dedicated to the task of putting a man in No 10 Downing Street who's clearly not up to the job.
Corbyn's normcore shtick may work on the campaign trail, but at the despatch box it's utterly ineffectual − and this is not a trivial point: all of British politics, as currently constituted, bodies-out from those parliamentary confrontations. Ours is an adversarial system, one which simply grinds to a halt if one of the adversaries won't even step into the ring. Observing Corbyn, hesitantly rehearsing his lines for Prime Minister's Question Time, his advisors applauding pre-scripted points and put-downs, I thought not of The Thick of It − because say what you will about Malcolm Tucker et al, they at least have a brutal brio − but of some amateur dramatists suddenly called on to the world stage.
WATCH: Jeremy Corbyn: The Outsider
Filmed in the act of signing bathroom tiles and photographs for sale − an act which would seem to flout almost all his principles − Corbyn tells us that come autumn he'll be signing the apples from his garden, before conceding that the Corbyn merch' is a little de trop, given: "I'm not a personality... I'm not that interested in personality − I'm not that sort of person." Yes indeed – the sort of person Corbyn is, is clueless: the advisor charged with sprucing him up himself sports not designer-stubble, but an unplanned beard − his spin doctor, Seamus Milne, appears quite unable to gauge the likely impact of his boss's shambolic performances, while one of his scarce PLP supporters, the Merseyside MP, Steve Rotheram, comes across as a starry-eyed fantasist. But really, the film gives its viewers enough face-time with Jeremy for us to properly allocate blame: he may well be principled and a fighter, but these are useful characteristics for a career-critic of governments − not the leader of one. Most of all Corbyn gives the impression of being woefully unsophisticated, and in the snake pit of contemporary politics where tactics and strategy must be seamlessly combined to defeat slithery opponents, sophistication is a sine qua non.
Sophistication − and something else Corbyn seems lacking in: any sort of acumen. Challenged over the anti-Semitism in the Labour Party row, which had engulfed his old mucker, Ken Livingstone, he blusters that "an inquiry" will be held − but an inquiry into what? Either he believes Livingstone to be an anti-Semite or not − either he believes anti-Semitism to be incompatible with Labour Party membership, or not; there's really nothing at all to inquire into here. Politics is above all the art of the possible, and the problem with Corbyn's espoused position is that its realisation in the current context is utterly impossible − Corbyn's response to this contradiction in the very terms of his existence as Labour Leader is to blame the usual suspects: the media, the Tories, the shadowy forces of the global capitalist conspiracy − and of course, his Blairite enemies in the PLP, who can't wait to plunge a fatal dagger between his shoulder blades.
No doubt, with this film trending, VICE will be added to the list − but who's responsible for its content? There's no editorialising, no slanting − what we see is, I very much fear, what we'll get. I told my old friend, Martin Rowson, the political cartoonist, about the film and he expostulated: "How on earth could they have been stupid and vain enough to allow VICE access?" To which I fear the only possible response was: "Come on − the fact that they allowed access at all answers your question." Of course, politics is always show business for ugly people − so Corbyn's vanity comes as no surprise, but the stupidity? That is shocking − I'd looked to Corbyn to split the Labour Party; there's no place anymore for such a broad ideological church in British politics − but I fear he lacks the acumen required even for this.
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