At the recent General Election, a 68-year-old who doesn’t eat meat has perhaps changed Britain’s political landscape for the future, but who would have thought it possible. It is just eighteen months since Jeremy Corbyn, an MP with a north London seat, whom nobody had heard of, became leader of the Labour party.
His leadership back in 2015 was met by the scepticism of the media, even the liberal media, who grew tired of his rudeness and having their cameras biffed by him as he emerged from his modest London house with its unkempt garden. He also had a history. In the 1970s he had been an anarchist of the far left, yet he came from a family that was wealthy enough to educate him privately, in line with the Establishment. The long hair and the beard got trimmed in 1983 when he entered Parliament as an MP. His career on the backbenches was unremarkable, although more than a bit stubborn. Over thirty years later he delighted in sporting the British version of a Lenin cap at rallies. He was a vegetarian. In 2015 and 2016, mainstream and moderate Labour MPs, its intelligentsia, tried time and again to remove him from the leadership.
Then things began to change. Corbyn’s speaking style became less isolationist and much more inclusive. He was forced to listen to and adjust to the diverse and mainly moderate Labour MPs in Parliament that he now had to lead. He began to wear suits of a decent cut. The beard got trimmed again. But on certain issues of style he would not budge. The House of Commons regularly rings to the sound of derision and abuse of the opposition MPs. Corbyn refused to make personal attacks on the Conservatives or their leader. Instead he consistently asked them why so many people in the country were living in poverty while the rich flourished.
In contrast to Theresa May’s campaign of steely Victorian values and veiled threats, Corbyn’s Labour chose hope, joy and integrity and a couple of blindingly simple policies
This year the media no longer had to worry about having their cameras shoved out of the way as he left his home and his “Good mornings” were no longer underpinned by sarcasm, but no-one really thought Labour had much of a chance when the General Election was announced in April. How wrong they were. In contrast to Theresa May’s campaign of steely Victorian values and veiled threats, Corbyn’s Labour chose hope, joy and integrity and a couple of blindingly simple policies. There would be an end to austerity that was severely affecting budgets for schools and education and the health service. Tax rates would remain the same for 95 per cent of the population, but the top five per cent would be heavily taxed to pay for this. The Conservatives mocked that he was promising magic unicorns and money trees.
Yet, the note that Corbyn struck was right. There is poverty in Britain, one million children live in it, many rely on food banks and the money lending sharks. There is also a sense of uncertainty as we leave Europe. Corbyn’s Labour party campaigned on hope, moderation, good humour and integrity.
The key point is that he had earned his integrity—a very rare thing in politics—and the voting public knew it. Young people flocked to register to vote, where before they had felt marginalised by politics. Instead of using scientific methods for the election campaign, Labour and Corbyn moved unpredictably around the country, packing in rallies as if they were a touring rock band. The harsh, sterile approach of the Conservatives, which has dominated all political parties since the 1980s, was thrown out.
It’s impossible to know how much of an impact this move to touchy-feely nice politics had, but Corbyn also had to move politically from the far left to the centre left in a relatively short space of time. It is important to be very cynical about such things.
But somewhere along the line he understood that he personally had to change—he had to listen to and absorb the many varied voices in his party, its moderation as well as its long history for protecting workers rights, while still maintaining his own integrity.
I think that’s admirable (someone set to work on the garden outside his home as well; it now looks properly cared for). He may yet be elected prime minister at the next general election. That would be a great change, to create a Britain that is diverse, more equal and more reflective of itself.
The man and the rickshaw
Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the UK Labor Party, is seen in a Rickshaw in Karachi in 2006, in a photograph taken by Foqia Khan, that appeared on these pages in 2015. “I took this photo while Jeremy Corbyn, Naila Hussain and I were leaving for lunch in a rickshaw in Karachi, where we had gone to attend the World Social Forum in 2006,” she wrote. “Tariq Ali was one of the other highlights of the forum. Having heard Jeremy Corbyn, Tariq Ali and other Stop the War speakers in London, it was nice to meet up with them in Karachi. I took the photo, hence my seat is empty at the back of rickshaw.”