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UK Politics: Jeremy Corbyn – the Champagne or the Cork?

September 15, 2015


Gratus proclaims Claudius emperor. Detail from A Roman Emperor 41AD, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Gratus Proclaims Claudius Emperor

I fear for Jeremy Corbyn. Maybe I shouldn’t. After all he’s made his own bed.

And yet, having read acres of stuff about him  – both sympathetic and scathing – since he emerged as a serious contender for the Labour Leadership, I still can’t work out whether he’s the cork blasted out of the champagne bottle, or the golden liquid itself.

If he is the cork, he’s a well-considered, thoughtful piece of tree bark. I accept the logic of many of his embryonic policies (I say embryonic because what they will look like once they’ve been honed by the party grinding machine is anybody’s guess), and I like some of them, even if they may not be in my financial best interest.

His many supporters clearly think he’s the champagne – a heady change from the machine politicians whose every spoken word has been negotiated over by a dozen spin doctors and Whitehall obfuscators. They think he can deliver on turning ideals into action. They love his homespun style, so different from the silken smoothness of his opponents. They think he’s authentic, though I swear I have no idea what it means to be an authentic politician.

Who “they” are remains to be seen. The 0.5% of the electorate that voted for him? A groundswell of people who don’t normally vote but will now rise up and outnumber the privileged majority who rejected his party last time round? A new generation of voters for whom the ideas of the left are fresh and new – a different perspective from that of the old cynics who were around in the Seventies and Eighties and saw the same ideas dispatched to the fringes?

It would only take another major economic crisis, or possibly a political one involving China, Russia or the Middle East, for what one pundit on the BBC last night described as “pre-revolutionary conditions” to arise, and thus for “them” to become a majority. That must frighten the Conservatives, for all the self-satisfied noises they are currently making about Corbyn.

But I wonder if Labour’s new leader is prepared for what he will have to go through over the next few years – assuming he survives in post that long. I wonder if he’s prepared for the stress and the teeth-grinding frustration of having to drag a reluctant parliamentary party along with him. That will probably depend on whether he really is a leader, rather than a catalyst, or a lightning rod for all the idealists, the disaffected, the axe-grinders and the marginalised who see him as some kind of messiah. Will it be a case of “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”?

Those who are unhappy with the status quo are unhappy for many reasons. As I wrote back in July in Jeremy Corbyn and the Atomisation of the Labour Party, Corbyn will find it next to impossible to satisfy all the lobbies, interest groups and political sub-groups that have coalesced under his banner. If his teeth don’t grind down to stumps dealing with the 200-odd Labour members of parliament who didn’t vote for him, he will definitely need dentures by the time his unelected supporters have finished with him. Or possibly a hearing aid.

And that’s before the Conservatives and their friends in the media have had their turn.

Perhaps he’s a man of steel who will not let these competing forces wear him down. Perhaps he will be a Claudius, the Roman Emperor who was discovered hiding behind a curtain when Caligula met his gory end, and hoisted on the shoulders of the Praetorian Guard, to be acclaimed as the new Caesar. He turned out to be less pliable than his soldiers might have anticipated, and was by no means the worst of the Julio-Claudian rulers.

And perhaps because he is now in a position that most likely he never craved for, he will feel that he has nothing to lose by giving it a go, and will not be a broken man if it doesn’t work out. I hope so for his sake. Yet I have an uneasy feeling that though he’s clearly his own man, he will have the devil’s job of dealing with the minders, the ideologues, the union bosses and the political bruisers who will feel that they made him, and that therefore he owes them.

Kerensky or Lenin? Augustus or Claudius? A mild-mannered Trojan Horse? A political Pope Francis? I can think of any number of vaguely appropriate historical analogies to suggest that what you see may not necessarily be what you get.

However things pan out, the next few years in British politics will not be boring.

From → Politics, UK

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