News, Culture & Society

DOMINIC SANDBROOK on the cult of Corbyn

You may not have noticed, but Tuesday will mark the second anniversary of a truly extraordinary moment in our political history.

On September 12, 2015, to the horror of most of his MPs, the jubilation of his hard-Left supporters, the astonishment of Westminster’s media corps and the disbelief of much of the political establishment, Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership contest.

So much has changed in the two years since that it might as well have been a lifetime ago — Britain had yet to vote to leave the EU and David Cameron was Prime Minister after a surprise victory earlier that year.

To all intents and purposes, Labour seemed finished. Among politicians and commentators alike, almost all imagined that Mr Corbyn would be an utter disaster.

‘Among politicians and commentators alike, almost all imagined that Mr Corbyn would be an utter disaster’

I, too, believed that Mr Corbyn would be a record-breaking dud, writing in the Mail: ‘If his supporters seriously think that ordinary people are going to vote to turn Britain into East Germany circa 1970, then I am afraid they are deluding themselves.’

Well, nobody’s perfect and I am happy to admit that Mr Corbyn has proved me wrong. His result in June’s general election campaign was one of the greatest political surprises I can remember.

True, he didn’t win power — indeed, he didn’t even come close. But by winning 30 additional seats to deny Theresa May her expected majority and whipping up enthusiasm among students and the young, he pulled off an achievement nobody predicted.

Derided by most of Fleet Street, loathed by many inside his own party, written off by his Tory opponents, he showed tremendous stoicism, stamina and underdog spirit.

Mr Corbyn now enjoys the strongest position of any Labour leader since Tony Blair at his peak. Indeed, I can’t think of a modern political leader, with the possible exception of Margaret Thatcher, who has commanded such instinctive loyalty and affection from activists.

In case you think I have lost my marbles, the praise stops there. Yes, Mr Corbyn may have proved much more popular than I imagined, but I think his popularity says something terribly disturbing about the state of modern British politics and about our country’s possible future.

Indeed, the fact that Mr Corbyn has done so well — and that his Left-wing Labour Party currently leads the opinion polls, however narrowly — strikes me not just as a terrible indictment of the shambolic state of today’s Conservative Party but a frightening warning of what might be coming tomorrow.

I won’t rehearse all my objections to the Labour leader’s past, his opinions or his plans for our country. You will have heard them all a thousand times, not least from the dozens of decent, moderate Labour MPs, who still refuse to serve under him.

Rallying cry: Corbyn fans hold up a banner at Glastonbury festival in June this year

Rallying cry: Corbyn fans hold up a banner at Glastonbury festival in June this year

The fact that Mr Corbyn gained seats in June does not change the fact that he remains an apologist for the IRA, an opponent of Nato, a supporter of Vladimir Putin and a defender of those failed hard-Left tyrannies of Cuba and Venezuela.

Nor does it alter the fact that as Prime Minister, he would almost certainly scrap our nuclear deterrent, hike taxes on the middle classes, waste billions on renationalisations, saddle our children with massive public debt, hand power back to trade unions and send our economy back to the inflationary excesses of the Seventies.

The fact is, however, that what political scientists call the ‘narrative’ surrounding Mr Corbyn has changed. Even a few months ago he seemed a doomed relic, a political accident, a terrible mistake, a footnote in history.

Today, it seems perfectly plausible that he might become our next Prime Minister: his approval rating has dramatically improved, he attracts crowds wherever he goes, students wear T-shirts bearing his face, and at Glastonbury and other music festivals, thousands slavishly intone the tedious mantra ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ to the tune of 1972 hit Son Of My Father.

Friends and colleagues tell of teenage children who will not hear a word against him. There are tales of nightclubs in affluent West London where, at the end of the evening, scores of privileged youngsters link arms and sing the Corbyn chant.

No British politician in my lifetime has inspired such a personality cult: not Harold Wilson, not Mrs Thatcher, not Tony Blair, not David Cameron. Indeed, many youngsters now talk as if Mr Corbyn’s arrival at 10 Downing Street is an inevitability, rather than merely a dreadful possibility.

As a result, having spent much of the past two years struggling to keep their heads above water, Mr Corbyn and his team can smell power. While many Tory MPs spent the summer bickering about Europe, muttering against Mrs May and sunning themselves in their Tuscan villas, he has been touring the country, posing for photographs, waving to rock-festival crowds and addressing rallies of the deliriously converted.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has spent the summer fuelling union militancy, inciting McDonald’s workers to walk out on strike, and whipping up anti-Government unrest in the hope of destabilising the Tories.

DOMINIC SANDBROOK on the cult of Corbyn

‘Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has spent the summer fuelling union militancy’

While Mrs May’s future as Conservative leader is subject to daily speculation, Mr Corbyn’s grip on the Labour Party tightens by the hour.

Far from being the wake that many people expected a few months ago, therefore, this month’s Labour Party conference seems likely to be the British equivalent of one of Stalin’s Communist congresses, with Corbynista delegates lining up to praise their Great Leader.

It is, I know, unwise to make political predictions these days.

Even so, the atmosphere at Westminster is so febrile, the Conservatives so divided over Brexit and their party machine so demoralised that it is perfectly possible to imagine Mr Corbyn walking into No 10 as Prime Minister within the next few months, the street lined with admirers waving flags — Russian, Iranian and Venezuelan flags, presumably, since the Union Jack would never do.

It is this proximity to power that explains so much of Mr Corbyn’s recent conduct.

Having spent most of his career as an obscure backbencher, delivering rambling tirades to tiny audiences of far-Left cultists, he now seems to have developed a craving for office.

This surely explains the brutal cynicism of his public statements in recent months. And yes, you read that correctly. Mr Corbyn may present himself as the herald of a ‘kinder, gentler’ politics, but the way he and his friends have recently conducted themselves strikes me as marking a dreadful new low in our political discourse.

Look, for instance, at how they reacted to the Manchester bombing during the election campaign, which they cold-bloodedly — and entirely deceitfully — tried to blame on Mrs May because she had trimmed police budgets during her time at the Home Office.

Look at the cruel and exploitative way that they tried to make political capital from the Grenfell Tower disaster, with Mr Corbyn’s Marxist puppet-master John McDonnell — for my money, the most malevolent presence in British politics since Sir Oswald Mosley before the war — even claiming that the residents had been ‘murdered’ by the government.

DOMINIC SANDBROOK on the cult of Corbyn

‘No British politician in my lifetime has inspired such a personality cult: not Harold Wilson, not Mrs Thatcher, not Tony Blair, not David Cameron’ 

For that matter, look at Mr Corbyn’s deceit and hypocrisy over Brexit, saying all things to all men in a naked attempt to appeal to both Leavers and Remainers, even though, as everybody at Westminster knows, he spent most of his career denouncing the EU as a capitalist conspiracy to oppress European workers.

That hasn’t stopped him instructing his party this week to vote against the government’s Bill to withdraw from the EU, in order to weaken Mrs May even more.

Perhaps above all, just look at the way he has seduced so many young voters, not by offering serious answers to their understandable anxieties about jobs, housing and the cost of university education, but by sheer bribery.

Shamefully, during the election he said to all intents and purposes that he would cancel all student debt — even though there is not the remotest chance that the country could afford it.

When he was finally taken to task on that recently, he was forced to admit he had no idea what it would cost and then tried to pretend he had never promised it anyway. What a fraud!

Mr Corbyn’s current political strategy, it seems to me, is based on a cynical refusal to admit hard choices, acknowledge the reality of the balance sheet or tell voters the truth about the dilemmas of power. And if it works, as I fear it might, it would be the greatest political con trick of modern times.

The paradox is that Mr Corbyn so often seems a reasonably calm, courteous and decent man, although not an especially intelligent one (his A-level tally was a pitiful two Es).

Yet in becoming leader, he has, perhaps inadvertently, introduced a terrible poison into our political culture, from which it may take years to recover.

Even many Left-wing veterans have been appalled by the viciousness of his Momentum fan club, which responds to critics and doubters with Stalinist ferocity.

Take gay Labour MP Angela Eagle, for example. When she considered challenging him for the leadership last summer, not only did Mr Corbyn’s supporters throw a brick through her window and subject her to horrific homophobic abuse, but her staff even gave up answering the telephone because they were getting so many threatening calls.

Labour shadow minister and Rotherham MP Sarah Champion was recently forced out

Labour shadow minister and Rotherham MP Sarah Champion was recently forced out

Mr Corbyn always pretends to be completely oblivious to all this, retreating into his cocoon of condescending sanctimony. He leaves the dirty work to Mr McDonnell and his press chief, the vampiric Seumas Milne, who once told readers of his Guardian column that Stalin’s Soviet Union had been greatly maligned.

It was this unlovely couple, for example, who recently forced out the Labour shadow minister and Rotherham MP Sarah Champion, whose offence was to say, in the wake of the appalling abuse scandals in some Northern cities: ‘Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls.’

You might consider this a statement of the bleeding obvious, but in Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party, as in the Soviet Union that Mr Milne once admired, there is little room for honesty and none at all for dissent.

All in all, then, it could hardly be a more dispiriting picture — and that is even before you begin to contemplate the consequences of a Corbyn premiership for millions of British businesses, homeowners and pensioners, let alone the youngsters whose hopes would be so cruelly disappointed.

What Jeremy Corbyn is offering Britain is not socialism — at least not as Labour patriots of the past such as Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Jim Callaghan understood the word. It is demagoguery, pure and simple.

For years, we in Britain thought we were a tolerant, moderate people inherently suspicious of demagogues and extremists, but Mr Corbyn and his friends are currently proving this wrong.

Whether his popularity is nearing its peak, and whether his bubble will eventually burst, is impossible to say.

I would like to believe that the Conservatives can sort themselves out under a sane and credible leader, and that the Labour moderates can somehow fight back against the messianic extremists who have seized control of their party.

But perhaps that is wishful thinking. Only a year ago, I was convinced that the Americans would never elect a man as boorish, undisciplined and unfit for the presidency as Donald Trump. I was wrong about that, just as I was wrong about Mr Corbyn.

We are, I fear, living in an age of political cults in which seriousness is sacrificed for showmanship and audiences flock to leaders who promise them the earth without the slightest intention of delivering.

As a result, by the third anniversary of Mr Corbyn’s ascent to the Labour leadership, he could well be sitting in Downing Street as our new Prime Minister.

I doubt that I am alone in finding that an utterly terrifying thought.