Politics has many established norms. That is why many detest the practice, and were happy to rip up the rules in that fateful EU referendum. Nonetheless, a number of conventional wisdoms remain the case in British politics that are unlikely to change any time soon. Prime Minister’s Questions will always be a ‘Punch and Judy’ adversarial session. Select committee meetings will always seem dull, but are vital for scrutinising government legalisation. Party conference season will continue to remain pointless and irrelevant to those outside party membership.
However, there is perhaps one conventional wisdom more sound than any other. Even a political outsider, whose only glimpse into current affairs is occasionally watching the News at Ten, would understand this. The leader of her Majesty’s Opposition always wants to replace the government, implement the vision of their party and become Prime Minister. Currently that person is Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. While he certainly wants to remove the Conservatives and advocates a socialist ideological vision, does he really want to lead the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
My scepticism about his appetite for the top job stems from his background. This is repeatedly covered ad nauseam in the media, not least during an election campaign. His political life has been spent as a backbencher. Entering Parliament in 1983 after Margaret Thatcher’s second election triumph, he spent 32 years as an outsider and an observer, before unexpectedly joining the front bench in 2015 as leader. He got up to plenty during those 32 years, engaging in wide- ranging protests campaigning against South African apartheid, supporting the rights of Palestinians and opposing Trident nuclear submarines.
This period included inviting convicted IRA volunteers to Parliament in 1984 (though the British government had long maintained discussions with the IRA), and meeting Hamas and Hezbollah in 2009. Though Mr Corbyn argued discussion was the way to peace, it was not his intervention which led to the 1998 Belfast Agreement. And as we are all aware, there is little sign of peace in the Middle East. Corbyn only stood for the Labour leadership to widen the debate, so a voice from the left could be heard. He never expected to be held accountable and defend the individuals he has been associated with.
This is reflective of Mr Corbyn’s leadership. Repeatedly, the Labour leader has stated that leadership is not just about his perspective and refers to hearing the views of others. Throughout his period as leader, multiple video clips have shown that same Corbyn expression: a hand on his chin, nodding his head, listening to the respective teachers or doctors he meets, eager to hear their experience. This can only be welcomed - a joyous contrast from the Presidential style of Tony Blair and David Cameron which, though electorally successful, was far too focused on an individual rather than an ideological perspective.
Yet the task of being Prime Minister requires vision. The ideology for the nation cannot talk for itself. It requires an individual who repeatedly states their purpose, leads the argument and convinces others of their perspective. Labour have been doing this through regular appearances of shadow cabinet members on the media, but as a prospective Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn has to lead this. So often, whether it’s at a march against the Iraq War, at a ‘Stop the War Coalition’ meeting or at a CND rally, Corbyn preaches to those who wholeheartedly agree with his vision. Leadership in politics is about demonstrating why people are incorrect to oppose your vision for the nation and offer coherent solutions for improving the nation.
Throughout Jeremy Corbyn’s period as Labour leader, countless events have shaped his leadership. Instead of framing a vision and encouraging others to follow, he has been forced to adapt his position to accommodate others. This is despite his continued strength within the Labour grassroots. A defining moment of the 2015 Labour leadership campaign was a vote in parliament on disability benefits, where Labour MPs were whipped to abstain. Corbyn’s success came not out of being the only leadership candidate to vote against the cuts - once again rebelling - but by the conflict faced by other candidates when their own views went against the Labour whip. It was not Corbyn’s strength that helped him - rebelling is the norm - but rather the weakness of his opponents. In a debate on whether to extend British air strikes to Syria in
December 2015, Corbyn, despite being personally opposed, was forced to offer a free vote in order to reconcile tensions in the Shadow Cabinet. Again, he didn’t lead but instead followed.
Corbyn is often portrayed as being a radical figure. He certainly presents a departure from the Thatcherite economic consensus which has captured British politics since her ascent in 1979. But in many ways, Corbyn has failed to be radical enough. Despite being as much of a Eurosceptic as Tory MPs John Redwood and Bill Cash, though obviously for different reasons, Corbyn campaigned to remain in the EU, keeping in line with the vast majority of his MPs. Though he initially believed in respecting the referendum outcome, there has been a gradual slide towards a customs union and now a second referendum in all circumstances.
Their health policy hardly differs from previous governments by wishing to increase investment and failing to anticipate the radical reforms the NHS requires. On education policy, their priorities are completely upside down. By advocating the abolition of tuition fees, Labour are focusing on giving a tax cut to middle class earners who have received the benefits of a university education. Surely extra money raised from higher taxation could be better spent reversing welfare cuts or investing in early years education, which is where the social divides begin?
Corbyn has repeatedly allowed his interpretation of the world to be shaped by others. His views, yes, have remained fairly consistent over the last 30 years, but it was down to influencers like the late Tony Benn who shaped his political thoughts rather than a deep ideological conviction. On the European question especially, Corbyn has allowed his views to be framed by party members - not always a bad thing - instead of leading the argument on a Labour Brexit and convincing others. It is obvious that the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is desperate for power. He is hardly ever off the media. Jeremy Corbyn? The picture is more ambiguous. Were he to reach Number 10, the most likely outcome is that events would continue to shape him, instead of the other way round. In a time of political and constitutional crisis, that lack of direction should concern us all.
Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor