Corbyn may have avuncular charm, but he’s no man of the people

Published by The ipaper (25th September, 2017)

Jeremy Corbyn displayed his usual avuncular style ahead of his party’s annual conference. Certainly he has good cause to smile as he trots out his platitudes on fairness and public sector pay. He has silenced internal critics after a general election that transformed the latest Labour defeat into a strange kind of success. Now he is untouchable as leader, squeezing out opponents and still milking the applause. Meanwhile his Conservative rivals rip themselves apart in public.

Labour surged in the election campaign as a repository for protest votes. Now with every Boris Johnson outburst on Brexit, Corbyn shifts one step closer to Downing Street. The veteran Left-winger arrived in Brighton as prime minister-in-waiting, which still feels incredible for someone like me, who first covered him on his local newspaper three decades ago. Yet note how his mask of authenticity slipped when asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr if he had ever taken an Uber ride? ‘I’m not sure,’ he replied, dodging the question like any other shifty politician in a tight spot.

The London ban on Uber exposed the regressive nature of Corbyn’s Labour with cruel timing ahead of conference. The cab firm is a tax-avoider whose crass founder showed corporate leadership in its most unattractive light. But it is also a superb example of disruptive technology challenging a protected market and outdated regulations to the benefit of customers. It provides 40,000 jobs, better service and cheaper fares. Yet Labour sided with the Luddites to satisfy its union paymasters.

This shows the party’s real face beneath its ‘radical’ makeover: conservative, anti-competitive and in hock to the unions. For all the smooth words and smart suits, its leadership places the state and a sense of uniformity before any concept of free market and individual choice. Corbyn also ducked Marr’s question over support for his Socialist chums wrecking oil-rich Venezuela with their ‘inspirational’ alternative to neo-liberalism. His stance over this nation’s decline into chaos, poverty and repression highlights how his pose on human rights is hollow and highly partisan.

Corbyn is, undoubtedly, picking up on profound anger and unease among much of the electorate. Some is justified on issues such as disability benefits, inadequate housing, crumbling social care and corporate greed. Yet such is the Tory torment on Europe that Labour is being given free rein to sweep up concerned voters with its muddle-headed populism while ministers feud over Brexit. This is aided by failure to take its leader seriously before Theresa May managed to blow her predecessor’s majority with such stunning incompetence.

Now the big question is whether Corbyn simply enjoyed a better-timed version of Cleggmania as other protest parties collapsed – or whether we are witnessing a generational shift in political attitudes, legacy of the financial crisis and stagnating pay, that will lift him to power. Corbyn’s solutions tend to look backwards, such as reviving nationalisation or ending tuition fees. Yet his party faces almost as deep an existential challenge as the Tories in Britain’s divided nation, trying to bind together open-minded cosmopolitans angered by Brexit with traditional voters in northern heartlands.

Corbyn played key role in delivering Brexit with his muted campaigning, so different to the energy displayed in the election battle, yet still soaked up voters dismayed by severance of ties with Europe. Even now he faces both ways while hiding his long-standing antipathy to Brussels. He claims he will listen to calls to keep Britain in the single market, backed by most Labour members, yet then argues this might hamper state interventions in industry. ‘What is Corbyn blathering about,’ responded Denis MacShane, a former Labour Europe minister, pointing out that President Emmanuel Macron just nationalised France’s biggest shipyard to protect jobs.

If the Tories had not descended into insanity over Europe, they would be working day and night to stop Corbyn and his hard-Left cabal from taking power. Instead they have lost confidence in core beliefs, their track record is tinged with failure and focus is only on muddling through a Brexit that threatens to tear them apart while corroding appeal with younger people and business supporters. This leaves them speaking to a core vote becoming less diverse, less well-educated, less affluent and more nationalistic. May personally detests racism – yet at the last election won a smaller share of non-white voters than the bigoted Donald Trump in America.

This extraordinary revelation emerged when 200 entrepreneurs, politicians and think-tank types gathered last week in Berkshire for the Big Tent Ideas Festival. Despite being daftly dubbed ‘the Tory Glastonbury’, this brainchild of MP George Freeman was a noble attempt to reach out for new ideas to re-energise both the party and politics. The discussions were short and stimulating, the crowd younger than the usual Conservative gathering. I even heard one speaker mention the Big Society. Yet such efforts feel doomed while the old guard at the top bang on about Brexit and impeding free movement, ideas so inimical to modernity.

Corbyn deserves credit for reviving his party and enthusing younger crowds. But as he stands on threshold of power, this conference season exposes the dismal state of politics in this divided nation. The two main parties, struggling to retain historic coalitions, are both looking backwards to find answers in a fast-changing world that threatens to leave behind Britain. Labour seeks to revive Seventies socialism while Tories flirt with crude nationalism. Meanwhile the country has seen its credit rating slip again thanks to Brexit. Perhaps we should just call a cab for the lot of them?

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