Will Jeremy Corbyn's long march lead to power?

Illustration of Jeremy Corbyn drinking tea

The accidental leader

Jeremy Corbyn speaking to supporters in Middlesborough Town Hall during his leadership campaign - 18 August, 2015

Over the next few weeks of campaigning, we will be profiling the main party leaders.


“I have this view that everyone I meet knows something I don't - and we can learn from each other. ’’

Jeremy Corbyn was speaking to me just before going on stage to deliver his 87th speech of the 2015 Labour leadership campaign.

His credo didn’t sound like that of a Stalinist or Trotskyist - terms used in much of the tabloid press to describe, or indeed denounce, him.

But this wasn’t a speech to a local Labour Party, or an anti-war rally, or the Durham Miners’ Gala.

The venue was deep inside what many would have assumed to be “enemy” territory - a theatre in Chelmsford (Conservative majority at the time: 18,250) and it was filled to capacity.

Jeremy Corbyn had acquired Essex appeal.

He didn’t have style. He wasn’t a great orator. He didn’t - on stage at least - demonstrate humour. But he had something.

Possibly it was political conviction, combined with a lack of slickness that had attracted both converts and the curious.

Perhaps he’d caught the zeitgeist - in an era of political disillusionment, lack of experience was seen as a positive asset.

He had never been a government minister, he had never been a shadow minister. Corbyn was someone barely known outside left-wing politics.

The journey from relative obscurity to Corbynmania had been as swift as it was unexpected.

Under recently changed party rules, contenders required the support of 35 MPs to get on the Labour leadership ballot.

Corbyn had cleared this threshold just one minute and 45 seconds before nominations closed at midday on 15 June.

Fewer than half of the MPs backing him were actual supporters from Labour’s left. The rest were MPs who - following Labour’s unexpectedly bad election defeat - wanted the fullest possible debate on the party’s future and “lent” support.

Not much thought had been put into which MP should be the left’s leadership candidate, according to Corbyn. “We decided somebody should put their hat in the ring. And, unfortunately, it’s my hat in the ring,” he told the Guardian. “Well, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell have done it before, so it was my turn.”

Although he had stumbled into the contest, the subsequent campaign was professionally organised.

As a result of reforms by the previous leader Ed Miliband, voting was open not just to party members but also registered supporters.

Those to the left of Labour were encouraged through social media campaigns to sign up.

Some who had abandoned the party during the Blair years returned. Members and former members of the Green Party seemed to be particularly enthused. And some people who simply hadn’t been involved in politics were engaged by Corbyn’s distinctive anti-austerity message.

September 2015: Corbyn supporters awaiting the Labour leadership election result outside Parliament

September 2015: Corbyn supporters awaiting the Labour leadership election result outside Parliament

His campaign was given rocket boosters when he not only opposed the Conservative government’s welfare cuts, but rebelled against his own party’s interim leadership, who wanted to abstain.

The extent of Corbyn’s appeal may have surprised many of his fellow Labour MPs, but the potential reservoir of support had been built up over many years of activism.

While still at grammar school in Shropshire, Corbyn had founded the Wrekin Young Socialists, and had produced a magazine and organised protests against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War.

It was an ideal pedigree for someone who would go on to form the Stop the War coalition in 2001. This was set up to oppose intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11, but it came into its own in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One protest in central London attracted as many as 750,000 people, according to police estimates (the organisers said it was even bigger), with demonstrators drawn from many political parties.

Stop the War’s website in 2015 rather astutely publicised a link to register as a Labour supporter and vote for Corbyn. It accompanied this with a helpful guide entitled “How to vote for Jeremy as leader” and called for his “strong alternative voice to war and austerity” to get a hearing.

He paid them back when he apologised, as party leader, for the previous Labour government’s support for the Iraq war.

September 2015: Jeremy Corbyn becomes Labour leader

September 2015: Jeremy Corbyn becomes Labour leader

Corbyn’s trade union background also stood him in good stead. A former official for the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, and then the public service union NUPE (now Unison) in the 70s, Corbyn was perfectly content to accept trade union funding for his campaign - though mostly from Unite, under the left-wing leadership of Len McCluskey, who was to be an important ally in the years to come.

On 12 September 2015, Corbyn was elected as Labour’s leader, gaining more votes than his three rivals - ex-ministers Burnham and Yvette Cooper, and former shadow minister Liz Kendall - put together.

Over the next few weeks of campaigning, we will be profiling the main party leaders.


“I have this view that everyone I meet knows something I don’t - and we can learn from each other.’’

Jeremy Corbyn was speaking to me just before going on stage to deliver his 87th speech of the 2015 Labour leadership campaign.

His credo didn’t sound like that of a Stalinist or Trotskyist - the terms used in much of the tabloid press to describe, or indeed denounce him.

But this wasn’t a speech to a local Labour Party, or an anti-war rally, or the Durham Miners’ Gala.

The venue was deep inside what many would have assumed to be “enemy” territory - a theatre in Chelmsford (Conservative majority at the time: 18,250) and it was filled to capacity.

Jeremy Corbyn had acquired Essex appeal.

Jeremy Corbyn addressing a rally in Chelmsord, September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn addressing a rally in Chelmsord, September 2015

He didn’t have style. He wasn’t a great orator. He didn’t - on stage at least - demonstrate humour. But he had something.

Possibly it was political conviction, combined with a lack of slickness that had attracted both converts and the curious.

Perhaps he’d caught the zeitgeist - in an era of political disillusionment, lack of experience was seen as a positive asset.

He had never been a government minister, he had never been a shadow minister. Corbyn was someone barely known outside left-wing politics.

The journey from relative obscurity to Corbynmania had been as swift as it was unexpected.

Under recently changed party rules, contenders required the support of 35 MPs to get on the Labour leadership ballot.

Corbyn had cleared this threshold just one minute and 45 seconds before nominations closed at midday on 15 June.

Fewer than half of the MPs backing him were actual supporters from Labour’s left. The rest were MPs who - following Labour’s unexpectedly bad election defeat - wanted the fullest possible debate on the party’s future and “lent” support.

Not much thought had been put into which MP should be the left’s leadership candidate, according to Corbyn. “We decided somebody should put their hat in the ring. And, unfortunately, it’s my hat in the ring,” he told the Guardian. “Well, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell have done it before, so it was my turn.”

Although he had stumbled into the contest, the subsequent campaign was professionally organised.

As a result of reforms by the previous leader Ed Miliband, voting was open not just to party members but also registered supporters.

Those to the left of Labour were encouraged through social media campaigns to sign up.

Some who had abandoned the party during the Blair years returned. Members and former members of the Green Party seemed to be particularly enthused. And some people who simply hadn’t been involved in politics were engaged by Corbyn’s distinctive anti-austerity message.

September 2015: Corbyn supporters awaiting the Labour leadership election result outside Parliament

September 2015: Corbyn supporters awaiting the Labour leadership election result outside Parliament

His campaign was given rocket boosters when he not only opposed the Conservative government’s welfare cuts, but rebelled against his own party’s interim leadership, who wanted to abstain.

The extent of Corbyn’s appeal may have surprised many of his fellow Labour MPs, but the potential reservoir of support had been built up over many years of activism.

While still at grammar school in Shropshire, Corbyn had founded the Wrekin Young Socialists, and had produced a magazine and organised protests against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War.

It was an ideal pedigree for someone who would go on to form the Stop the War coalition in 2001. This was set up to oppose intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11, but it came into its own in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One protest in central London attracted as many as 750,000 people, according to police estimates (the organisers said it was even bigger), with demonstrators drawn from many political parties.

Stop the War’s website in 2015 rather astutely publicised a link to register as a Labour supporter and vote for Corbyn. It accompanied this with a helpful guide entitled “How to vote for Jeremy as leader” and called for his “strong alternative voice to war and austerity” to get a hearing.  

September 2015: Corbyn is named Labour leader

September 2015: Corbyn is named Labour leader

He paid them back when he apologised, as party leader, for the previous Labour government’s support for the Iraq war.

Corbyn’s trade union background also stood him in good stead. A former official for the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, and then the public service union NUPE (now Unison) in the 70s, Corbyn was perfectly content to accept trade union funding for his campaign - though mostly from Unite, under the left-wing leadership of Len McCluskey, who was to be an important ally in the years to come.

On 12 September 2015, Corbyn was elected as Labour’s leader, gaining more votes than his three rivals - ex-ministers Burnham and Yvette Cooper, and former shadow minister Liz Kendall - put together.

Rebel without
a pause

The 1980s may be remembered as the Thatcher era, but for much of the decade, London was run by radical left-wing politicians intent on confronting the Conservative government wherever they could. Ken Livingstone ran the GLC from 1981 until its abolition in 1986, and in Islington the red flag flew over the town hall.

Jeremy Corbyn was very much part of this era.

He was elected as a Labour councillor in the London borough of Haringey in 1974, where he chaired the council’s planning committee. The former council leader Toby (now Lord) Harris says, “I have known him for more than 40 years and his political position has hardly shifted.”

1975: Jeremy Corbyn (left), then a Haringey borough councillor, with colleague Les Silverstone

1975: Jeremy Corbyn (left), then a Haringey borough councillor, with colleague Les Silverstone

Corbyn takes issue with those who say that he is still in some ways the local councillor and campaigner who is immersed in politics at the expense of all else.

His first wife Jane Chapman - who was also a Labour councillor - seemed to think that he spent more time in meetings than he spent with her.

The couple broke up in 1979. Afterwards, she told the Daily Mail: “We didn’t do things that I liked such as going to the cinema or to clubs. I wanted a different work-life balance.”


Leader profiles: Boris Johnson


He had already become a vegetarian. Chapman commented that “he showed little interest in food” and would happily eat baked beans straight from the can.

In other words, this anti-austerity campaigner led a life which was, well, austere. He himself describes his lifestyle as “frugal”.

“He was very passionate in opposing public sector cuts,” says Harris (at that time, cuts by the 1974-79 Labour government). But Corbyn’s political interests were always global as well as local.  He adds: “He feels passionate about national liberation struggles.”

In this, he was following the Corbyn family pattern. His parents Naomi and David met at a gathering in London in the 30s to oppose Franco’s attempt to seize power in Spain.

1984: The newly-elected member for Islington North

1984: The newly-elected member for Islington North

Before standing for elected office, the young Corbyn undertook voluntary work overseas, spending two years as a youth worker in Jamaica in the late 60s. He has also travelled extensively in Latin America.

“I have got very few qualifications,” he once told me (he dropped out of North London Polytechnic), “but I have a fascination of reading, and read a lot.”

He became an MP for Islington North, a seat which borders Haringey, in the general election of 1983. He was the beneficiary of a Labour Party split - the sitting MP had defected to the newly formed SDP, creating a vacancy.

Although he won the seat, the party went down to a disastrous defeat nationally on a manifesto that championed some of Corbyn’s then causes celebres - among them, withdrawal from the EU and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

For the next three decades, he tended to come to prominence usually for campaigning on issues close to his heart - opposing the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the authoritarian regime of Augusto Pinochet, the military leader who ruled Chile between 1973 and 1990.

Corbyn’s second wife Claudia Bracchitta had fled Chile, aged 11, with her parents, following the brutal coup that ousted the democratically elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende.

Support for Pinochet from elements in the US administration fuelled Corbyn's distrust of American intervention around the world - a distrust that has never been dispelled.

While some of Corbyn’s campaigns endeared him to sections of the left, they also helped keep him on the backbenches. And some causes he supported were far more controversial within Labour’s ranks, never mind with the wider public.

While he gained respect - after initial scepticism - for championing the cause of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, wrongly convicted of terrorist offences, Corbyn’s wider support for Irish unity was more problematic.

He fell foul of the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock when he invited two Irish Republican former prisoners - who had not been wrongfully convicted - to the House of Commons in 1984. This was just weeks after the IRA had bombed Brighton’s Grand Hotel during the Conservative conference - coming close to killing Margaret Thatcher.  

Then, as now, he portrayed himself as a pioneer of the peace process.

Kinnock was not the only Labour leader that Corbyn would displease. He rebelled against Tony Blair’s government 533 times – and even voted against his party quite frequently under Ed Miliband’s more left-wing leadership.

In 2009 at a Palestine Solidarity meeting he referred to “our friends from Hezbollah” and “our friends from Hamas”. His defence, when criticised, was similar to his stated reasons for meeting Irish republicans. He told Channel 4 News that “to bring about a peace process, you have to talk to people with whom you profoundly disagree”.

Initially, that also appeared to be his approach to leading Labour.

A question of
leadership

In 2015, the newly elected Labour leader found himself in a strange position. He was popular among new party members and supporters, but not among most of his fellow MPs.

To many of them, Jeremy Corbyn looked both too weak and too radical for the electorate. The party was behind in the polls and a defeat worse than that suffered by Michael Foot in 1983, appeared to beckon.

Some wouldn’t serve in his shadow cabinet, but Corbyn did try to reach out at first. Leadership challenger Andy Burnham became shadow home secretary. Angela Eagle, who would later launch an abortive attempt to oust him, served initially at his top table.

Hilary Benn (left) was removed as shadow foreign secretary following a public disagreement over Syrian air strikes

Hilary Benn (left) was removed as shadow foreign secretary following a public disagreement over Syrian air strikes

Tensions were not long in arising. Three months after Corbyn became leader, the government decided to extend bombing raids to Syria. The Labour leader was furious when the shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn publicly sided with the Conservatives in backing air strikes. It symbolised a gap - soon to become a chasm - between the party in Parliament and the wider membership which backed Corbyn.

Matters came to a head in the wake of the 2016 European referendum. Labour MPs said the leader’s lack of enthusiasm for the Remain campaign had contributed to its defeat.

A plot to oust Corbyn - not, as it turned out, a very well-developed one - had been discussed before the referendum and was put into action soon after. Eight out of 10 of Corbyn’s parliamentary colleagues voted no confidence in him and leading figures in his shadow cabinet resigned.

I am told Corbyn himself was close to resignation at one point but, according to his former chief of staff Katy Clark, he felt he would be letting down the members who had placed their trust in him.

His trade union ally Len McCluskey declined to broker a deal that would have seen Corbyn agree to stand down ahead of the next scheduled election in 2020.

June 2016: Momentum holds a "Keep Corbyn" rally outside Parliament, following calls for the Labour leader's resignation

June 2016: Momentum holds a "Keep Corbyn" rally outside Parliament, following calls for the Labour leader's resignation

It was about this time that the grassroots movement Momentum started to flourish. Set up by veteran left winger Jon Lansman, and Corbyn’s closest political ally, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell, it aimed to harness the spirit of the leadership campaign in order to prepare for, and defend, a future left-wing government.

“From the beginning we expected people to resist, and when they did we were prepared,” says Lansman. Momentum’s membership rose from about 2,000 before what he terms “the coup”, to 20,000. It has since doubled its membership again.

And while Corbyn was seen as - at best - a mundane parliamentary performer by some long-standing MPs, the challenge to his leadership gave him back his mojo.

He did what he did best - addressing rallies of supporters, and campaigning around the country.

Research from the ESRC party members project showed that most of those who had joined Labour before 2015 backed the leadership challenger Owen Smith - but most newer members, attracted by Corbyn’s message, remained steadfastly loyal.

Corbyn’s second leadership victory was won comfortably, and led to a shadow cabinet not exactly in his image, but much closer to his own politics.

Grassroots members, outraged at the leadership challenge, also voted for a ruling national executive that shared Corbyn’s outlook.

When Theresa May called a general election in 2017, many (though not all) pollsters underestimated Labour’s position (including the company employed by the party’s head office).

Poor local election results seemed to presage a disaster. So much so that not one but two putative leadership campaigns began to form. 

His well-attended rallies in marginal seats were initially dismissed as displacement activity and preaching to the converted.

But May often proved awkward and stilted on the campaign trail, while Corbyn revelled in his appearances on the stump.

He astounded many on his own side by taking Labour to a 40% vote share in the 2017 election. Standing outside Labour’s HQ, reporting on the result, I spoke to one of the strategists who emerged smiling from the anonymous building. “How did you do that?” I asked. “No idea,” he said. “We did a lot on social media in the closing stages but I had no clue if it was being effective.”

Corbyn had gained the highest number of votes for Labour since 1997 (although Tony Blair had won a landslide, while Corbyn went down to defeat) and the party’s biggest increase in vote share since the post-war landslide.

Corbyn believes this relative success of the 2017 campaign had much to do with a  manifesto that was distinctly different not just from the Conservatives, but from New Labour, whose brave new dawn ended in the twilight of the 2008 financial crash. It had at its heart higher taxation for the better-off and a plan to bring the railways - along with the water industry in England - back into public ownership.

The 2017 election result also had much to do with keeping both longstanding and newer, more left-wing supporters, on board - a task made easier by a poor Conservative campaign and a weak Lib Dem alternative.

The sometimes dismissive tone towards Corbyn in the press was revised and far fewer people laughed at the idea that he could one day be prime minister.

In the immediate aftermath of the election his personal ratings - which have since slumped - were far more positive than May’s

He was lauded by festival goers at Glastonbury where he delivered a speech from the main Pyramid Stage - once the preserve of rock royalty.

Festival goers at Glastonbury holding aloft a placard reading "Ohhh Jeremy Corbyn"

“The commentariat got it wrong,” he told the crowd. “The elite got it wrong. Politics is about the lives of all of us, and the wonderful campaign that I was involved with, that I was so proud to lead, brought people back into politics because they believed there was something on offer for them.”

At Glastonbury, and throughout the summer of 2017, the chant of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” (to the tune of the White Stripes hit, “Seven Nation Army”) seemed ubiquitous. Indeed later that year his deputy Tom Watson - a regular Glastonbury attendee, with whom Corbyn has had a strained relationship - led a chorus from the stage at Labour’s annual conference.

But the price of apparent popularity is scrutiny.

Corbyn’s second period of leadership has not been entirely sure-footed, and some critics see flaws that might haunt him if he makes it to Downing Street.

A question of judgement?

Illustration of Jeremy Corbyn

One of Jeremy Corbyn’s close colleagues puts it like this: 

“You have to understand that Jeremy does move on issues, but he moves very slowly.”

In an era of fast-moving media, some question whether Corbyn is flexible enough to change his position - especially when it becomes all but untenable - or whether he has the judgement to inoculate himself against issues that have become toxic. 

Corbyn has made it clear on many occasions that he opposes “anti-Semitism and all forms of racism”. Yet he remains accused by some in his own party of doing too little, too late when it comes to tackling anti-Semitism. 

His leadership victory brought in some activists who had been in parties to the left of Labour, as well as some former activists that had left over Iraq.

Corbyn takes the same line as his mentor, the late Tony Benn, that “there are no enemies on the left”. He opposed Neil Kinnock’s expulsion of Militant activists in the 80s, along with many on Labour’s left who termed it a “witch hunt”. 

However, Militant wasn’t just a grouping of left-wing Labour supporters. It was a front for the Revolutionary Socialist League - a Trotskyite group that sought to infiltrate a non-revolutionary, democratic socialist party. So it could be argued that in Labour’s broad church, Corbyn has always been happy to keep an open door to its left.

And the recent arrival, or re-entry, of some on the left who had been critical of Israeli governments and Western policy in the Middle East, seems to have coincided with an increase in allegations of anti-Semitism.

Although the overall number of cases is still relatively small, the political impact has been big.

Following the attempt to oust him in 2016, Some of Corbyn’s supporters became more raucous on social media.

Insiders say these self-styled cheerleaders did him no favours by claiming that the issue was essentially anti-Corbyn propaganda, when party officials had uncovered examples of anti-Semitism among some of his self-declared supporters.

One poll, by YouGov for the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, suggested more than eight  out of 10 Jewish voters believed that Labour was too tolerant of anti-Semitism, and tainting the brand of an anti-racist party, in the view of many of its MPs.

Whether this perception is fair, the anti-Semitism row raises questions about Corbyn’s own leadership abilities.

July 2018: Jewish community groups protest outside Parliament against the Labour Party's response to anti-Semitism allegations

July 2018: Jewish community groups protest outside Parliament against the Labour Party's response to anti-Semitism allegations

His support for attempts to add caveats to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, insisting that free speech on Israel should be protected when deciding whether party members would be disciplined, caused friction even within the left of the party.

Corbyn’s judgement was also called into question when it was revealed that in 2012, he had defended a mural depicting bankers playing what appeared to be Monopoly on the backs of the poor.

Many saw it as a classic anti-Semitic trope, including the then Labour (now Lib Dem) MP Luciana Berger, who brought it to wider attention.

Corbyn was forced on the defensive, saying he should have looked more closely at the image.

Party processes in dealing with complaints of anti-Semitism have been speeded up. His supporters point out that he didn’t halt the expulsion of long-standing ally Ken Livingstone, or try to prevent another close colleague, the Derby MP Chris Williamson, from being disciplined for saying that Labour had “given too much ground” on the issue.

But Labour is now being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and there are fears that if it reports negatively in due course, his leadership will be seriously undermined. 

The well-publicised allegations have already hit Corbyn hard politically - gnawing away at trust, advertising internal divisions, and making his claim to the moral high ground less firm.

Lord Harris may consider that Corbyn’s views have remained rigid, but his position on other matters has certainly become more flexible - for instance, unilateral nuclear disarmament, an issue on which he campaigned in 1983.

Many of Corbyn’s trade union backers have wanted him to maintain and renew the deterrent and so far, he hasn’t changed the party’s policy of multilateral not unilateral nuclear disarmament.

However, that doesn’t mean he has accepted the concept of deterrence. At his first party conference as leader in 2015, he made it clear that he would never press the nuclear button.

On the issue of Brexit, Corbyn has also shown flexibility.

There is a good reason for this. During the failed 2016 leadership challenge, the members were on his side against the parliamentarians.

On Brexit, the grass roots have been more in step with MPs - pro-Remain, and in favour of a second referendum.

Corbyn’s own views seem to have evolved - accommodating, if not embracing, the aspirations of some of the newer, younger pro-EU members. But his critics say that he should have led from the front.

He opposed membership of the then-EEC at the 1975 referendum and happily stood on the 1983 Labour manifesto calling for withdrawal. Like Benn, he has been suspicious of an organisation where he believes unelected Brussels bureaucrats have huge influence - including initiating legislation.

Corbyn's views on Europe are thought to echo those of his political ally, the late Tony Benn (pictured here in 2009)

Corbyn's views on Europe are thought to echo those of his political ally, the late Tony Benn (pictured here in 2009)

In the 2016 referendum, he addressed plenty of meetings for the Remain cause, but pro-EU MPs sensed a lack of gusto.

As one MP said to me at the time, “He is far more interested in food banks than euro federalism”.

A prominent Momentum member said he believed Corbyn hoped initially to “get Brexit out of the way, and move on to issues that really mattered”.

Interviewed on a Channel 4 show during the referendum campaign, he himself put his enthusiasm for EU membership at “the top half of the five-10 range; seven, maybe seven-and-a-half out of 10”.  

He was then swift - some thought a little too swift - to say he would respect the result of the referendum.

He tried to negotiate a Leave deal in the dying days of the May premiership, but this was subsequently abandoned - apparently amid fears that she could not deliver enough of her own MPs in support of it.

But he has changed position again - now offering a new referendum with Remain on the ballot paper if there’s a Labour government.

He still wants to negotiate what he calls a “credible Leave option” to give voters a choice.

But what is interesting is that he has shifted not because of pressure applied by those who almost always criticise him.

Key voices on the left have grown louder in calling for a clearer Remain stance, especially after disastrous European election results in May 2019.

These include John McDonnell, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, and shadow treasury minister Clive Lewis. But for some on the left, he is still too stubborn. He won’t make Labour an avowedly Remain party.

I am told that’s a red line he will not cross.

Others think that while he has shown flexibility, he hasn’t shown agility. Even some of his own inner circle feel he should have displayed more clarity during the European election campaign.

Corbyn still won’t say if he would adopt a neutral stance between Leave and Remain in a Labour-instigated referendum.

That will all be decided in due course at a special conference.

Crueller critics say he is sitting on the fence over whether he’ll sit on the fence.

So doubts remain over whether he would be nimble enough to react to the public and the party’s mood in No 10.

One of Jeremy Corbyn’s close colleagues puts it like this:

“You have to understand that Jeremy does move on issues, but he moves very slowly.”

In an era of fast-moving media, some question whether Corbyn is flexible enough to change his position - especially when it becomes all but untenable - or whether he has the judgement to inoculate himself against issues which have become toxic.

Corbyn has made it clear on many occasions that he opposes “anti-Semitism and all forms of racism”. Yet he remains accused by some in his own party of doing too little, too late when it comes to tackling anti-Semitism.

His leadership victory brought in some activists who had been in parties to the left of Labour, as well as some former activists that had left over Iraq.

Corbyn takes the same line as his mentor, the late Tony Benn, that “there are no enemies on the left”. He opposed Neil Kinnock’s expulsion of Militant activists in the 80s, along with many on Labour’s left who termed it a “witch hunt”.

However, Militant wasn’t just a grouping of left-wing Labour supporters. It was a front for the Revolutionary Socialist League - a Trotskyite group that sought to infiltrate a non-revolutionary, democratic socialist party. So it could be argued that in Labour’s broad church, Corbyn has always been happy to keep an open door to its left.

And the recent arrival, or re-entry, of some on the left who had been critical of Israeli governments and Western policy in the Middle East, seems to have coincided with an increase in allegations of anti-Semitism.

Although the overall number of cases is still relatively small, the political impact has been big.

Following the attempt to oust him in 2016, Some of Corbyn’s supporters became more raucous on social media.

Insiders say these self-styled cheerleaders did him no favours by claiming that the issue was essentially anti-Corbyn propaganda, when party officials had uncovered examples of anti-Semitism among some of his self-declared supporters.

One poll, by YouGov for the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, suggested more than eight  out of 10 Jewish voters believed that Labour was too tolerant of anti-Semitism, and tainting the brand of an anti-racist party, in the view of many of its MPs.

Whether this perception is fair, the anti-Semitism row raises questions about Corbyn’s own leadership abilities.

His support for attempts to add caveats to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, insisting that free speech on Israel should be protected when deciding whether party members would be disciplined, caused friction even within the left of the party.

Corbyn’s judgement was also called into question when it was revealed that in 2012, he had defended a mural depicting bankers playing what appeared to be Monopoly on the backs of the poor.

Many saw it as a classic anti-Semitic trope, including the then Labour (now Lib Dem) MP Luciana Berger, who brought it to wider attention.

Corbyn was forced on the defensive, saying he should have looked more closely at the image.

Party processes in dealing with complaints of anti-Semitism have been speeded up. His supporters point out that he didn’t halt the expulsion of long-standing ally Ken Livingstone, or try to prevent another close colleague, the Derby MP Chris Williamson, from being disciplined for saying that Labour had “given too much ground” on the issue.

But Labour is now being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and there are fears that if it reports negatively in due course his leadership will be seriously undermined. 

The well-publicised allegations have already hit Corbyn hard politically - gnawing away at trust, advertising internal divisions, and making his claim to the moral high ground less firm


 

Lord Harris may consider that Corbyn’s views have remained rigid, but his position on other matters has certainly become more flexible - for instance, unilateral nuclear disarmament, an issue on which he campaigned in 1983.

Many of Corbyn’s trade union backers have wanted him to maintain and renew the deterrent and so far, he hasn’t changed the party’s policy of multilateral not unilateral nuclear disarmament.

However, that doesn’t mean he has accepted the concept of deterrence. At his first party conference as leader in 2015, he made it clear he’d never press the nuclear button.

On the issue of Brexit, Corbyn has also shown flexibility.

There is a good reason for this.

During the failed 2016 leadership challenge the members were on his side against the parliamentarians.

On Brexit, the grass roots have been more in step with MPs - pro-Remain, and in favour of a second referendum.

Labour activist wearing a "Love Corbyn Hate Brexit" t-shirt and holding another in his hand

Corbyn’s own views seem to have evolved - accommodating, if not embracing, the aspirations of some of the newer younger pro-EU members. But his critics say that he should have led from the front.

He opposed membership of the then-EEC at the 1975 referendum and happily stood on the 1983 Labour manifesto calling for withdrawal. Like Benn, he has been suspicious of an organisation where he believes unelected Brussels bureaucrats have huge influence - including initiating legislation.

In the 2016 referendum, he addressed plenty of meetings for the Remain cause, but pro-EU MPs sensed a lack of gusto.

As one MP said to me at the time, “He is far more interested in food banks than euro federalism”.

A prominent Momentum member said he believed Corbyn hoped initially to “get Brexit out of the way, and move on to issues that really mattered”.

Interviewed on a Channel 4 show during the referendum campaign, he himself put his enthusiasm for EU membership at “the top half of the five-10 range; seven, maybe seven-and-a-half out of 10”.  

He was then swift - some thought a little too swift - to say he’d respect the result of the referendum.

He tried to negotiate a Leave deal in the dying days of the May premiership, but this was subsequently abandoned - apparently amid fears that she could not deliver enough of her own MPs in support of it.

But he has changed position again - now offering a new referendum with Remain on the ballot paper if there’s a Labour government.

He still wants to negotiate what he calls a “credible Leave option” to give voters a choice.

But what is interesting is that he has shifted not because of pressure applied by those who almost always criticise him.

Key voices on the left have grown louder in calling for a clearer Remain stance, especially after disastrous European election results in May 2019.

These include John McDonnell, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, and shadow treasury minister Clive Lewis. But for some on the left, he is still too stubborn. He won’t make Labour an avowedly Remain party.

I am told that’s a red line he will not cross.

Others think that while he has shown flexibility, he hasn’t shown agility. Even some of his own inner circle feel he should have displayed more clarity during the European election campaign.

Corbyn still won’t say if he would adopt a neutral stance between Leave and Remain in a Labour-instigated referendum.

That will all be decided in due course at a special conference.

Crueller critics say he is sitting on the fence over whether he’ll sit on the fence.

So doubts remain over whether he would be nimble enough to react to the public and the party’s mood in No 10.

The personal
is political

Pre-arrange an interview with Jeremy Corbyn, and he is far more engaging, disarming - even charming - than you might imagine.

He’ll sometimes tell you about a book he has been reading. He will occasionally poke gentle fun at his internal opponents.

He once told me his 2016 leadership challenger Owen Smith offered him the post of party president if he’d stand aside.

He then said in hushed tones, with a glint in his eye: “Of course I found out this post didn’t actually exist.”

He once took me through the history of a building society advertised in a hoarding behind him, as he warmed up for an interview on the campaign trail.

And recently, he gave a colleague his top holiday tips for a visit to Mexico (his third wife, Laura Alvarez – whom he married in 2012 – is Mexican).

But often he is more thin-skinned, resenting in particular those who try to get an unauthorised word from him outside his front door.

He is fiercely protective of his privacy and that of his family. He would say he is open to scrutiny, but that he draws the line at intrusion.

In his acceptance speech as party leader in 2015, Corbyn denounced the “appalling levels of abuse” that members of his family suffered during the campaign and he appealed to reporters to “leave them alone in all circumstances”.

And there are circumstances where Corbyn himself would like to be left alone.

He once chided Channel 4’s Cathy Newman and myself for talking over each other as we fired off questions to him.

Martyn Sloman - a member of Islington Labour in the 1980s - told me Corbyn behaved much the same way to party members as to the press. He was never rude or aggressive, says Sloman, but he didn’t like being challenged: “That was his weakness. He didn’t like criticism at all. He bridled at it.”

And some say his thin skin must transform into a rhino hide if he is to go from opposition leader to prime minister.

But does he really want the job? Or is he - as some critics suggest - more interested in moving Labour permanently to the left?

Lansman says that the Corbyn leadership has changed Labour irrevocably. “We are never going back to neo-liberalism,” he says. “That’s been decided forever - well, for a generation. The party is a fundamentally different party and there is no going back.”

And it’s certainly true that the party has changed rapidly under Corbyn’s leadership. The levers of power in the party are now controlled by his supporters.

If he is willing to be as ruthless, and as determined in the face of adversity, his backers believe he can lead a radical government.

But before becoming Labour leader, his appetite for power seemed to be rather limited.

In his Guardian interview in 2015 – when he got on the leadership ballot but before he won the contest – he said: “At my age I’m not likely to be a long-term contender, am I?”

He often sidesteps the direct question. Soon after becoming Labour leader, Corbyn chose to answer the question in this way: “The best type of leader is a reluctant leader.”

He certainly reflected long and hard when most of his MPs wanted to oust him in 2016, but he didn’t resign.

He has resilience.

And he's made clear that despite speculation he will serve a full term as prime minister if he's elected.

Some detractors question how far he’d be in charge if elected. They point to the influence wielded by advisers, such as former political commentator turned strategist Seumas Milne,  and Andrew Murray, a veteran of the Stop the War coalition.

But this is dismissed by one insider, who says there is a myth of “the good king and the bad advisers” - they insist that Jeremy Corbyn knows his own mind and his staff reflect rather than mould his views.

There is a belief in his inner circle that “dark forces in the Establishment” will do whatever they can to stop him entering Downing Street.

There was a call for an investigation when the Times, in June, alleged that senior civil servants had questioned his physical fitness for office.

McDonnell, however, claims that Labour’s leader is the “fittest person I know”.

But some opponents may be closer to home.

Momentum has supported his leadership but has at times also shown its independence.

I’m told that its founder, Jon Lansman, hopes that John McDonnell will become the next party leader. But McDonnell himself recently told GQ magazine that the next leader should be a woman.

What is remarkable is that, on the brink of an election, in the bars, cafes and corridors at Labour’s recent conference, there was widespread speculation over who should be Corbyn’s replacement.

I was even told of a putsch that never really quite came to shove.

In July this year, leading Labour peers took out a newspaper advert arguing that Jeremy Corbyn “had failed the test of leadership”.

It was dismissed at the time as the predictable opposition of those ennobled by Corbyn’s predecessors.

But the initiative didn’t come out of the blue.

It was designed to give impetus to some on the left who were trying to sound out shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey as a replacement.

Any potential plot quickly evaporated, but those mulling over whether or how to proceed  wanted to clear out some of the key figures in the leader’s office too - and that part of the plan now seems to have come to fruition.

Corbyn’s robust gatekeeper Karie Murphy - a close friend and ally of Unite’s Len McCluskey - has been moved aside to a role in the party’s head office.

Some of the Labour leader’s supporters believe that a move to drain his authority is under way.

Corbyn’s position has also been weakened by the announced departure of Andrew Fisher - his policy guru who managed to be close both to the Labour leader and the shadow chancellor.

In a letter to friends - seen initially by the Sunday Times and subsequently by the BBC -  he denounces “a lack of professionalism and competence” in the backroom operation. He says that, while he hopes he is proved wrong, “I no longer have faith that we can succeed”.

But there is no full frontal assault and it’s still likely Corbyn himself will choose when and how to go - though McDonnell has said this would only happen in the event of another election defeat.

But his continuing supporters insist Jeremy Corbyn is here for the long haul.

He is both fit and willing to take Labour to power.

His pitch at his annual conference was that he could  bring a “different type of leadership” to politics.

And his supporters would insist that after the divisions of the Brexit debate, it’s this serial rebel who is best placed to unite the country.

His current catchphrase is “trust the people”.

We won’t have to wait long to find out if they are willing to trust him.

Pre-arrange an interview with Jeremy Corbyn, and he is far more engaging, disarming - even charming - than you might imagine.

He’ll sometimes tell you about a book he has been reading. He will occasionally poke gentle fun at his internal opponents.

He once told me his 2016 leadership challenger Owen Smith offered him the post of party president if he’d stand aside.

He then said in hushed tones, with a glint in his eye: “Of course I found out this post didn’t actually exist”.

He once took me through the history of a building society advertised in a hoarding behind him, as he warmed up for an interview on the campaign trail.

And recently, he gave a colleague his top holiday tips for a visit to Mexico (his third wife, Laura Alvarez – whom he married in 2012 – is Mexican).

But often he is more thin-skinned, resenting in particular those who try to get an unauthorised word from him outside his front door.

Jeremy Corbyn snapped outside his front door

He is fiercely protective of his privacy and that of his family. He would say he is open to scrutiny, but that he draws the line at intrusion.

In his acceptance speech as party leader in 2015, Corbyn denounced the “appalling levels of abuse” that members of his family suffered during the campaign and he appealed to reporters to “leave them alone in all circumstances”.

And there are circumstances where Corbyn himself would like to be left alone.

He once chided Channel 4’s Cathy Newman and myself for talking over each other as we fired off questions to him.

Martyn Sloman - a member of Islington Labour in the 1980s - told me Corbyn behaved much the same way to party members as to the press. He was never rude or aggressive, says Sloman, but he didn’t like being challenged: “That was his weakness. He didn’t like criticism at all. He bridled at it.”

And some say his thin skin must transform into a rhino hide if he is to go from opposition leader to prime minister.

But does he really want the job? Or is he - as some critics suggest - more interested in moving Labour permanently to the left?

Lansman says that the Corbyn leadership has changed Labour irrevocably. “We are never going back to neo-liberalism,” he says. “That’s been decided forever - well, for a generation. The party is a fundamentally different party and there is no going back.”

And it’s certainly true that the party has changed rapidly under Corbyn’s leadership. The levers of power in the party are now controlled by his supporters.

If he is willing to be as ruthless, and as determined in the face of adversity, his backers believe he can lead a radical government.

But before becoming Labour leader, his appetite for power seemed to be rather limited.

In his Guardian interview in 2015 – when he got on the leadership ballot but before he won the contest – he said: “At my age I’m not likely to be a long-term contender, am I?”

He often sidesteps the direct question. Soon after becoming Labour leader, Corbyn chose to answer the question in this way: “The best type of leader is a reluctant leader.”

He certainly reflected long and hard when most of his MPs wanted to oust him in 2016, but he didn’t resign.

He has resilience.

And he's made clear that despite speculation he will serve a full term as prime minister if he's elected.

Some detractors question how far he’d be in charge if elected. They point to the influence wielded by advisers, such as former political commentator turned strategist Seumas Milne,  and Andrew Murray, a veteran of the Stop the War coalition.

But this is dismissed by one insider, who says there is a myth of “the good king and the bad advisers” - they insist that Jeremy Corbyn knows his own mind and his staff reflect rather than mould his views.

There is a belief in his inner circle that “dark forces in the Establishment” will do whatever they can to stop him entering Downing Street.

There was a call for an investigation when the Times, in June, alleged that senior civil servants had questioned his physical fitness for office.

McDonnell, however, claims that Labour’s leader is the “fittest person I know”.

But some opponents may be closer to home.

Momentum has supported his leadership but has at times also shown its independence.

I’m told that its founder, Jon Lansman, hopes that John McDonnell will become the next party leader. But McDonnell himself recently told GQ magazine that the next leader should be a woman.

What is remarkable is that, on the brink of an election, in the bars, cafes and corridors at Labour’s recent conference, there was widespread speculation over who should be Corbyn’s replacement.

I was even told of a putsch that never really quite came to shove.

In July this year, leading Labour peers took out a newspaper advert arguing that Jeremy Corbyn “had failed the test of leadership”.

It was dismissed at the time as the predictable opposition of those ennobled by Corbyn’s predecessors.

But the initiative didn’t come out of the blue.

It was designed to give impetus to some on the left who were trying to sound out shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey as a replacement.

Any potential plot quickly evaporated, but those mulling over whether or how to proceed  wanted to clear out some of the key figures in the leader’s office too - and that part of the plan now seems to have come to fruition.

Jeremy Corbyn’s robust gatekeeper Karie Murphy - a close friend and ally of Unite’s Len McCluskey - has been moved aside to a role in the party’s head office.

Some of the Labour leader’s supporters believe that a move to drain his authority is under way.

Corbyn’s position has also been weakened by the announced departure of Andrew Fisher - his policy guru who managed to be close both to the Labour leader and the shadow chancellor.

In a letter to friends - seen initially by the Sunday Times and subsequently by the BBC -  he denounces “a lack of professionalism and competence” in the backroom operation. He says that, while he hopes he is proved wrong, “I no longer have faith that we can succeed”.

But there is no full frontal assault and it’s still likely Corbyn himself will choose when and how to go - though McDonnell has said this would only happen in the event of another election defeat.

But his continuing supporters insist Jeremy Corbyn is here for the long haul.

He is both fit and willing to take Labour to power.

His pitch at his annual conference was that he could  bring a “different type of leadership” to politics.

And his supporters would insist that after the divisions of the Brexit debate, it’s this serial rebel who is best placed to unite the country.

His current catchphrase is “trust the people”.

We won’t have to wait long to find out if they are willing to trust him.

Author: Iain Watson

Illustrator: Emma Lynch

Photography & illustration sources: Getty Images, PA, Paul Mattsson

Online production: Ben Milne

Editors: Ben Milne & Kathryn Westcott