Not Smart: Corbyn's situational awareness as a politician is woeful. Unless he makes the transition from Backbencher to Leader of the Opposition, especially in terms of handling the news media, he will not survive 18 months. If the protestant claimant to the French throne, Henry of Navarre, could see that "Paris is worth a mass", then surely Corbyn can see that Westminster is worth an anthem?
HARRY PERKINS, the hero of A Very British Coup, would have sung ‘God Save the Queen’ – lustily, and standing ramrod straight. Why? Because, his own republican sympathies notwithstanding, he would have understood that the majority of his fellow countrymen both love and believe in Elizabeth II. Refusing to sing – especially at a memorial service to “The Few” who saved Britain from Hitler’s Luftwaffe in 1940 – would have upset them. Not only that, it would have lent credence to the uniformly negative things the Tory press was saying about him. Chris Mullins, the Labour MP who wrote A Very British Coup, knew that to be at all believable, his left-wing, working-class hero would have to be preternaturally media savvy.
Unless Jeremy Corbyn becomes preternaturally media savvy very quickly there will be no need for a very British coup. The general who told The Daily Mirror that a Corbyn-led Labour Government committed to taking the UK out of Nato and scrapping the Trident nuclear deterrent would be removed “by fair means of foul” will no doubt be disappointed to hear it, but it’s true. The anthem incident marked Corbyn as a man almost entirely lacking in the situational awareness so essential to the practice of politics in our media saturated twenty-first century. Without that awareness Corbyn cannot possibly succeed as a radical Labour leader. He will be replaced – and sooner, rather than later.
Corbyn’s mute performance in Westminster Abbey sent commentators from both the Left and the Right scurrying for their George Orwell. And rightly so, because in his 1941 pamphlet, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, there is a passage that could have been written especially for Corbyn.
“England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.”
That was why, when Mullin created Harry Perkins, way back in 1982, he made him the antithesis of Orwell’s “English intellectual”. He knew that there could never be a radical left-wing British prime minister who sniggered at horse-racing or suet-pudding – because the British people would never vote for such a person.
The Fictional Labour Leader, Harry Perkins: "The whiff of treachery."
The other thing Mullin built into his hero was a rock-solid understanding of how crucial the news media has become to the conduct of modern politics. That’s why, when he becomes Prime Minister, Perkins revolutionises the way No. 10 Downing Street interacts with the news media. Rather than, like Corbyn, keeping them at arm’s length and refusing to give them sound-bites for their six o’clock news bulletins, Perkins turns his administration into a more-or-less permanent press conference. He offers political journalists unparalleled access to all his ministers and deluges them with official information. As he suspected, this “love bombing” of the media leaves them feeling uncertain and confused. How do you play “gotcha!” journalism when you’ve already “got” everything you need to write great stories?
Corbyn’s weaknesses as a communicator with the news media were not immediately apparent during the campaign for the Labour leadership. As an essentially internal party process, the political dynamics of that very narrow contest were quite different from those that dominate the politics of Westminster. Those who followed his astonishing rise, and who celebrated his even more astonishing victory, simply assumed that he was equal to the challenge of reformulating his message in a way that rendered it receivable by the Great British Public. To date, it is by no means clear that Corbyn is equal to the challenge.
Indeed, as the weeks pass, it becomes clearer and clearer that the true hero of the Labour leadership contest wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn, but the Labour membership which elected him – ably assisted by the tens-of-thousands who paid Labour three quid to see “a new kind of politics” triumph over business as usual. Looking back over these extraordinary weeks, political and social historians will likely conclude that, far from creating his own following, Corbyn was actually created by it. The MP for Islington North was pressed into the service of a labour movement grown weary of “leaders” who arrived amongst them still shrink-wrapped from the same Blairite factory. Corbyn wasn’t a robot – so Corbyn had to win.
But if Corbyn is not a robot, neither is he a Harry Perkins. Mullins’ hero was strong from the start and only too aware of what lay in wait for him. As he climbs the stairs to the living quarters of No. 10, he quips to the following pack of journalists that there’s a smell of history about the place – “and just the whiff of betrayal”.
Except, in Corbyn’s case, it’s not so much a whiff, as a sickening stench, of betrayal. Knowing that the parliamentary party was bitterly opposed to just about everything he believed in, the only viable course of action available to Corbyn was to establish a powerful emotional connection with the British people – one that allowed him to speak to them directly, over the heads of his parliamentary colleagues. But, as Mullins understood, that can only be done through the news media.
So, rather than shunning the major television platforms, Corbyn should have pitched a tent on them; telling anyone and everyone who asked what they wanted to know. Everything from his favourite brand of breakfast cereal to the alternative purposes to which the billions of pounds currently spent on Trident could be applied. When, inevitably, his colleagues cried foul (and anonymous generals threatened wholesale military revolt) Corbyn should have doubled down: intimating that he would be seeking the party’s endorsement for the policies he was promoting. If they wanted the policies; if they wanted him; then they would have to show the parliamentary wing of the party (and the UK armed forces!) who was boss.
Is there still hope for Jeremy Corbyn? Yes, but it is fast running out. From the moment the results of the leadership election were announced, Corbyn’s allies in the trade unions made it clear that his political survival would depend on replicating in the wider electorate the same radical democratic movement that had carried him to victory within the Labour Party. That could not be done by selecting a shadow cabinet that was three fifths parliamentary enemies and two fifths political crackpots. (Like his Environment Secretary, Kerry McCarthy, who is on record as wanting to mount a campaign against the consumption of meat along the lines of the current campaign against smoking!)
If Corbyn fails to build that radical democratic movement, upon which the success of his leadership depends, he will be gone in 18 months. If he would survive, he needs to re-read Mullins novel and absorb its political lessons. Most crucially, he needs to begin again with the British news media – without whose assistance his messages to the British people cannot be delivered.
One of the most moving moments in the television version of A Very British Coup takes place in a little news-agent’s shop. Harry Perkins ducks in for a box of matches. From the shop counter the right-wing tabloids bellow out the message that Perkins and his government are “Red Scum!” The news-agent hands over the matches, but then, locking eyes with the beleaguered PM, he whispers hoarsely: “You are not red scum!” In spite of the tabloids, Harry’s message has got through. It is the moment when a very British revolution, and its inevitable corollary, a very British coup, both become inevitable.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 27 September 2015.