Jeremy Corbyn’s critics suppose that his status as an outsider, somewhat outside the mainstream of his parliamentary party, may mean that he has a short life span as Leader, but as Benjamin Worthy argues, these attributes served the likes of Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher.
‘Have no fear’ said Churchill of Eden’s successor when Anthony Eden resigned in 1938 ‘the greatness of his office will find him out’. This week large parts of the government, the media and, perhaps most dangerously and short-sightedly, the Parliamentary Labour party are waiting, and mostly hoping, to see Jeremy Corbyn get found out too.
The facts of the Corbyn case have been endlessly repeated with glee or despair, depending on your view. He has never been close to any political office and is a lifetime rebel, the second most rebellious MP against his own party after his own Shadow Chancellor. As a permanent fixture on the Labour backbenches, he has a list of lost causes that would cheer up Saint Jude and is so far to the left he writes a regular column for The Morning Star. He has clocked up more than three decades in the wilderness and margins of political life. He is unpopular with his own party, unknown by the public and unprepared for leadership.
However, these weaknesses could actually be strengths. Being a rebel, in the wilderness, for so long could give Corbyn strengths and opportunities.
First, ‘a politician who cannot bear unpopularity’, argued Churchill in his colonial way, ‘was not worth his salt’. Although he isn’t experienced in any office, Corbyn is very used to the downside of political leadership: unpopularity, criticism and being told he is ‘wrong’. Of all the MPs in Parliament, he’s probably one of the most tested and attuned to political isolation. By now, he has the strength and resilience needed to sustain his principles and, after 30 years fighting, is unlikely to be upset or put out by hostility. He could probably sympathise with FDR’s famous comment in his second New Deal address ‘They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred’.
Second, being a rebel gives a leader a powerful kind of moral ‘licence’ or authority to try to change things. All leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Barack Obama have set themselves up as some kind of ‘outsider’ against the ‘system’: Thatcher famously styled herself as the ‘rebel head of an establishment government’. Corbyn is a genuine rebel, linked to that radicals around Ken Livingstone’s GLC in the 1980s. His new licence is made all the stronger by his democratic crowd-sourced mandate (from, it should be remembered, across the whole Labour party). This can be used as leverage to shake up things-as seen with PMQs this week.
Third, being an ‘outsider’ and a rebel in the wilderness also lends credibility-what John Kane calls in his great study of outsiders, ‘moral capital’. It offers a leader a personal (almost biblical) ‘narrative’ or ‘journey’, of a kind, as John Gaffney points out, now expected in French politics. Time on the margins lends a sense of being ‘apart’ from the ‘elite’, in Corbyn’s case places him far from the Oxford-Cambridge, Bullingdon Clubs and PPE. It can also give a leader rectitude of being ‘right’. Not all Corbyn’s causes are lost. Peace talks in Northern Ireland, opposing privatisation and the invasion of Iraq found him on the right side of history and opinion.
If Corbyn’s ‘rebellion’ and time in the ‘wilderness’ can be put to good use, it places him in some potentially interesting company. From Winston Churchill’s near decade on the Conservative backbenches in the 1930s opposing appeasement to De Gaulle’s patient wait for France’s call in the 1950s, rebellion can be a source of authority, credibility and a justification for radical experiment.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership could, if played right, have him as the genuine rebel head of an anti-establishment party fitting a growing political mood. Office and leadership can do strange things to people-remember the fates of the super experienced, super intelligent Anthony Eden or Gordon Brown. And then there is Clement Attlee, Britain’s most left-wing Prime Minister. Lambasted as a dull nonentity and described by George Orwell as ‘resembling nothing so much as fish rotting from the head downwards’ he is now praised by the Daily Mail. Attlee reflected back on his career, and the unexpected nature of leadership, in a famous self-penned limerick:
‘There were few who thought him a starter,
Many who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended PM,
CH and OM,
an Earl and a Knight of the Garter.’
Note: This article was originally published on the Democratic Audit blog. Featured image credit: Kathleen Tyler Conklin CC BY 2.0
Ben Worthy is a Lecturer in Politics based at Birkbeck College, University of London. As well as Political Leadership his specialisms include Government Transparency and British Politics. He is co-designer of the Measuring Leadership blog.
“He is unpopular with his own party, unknown by the public” – you have got to be joking. He was voted in as leader on the first count with almost 60% of the vote. This is more than Blair got when he stood for leader. As to being unknown by the public – have you actually seen the newspaper and TV stories let alone social media. I think he has better known than John Lennon.
Check your facts. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labour_Party_(UK)_leadership_election,_1994
Tony Blair got half a million votes.
Robin, I agree with your comment.
Because Corbin may well be unpopular with his own party is not a reason to doubt Corbin – Instead, it is a reason to question “what are they protecting?” That is a GOOD question to begin with.
If many se the Tory’s a privileged schoolboys who have never struggled, never fought and experienced vulnerability, should we question whether it is the sum of ALL that resembles a “privileged” existence that anti-Corbyn protestors want to Protect – WHEN THEY SHOUDL BE FIGHTING FOR ‘ORDINARY’ PEOPLE – who remain Failed… and failed again??
“Not all Corbyn’s causes are lost. Peace talks in Northern Ireland…”
It simply isn’t credible to characterise Corbyn’s (or indeed McDonnell’s) past actions and utterances on Northern Ireland as furthering the cause of peace. What they were promoting was the idea that victory should be handed to one side in the conflict and the other side told to lump it. The idea being that if the latter did precisely that then peace would follow. That never represented a viable solution. A cornerstone of the peace process was the idea that the republican movement had to accept that it would have to settle for something less than a united Ireland. Those who took the stance Corbyn and McDonnell took merely helped perpetuate the fiction that a solution existed whereby republicans would not have to accept that.
I agree, not all Corbyn’s causes are lost. However, there is a Valuable competency that ensure good leadership, and that is the ability to listen to all among your team, embrace all differences and ensure a viable decision making process are scrutinised effectively in order to achieve the best possible outcome. How can the re-nationalisation of the Railway system into public hand be a VIABLE way forward?
If Corbyn had no conflict among his team about this policy, this frightens me.
A balance of understanding the relevance between “business” development, People Development and “Care”, are also key elements that signify a Team, rather than leadership. I truly hope that this balance can be applied – as I feel that the NHS does not simply need funding from the tax payer, it desperately needs a rethink about how policy and practice serves the public, and how management and their teams work efficiently and effectively to ensure that good practice is achieved.
Those who just refer to extra… extra and more extra funding to the NHS – without mentioning “management” and teams within the sector, frighten me. It is clear that if the NHS was a private sector business, it would have been bankrupt. However, it is also clear that the NHS needs to be run like a business to scrutinise financial management and people management – ALL efficiencies that require the BEST minds to ensure BEST results.
There lies sufficient evidence showing many who are all for an anti-establishment political party. However, whether the business minds among those people welcome the re-nationalisation of the railway system is a vital difference that I feel will harm the Potential that Corbyn has to reinvent politics, improve a Democracy where Fairness and Justice is at its heart for ALL and to turn progress and development into a productive workforce.
I just don’t get it. How can any Team around Corbyn, who wish for a successful transition for their party, ever agree to re-nationalising the railway system? Firstly, it is not financially viable for the public purse to do so – nor is it or should it be a priority for government to spend money it hasn’t got. Governmen should work on Improving Social Mobility policies aimed at refreshing an ASPIRATION Nation – and Improving a productivity and performance.
Finally, to have the re-nationalisation of the Railway system as a priority policy has to be a BIG concern for ALL, as it most certainly is for me.
Please Mr Corbyn, FOCUS.