Stephen Daisley

The bland secret of Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal

The bland secret of Jeremy Corbyn's appeal
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Jeremy Corbyn's interview with Grazia (a 2017 sentence if ever there was one) was helpfully revealing. Not his assertion that ‘there will probably be another election in the next 12 months’ and that he ‘will probably win'. That just tells us that the man who supposedly never wanted the job really wants the job. His chat with the glossy magazine provides deeper insights into his character and his methods. Interviewer Anna Silverman writes:

'I want to know whether his jovial good nature is genuine or whether he’s mastered the true politician’s art of charming the crowds. I ask a couple of members of his team – which, interestingly, is mostly female – whether he is always so equable and friendly. They say this is the real deal and he is great fun to work with.' 

No doubt his acolytes believe this but it's at odds with the Corbyn who comes across in Silverman's piece. Consider the awkward exchange when she asks why he hasn't previously sat down with Grazia, which shifts more than 110,000 copies a week. First, he claims never to have been asked. When Silverman points out this isn't true, he switches to scheduling demands. Silverman reminds him that he made time to talk to men's magazines and the NME. ‘Listen,' Corbyn shoots back, 'we have policies including gender pay audits. We have a policy in the Labour Party of women-only shortlists, 61 per cent of all selections made are from women-only shortlists.’ 

There is a lot going on in that 'listen'. Impatience, yes; condescension, of course. As Helen Lewis notes: 'Playing up a naive persona is an incredibly effective shield against uncomfortable questions - and it makes supporters feel protective of him against the beastly MSM. It's fascinating; can't think of any precedent.' There is a certain honesty in Corbyn dropping this schtick to tell Silverman, in effect, Shut up, I've got the woman thing covered.

Even so, these are the most substantive answers Corbyn manages in the entire interview. Everything else is pabulum. On harassment:

'I think sexism is a real challenge in society that needs to be dealt with. The allegations are all investigated and dealt with as appropriate. We support the people making them as well as the people being alleged against.'

On Brexit:

'I think we should continue putting pressure on the Government to allow a transition period to develop, because at the moment we’re in danger of getting into a complete mess in March 2019.'

On the royal wedding:

'She’s clearly a very decent person... Weddings come pretty pricey, I understand, but I think the cost should be borne by the family themselves.’ 

It's been there from the start and has loomed over every interview he has given but for some reason Grazia, intentionally or not, has nailed down his appeal. Jeremy Corbyn, the radical storming the barricades of the British establishment, is, well, boring. Bland. Banal. Middling. Labour's own church of Laodicea – neither hot nor cold but lukewarm. After decades of posturing rhetoric, Corbyn has got into a position where he can push left-wing causes and policies. Instead of revolution, he has gone for reassurance, pitching himself as a slightly otherworldly marrow-grower who just wants more social housing and better frost coverings for his rosebushes. 

By standing for very little, Corbyn can stand for almost anything you want (or need) him to. And so all the strutting millennials with ‘Arm John McDonnell’ in their Twitter profiles cheer for an ideological pacifist who has backed down or surrendered on everything from Trident and shoot-to-kill to boycotting Israel and cutting welfare. Students, 68 per cent of whom now back Labour, tell pollsters either that Corbyn opposes Brexit (58 per cent) or accepts it but wants to remain in the single market and customs union (24 per cent). That eight in ten of the nation's students are misinformed about the leader of the opposition's stance on the biggest political question in generations doesn't speak well for the standard of university education but it is a ringing endorsement of Corbyn's studied dullness. 

And it is, I suspect, studied. In fact, I imagine that the Werther's Original routine was borrowed wholesale from an old comrade. Recall the cult of almost-was that hung around Tony Benn. Otherwise sensible-looking people would assure you the overgrown teenager of the impossibilist left was ‘the best prime minister we never had’. It was an absurd proposition. Benn lacked the temperament, judgement, gravitas and any other quality you care to mention. In the 1980s, he articulated the most extreme-left outlook outside Militant but just as he had gone from toff to Trot, the intemperate agitator had mellowed into benign dotage. The public came around to the new, unthreatening Tony Benn and he was transformed, ludicrously for those with longer memories, into the nation's grandfather. 

In truth, Benn was the prime minister it's best we never had. Corbyn has learned his lesson and mellowed himself in enough time, he hopes, to be grandfathered into Downing Street. He may yet pull it off.