Jeremy Corbyn is a rarity among politicians. All his enemies are on his own side. For the Tories, Ukip and the SNP, Corbyn is a dream made real. They could not love him more. As the riotous scenes at the shadow cabinet and parliamentary Labour party meetings this week showed, his colleagues see Corbyn and John McDonnell as modern Leninists who are mobilising their cadres to purge all dissidents from the party.
Conversations with Corbyn’s aides show a gentler side to the new regime, however. They suggest the Corbynistas are unlikely to be able to control Labour MPs when they can barely control themselves.
‘Chaos’ was the word that came up most often, followed by ‘panic’ and ‘unforced errors’. Corbyn’s staffers were working 12-hour days. As tiredness and hysteria built, rows broke out, voices were raised and accusations of bullying followed. So tense is the mood that John McDonnell’s supporters suggested that Corbyn’s staff do what all oppressed workers of the world should do: join a trade union and force the hated boss class to heed their justified grievances.
It is no wonder his aides are jittery. They have had to build a party leader from scratch. Take the image which ‘Jeremy’ — as every-one insists on calling him — presents to the public. Even his closest friends had to admit that his ‘FE lecturer at the Primark sale’ was not perhaps the style a man aiming to be prime minister should ape.
After much time and argument, they found a stylist he would agree to listen to. The stylist’s suggestions were practical. Jeremy’s trousers were too long. Folds of cloth concertinaed up on top of his shoes, making him look as if he were wearing another man’s clothes. Jeremy should perhaps consider buying trousers with a ‘small’ or ‘regular’ leg, the stylist said, as the ‘long’ leg was, well, too long for him. He was to stop wearing striped shirts, which do not look good on television, and dress in plain colours.
Corbyn attempted to fight back. His son had to be sent from Westminster to his home in Finsbury Park after Corbyn failed to bring a suit in for Prime Minister’s Questions. But he buckled down and buckled up, particularly after the stylist told him that there were no sartorial objections to him wearing a red tie.
The political objections may be less easy to dismiss. Voters have described for decades how they hated focus-group-tested, poll-watching professional politicians. The voters are a pack of liars. Corbyn offered them an alternative, and they have no time for that either. When Corbyn said he was ‘not happy’ with the police or security services operating a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy in the event of a terror attack, he had not ‘war-gamed’ his comments in advance with his advisers. The first they knew about them was when they turned on the news. None of John McDonnell’s staff knew that he was going to throw a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book across the chamber of the House of Commons. It was the shadow chancellor’s own little joke.
Nor do the Corbynite apparatchiks appear to be directing the new generation of militants who are rampaging through constituency parties. No Labour advisers could explain to me why their supporters were targeting popular MPs such as Stella Creasy. She’s one of Westminster most interesting feminist voices, I said. She made the life of the poor and working class better when she helped force the Tories to regulate the payday loan sharks. Why are they going for her?
‘We don’t know,’ they replied. ‘It’s nothing to do with us.’
If this is Leninism, it is Leninism for the Twitter age. Militants whose contribution to the cause of social justice has been to shriek on social media and call total strangers ‘Tory scum’ will persecute any MP to the right of Corbyn and McDonnell, without asking the leadership’s permission or needing its instructions. They just know instinctively that the overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party fails to meet Jeremy’s high standards, and so has to go.
As indeed do the overwhelming majority of the British people. Even Corbyn and McDonnell worry that the killer charge that Labour loves Britain’s enemies more than it loves Britain may resonate with the British electorate. They are preparing a string of admirable initiatives to show that they care about security. The Labour leadership will launch a national campaign to protect the interests of sick veterans back from war. It proposes to highlight new ways of protecting women from rape, and of protecting Parliament itself from terrorist attack.
All worthy proposals, as I said. And all useless, as Corbyn’s aides know. When I asked one what vote she expected her new model Labour party would get at a general election, she said it would be as low as 20 or even 15 per cent.
Her well-grounded despair at what Corbyn is doing to Labour raises Lenin’s old question: ‘What is to be done?’ Corbyn ought to step down for the good of the Labour party and the wider left. His leadership may give the Conservatives a generation in power, and turn Ukip into a serious political force. But the far left that Corbyn comes from does not regard politicians from the Labour mainstream as comrades. In Corbyn’s world they are Blairite hypocrites and traitors, worse even than the Tories, because they sell out the interests of the workers they are meant to champion. I cannot see Corbyn responding to an appeal that he has a comradely duty to put first the interests of a Labour party he despises.
There may be another pressure, however. My conversations have confirmed what we already knew. Whatever his politics, Corbyn is unfit to lead a political party. He cannot cope with the enormous pressure or the relentless scrutiny. One figure close to the leadership said I should not discount the possibility that the strain would become too much for him and that he would step down — as much for the sake of his own health as the health of the Labour party.