Labour leadership contest: What the party would look like with Jeremy Corbyn as leader

From Desert Island Discs controversy to a tense meeting with the Queen

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Indy Politics

“It’s 10 minutes past eight on 14 September 2015, and you’re listening to Today with me, John Humphrys, and Mishal Husain.

“It was a remarkable moment in British politics. On Saturday, at noon, Jeremy Corbyn, once a marginal Labour figure, was elected leader of his party, by two to one. While he had been ahead in the polls and the bookies’ favourite for some weeks, the announcement still sent shockwaves through the political world. Here’s how Mr Corbyn greeted the news:

“‘Comrades… [ecstatic cheers]... please, comrades…[cheers of ‘Jez we did it’] ...comrades… please… This is a day for celebration, but also for humility.

“‘I want to thank my opponents for fighting the campaigns they did – Andy, Yvette, Liz [boos, cries of ‘Tory scum’]. I cannot say I ever expected this moment, and I thank everyone in the Labour movement, new and old, for the opportunity and great honour you have given me. I will never tell you a lie or lead you into an illegal war [cheers drown out next few words]… We can now reclaim our party, unite around policies that put people first, and get this wicked Tory government out as soon as possible. Thank you.’

“Well, Mr Corbyn joins us in the radio car from Finsbury Park in north London. Good morning and congratulations, Mr Corbyn.”

“Thank you.”

“Sorry to start on a negative note, but I’m just looking at the papers here. The Sun runs with the headline, ‘Corbyn Bennett – Loony Left Beardy To Take Us Back To Stone Age’. The Daily Mail has ‘Labour Party: 1900 – 2015. RIP,’ and your old friend Tony Blair tweets, ‘We must all unite behind best leader we have.’ Not a great start is it?”

“Well, John, the majority of the party voted for me on the first ballot, in a system of ‘one member, one vote’ that Mr Blair himself advocated, so my first priority is unity and working for the people…”

Rough as the ride Mr Corbyn received from parts of the press – only the Morning Star welcomed him – he and his party initially enjoyed a substantial boost in the polls following his victory.

The public liked this peaceable, principled and reasonable man, and there were signs that they sympathised with him as the character assassination ground on.

A “Dirty Dossier” compiled by Conservative Campaign Headquarters was eagerly reproduced in the press, but backfired when it was revealed Mr Corbyn did not, in fact, have a North Korean “love-child”, or a locket containing some of Marx’s beard, and that he had never brewed his own nettle and parsnip wine, let alone used it to make Molotov cocktails during the 2011 riots. The #leavejezzaalone campaign gained unprecedented support.

Mr Corbyn found constructing his Shadow Cabinet surprisingly easy, as his opponents declared, “I must put my duty to the party first.”

Shadow Chancellor Andy Burnham spent his first days in office simultaneously promising to cut, hold and increase income tax, a policy non-position he doggedly maintained during the next five years of troubled opposition.

Andy Burnham.jpg
Andy Burnham started out as the front-runner in the leadership election, seen as the candidate of the left until Jeremy Corbyn entered the race.

Similarly, Shadow Foreign Secretary Yvette Cooper declared herself in favour of “multilateral unilateral nuclear disarmament”, later refined to “unilateral multilateral nuclear disarmament”. She was a popular figure in the party as a result.

At the party conference in Brighton, Labour activists were happier than they’d been in decades. “No Compromise With the Voters” was a popular slogan on T-shirts and badges.

“It’s great. It’s just like when Michael Foot was leader,” said one, adding: “In fact it’s better. As Jeremy says, we must above all be a party of protest before power, principle before policy. No betrayal!”

Mr Blair, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell were in Tuscany during the proceedings; Ed Miliband reportedly was on an “urgent” lecture tour of the US.

Leaked focus group research also reflected Mr Corbyn’s strengths and weaknesses. Of the party leaders, Mr Corbyn was the one they would “most like to have a pint with”, but “just the one, mind”. “Sticks to his principles”, “good for the working classes”, “a bit weirdy beardy” and “looks like he goes on holiday to Normandy” were some other insights.

Mr Corbyn soon ran into real difficulties. What should have been a harmless bit of PR fluff, an appearance on Desert Island Discs with Kirsty Young, turned disastrous through his radical choice of discs, which included: “The Men Behind The Wire”, an IRA folk song; the anthem of Hamas; “The Red Flag”; and “Imagine” by John Lennon.


His casual suggestion that he’d “give back the Malvinas and Gibraltar in the morning if I had the chance” proved unwise, as did his invitation for “man of peace” Vladimir Putin to visit London.

Mr Corbyn’s supposed “unpatriotic” outlook was cruelly highlighted during his first outing on Prime Minister’s Questions, when he asked when David Cameron was going to “rid the world of the curse of nuclear weapons”. Mr Cameron, stopping only cursorily to welcome the “honourable gentleman to his new position” (to loud Tory delight), told Mr Corbyn he “won’t take lessons from someone who takes tea with dictators, terrorists and bombers”.

As with every would-be revolutionary, the British establishment did its best to embrace Mr Corbyn, with mixed results. Having never met the man, and bemused by the rumour that he wanted Her Majesty to have just the one palace, she invited him to lunch, which was held in the most modestly sized room at Windsor Castle, with Ikea crockery and Asda cutlery replacing the usual fancy china and silverware.

Portraits borrowed from the Commons of such proletarian heroes as Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Betty Boothroyd replaced those of Charles I, George III and the Duke of Windsor. Fish was served.

Conversation was polite, and they agreed that Nelson Mandela was a nice man. The Duke of Edinburgh reminded the company that “your bloody mate Wedgwood Benn” tried to take the regal head off the postage stamps. When Mr Corbyn reminded his hosts that he wanted to take the, ahem, Royal Mail back into public ownership, the atmosphere thawed.

Later, the Prince of Wales found Mr Corbyn more agreeable. Making small talk around the gardens with the Leader of the Opposition, the heir to the throne ventured to break the ice with the remark that “Yes, well, I suppose we’re all sort of, well, ‘parasites’, really aren’t we? I mean, as you know, Mr Corbyn, in nature parasites have a vital role to play in the whole life cycle thingy. I believe you grow vegetables on your allotment…”

In due course the gossip columns reported that, on 26 May 2019, Mr Corbyn celebrated his 70th birthday as a special guest of Charles and Camilla. Fish was served.

“Plot to Ditch ‘Calamity’ Corbyn” was the headline in The Independent in August 2016, with Labour 27 points behind in the polls.

Based on briefings from those close to Deputy Leader Tom Watson, the article suggested that “senior figures” were trying to unseat Mr Corbyn, and had been doing so since before he was elected.

First they tried the “bottle of whisky and a revolver” approach, suggesting to Mr Corbyn that he do the decent thing for the sake of the party, and go quietly. Strong support from the unions for Mr Corbyn quashed that rebellion.

Second was an abortive “palace coup”, when a succession of Blairite MPs threatened to break away and start a new SDP-style party if Mr Corbyn wasn’t replaced. In the end, only one quit: Liz Kendall, who fought a by-election as ‘Social Democratic Liz’ in Leicester West, but lost her seat to Nigel Farage. She suggested after the count that she might have a go at stand-up comedy next.

By the middle of 2017, Mr Corbyn had become established, if uneasily. His decision earlier that year to call a fresh leadership election went well. In a “Put Up or Shut Up” campaign, he challenged “the plotters” to put up a candidate, or stop hostile briefings. As in 2015, Chuka Umunna stood but withdrew after 10 days (“that didn’t shake Streatham, let alone the world”, as detractors put it). Mr Corbyn was elected unopposed.

Indeed, the more unpopular Mr Corbyn became in the country the more beloved he grew in his own party. Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party warily eyed the electorate, especially the ones  inclined to vote Conservative or Ukip, as nasty, selfish types who were more to be pitied than persuaded.

By the time Mr Corbyn adopted the old British Rail logo as the new symbol of Labour, they had become truly alienated from the country.

In the general election of 2020 the Corbyn campaign was fought on the theme of “Peace, Bread, Land”, on the grounds that if it was good enough for Lenin it was good enough for Labour.

The Conservatives, promising to “abolish the last discredited remnants of the experiment with a so-called welfare state”, were re-elected with a majority of 179, mirroring exactly the New Labour landslide of 1997.

Outside Number 10, Prime Minister Theresa May promised to make the most of this “historic opportunity to eradicate socialism”. Mr Corbyn held on to his Islington North seat, albeit with a reduced majority. He blamed the Murdoch press and, again, stood for leadership. He beat Stephen Kinnock (“A Kinnock Not a Kinnockite”) by 57 per cent to 43 per cent. Soon, rumours of a plot to unseat Mr Corbyn surfaced...