Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup by Rosa Prince, book review

An affectionate portrait of a man that Prince obviously thinks has landed himself in the wrong job

Andy McSmith
Thursday 11 February 2016 16:35 GMT
A kind portrait: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
A kind portrait: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn's emergence is a strange phenomenon. A man well into his sixties, his political appeal to the under-25s more than any other age group, who has taken on the worst job in politics after 32 years contentedly avoiding responsibility of any kind. In theory, he is due to go to the country a few days before his 71st birthday to ask them to choose him as their Prime Minister.

A new leader of a major political party usually merits a serious biography that assesses the subject's political record and early influences, with a glimpse into the future to assess how this person might handle the pressures of high political office. So Corbyn is a worthy subject for a book, and Rosa Prince's publisher has done well to bring one out so quickly – but what sort of book?

Though she is too polite to say so, I do not suppose Prince ever thought she was writing about a prime minister in waiting. How else to explain the book's wistfully retrospective final sentence, in which she speculates what it meant to Corbyn to find himself delivering the leader's speech at a Labour Party conference – "All those rainy days spent knocking on doors and delivering leaflets, all those endless meetings and fratricidal arguments, the thousands of miles marched, the speeches given to crowds large and small, the broken relationships, the late nights, the early starts; it all came down to this moment."

She has been denounced for her "spiteful analysis" and had her personal integrity called into question by the JeremyCorbyn4PM Twitter feed, so I assume she is off the Corbyn Christmas card list, but – with all due respect to Corbyn-loving acolytes – this is not a hatchet job. It is an affectionate portrait of a man she obviously thinks has landed himself in the wrong job.

Between her and her detractors, there is a clash of political cultures. The clue is in that phrase "endless meetings and fratricidal arguments". There are people for whom those meetings and arguments are a vital part of our political life: they are what has prevented the flickering torch of socialism from being extinguished during the New Labour years.

That flame burns a little brighter now that Corbyn is on the national stage.

But Prince writes as an observer of Westminster politics. To the Westminster observer, Corbyn was a fringe figure who is interesting now, but only because he won the Labour leadership unexpectedly, and will therefore have an impact on the outcome of the 2020 general election, for better or worse. Her account of the leadership campaign is detailed and well researched. In her account of the first 66 years of Corbyn's life, there is a mismatch between the scant importance she attaches to endless meetings and fratricidal arguments and the huge part they have played in Corbyn's life.

But when the Corbyn era is over, and students looking back on how it impacted on the fortunes of the Labour Party consult this book, I doubt if its author will be accused of being "spiteful". I think the verdict will be that she was rather kind.

Biteback, £20. Order at £17 from the Independent Bookshop

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