You can see it in his face. You can see the horror and bewilderment written all over Jeremy Corbyn’s face. One minute he was happily spouting the scripts he has spouted, in draughty halls, for 32 years, about capitalism being bad and about why every international problem was really Britain’s fault. The next minute he was being asked if he would press the nuclear button. It’s like that dream where you’re suddenly at Wimbledon, facing Novak Djokovic and knowing that you literally will not be able to return a single shot.
Jeremy Corbyn did not go into politics to solve anything. He went into politics to talk. And, boy, has that man talked. For more than 30 years, he has talked about how every problem can be solved by higher taxes, but only higher taxes on the income of people you don’t know. He has talked about how it’s OK to murder someone if you’re in the IRA or Hamas, but not if you’re in the British army and operating under the rules of international law. He has talked about the things he doesn’t like. There are lots of things Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t like. He doesn’t like globalization. He doesn’t like banks. He doesn’t like going to the pub for a pint. What he likes is meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. He likes talking to people who don’t like the things he doesn’t like, and who can hear that list read out and cheer.
People like him because he’s “sincere”. There’s no particular reason to doubt that he’s sincere. Stalin seems to have been sincere. Hitler seems to have been sincere. Charlotte Church was probably sincere when she told the Question Time audience last week that people were being driven out of Syria because of global warming. The people who attacked a café in Shoreditch the other day, because they wanted to protest against “gentrification”, also seem to have been sincere. One of them owns a £600,000 flat, funded with profits made from selling a flat round the corner from the café. Another boasts on Facebook about her holidays in Barbados, Las Vegas and Jamaica. None of this stops them being sincere. Most people sincerely believe that they are right and other people are wrong. What’s a little bit harder is making a convincing argument.
In Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Labour party conference last week, he talked a lot about kindness. The speech, by the way, was partly made up of passages from a speech written 30 years ago by someone who is now a freelance blogger, a speech that has been rejected by every Labour leader since Neil Kinnock. The speech didn’t mention the deficit. It didn’t mention immigration. It didn’t even mention the election, or the fact that Labour lost it in its worse result since 1983. The speech reminded me of a film I saw when I was a child. In the film, the President of the United States asks his adviser “do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?”. His adviser is quiet for a while and then he says: “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.” What the President doesn’t realise is that the man is not talking in metaphors.
The film was a charming fantasy called Being There. It doesn’t seem quite so charming now. We aren’t, it’s true, talking about a simple-minded gardener being accidentally propelled into the most powerful job in the Western world. We are talking about a man whose political thinking doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond student politics being placed at the helm of the party founded by Keir Hardie, the party which rebuilt a war-battered country with a promise of greater prosperity for all. That party had a great vision. It was a vision for its time, but it was certainly a vision. And what’s Jeremy Corbyn’s vision? Beyond higher taxes and fewer “cuts”? After three weeks of almost non-stop speeches, I have absolutely no idea.
For a journalist, of course, this is all great fun. It’s as if David Brent had lumbered into the House of Commons and was standing at the dispatch box. There’s a part of you that can’t wait to hear what he will say, because it will be funny in the way that The Office was funny, but there’s another part of you that feels a bit sick. You feel sick because it’s embarrassing that the Labour party, or people on the hard left or right pretending to support it, have catapulted someone so obviously unqualified into the job. It’s embarrassing to see what the world’s press are saying about a leader of the opposition whose interest in foreign affairs seems to start and end with a desire to ban nuclear weapons. It’s embarrassing to imagine the meeting with Angela Merkel. So, Mr Corbyn, tell me again why you want to leave Europe?
But this isn’t just embarrassing. It’s a disaster for the people who have devoted their adult lives to serious centre-left politics. It’s a disaster for people who vote Labour, or at least used to. It’s a disaster for the three million working people who will lose about £1000 in tax credits because of a decision made by a Chancellor who claimed to be on their side.
This week, the Tories meet in Manchester, safe in the knowledge that all the serious political opposition in this country appears to have been wiped out. Well, I suppose you can call that some kind of achievement. You could even call it “kinder politics”. As long as by “kind” you mean a sincere desire to wash your hands of all responsibility, and power.