Jeremy Corbyn: First Impressions

The following piece deals entirely with impressions, rather than substance, and is aimed primarily at those unfamiliar with perception in day-to-day British politics.

Despite having been in politics for a long time, for the majority of the British electorate their first impressions of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Opposition were their first impressions of him, period. For most of those who were aware of him before his election as Labour Party leader, he was nothing more than a perennial rebel and one of the unelectable Old Labour relics, a political irrelevance. Now, for some, he is the face of the future.
Corbyn entered the Labour Party leadership race as a rank outsider, a joke candidate that nobody, not even him, thought would actually win. Instead of a protest vote to shake up the Labour leadership, he became a rather-shaken Labour leader, a fact people are still adjusting to.

For many British voters, Corbyn ticked plenty of boxes. He didn’t appear to be part of the political elite that seemed to be running almost every aspect of politics, he had solid ‘Stop the War’ credentials, he favoured the renationalisation of the water, energy and transport industries, he was a straight talker devoid of Blairite spin, and, unlike UKIP, he offered a protest vote untainted by accusations of racism. While older voters often had their nagging doubts that he might represent a return to the worst excesses of Old Labour, the young saw him very clearly as a repudiation of the excesses of Blairite New Labour.

In a very short time, a lot of that potential support seems to have been squandered. Acts such as accepting the use of his official car, something he had initially indicated he would refuse, have made him look as if he rapidly becoming part of the elite people hoped he might take on, just his u-turns on issues such as wearing a poppy and singing the anthem have dented his popularity with his core supporters, while confirming to everyone else that he is as keen to court public opinion and indulge in spin as his predecessors. (The fact that the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party consists of Blairites whose views are utterly opposed to those of Corbyn and his party supporters hasn’t helped his image, forcing him both to seek accommodation with them and appoint them to his shadow cabinet.) Some, even those who might seem his natural supporters, are already describing him as ‘just another plastic politician’.

His pacifist reputation may not have sat entirely comfortably with many voters, for whom scrapping the Trident nuclear deterrent and talk of disbanding the military seemed naive in light of global instability, but it was widely regarded as an admirable quality. Unfortunately, by filling his shadow cabinet with a number of unrepentantly pro-war figures, he has dented his reputation on that score. Being tarred as a friend of terrorists has further stripped away the veneer. If his political enemies have their way, he could go from being viewed as a naive pacifist to being as reviled as Tony Blair has become.

Having been accused of anti-Semitism (and even, unconvincingly, sexism), he is no longer even the untainted alternative to UKIP, leaving only his plans for nationalisation as a potential plus point (and his opponents have been busier attacking him on that front more than any of his actual flaws).

As a result of the tarnishing of his halo, many commentators predict that Corbyn will be out of a job before the next election, perhaps even within months, and, if he somehow clings to power, they are certain he will lose the 2020 election for Labour. But, it has to be remembered, those same commentators were certain he had no chance of being elected leader at all, and he appears to be holding steady in the polls despite the concerted newspaper attack on him.

Although the first impression people had of Jeremy Corbyn which was of a fairly promising man who seemed a little implausible as a potential leader has started to shift towards the negative in some quarters, many remain unconvinced by the negative publicity and it is not impossible that he might be able to turn things around and pull off another shock election success. In part, it may depend largely on his ability to motivate younger voters to actually turn out in 2020, rather than reconfirming their belief that politicians are all the same and that voting changes nothing. But, a lot depends on him having the confidence to stand by his principles rather than chasing public opinion and being able to resist the influence of the Blairites who surround him in parliament.

With Jeremy Corbyn, the future is even more unpredictable than usual, and what a future with him as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom would actually be like is almost impossible to predict. He may regenerate socialism as a plausible force in British politics, or he may destroy it for a generation. Interesting times, indeed.



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