Bower on Corbyn
A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 28 2019.
No one could decide whether he was a skillful strategist or an unimaginative simpleton.
The current political situation in the UK is so confusing that it beyond the most astute and erudite analysts to explain it satisfactorily. As I write this, it seems unlikely that Theresa May can hang on for much longer as prime minister and a motley crew of contenders are queuing up to take over the poisoned chalice she will bequeath. In such chaotic times, the oracle we often turn to is the bookmaker. According to Oddschecker, which compiles odds from all the leading bookies, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is favourite to become the next prime minister. Both Betfair and Paddy Power have shorter odds on the Labour leader becoming prime minister than on any Conservative candidate. Corbyn is 6/1 to succeed Theresa May – ahead of Tory contenders including Boris Johnson on 13/2, Michael Gove on 7/1 and Jeremy Hunt at 11/1.
Tom Bower recently published a scathing biography of Corbyn – Dangerous Hero: Corbyn’s Ruthless Plot for Power – which was serialized in the Daily Mail. I acquired the book on the day it was published and also read it in its entirety on that same day. It surprised me that so many people were prepared to express vehement views about the book without actually going to the trouble of reading it. Many thought it could not be true because the Daily Mail was publishing it.
As one who has read it, I can say that, despite the many faults in the book, I am convinced by Bower’s contention that Corbyn is not fit to be prime minister. Theresa May has already proved that she is not fit to be prime minister. None of the other contenders seem capable of organising the proverbial alcoholic carousal in a beer manufactory. Albion luctificus.
Supporters of Corbyn have mocked Bower for dishing up trivia about his personal life such as his mismanagement of his personal finances, seeing this rather as a virtue in a committed socialist. This is a man too saintly to be bothered about money. Corbynistas argue that he got in debt because he honored a commitment to personally fund an office and community centre in his constituency. They argue that this was an act of good faith. Corbyn’s second wife, Claudia, would disagree. Claudia was struggling to feed and clothe their three sons. Corbyn’s often tenuous relationship with the truth (as Bower puts it: “If it burnished his left-wing credentials, Corbyn was still willing to lie about trivialities”) is here illustrated by the fact that he has allowed the story to persist that his first marriage ended because his wife wanted their children to be educated at grammar schools and he refused on a matter of principle. (Corbyn himself was educated at Castle House School, an independent preparatory school near Newport, Shropshire, before attending Adams’ Grammar School as a day student. His son subsequently attended Queen Elizabeth’s School, which was his wife’s first choice). Corbyn’s first two wives, according to Bower, both felt emotionally and practically neglected. Corbyn missed his youngest son’s birth as he was lecturing NUPE (National Union of Public Employees) members at the same hospital. Bower writes: “His self-portrayal as a universal ‘do-gooder’ was at odds with his inability to care for his wife, or indeed any female companion. He was quite incapable of understanding.”
It could be argued (it has been argued) that this is all personal and not political. Others might contend that Corbyn could not run a country if he could not run a home and a marriage (or two). We need to find some evidence to decide whether Corbyn can run a country. He has been a member of parliament for a very long time (since June 1983) but has been a lone wolf for most of those 36 years. He has generally voted with the Labour Party but has not been afraid to vote against his party on matters of principle. He has never been a minister in a Labour government or even a shadow minister in opposition. He has only briefly served on three Commons committees. As Bower says: “he had rarely scrutinised legislation in a parliamentary committee, and had never seriously proposed any new law.” How do we assess his ability to run the country? According to Bower, Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, “stood not just on the fringe of Labour, but of mainstream British society. Supported by a hinterland of far-left groups, the trio had remained unwaveringly loyal to their dream of radically changing Britain. As the least articulate of the three, Corbyn aroused the least antagonism.”
Practical Politics in Haringey
We could look at his record as a local councillor in the London Borough of Haringey. In 1974, he was elected to Haringey Council at the age of 24, in the South Hornsey ward, and served until 1983 when he was elected to parliament as the member for Islington North. He was responsible for the housing maintenance department. Corbyn’s first wife, Jane Chapman, was chairman of housing, responsible for over four thousand people. Haringey’s housing was in a bad state, not least on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham. Following the publication of Alice Coleman’s Utopia on Trial in 1985, the area acquired a reputation as one of the worst places to live in the UK. In 1985, there were riots on Broadwater Farm during which a policeman was hacked to death by a rioting mob.
Corbyn’s role as an elected council officer responsible for housing maintenance was compromised by the fact that he was also a trade union organiser for the National Union of Public Employees and the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union. He was in charge of the employment of NUPE members, and at the same time he was their trade union representative organising a NUPE strike against the council. Corbyn, even though he was their employer, joined council workers as a NUPE official on their picket line outside the council’s premises. Corbyn was responsible for the housing maintenance department from which £2 million had gone missing annually for several years in succession. Council employees were both stealing money and inflating their claims for overtime. The district auditor had discovered that Haringey’s caretakers were submitting fraudulent overtime claims and the dustmen had stolen council property. Polls showed that the strikes were highly unpopular with the public, but Corbyn dismissed this, and ignored complaints by local NUPE members that his political agitation was coming at the expense of their private lives.
Robin Young, the Labour whip at Haringey, said ‘You could not out-left Corbyn,’ recalled. ‘He detested everyone who disagreed with him. And he always got others to do his dirty work. Young’s biggest gripe was that “Corbyn played no part in building Haringey’s houses and social services. He just played politics. Jeremy and Jane turned every meeting of the Labour group into a terrible argument.”
Haringey became Britain’s highest-spending local authority, with the highest rates for residents and businesses. While council tenants waited a long time for repairs to their homes. “Labour officials spent huge amounts of public money to promote their political ambitions, and wasted more on illegal projects. Officials in the housing department bought whole streets of private houses by compulsory order, ostensibly for council tenants, used council labour to rebuild them, and occasionally moved themselves into the best”.
“Despite levying London’s highest council tax, the borough had debts that in 1998 would lead it to the brink of bankruptcy. Forty-seven per cent of its residents lived in 35,000 council homes notorious for infestation with crime, drugs, damp and dilapidation because Islington’s unionised labour force refused to undertake repairs, despite threats of dismissal. NUPE, the workers knew, would protect their jobs.” An auditor’s report highlighted tax arrears of £23.7 million, with £4 million missing in uncollected fines.
It should be noted that many reviewers find Bower’s approach unacceptable. I will take Peter Oborne as a specimen case. Oborne is well-known conservative commentator, a Daily Mail columnist no less, and hardly the sort of person one would expect to defend Corbyn. Oborne writes: “The ugly truth is that Bower is not straight with his readers, let alone Corbyn. Again, and again he withholds relevant information, with the result that the Labour leader and his colleagues come over in the worst possible light.” Oborne made many unsuccessful efforts to contact Bower to clarify facts. He did some research of his own: “Again and again, I have been able to prove that his account of events is false, misleading and, in some cases, pure fabrication.”
More criticism of Bower here:
Oborne and others criticise Bower for not citing sources or providing evidence. Bower does mention a name in connection with a subject I know something about. He mentions Liz Davies, the social worker, who blew the whistle on the sexual abuse of children in Islington’s care homes. I had a lengthy correspondence with Liz and with Eileen Fairweather who publicised the scandal in her articles for the London Evening Standard. I know from personal experience that Corbyn did not cover himself with glory on this issue.
I was myself uncomfortable with many aspects of Bower’s book. At the beginning, Bower takes great pains to establish that he was himself a lefty in his youth. He met Rudi Dutschke. The implication is that Bower grew up and abandoned his childish ways and Corbyn did not. At the same he is sniffy about Corbyn’s credentials: “None of those illustrious Marxists who have survived since the 1960s – all intelligent, well-educated, engaged and engaging – recall Corbyn as a major player over any of the four decades before his ascension as leader of the Labour Party in September 2015.” Corbyn made several illegal attempts to get Tariq Ali a Labour Party membership card. Ali does not appear to be grateful. “I shared many platforms with Jeremy,’ he recalled, ‘but I can’t remember what he said except that he was on the right side.” According to Bower, “On the rare occasions when a speech of his was interrupted by applause, he would be so surprised that he would stop and start again from the beginning.” George Galloway said, “His speeches were one mile wide and an inch deep,” One MP described Corbyn’s style of parliamentary oratory as “the single transferable speech”. Andrew Roth, the author of Parliamentary Profiles, mocked Corbyn as “a pastiche of the bearded Spartist fantasist still fighting fights in his own head at least’.
I drew on Bower’s previous books on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to support my own reservations about privatisation, outsourcing and public/private finance initiatives. In this book Bower seems to assume that it would be ludicrous to renationalize public utilities but does not state a lucid case. He presents a muddled picture when dealing with accusations that Corbyn is anti-Semitic. In his zeal to condemn Corbyn, he often crosses the line by citing criticism of the state of Israel as evidence of anti-Semitism. That won’t do.
I have noticed a tendency on the part of Corbyn supporters to wiggle away from even justified criticism of their hero by complaining about ‘smears’ and the iniquity of the ‘mainstream media’. In practice, they do quite a bit of smearing themselves. It is unfortunate that Bower’s case against Corbyn is undermined by his own tendency to leave himself unnecessarily open to charges of inaccuracy.
When I shared the first Daily Mail instalment on Facebook, a couple of doughty pillars of the Sri Lankan ‘left’ (they know who they are) defended Corbyn and attacked (without, I suspect, reading the extract, let alone the book) Bower. As do many Corbynistas, they accused the ‘mainstream media’ of distorting the truth about Corbyn. Strangely, most of their venom was directed at the Guardian and the BBC, although the article that was supposed to be under discussion was in the Daily Mail. The gist of the complaint was that the western media told lies about the Sri Lankan government’s successful fight against the Tamil Tigers who wanted a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. Curious that these opponents of Tamil separatism, these stern critics of western intervention in Venezuela, should be sympathetic to Corbyn who has long been a supporter of Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka. I shudder to think of Sri Lanka’s future if Corbyn becomes prime minister. Bower does not cover this aspect of Corbyn’s support of terrorists (sorry, freedom fighters) in his book but I cover it here. https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/corbyn-and-the-tamil-tigers/