Dangerous Hero: Corbyn’s Ruthless Plot for Power by Tom Bower
Tom Bower is perhaps the most energetic living exponent of the hatchet job. He likes nothing better than to set about a well-known public figure, bringing before an appalled public all that is most contemptible in the scurvy knave’s life, including new and embarrassing material exposed by the indefatigable researches of the dauntless biographer, until all that is left is a scalped and dismembered corpse.
His latest target is Jeremy Corbyn. For over 300 pages he hacks away at the Leader of the Opposition. In this account, Corbyn is one of Tony Benn’s dimmest disciples, being stupid, philistine, secretive, dishonest, scheming, underhand, brutal, incompetent, out of date, out of his depth, proud to consort with terrorists and anti-semites, and determined not to lift a finger to protect female Labour MPs, particularly Jews, when they are subjected to sustained harassment and bullying by his friends and allies on the Left.
It is a formidable charge sheet, but there are several problems with it. One is that we knew this already, and have indeed seen it illustrated in recent days by Corbyn’s abject failure to defend Luciana Berger and others.
Ian Austin declared after resigning yesterday from the Labour Party that Corbyn allows a culture of extremism and anti-semitism to thrive, is quite incapable of dealing with this, and instead imagines he himself is the victim.
A second drawback of Bower’s approach is that it is offensive to our sense of fairness. He puts the worst possible construction on everything Corbyn does.
This presumption of guilt leads directly to the third problem, which is that Corbyn’s successes become incomprehensible. Bower opens with an account of Corbyn’s financial problems, which in 1996 put an intolerable strain on his second marriage, to Claudia Bracchita, who complained that she and their three sons were short of money even to buy food and clothes: “We can’t afford a decent life.”
Corbyn, whose annual salary as an MP is at this point £43,000, owes £30,000 to the bank, and is warned by his friend, Reg Race, who understands about money, that within five years this will grow to £100,000. Bower goes on:
“The principal cause of the debts was the Red Rose Community Centre on the Seven Sisters Road in Holloway, north London. Situated in the heart of Corbyn’s constituency, the Red Rose was a bar and dance area on the ground floor of the building that fulfilled his commitment to open his party office in the constituency. Corbyn was paying its rent and some of its staff’s salaries out of his own pocket.”
Most MPs would never dream of behaving with such open-handedness, and many of our greatest statesmen have been hopeless at managing their own financial affairs. Disraeli was encumbered with enormous debts, and so was Pitt the Younger.
It is true that Corbyn is no Disraeli or Pitt. But his indifference to personal enrichment is still in some ways rather attractive, especially when set against the many parliamentarians who would feel unprofessional if they did not claim every penny of the allowances they can get.
Bower remarks quite rightly that Corbyn was in some ways dreadfully selfish towards the women in his life, never wanting to go to a restaurant, cinema or theatre if he could find yet another meeting of some left-wing group to attend. According to Corbyn’s first wife, Jane Chapman,
“He never talked about buying a bigger home, a car or increasing his income. He had few material requirements. To her surprise, since they had married so soon after meeting, when he returned home at night he would happily open a can of beans, swallow them cold and declare himself satisfied.”
Again, it seems to be beyond Bower’s comprehension that some people, including some socialists but also some people of a conservative disposition, do not want to spend their time thinking about how to get a bigger house.
As for the baked beans, when eaten straight from the tin, they are not only cheap and nutritious, but require minimal time to prepare, or indeed to wash up the spoon afterwards.
One of the least sympathetic aspects of Corbyn, at least from the point of view of this reviewer, is that as Bower points out, he appears never to read a book. According to Chapman, he did not read a single one during the four years of their marriage.
But why were these intelligent and attractive women attracted to Corbyn in the first place? Bower can cast no light on this question, for he is too fixated on demonstrating that Corbyn is a completely dreadful person.
Bracchita’s Chilean and Spanish revolutionary roots are better described in Comrade Corbyn, by Rosa Prince. Bracchita and Corbyn were married for 12 years, and afterwards remained on good enough terms to buy a house together, which they divided into two separate dwellings so he could go on seeing their sons.
It seems, in fact, that Corbyn is rather good at getting on with people. The Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell (mentioned in passing by Prince, omitted by Bower) went to Washington with Corbyn and got on very well with him, while disagreeing with almost all of his political views.
They were part of a quartet of MPs – the others were David Davis and Andy Slaughter – who were campaigning to get a British citizen, Shaker Aamer, released from Guantanamo Bay. Tories and socialists could agree it was disgraceful for a Briton to be imprisoned without trial.
Bower does admit that Corbyn, though an “outsider” and a “loser”, was “an energetic, effective and popular organiser”, very good at running political campaigns.
And on the Labour side of the House, he remained on good enough terms with such people as Margaret Beckett, Frank Field, David Lammy, Sadiq Khan and Jo Cox for them to sign his nomination papers for the leadership contest after Ed Miliband had led Labour to defeat in 2015.
None of those MPs expected Corbyn to win. They just thought he would add a welcome touch of diversity to a field which otherwise consisted of three pallid sub-Brownite or sub-Blairite candidates.
Corbyn astonished almost everyone by winning on the first ballot with 59.5 per cent of the vote. Even his friends on the Left had never expected that.
Tariq Ali found him devoid of any intellectual interest: “I shared many platforms with Jeremy, but I can’t remember what he said except that he was on the right side.” According to George Galloway, “His speeches were one mile wide and an inch deep.”
Of Corbyn’s close allies in local government in London, Ken Livingstone seemed perhaps the most talented. He was elected Mayor of London by running as the anti-Blair candidate, the person who would most distress the then Prime Minister.
And Corbyn too has risen to the leadership as the anti-Blair candidate. For Corbyn was born into the scruffy middle class, and has never left it. His socialism has a small-c conservatism about it which is attractive to some people who are not socialists.
Not for Corbyn the striving to get to Oxbridge and the bar. He did not have the brains for that, but he also had a genuine scorn for that glib, smart, careerist world, where every house has a smart kitchen awaiting the arrival of smart guests for dinners with smart food and smart wine and smartly fashionable opinions.
Corbyn, with his Oxfam clothes, his allotment, his home-made jam and his love of talking on terms of equality to immigrants from all over the world in his multi-coloured patch of Islington, is a kind of walking rebuke to that plutocratic, conformist, risk-averse smartness.
Bower writes him off as a loser, which is perhaps what he will end up being. But he did much better at the last general election than the commentariat expected. He is a gifted campaigner who is much more at ease than the present Prime Minister at mingling with ordinary people, as he demonstrated not only during the election but after the Grenfell fire.
Democracies sometimes like to be led by underwhelming but approachable people who have never said anything memorable and are regarded with contempt by the intellectuals and the hatchet men.
Many American presidents have been people of contemptibly meagre attainments, who induce no feelings of inferiority in the voters. Are we going the same way?