Dave Hill: Corbynism’s familiar failings have been on full display in London

Dave Hill: Corbynism’s familiar failings have been on full display in London

It’s like watching a minor early 1970s rock star playing his greatest hits yet again, knowing there will always be an audience just big enough to validate him. An adoring audience, too. They have come to Islington North from far and wide: the young with their impatience and their angry ignorance; the old re-filling their mugs of umbrage and parading scars from past betrayals; the single-issue obsessives; the seething conspiracists; the slightly weird.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn! The martyr to purity is back on the protest road he’s walked so many times before, commanding the small stage where he is most at home, basking in the guaranteed applause. His “people power” campaign to retain his place in parliament, backed, as ever, by activists for whom being unrepresentative of those they say they represent is a matter of pride, has been exactly the revivalist festival you would expect.

Behold, the ancestral themes: the Battle of Orgreave; NHS “privatisation”, a cause far more important in such circles than making unwell people better; and, of course, Palestine, an unbearably intractable foreign policy issue that, for one reason or another, excites much more passion in this milieu, usually reductive and sometimes sinister, than, say, the suffering in Sudan or Vladimir Putin’s fascist invasion of Ukraine.

“Jeremy” sticks to his principles, you see, although accepting that the interests of those he claims to want to help would be better served if he had different ones is not among them. He “stands for” equality, democracy, justice and peace, his admirers insist, but they don’t mind his turning a selectively blind eye to the actions of some who stand for the extreme opposite of those things.

Policy practicalities, difficult dilemmas and the sometimes uncomfortable responsibilities that come with serious power are all rendered irrelevant beside the pleasures of declaiming that you “stand with” a wronged underdog whose stubborn sticking to a peculiarly abstract notion of moral rightness enables you to hosannah him as an authentic bearer of grassroots truth, even that means making life easier for those you say you most repudiate, such as the Conservatives.

Will this revivalist recipe, this fundamentalist adherence to the same Old Time Religion that propelled Corbyn to the Labour candidacy for the disastrous (for Labour) general election of 1983, carry him to victory as an Independent on Thursday? The evidence we have is that it probably won’t, although it cannot be ruled out.

To the east, in Chingford & Woodford Green, an idol of the Church of St Jeremy, is making her own bid to impede the Labour Party. Unlike Corbyn, Faiza Shaheen has next to no hope of winning – she has no decades as the sitting local MP behind her and is nothing like as well-known. But she stands a chance of attracting enough votes that might otherwise have gone to Labour’s Shama Tatler to enable the long-serving Conservative incumbent, Iain Duncan Smith, to cling on.

Shaheen finished a close second in 2019 – 1,262 votes behind – and, ironically, would probably have won had Labour been led by anyone other than Corbyn. She was re-selected by local party members to fight the seat again, but blocked from national level at the eleventh hour.

Well, have a heart: if you had come that close last time and were gifted a second go, this time with a much better chance of winning, you might be hacked off by such treatment; so hacked off, in fact, you might decide to run as an Independent, even if that meant improving a hard right Tory’s hopes of winning. And that, of course, is what Shaheen has done.

A less sympathetic view is that going round saying how great “Jeremy” is even after Labour had suspended him and then, soon after the election was called, claiming that Gaza was the “number one issue” in a seat whose history and demographics suggest the Middle East is a very long way indeed down its list of priorities, invited trouble loud and clear. Shaheen’s televised protestations of shock and dismay suggest, to put it kindly, exceptional naivety.

What’ve seen from her campaign has revealed and typified the decades-old failings of the Corbyn tendency in London politics, just as much as has Corbyn’s own a couple of boroughs away.

Consider, for example, her fans’ insistence that she is the choice of “the community” – a classic case of the sorts of people who go to political meetings or on demonstrations pretending or imagining that their’s is the voice of the majority.

Complementing this is the use of funny numbers to make an implausible case for her own “people-powered” battle plan. The other week, Shaheen hailed on social media a graph purporting to be “based on a poll” of over 4,000 voters in the seat showing her in the lead. In fact, according to one of her supporters, it was a visual representation of a set of canvassing returns – in other words, as polling expert Rob Ford put it, not a poll at all, but a set of numbers that is anything but a scientific sample of the seat’s voters.

Sheehan’s response to such objections was instructive. The graph depicted “real conversations on the doorstep”, she said, and should therefore be regarded as definitive. Her Wikipedia page says she has an MSc in research methods and statistics. You do the maths.

The Shaheen fan who went “wow!” about those fishy figures, by the way, chairs the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, founded in 1962 and long supported by Corbyn, who described the death in 2016 of Cuba’s authoritarian leader Fidel Castro as the passing of a “huge figure” in the history of socialism. Other observers gave more attention to the long and continuing story of political repression and human rights abuses in that part of the world under Castro and since, with trade unionists and women among the regime’s victims. Corbyn, characteristically, prefers to make light of such flaws. Shaheen also has George Galloway’s Workers’ Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party on her side. There’s just so little about her campaign to admire.

The saddest thing about this strand of London’s political weave – it can be found elsewhere too, but has deep roots in the capital – is that some of its goals are good and some of its adherents are good-hearted people. Its chronic failing, though, is self-indulgence – indulgence in delusion, in denial, in introverted, narcissistic sanctimony and – where it can get dark and creepy – in placing ideology above inconvenient realities of every kind, be it regarding housing supply, the NHS or certain situations overseas.

In spite of years of evidence to the contrary staring them in the face, those on this part of the political spectrum continue to assert that they are in touch with the true needs and desires of “the many” – even if those people, victims of “false consciousness”, don’t realise it themselves – and that anyone on the Left who begs to differ must be a sell-out, a collaborator with oppressors and corrupt. The abuse directed at Tatler and Corbyn’s Labour rival Praful Nargund has been repellent.

Though presenting themselves as virtuous, inclusive builders of a better world for all, Corbynites and their like are too often inward-looking, selfish and destructive. That is why Labour under Keir Starmer has been right to treat them sternly, and why Labour wins in Islington North and Chingford & Woodford Green on Thursday would be reasons to rejoice.

OnLondon.co.uk provides unique coverage of the capital’s politics, development and culture. Support it for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE. Threads: DaveHillOnLondon. X/Twitter: On London and Dave Hill. Photo: A street in Islington North.

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