Corbyn biographer: How the Labour leader changed his mind on Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK's Labour Party, which wants a soft Brexit. [70023venus2009/Flickr]

Jeremy Corbyn is one of the most misunderstood leaders in the UK Labour party’s history. Immensely popular with voters, but loathed by the party establishment, neither the British press, nor the Cameron government, know quite what to do with him.

Matthew Tempest spoke to Rosa Prince, the author of the new Corbyn biography, Comrade Corbyn, about his personal history, and what the Corbyn phenomenon says about UK politics.

Rosa Prince is a former political correspondent for the Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph in London. Her biography of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is published by BiteBack Publishing.

Many readers might be surprised to learn that the new leader of the Labour party actually voted to pull out of the EU in the 1970s, and voted against the Maastricht treaty of 1993. What has changed his mind?

I don’t think it’s surprising that he voted ‘against’ originally – Jeremy Corbyn has got a very clear set of principles and policies that he’s had all along, and that was a standard policy for a left-wing politician at that time.

Most of those who were on his wing of the party voted against membership in the first place, and – for some – that continued through the 1980s. It was the official position of the party for a while during the Eighties, and then that changed as part of the Neil Kinnock reforms before the Tony Blair era.

And yes, you’re right, Jeremy Corbyn’s been a little later than most to change his mind. Even as late as the early stages of the leadership election last summer, he was still saying he could see circumstances where he might vote, even campaign, to leave.

>>Read: Corbyn victory seen boosting ‘Brexit’ camp

I think what’s changed is he has so many issues on which he’s picking a fight with his fellow MPs, he’s so implacably opposed to things which his PLP (parliamentary Labour party) colleagues hold dear, that this isn’t one he feels strongly enough about to pick yet another fight over.

I think he’s seen, too, that the EU has potential to help in the causes he believes in. So in an interview over the weekend he was talking about using the EU to campaign for workers’ rights, worker solidarity.

I think he has moved on slightly from feeling that it was a trading-bloc which was hostile to workers, to seeing it as potentially something that would promote the values he believes in.

Maybe it’s that old saying of Napoleon: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is in the process of making a mistake”? Because the Tories have a majority and are in power for five years, but they could tear themselves apart, potentially, over Europe.

You are absolutely right. Europe has always been a bogey issue for the Conservative party, and I’m sure that any savvy leader of the Labour party thinks ‘why should I get intrude on private grief?’. So it’s much wiser for Corbyn to get out of the way, and let the Conservatives get on with fighting each other.

And how many Labour MPs, and Labour voters, when the referendum comes, might actually vote ‘out’?

>>Read: Tsipras and Corbyn expected in Paris ahead of European Council

I think those are two different questions. How many Labour MPs? I don’t think very many at all. If Jeremy Corbyn says he’s going to vote to stay in, I can’t imagine many Labour MPs feel they want to take a stand on it. You might get one or two, but I think it would be no more than that.

There will definitely be some Labour voters who will vote to leave. These are, perhaps, two strands. Labour voters who feel that the EU is hostile to them and their interests. Perhaps Labour voters who might even flirt with voting UKIP.

The funny thing about the EU is it unites the far-left and the far-right of parties. So you’ll also get that group of voters on the far-left, as Corbyn was originally, who are very opposed to the EU, see it as capitalism and commercial trade, and not about looking after ‘real’ people. And, yeah, you’ll get a group of voters who’ll go on ideological grounds, and another group of voters, perhaps less politically-engaged people, who find the EU an anathema, and just want to leave it.

Getting on to the book itself, Comrade Corbyn, his leadership victory was one of the biggest surprised in UK political history. Why and how did it happen?

Well, that’s a good question. I asked every single person I interviewed that question, and they all came up with different answers, as you might imagine!

They sort of fell into two schools of thought. One was the ‘Great Man’ theory of history, a series of accidents. So you have Andy Burnham (the initially favourite candidate) who voted for welfare cuts, MPs who agreed to nominate Jeremy Corbyn because they were persuaded there should be a left-wing voice in the contest, even though they didn’t want him to win.

There’s been a sort of series of accidents, thoughout Jeremy Corbyn’s life. One funny story, that I tell in the book, is he only really became an MP in the first place because the previous MP was so unpopular. He was a heavy drinker and I think he only spoke twice in the House of Commons, and it was the time of the SDP (short-lived centre-left breakaway party from Labour in the early 1980s), so the party sort of kicked him out, effectively. So one argument, you could say, is that Jeremy Corbyn has been lucky. He’s been the recipient of a series of favourable accidents.

The other view – a sort of Marxist-analysis of history, if you like – is that this is something that’s been an undercurrent of the Labour party for a long time. Labour was fed up, the grassroots were fed up, with Tony Blair, with some of the things that had gone on in the party for 20, perhaps 30, years, and the time was right for a left-wing candidate to come along. And so some of the other things I point to are the banking crisis, and the anti-austerity measures that flowed from that. People felt that none of the other candidates in the leadership election were vocalising that anti-austerity message. There’s a sort of anti-politicians’ feeling out there, perhaps to do with the expenses scandal, and other crises like that, which meant that people were sick of the ‘usual’ politicians. So even though Jeremy Corbyn was the ultimate insider in some ways, he believes in politics and protests, he takes part in a number of causes, he’s not that sort of career politician in the way that Yvette Cooper, or Andy Burnham, appeared at the time.

>>Read: Corbyn says he can’t imagine campaigning for Brexit

The WikiLeaks episode, the Occupy movement, the Green movement, the Feminist movement – there were an awful lot of movements that have left people fed up with politics ,and an awful lot of them, Jeremy Cobyn has been associated with down the years, in the way that Diane Abbot and John McDonnell, fellow left-wing Labour colleagues who have been unable to capture the public mood, the time just seemed right for a left-wing candidate, and there Jeremy Corbyn was.

My own view is a bit of both of those. The conditions were right, and then, thanks to a series of accidents, they picked Jeremy Cobyn rather than a series of other candidates on the left.

As his biographer, give us a flavour of the man and his beliefs? Because his ‘overnight success’ came after he’d been an MP for 32 years. Reading the book, he seems very modest, very unmaterialistic…

Yes. The only thing he’s got in common with his nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, is that he has a very coherent and observable set of beliefs and principles. So when you begin to look into his life, you capture a sense of his beliefs quite early on. In terms of policy, things he believes in are things like equality, justice for all, and peace. And in his personal life, he’s sort of the same. He doesn’t believe in putting himself forward, he’s quite modest, not materialistic. Sort of a gentle figure, he doesn’t raise his voice, he doesn’t swear, he doesn’t barely drink. He’s someone I feel I know after researching him, and I feel he’s someone who’s quite a peace in his own skin. He knows what he thinks about issues, and because he’s got that underpinning, he comes at new issues from a position where he can take a stand, and back it up.

Basically, always on the side of the underdog?

I would say so, yes.

As his biographer, he refused to cooperate. How difficult (or not) did that make writing the book?

It made it a different sort of book. I mean, obviously biographies fall into two schools, where you are authorised or unauthorised. So this was unauthorised, but it wasn’t in that school of trying to dig up scandal It wasn’t a Kitty Kelly salacious number.

When I contacted people, I would make clear in the phrase that I used, that it wasn’t a ‘hagiography’, but it wasn’t a ‘hatchet-job.’ And actually I found that people were on the whole very responsive.

So although Jeremy Corbyn himself didn’t cooperate, I did have good cooperation from members of his team, from his family, his friends, his colleagues, and I was lucky enough to speak to quite a broad range of people. So, in the end, I came away feeling quite happy that I had got to the people that counted and people who knew him. It wasn’t a handicap, it just made it a different kind of project. In a way it was quite liberating, I could just write it as I found it, and people could tell me how they found him, without having to keep onside the subject.

And do you think he can win in 2020?

Argh, good question. I write a few times in the book about Chris Mullin’s book, A Very British Coup, and the catchline of my book is a sort of tribute to that. Mullin’s is a fictional account, broadly based on Tony Benn, of a left-wing politician, becoming prime minister and what happens next.

And in his book, he sees a scenario where an unpopular right-wing government sees riots on the streets and therefore a very left-wing government is elected. And I kind of think that that could be possible here. If you had a successor to David Cameron who proved to be both unpopular and unsuccessful, if the austerity measure began to really bite, if there was unrest on the streets – which we have seen –  or another crash…

The one thing I learnt writing this book, and people have been saying it for years but Corbyn’s story really show it, is ‘expect the unexpected’ in politics. Anything can happen.

So I don’t think it’s very likely that he’ll become prime minister – but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.

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