In the early hours of Monday the undead corpse of old Labour was seen walking across Westminster Bridge. The zombie being harangued by a small cohort of junior journalists was the newly elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Over the summer a virus known as Corbynmania spread through disaffected members of the public. Alarmist rumours of undead socialism sharpening its clause (all four of them) on the imaginations of thousands developed into an all-out bloodbath for the Blairites. Burnhamites and token moderates were saved- presumably to be sacrificed at a later date. Cries of “They’re coming to get you Tony” sent the former PM into panic mode.
It turned out the zombie tag was more than just a headline; it captured the tone of Corbyn’s first two days. The refusal to join in with God Save the Queen at a WW2 memorial service on Tuesday –anthem anathema!- may have been principled but made the newly elected leader look vacant. By initially snubbing the media (in his acceptance speech on Saturday journalists were put on the naughty step) he allowed the press to define him. The anthem silence was a metaphor too brilliant to miss. When he announced his shadow cabinet he told the gathered media that not only was he proud of the effort taken assemble his team but that they should be too. The predictable mauling he received focused on the lack of women in top jobs and the appointment of John McDonnell, a man whose (fire)brand of leftism makes Corbyn look like John Redwood.
Once he had laid out his stall of new politics at PMQs –to the surprise of many, a relative success- Corbyn began taking longer interviews. He surely expected that the press would be chomping at the bit to lay into him from day one. Why was it that he waited until Wednesday for the fight back?
There are two ways to read this. Sympathetically you could say that in Corbyn’s new brand of politics, policy and political action come first and spin second. Arguably the enthusiasm with which the papers turned on Corbyn, denying him even the customary honeymoon, was off-putting. After a generally positive response to Corbyn’s ‘people’s PMQs’ the public are still willing to give this experiment a chance. The hope is that authenticity and plain talking can triumph over polished PPE politics.
Taking a more cynical line one could argue that this new politics is merely a spin on the old. By parroting the questions of ‘ordinary working people’ Corbyn’s PMQs allowed the new leader to dodge tough questions about himself- a nifty trick but not sustainable week on week. In interviews Corbyn has evaded elaborating on his republican beliefs and has changed his line on Labour’s position towards EU membership.
Yet rather than this being a failing Corbyn’s PR machine should be presenting these choices as signs of a much more pragmatic figure than the press have thus far sketched. The fact that he seems unspinnable is an asset- if he has to compromise, as he most surely will, it is a principled move. The fact that there is a number of outspoken rebels in his cabinet also provides a shield for Corbyn in the event of a climb down on policies like trident. In the eyes of his supporters he can remain pure while also playing politics.
There are many aspects of our political system that a Corbyn-led opposition can change. The relentless focus on the inner workings of parties and their relationship with the media – at times cosy, at others spiteful- inherited from the New Labour era is, however, not one of them. The scrutiny of Corbyn’s latest hires –a director of rebuttal and a head of press- shows just how obsessed we are with the gatekeepers and string-pullers. They are as much the story, and potential liability, as the politicians they serve.
We don’t know how much the growing machinery of frontline politics will change the rebel of Islington North. It’s just been a week. Are you ready for the next four and a half years, Mr Corbyn?