Jeremy Corbyn is a politician in the ascendancy. Bolstered by a remarkable and unforeseen performance in last June’s General Election, the 68-year-old MP for Islington North sits unassailable in his position as leader of Labour Party and is poised to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Only a year ago, none of this would have seemed plausible. Corbyn, beleaguered and under intense pressure from certain factions within his own party, was fighting to hold off a leadership challenge from Owen Smith, MP for Pontypridd. He would eventually sweep to a resounding victory, securing his position as leader for the second time in a year.
This second victory, by a bigger margin than the first, drove home the point that many within the party were refusing to accept – Corbyn was here to stay.
It’s been a curious thing, Corbyn’s rise to prominence. Rarely has a politician in this country been subjected to such intense scrutiny, often straying into outright opprobrium. As a counterweight to this, however, the veteran Socialist has engaged and mobilised people long since disillusioned with politics.
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Energised by Corbyn’s ideological commitment to traditional Labour values, the party’s membership has soared to levels not seen in decades. At the last election, this increased level of support enabled the resurgent party to acquire its biggest increase in the vote since just after the second World War, exceeding even the most optimistic pre-election predictions.
Thanks in part to the treatment of Corbyn by much of the press – most notably during the General Election, when some of the criticism was nothing short of vicious and hysterical – new party members and activists, fiercely loyal to their leader, have been at times unable to differentiate between baseless slander and reasoned, constructive criticism of their man.
As such, amongst some at least, an atmosphere of immunity has developed around Corbyn. Those keen to shield him from the torrents of abuse to which he has undoubtedly been the subject have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Their vision clouded by media hostility towards Labour’s leader, any criticism, no matter how well-meaning, has been repudiated in the strongest possible terms.
To illustrate this point, one needn’t look any further than when BBC presenter Emma Barnett was heckled on social media after an interview with Corbyn in which she reprimanded him for being unable to immediately provide costings for Labour’s free childcare plans.
Barnett was perhaps guilty of editorialising during the interview, but the abusive, expletive-laden responses by some were unjustifiable and deeply unhelpful for Corbyn, who has repeatedly sought to condemn such attacks. All such episodes serve to do is provide ammunition for those who seek to write off Corbyn’s entire support base as malevolent Trotskyists, risen from the ashes of Militant and intent on party hegemony.
Corbyn doesn’t need or even want any of this. He doesn’t wish to be exempt from criticism. He admitted to having not had the childcare costings to hand in his interview with Barnett, after stating that he would “not tolerate” abuse aimed at Barnett or any other journalist. He simply got caught out in an interview. It happens. Just look at Boris Johnson.
It would be hard to refute the fact that excitement about what Corbyn offers has contributed in part to the culture of no criticism that exists among some Corbynistas, but this enthusiasm need not be dimmed by constructive appraisals of Labour’s plans for government. Robust critiques of what the party intends to implement if in power will be essential if the optimism that currently abounds translates into a Corbyn premiership.
As far as criticism goes, Corbyn’s used to it. He’s been barracked in the Commons by both the opposition and his own side. He’s able to absorb it and never gets into the gutter with anyone. He enjoys talking to people about politics, not engaging in the kind of ad hominem attacks which are so often levelled at him. It’s in fact rather ironic that such an advocate of unity and mass participatory democracy should prove such a polarising figure.
Regardless, if we want to change the current climate in which Corbyn’s critics are loathe to say anything good about him, nor his supporters anything bad, we need to encourage a more balanced approach to critiquing his ideas and what he stands for.
If Corbyn becomes Prime Minister, he and his supporters will need to brace themselves for unprecedented hostility and a barrage of denunciation from the opposing side. It will be relentless, a great deal of it will be unfair and much of it will be brutal. Corbyn is going to be ready for it and he will need his supporters to be equally prepared.
Allowing Corbyn to be criticised does not amount to an ideological compromise, it’s merely part of living in a democratic country. Labour’s grassroots support has been instrumental in his meteoric rise and there is nobody that can refute that. As he gears up for power, he doesn’t need them to protect him from flak, he needs them to take their arguments to people around the country, be open to criticism and ready to respond respectfully and persuasively.
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