People

The cult of Corbyn

Mr Corbyn has gotten a firm thumbs-up from party members despite strong criticism by MPs and Labour's worst ratings as an opposition party in opinion polls. He was returned as leader with an even bigger margin of 61.8 per cent. His loyal "Cobynistas"
Mr Corbyn has gotten a firm thumbs-up from party members despite strong criticism by MPs and Labour's worst ratings as an opposition party in opinion polls. He was returned as leader with an even bigger margin of 61.8 per cent. His loyal "Cobynistas" say he represents a brand of politics that is fast becoming extinct.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Derided as out of date and touch, he overcomes 100-1 odds to win

A year ago, Mr Jeremy Corbyn had to be persuaded to run as the next leader of Britain's main opposition Labour Party, after Mr Ed Miliband quit over a crushing defeat by the Conservative Party at the country's general election.

When he did throw his hat into the ring, he took 59.5 per cent of the vote - trumping former prime minister Tony Blair when the latter stood for party election in 1994.

Last Saturday, Mr Corbyn returned as leader once more, with an even bigger margin of 61.8 per cent, after a tumultuous year that plunged the party into the worst crisis it has ever seen.

It was a re-election that was capped by a revolt by his party's Members of Parliament who - shocked by the outcome of the European Union referendum in June which saw an exodus of Labour supporters - were more convinced than ever that Mr Corbyn was not the man who could take them to victory at the next general election.

Yet, the 67-year-old "hard-left" former backbencher has managed to fend off mass resignations in his shadow Cabinet, scathing criticisms by former party leaders such as Mr Neil Kinnock, Mr Gordon Brown and Mr Blair, and a ridiculing press, to come out stronger than ever.

The rise and rise of Mr Corbyn has confounded everyone, perhaps not least the man himself.

For many disillusioned with the current world order, where war, financial crises and social spending cuts have become grim realities, supporting Mr Corbyn represents a rejection of this political consent.

The little-known MP of Islington North in north London barely got the minimum 35 nominations from fellow MPs in the party to enter the race last year; those who put him up said they did it only because they felt it would widen the debate.

For Mr Corbyn and some of his old left-wing compatriots, there was dismay in witnessing the erosion of traditional Labour values over the years, as the party moved more and more to the centre.

Bookies dismissed his chances, putting his odds of winning at 100-1. What they did not count on were the 121,751 party members who voted for him, and the support of the biggest trade unions in the country.

"Cobynistas" - as his supporters are known - say he represents a brand of politics that is fast becoming extinct. An honest man and longstanding activist who is inspiring a younger generation of do- gooders with his unyielding principles and anti-establishment bent.

Social activism came early for Mr Corbyn. Born to middle-class parents who met as peace campaigners supporting the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, he joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when he was 17. He later became its vice-chair.

Before entering politics, he worked for several trade unions and dropped out of a course in trade union studies at North London Polytechnic after a disagreement with his tutor over the curriculum.

In 1974, he was elected to the Haringey District Council in north London, where he met and married his first wife, university lecturer and fellow Labour councillor Jane Chapman. He won the constituency of Islington North in the 1983 general election for the Labour Party.

The democratic socialist has often been dismissed as an ageing hippie and "leftist beardie", but even the harshest critic will acknowledge his commitment to his values and causes. For three decades, he has fought from the backbenches of Westminster, opposing Britain's military intervention overseas and the Tory government's austerity programme; supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament and other human rights and workers' rights issues.

An anti-war, anti-monarchy rebel MP, he has defied and voted against the party whip 428 times between 1997 and 2010 when Labour was in power, more than any other MP.

A vegetarian since he was 20, his frugality is legendary: he doesn't own a car but rides a bicycle instead; doesn't care for smart suits, savoir faire or socialising; and has one of the lowest expenses claims among all the MPs in Westminster.

Known for his slightly unkempt "Labour scruffs" - he favours open- neck shirts and corduroy jackets in and out of Parliament ­- he famously criticised a Tory MP who called for a ban on such attire in the House of Commons in 1984.

"It's not a fashion parade, it's not a gentleman's club, it's not a bankers' institute, it's a place where the people are represented," he said then.

Standing up for social injustices and against violence matters much more to Mr Corbyn than looking like an English gentleman. White shirt, with sleeves rolled up and pens sticking out of his shirt pocket, the thrice-married politician is a stalwart at rallies and marches, from anti-apartheid protests to gay rights to the plight of refugees.

Yet, the younger, more moderate MPs in his party are convinced he does not possess prime ministerial quality and is out of step with what voters want. They were especially upset that he hardly made his presence felt during the entire Remain campaign which Labour supported.

"Two million Labour voters would vote for Theresa May over Jeremy. That's got to be a wake-up call," said his rival Owen Smith, 46, a "soft- left" MP who mounted a leadership challenge after 172 MPs passed a vote of no confidence against Mr Corbyn following the referendum.

This, after 23 out of his 31 shadow Cabinet ministers resigned in a bid to force him to step down.

"You want to put into practice our principles, you want to do something about it. But you have to be in government," said Mr Smith.

The most recent survey showed Labour under Mr Corbyn has suffered the worst opinion poll ratings it has had in opposition, as it trails the Tories by an average of 11 points.

Yet, Mr Corbyn doggedly hung on, appointing new ministers and insisting he had the mandate of the members who voted for him overwhelmingly as leader less than a year ago.

On Saturday, Corbyn supporters made it clear to rebel MPs that they wanted the man to helm Europe's biggest political party, whose membership has more than doubled to over 500,000 in a year.

"There is something inherently virtuous about him, and that is a quality that can rally the support of a lot of people, and most importantly, a lot of young people," singer and activist Charlotte Church has said.

For many disillusioned with the current world order, where war, financial crises and social spending cuts have become grim realities, supporting Mr Corbyn represents a rejection of this political consent.

Mr Corbyn himself seems eager to bury the hatchet and get on with healing the rift. A shadow Cabinet election is in the mix, he said.

"We have much more in common than divides us," he said in his second victory speech. "Let us wipe that slate clean from today and get on with the work that we have to do as a party."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'The cult of Corbyn'. Print Edition | Subscribe