Book review: Comrade Corbyn, by Rosa Prince

Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media.
His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman.
Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does the real Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith and Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography, Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems, but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life so far.

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By and large, he comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a back bencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders, particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated.
There is nothing at all to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, mainly in the 1980s, He is certainly not pro-terrorist, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future.
Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not.
The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.

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There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime, notably under John Smith (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgwood-Benn (p71 and p308).
By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly over the not unusual fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable but that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or that they were an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again in the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than those from relatively humble backgrounds such as John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – who became figures on the Right, were “unlikely conservatives”.
Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” (she isn’t) while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, we should remember: Rosa Prince writes for the Telegraph. Perhaps we should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge?
These blind spots (admittedly common to many Conservative Party supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.

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Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday

In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.

The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered  in this sequel is rather more complex.

On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a  majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.

After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”

This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.

Sort of.

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Book review: Speaking Out by Ed Balls

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Honestly. What a missed opportunity. The comic possibilities of a potential title for former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls were seemingly almost endless.

Here are just a few: Balls Revealed, Balls Exposed, Balls Up, Balls Out, Iron Balls, New Balls Please!, Strictly Come Balls, Golden Balls, Better Ed Than Dead.

Instead, this book published by Hutchinson has the extremely dull title, Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics. One just hopes when the time comes for his wife to reflect on her political career, she is more imaginative.

May I suggest, It Shouldn’t Happen To Yvette?

Perhaps Ed didn’t want to look stupid. He was a serious contender as recently as last year after all. Labour’s defeat and the loss of his own seat were a big personal shock to him. He is probably the most capable post-war Shadow Chancellor never to make it to the position of Chancellor Of the Exchequer itself, along with John Smith.

The book is not in chronological order but linked thematically. He talks frankly about his stammer, the hard years under the brilliant but volatile Gordon Brown, his eventual falling out with Ed Miliband, his support for Norwich City (yawn!) and his running. He has a sense of humour too. Let us not forget his response to George Osborne’s claim in 2012 that the Chancellor had delivered a “Robin Hood Budget”. Balls charged that on the contrary, Osborne “couldn’t give a Friar Tuck.”
A good book then, but what a shame about the title. After all, if he really doesn’t want to look stupid why is he currently appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, attracting more attention than ever before, by making himself look like a total pranny?

As Lord Heseltine once said: it’s not Brown’s. It’s Balls.

Strictly Come Dancing 2016

DVD review: The Moaning of Life 2 with Karl Pilkington

Warning: Karl Pilkington does not moan like he used to.

Don’t worry: he hasn’t stopped completely and still retains his distinctive, unique and often hilarious world view. But, on this evidence at least, his reputation as a serial moaner is undeserved. Pilkington is often understandably bewildered by many of the strange people and bizarre practices he encounters here, but he embraces most of what he sees and confronts many challenges (night-club dancing, ironing in a remote and precarious American location and even going on patrol as a superhero), head-on.

Probably the main difference from his earlier series, An Idiot Abroad, is the absence of the sometimes cruel presence of Pilkington’s old comradres Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Rather than being sent to random locations as to their whim, here Pilkington is able to travel to some marvellous places to meet some often very odd people in the hope of gaining enlightenment on a range of topics including Art, Identity and How To Live Your Life. Through it all he remains, his usual self: both very ordinary and also unique, devoted to his girlfriend back in the UK and often and seemingly unintentionally, very very funny.

He meets some strange types here including as Utah man who has five wives, an Indian who offers an unconvincing argument as to the merits of drinking urine, a 91-year old woman skydiver and a young lady who specialises in vomiting up her own works of art. If some of this sounds crude, well, it sometimes is. The worse thing about the show is that the director seems obsessed with showing someone vomiting, at least once in every episode.

But through it all is Karl. Whether railing against solar power, defending the Dickens character, Ebeneezer Scrooge or being totally astonished to find that he actually quite likes wearing a wig, Karl Pilkington is the key to the show’s success.

And despite what I said earlier: her does still moan quite a bit.

DVD: The Moaning of Life 2 with Karl Pilkington

Release date: November 23rd 2015

BBC Worldwide