Jeremy Corbyn – The First Two Biographies

Nigel Cawthorne, Jeremy Corbyn: Leading from the Left (Endeavour Press, £4.99).
W. Stephen Gilbert, Jeremy Corbyn – Accidental Hero (Squint Books, £9.99).

Reviewed by Merryn Williams
We’re still in shock. Only a few months ago – until the summer of 2015 – almost nobody had ever heard of Jeremy Corbyn. On 16th July, he and the other three candidates were speaking just around the corner from me, but I didn’t go because I thought it would be boring and predictable. By August, I was blogging frantically in his favour and even writing poems about him. As Gilbert says, it ‘was not something anybody – absolutely anybody at all anywhere in the world – could have anticipated’. What happened and why did it happen so suddenly? Who is this man?
The first two biographies are now out and they’re both rather short. That’s understandable, because they had to be written at top speed and because we still know very little about the first half of Jeremy’s life. He is about the same age as Blair and Brown and entered Parliament at about the same time. He was only thirty-four and had a safe seat very close to Westminster, so (given his obvious competence and good temper) he might reasonably have expected and plotted to get into his party’s inner circle. Clement Attlee wrote, ‘Most men (sic) who go into politics and become Members of the House of Commons would like to be Prime Minister’. Not all, though, he added. ‘You always find a number of men (sic) in the House of Commons who have gone in there …. because they have wanted to get something done’.
We don’t know much, either, about his life after 1983, other than the issues he has voted on and the causes he supports. If you read the memoirs of other left-wing Labour people – Benn, Livingstone, Mullin, Marshall-Andrews – you will find that they scarcely mention him. He is there in the background, quietly helping out, but the last thing he looks for is publicity. ‘I’ve never met a man who is so willing to be available to anybody at any time’, says an interviewee (Cawthorne, p. 102).
Of course, this will change; the Rita Skeeters are still scurrying about hoping to find scandals in his past. Meanwhile, here are these two slim volumes, which sum up most of what we know. Cawthorne is the author of several lightweight works, including Sex Lives of the Hollywood Goddesses and Sex Lives of the Popes. His book is neither pro nor anti, though it sometimes uses loaded terms like ‘moderate’ and ‘hard left’. It has been unkindly described on Amazon as ‘a fleshed-out Wikipedia entry’, and there are very many typos, but it does give a fairly accurate account of Jeremy’s career up to September 2015. Hardly anything is said, though, about the fascinating subject of exactly how and why he got elected.
Gilbert’s book (published by the poet Todd Swift of Eyewear) is longer, more scholarly and more thoughtful. He understands Labour politics and is sympathetic to his subject, while noting that he isn’t a great public speaker. After a quick biographical sketch, he discusses the big arguments which Jeremy has been involved in – Palestine, Ireland, Trident – and the challenges he might face from Tories and Blairites, defends him from his more spiteful critics, and refuses to speculate about the next few months or years. ‘Categorical assertions about what the future holds are a fool’s game’. He also notes that the man and woman in the street doesn’t think so much in terms of Left or Right as in terms of ‘do I like and trust this person?’ To quote Attlee again, ‘There are many men (sic) who find it impossible to believe that men lead others by such things as the example of moral or physical courage, sympathy, self-discipline, altruism and superior capacity for hard work’.
Another biography, Comrade Jeremy: A Very Unlikely Coup, is due out on 12th January 2016. It’s by Rosa Prince, the political editor of the Daily Telegraph, and will, I suspect, be hostile. I’ll keep you posted.
Merryn Williams is a writer and literary critic, and lives in Oxford.


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