Given the huge number of past activities to cover in Jeremy Corbyn’s life, and how little had been written about him previously, Rosa Prince’s Comrade Corbyn is impressively comprehensive in the range of information pulled together so quickly.
From Corbyn’s relatively prosperous upbringing, through his early politics being heavily influenced by seeing huge inequality overseas, and on into this career as a Labour politician, Prince traces the story with fulsome detail.
I am not sure she ever really gets under the skin of her subject to explain what makes him tick, but that is hard to do with such instant biographies – and all the more so with as reclusive a person as Jeremy Corbyn.
Where, for examples, does his strong anti-Americanism come from? Or why does he praise overseas left wing governments who, for example, give their secret police sweeping powers yet in the UK is often fiercely opposed to even much more modest police powers? How does he square his support for human rights causes and Amnesty International with his attitudes towards the IRA? Both fans and critics of Corbyn can think of answers to suit their views, but if you want to know what really are the answers inside Corbyn’s head, then Comrade Corbyn does not contain much material to enlighten you.
That is partly because the book sometimes suffers a little from a fairly simple ‘he said / she said’ structure. Many friends and critics of Corbyn are quoted. But often the coverage is just that – both sides of a dispute are briefly quoted and the reader is left with nothing other than their pre-existing prejudices to choose which side to believe.
Hence, for example, on the allegations that the company run by one of Jeremy Corbyn’s wives treats workers poorly there is a brief allegation reported followed by a brief rebuttal based on a non-sequitur. (Just because a company does not make a profit does not automatically mean it treats staff well.) The reader really has no way of judging the merits of the case one way or the other.
This is a problem when it comes to more substantive issues such as whether or not Corbyn failed to heed whistleblowers over what became a huge paedophile scandal in Islington or whether he was instead too willing to believe councillors who shared his politics. Again the strength of Comrade Corbyn is that it puts both sides of the argument. The weakness is that it simply reports them briefly, leaving the reader again without enough information to have a chance of making a well-based judgement.
Just occasionally, the book does go further than this, and in particular is good at digging into the myth that has arisen about Corbyn’s bid for Labour leader – that he was a reluctant candidate who was only asked and only agreed to stand on the basis of Buggins’ turn amongst a small group of the most left-wing Labour MPs. I say ‘myth’ because Comrade Corbyn presents solid evidence that there was rather more ambition and prior planning from Corbyn. He may have wrapped his public actions in a cloak of modesty, but the book sets out how he had been planning to run for leader well ahead of the Buggins’ turn meeting.
It is unlikely that Comrade Corbyn will change the views of anyone about the man, as there is plenty in the book to reinforce all pre-existing viewpoints. What it might do is damage (further) Andy Burnham’s reputation who comes out as a rather farcical figure, getting the dates wrong for a putative family holiday truce between the Labour leadership candidates, or getting lost trying to leave the leadership election declaration, repeatedly bumping into Corbyn and making a wrong turn into the boiler room as he tried to find the exit.
Comrade Corbyn has high production values – good quality paper and smart typography. Unfortunately although the text makes repeated references to notable photographs of Corbyn, none are included in the book.
Overall, the book is certainly an easy and enjoyable read. Just don’t expect too much for such a quickly produced book – your knowledge will be filled out rather than your preconceptions challenged.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Charles Kennedy – A Tragic Flaw.
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Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.