The challenge in changing Britain’s political picture
The new leader of the British Labour Party navigated a difficult first week
New Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his party’s headquarters in London on September 14th, Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters
Political honeymoons don’t come much shorter than Jeremy Corbyn’s. The new leader of the British Labour Party is having to adjust to his position in the unforgiving glare of a domestic media that ranges from sceptical to openly hostile. Everyone else – colleagues, opponents, journalists and the public – is having to adjust to the ideological and stylistic shift that Corbynism represents. In the first week, results have been mixed.
While Corbyn called for party unity, the fissures in the parliamentary party have only become more apparent. A number of senior party figures immediately announced they would not serve on the new leader’s front bench.
Outgoing shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said Corbyn was unable to assure him he would support the UK’s continued membership of the EU. On key issues, the leadership is split. Tom Watson, the new deputy leader, declared fidelity to Corbyn while making clear he disagreed with him on Nato and Britain’s nuclear weapons, which the new leader wants to scrap.
Policy, however, was largely peripheral in the mini-controversies that surrounded Corbyn this week. His selection of left-wing stalwart John McDonnell reignited a row over his suggestion in 2003 that IRA members should be “honoured”. On Thursday he apologised.
If Corbyn was under any illusions about the challenge he faces, his first five days as leader will have gone some way to dispelling them. The lifelong republican was mauled by the Tory press for not singing God Save the Queen at a Battle of Britain memorial service (“Corbyn snubs Queen and country,” screamed the Daily Telegraph’s front page).
His refusal to adhere to the conventions of modern political-media relations by declining impromptu doorstep interviews gave us television images of the leader of the opposition being pursued awkwardly down the street.
More seriously, a member of his entourage was alleged to have assaulted a BBC cameraman outside Corbyn’s home.
The new leader did notch some important victories. His performance at Prime Minister’s Question Time, where he dispensed with the usual brand of theatrical one-upmanship and instead relayed to David Cameron a series of questions submitted by members of the public, allowed Corbyn to dictate the tone.
It was a reminder that Cameron, too, will have to adjust to an opponent whose unspun authenticity is vital to his appeal.