Kathy Sheridan: May and Corbyn two sides of the same coin
Labour leader may have handled the Grenfell disaster better but he is flawed too
British prime minister Theresa May’s popularity ratings have plummeted to 34, roughly where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s were last November. Photograph: Getty Images
You can only admire the stamina of Jeremy Corbyn. By the weekend, the 68-year-old had surely hugged the entire populace of north Kensington and environs. His characteristically hangdog persona exuded humility, tears and empathy – and something new. Still jubilant from losing the general election to the Tories less catastrophically than expected, he walked among his people under showers of pixie dust, as the world’s media – the ones not busy struggling to decode the DUP’s DNA – scrambled for a look at the man who had defied all predictions of extinction. Zero to hero in a few weeks.
Right now, Jeremy Corbyn owns the hugs and tears territory because he seems sincere but also because he remains untested
People swooned at his fearlessness as he waded into the anguished, raging crowds around Grenfell Tower, the same crowds from which someone had apparently launched a bottle at the blameless Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London for just a year, who needed a police escort to ensure his safety.
And for the first and last time in Theresa May’s career, the contrast with Corbyn made it possible to feel a tiny twinge of sympathy for her human predicament. Her initial decision to limit her North Kensington engagement to a private meeting with frontline service representatives reeked of cowardice. When a universal savaging forced her hand and she finally met Grenfell Tower survivors on Friday, that meeting was held in secret. Then again, what was the alternative?
Was the hide-and-seek just another version of the vacuous, debate-dodging Maybot exposed by the campaign or was it more serious than that? As prime minister of a country clearly vulnerable to terrorist attack, as a former home secretary now deemed the embodiment of the Darwinian economics that led directly to the Grenfell Tower tomb, it’s hardly outlandish to infer that her life might have been seriously at risk.
Sure, an appearance might have been used to dislodge the impression of cowardice and restore her image; that would have seemed merely self-serving in the face of unspeakable tragedy. The fact is that sometimes it makes sense to stay away. What had she to offer to anyone in those terrible, early days after the fire? Short of a vow to launch Corbyn’s manifesto in full within the week and to open up the many scandalously empty mansions of Kensington to survivors immediately, she was doomed to be a release valve, nothing more. After a series of terrorist atrocities, the spectacle of the sloganeering, stoical, vicar’s daughter struggling to emote for public consumption, has become crucifyingly repetitive and disturbing. It would have been an act as provocative as any Tory political decision to try it at the site of a catastrophe for which many hold her personally responsible.
Meanwhile, Corbyn’s lifelong avoidance of power has rendered him untouchable. The beauty of fashioning long, political careers out of protest and making the right noises while avoiding responsibility and consequences have nothing to fear from angry voters. So Corbyn can slug it out with the queen in the empathy stakes and bask in the contrast with scaredy cat May. Right now, he owns the hugs and tears territory because he seems sincere but also because he remains untested. The fact that May’s popularity ratings have plummeted to 34, roughly where his were last November, demonstrates the wild volatility of politics. They also demonstrate that no one knows anything, inside or outside of politics in this impossibly complex world, regardless of the pronouncements of the pundits, the campaign workers, or the vox pops.
When leaders turn bad
We look at political leaders and fantasise about what a composite of them might be. Someone with dignity, energy and a well-stocked mind; someone who listens without ego; who has the moral authority to change course from a cherished goal, humble enough to admit it and to explain why; someone who does not pull moronically transparent strokes or patronise the people with simplistic narratives. Someone who is cunning, yet steadfast and decent; who instinctively recognises the boundary between building warm relationships with world leaders and licking their toes; who plays a long game and is incapable of putting party before country; someone who doesn’t feel the need to be a gas card, to have a quip for every lad up a ladder, or to have a pint with every voter. Someone who doesn’t want to be our new friend; someone who seeks not to divide but to appeal to our better selves; who engenders hope and a can-do spirit by fostering quality and fairness in everything they touch, beginning with housing, jobs, education, healthcare and laws that favour the greedy. How hard can it be?
We can dream. More realistically, maybe, the question is less about what we want or expect from our leaders than what we can do to protect ourselves from them when they turn bad. Checks and balances were supposed to protect America and Britain from autocratic leaders. How’s that working out?