Jeremy Corbyn, ‘Holy Fool’

This article was first published on Labour Vision.

On a blustery morning in early May Labour’s election battle bus edged through Lowestoft’s narrow streets, passing Suffolk Aerial Installations, Chick King Kebab and Mr Bumbles Cafe before parking opposite the putting green by the seafront.

Jeremy Corbyn had arrived to take an improbable stroll along the promenade. After a couple of minutes the coach door slowly slid open and the Labour leader emerged from behind the tinted glass to confront the assembled confusion of reporters, photographers, security, curious passers-by and a couple of dozen Waveney Labour Party members. There were hands to shake, children to engage, selfies to pose for, questions to field, a parliamentary candidate to greet and a short speech to deliver.

Corbyn negotiated it all with preternatural calm, seeming at once both fully engaged with the chaos surrounding him and wholly detached, as if observing the scene from afar, like the gulls circling above. While posing for endless photos, grasping proffered hands, exchanging pleasantries with members and fielding questions from the press, all with the practised grace of an experienced campaigner, he stole frequent glances at the oblivious sea beyond, and the silent clouds drifting overhead. The curious gathering inched towards the tearooms by the pier, where Corbyn gave his brief address, looking beyond the faces and cameras, delivering his words to the distant horizon of sea and sky.

Corbyn is a fluent but unvarnished speaker: his speech used workmanlike words shorn of memorable images and insinuating soundbites, aside from some shoehorning of the phrase ‘for the many not the few’, not yet familiar to audiences at this early stage of the campaign. But his simple heartfelt message, denouncing austerity, pledging investment, appealing for compassion, received a respectful hearing from the sizeable crowd that by now had gathered. Corbyn then headed back to the bus with his retinue, confessing that he didn’t quite know where his next stop was, and, several photos later, was gone.

The brief visit had been unremarkable, but sufficient for the Labour leader’s quiet charisma to communicate itself. As the bus pulled away I was reminded of a comment by Corbyn’s long-time parliamentary colleague Chris Mullin, made shortly after his friend’s unlikely elevation to the leadership:

I like Jeremy, and I think he is a thoroughly decent man, who has lived all his life according to his principles. I met him once on the train, and he immediately got out his sandwiches, which were vegetarian of course, and divided them in two and gave me half. I think that might well come across to the public.

The child within

And so, as the campaign progressed, it did. Corbyn’s simple words, genial demeanour and grace under fire had a cumulative effect, made through strolls along dozens of promenades and high streets, appearances at rallies and rock concerts, tough television interviews, and question times with sceptical audiences.

His serene countenance during those weeks drew frequent parallels with that of a Buddhist monk, Corbyn himself at one point referring to his efforts to attune himself to a Zen mindframe. There’s truth in that, but when watching Corbyn deliver his speech at Glastonbury last week, it occurred to me that a comparison with another spiritual archetype might be more appropriate.

Corbyn is never a sophisticated speaker, but here he was at his most guileless:

In every child there is a poem, in every child there is a painting, in every child there is music. But as people get a bit older they get embarrassed about it, ‘Ooh, can’t be thinking that sort of thing, can’t be writing poetry.’ No! I want all of our children to be inspired, all of our children to have the right to learn music, write poetry and to paint in the way that they want.

Her Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition continued, wide-eyed:

I’m inspired by many poets and many people. I think we should adopt a maxim in life that everyone we meet is unique. Everyone knows something we don’t know, is slightly different to us in some ways. Don’t see them as a threat. Don’t see them as the enemy. See them as a source of knowledge, a source of friendship and a source of inspiration.

Corbyn’s child-like wonder for the emancipatory potential of the arts is at the heart of his worldview, and helps to illuminate the particular nature of his charisma.

Though he is often ‘accused’ of harbouring communist sympathies Corbyn’s brand of socialist libertarianism has more in common with the tradition of English radicalism associated with his mentor Tony Benn than with the Teutonic abstractions of Marxist-Leninism. Corbyn has none of the ascetic revolutionary’s concern that an indulgent preoccupation with the arts might distract from the unsentimental business of political and economic transformation. Lenin, in a letter to Maxim Gorky, said of Beethoven:

I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps with a childish naiveté, to think that people can work such miracles! … But I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things, and pat the little heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty.

Compare that with Corbyn’s comments a couple of years ago when launching Labour’s national strategy for the arts:

I’m not going to let you hear it or publish it so it’s going to remain private, but I do write quite a bit poetry myself, largely on trains, sometimes late at night and sometimes early in the morning … I also do totally random paintings which are abstract beyond belief. Somebody looked at one and asked me to describe it and I said you describe it to me because I haven’t a clue what it means. I find the combination of colour and movement fascinating, I also enjoy making things with wood and growing plants.

Indeed, with his penchant for quoting Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy and fondness for Latin American literature, which he reads in Spanish, Corbyn in his way is perhaps more engaged with the arts than any Labour leader since Michael Foot.

Watching Corbyn deliver his homily about the importance of attending to one’s inner child to the sea of faces turned towards the Pyramid Stage last week, rather as he spoke to the infinite ocean at Lowestoft, it seemed to me that if parallels with religious figures are to be drawn Corbyn resembles not so much the Zen Master as the ‘Holy Fool’, the artless wayfarer who moves serenely through the base, material world, their path illuminated by an inner light.

The type of the holy innocent runs through Christian history – and surfaces in many religious traditions – but Corbyn’s brand of abstraction recalls the ‘yurodivy’, the ‘fools for Christ’ associated with Russian Orthodoxy, whose unworldliness is the source both of their weakness and their uncanny power. Though always poor, and often unlettered, the yurodivy have been accredited a depth of spiritual insight that has invested them with a numinous presence, giving them the authority to ’speak truth to power’, even to the Tsar.

They are perhaps best known in the West on account of their frequent appearance in Russian literature, surfacing in Pushkin, Mussorgsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and, most famously perhaps, Dostoyevsky. In The Idiot Dostoyevsky tells the story of Prince Myshkin, a character with ‘an absolutely beautiful nature’, who entrances and disturbs all who encounter him, employing a turn of phrase that might seem familiar to those who tuned in to Glastonbury last week:

Oh, I only don’t know how to say it … but there are so many things at every step that are so beautiful, that even the most confused person finds beautiful. Look at a child, look at God’s sunrise, look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that are looking at you and love you …

Corbyn’s coalition

It’s a tradition that, however distantly, Corbyn participates in, inspiring and infuriating his party.

After the surprise and delight that followed the election the Labour is turning to the task of thinking through the challenges the party faces in turning its new position at the threshold of government into a parliamentary majority. The Conservative-DUP deal, precarious as it is, has confirmed a sober realisation that another election may not be imminent. And Labour needs to work out a message capable of appealing to some of the socially conservative working class Brexit voters who have moved to the Tories.

The new Labour Roadmap project calls for ‘a pragmatic Labour vision that widely resonates and persuades the public’, one capable of ‘finding a more effective coalition of voters’. Labour First acknowledges that though ‘Labour moved forward in seats, and more dramatically in vote share’, a new strategy is required ‘that goes beyond the groups of voters appealed to this time’. And Daniel Allington’s analysis of Labour’s lost working class vote simmers with a scarcely concealed contempt for Corbyn’s ‘middle class insurgency’:

Fair play to him … In losing the election by only slightly more seats than Gordon Brown, he won the anticipated leadership contest in advance. So if the working class asks for its Labour Party back, he can confidently tell it to get lost.

Lisa Nandy’s post-mortem offers a rather more generous assessment, zeroing in on the essential question with which all sides of the party are wrestling:

[I]f the future of Labour lies in a coalition between middle class young professionals and the working class, what is the glue that binds? While there is shared agreement about investment in public services, how are those interests to be squared on areas like national security and immigration?

There are no easy answers, though the election campaign itself gave signs of how the circle might be squared. Though it didn’t convince all, Labour’s pledge to refocus economic policy on investment and growth resonated in working class constituencies, as elsewhere. Corbyn was able to speak convincingly on security after the terrorist attacks by linking police cuts to the effectiveness of counter-terrorism operations. And his natural scepticism towards the European Union allowed Labour to retain significant support amongst Brexit voters.

But the election campaign should have taught us a couple of things about the limitations of efforts to boost Labour’s electoral chances by reconfiguring the party’s message.

First, the willingness and capacity of the current leadership to compromise on points of principle only goes so far. Corbyn may have reconciled himself to retaining Britain’s NATO membership and proved himself able to speak convincingly on security. But though put under enormous pressure on multiple occasions to do so he could never bring himself to disown the overtures he made to the IRA during the 1980s: Corbyn fundamentally rejects the friend/enemy distinction as the basis for political negotiation. And he never will be able to say that he would be prepared – in any circumstance – to authorise a nuclear strike.

Second, Labour’s election campaign showed that though compromise matters in politics, it isn’t everything. Under this most unconventional of leaders the fundamental basis of the party’s appeal does not consist in its capacity to convince a hard-boiled electorate it has embraced an unsentimental realpolitik.

As the polls narrowed Corbyn showed – as he had during his leadership bid – that electorates are not assemblies of discrete constituencies with fixed views, a collection of prefabricated blocks of opinion waiting to be snapped together into parliamentary majorities.

Voters are febrile, capricious, volatile, ready to be persuaded. As he did in 2015 Corbyn sensed he was in the presence of an audience willing to listen to a story, ready to contemplate a vision of a different kind of society from what conservative orthodoxies had told them was possible. The picture Corbyn painted for them may have been as abstract as his own canvasses, but many saw something they liked and voted for it. As Lisa Nandy puts it:

This election broke wide open some assumptions that have constrained us on the left for too long; that the young won’t vote, that any one individual or political party is ‘unelectable’, that perceptions of both individuals, parties and even policies cannot change suddenly and dramatically. It reminded us that courage, ambition and hope are what’s needed and what have been missing from our politics, too often, for too long.

Labour’s best strategic minds have agonised for years over how to painstakingly piece together a voting bloc capable of getting the party over the electoral line. They are still doing it. But the simple – outrageous – truth is that the seemingly impossible feat of pushing Labour beyond 40% was achieved not through triangulation, well-crafted soundbites and nuanced ‘retail offers’, but by the simplest means: a rather ordinary 68-year-old man standing in front of vast crowds prepared to listen to his ordinary words about ordinary things: the possibility of compassion, the necessity of tolerance, the hope for change, a love of nature and delight in creativity.

‘It is beauty that will save the world,’ said Prince Myshkin. And it is perhaps the simple beauty that Corbyn sees, and speaks of, that will save Labour too.