Book review, Comrade Corbyn, Journalism, Labour Party, Rosa Prince

Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup, Rosa Prince, 2016

First published in 2015 shortly after Corbyn’s election to theComrade Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party. read in a paperback edition updated with the events of the leadership challenge, although not the outcome, in 2016.

I paid £1 for this clearly unread) paperback edition (in a charity shop. I think I overpaid. It is a classic cuttings job, thrown together quickly following Corbyn’s surprise victory in the race to replace Ed Milliband as leader of the Labour Party.

Rosa Prince is the online political editor for the Daily Telegraph, and as such is unlikely to have had much of an understanding of the complex world of the non-Parliamentary left from which Corbyn emerged. The biography contains no interviews with anyone close to Corbyn. The nearest Prince gets is Tariq Ali, a fellow traveller in the shores of the far left, but hardly close to the man, and he has nothing interesting or indiscrete to add. Prince has to fall back on the cuttings file that forms the bulk of this book. Which means that if you read the papers occasionally in the summer of 2015, or watched the news on television, there will be little new to you in this account. Yes it brings it all together, and reminds you of some of the details you may have forgotten, but I am not sure that is enough to justify the full £1 paid.

Cuttings job it may be, but this isn’t the hatchet job you might expect from a Telegraph journalist. On the whole it tries to be balanced. Each critical analysis of Corbyn’s actions or policy positions is followed up with an “on the other hand” paragraph or two. Despite this Corbyn emerges as someone who has made mistakes and political misjudgements in the past – although who hasn’t? As the Guardian review of the book said at the time:

“It is pretty well impossible to spend your life on the side of the underdog and not end up having shaken hands with people who at least advocate blowing things up, just as it is well-nigh impossible to spend your life on the side of authority and not end up having sold arms to dictators. These are things that only bloggers and the Daily Mail pretend not to understand, and she didn’t fall into that trap.” I am not sure this is right, but at least it avoids demonising Corbyn in the way he is treated elsewhere in the media.

The heart of the book is not of course Corbyn’s middle class childhood in leafy Shropshire, with his two grade E A levels, nor the half a lifetime championing unpopular causes in darkest Islington. The 2015 leadership campaign provides all the drama needed, even though it is the easiest thing in the world to portray the outcome as an inevitability once it happened. Prince charts the events of the campaign fairly and a bit dully, failing to capture any of the excitement or improbability of the result. If you were under a rock for several months in the summer of 2015 and need a crash course in the Labour Party’s leadership campaign, you could do worse. Books like this get out of date incredibly quickly, and the Corbyn story has some way to run before it ends in either Downing Street, or more likely back on the backbenches. We will know how it all ends on June 9th.

P.S. As part of the preparation for this review I read the review the New Statesman published in February 2016. It is bizarrely positive – for  example here:

“But after over a dozen interviews with the leader’s friends and opponents (he himself would not speak to her), she has produced an accomplished study and the most lucid explanation yet of the Labour Party’s present state.”

Is over a dozen interviews really that high a number for a biography of an active politician who must have hundreds if not thousands of people who know him or have something interesting to say about him?  I thought the book had nothing whatsoever of interest to say about the state of the Labour Party. So why the ridiculously positive review?