You couldn’t mistake Jeremy Corbyn for a new messiah, particularly if you were to see him in the half-full hall of the Leeds Islamic Centre, which looks more suited to badminton than political revivalism, and particularly if he was wearing, as he usually does, a plain white T-shirt/vest under an undistinguished, possibly beige, open-neck shirt.
Corbyn, despite all that, has become the most exciting contemporary English politician – admittedly a very limited field – by changing very little over the last 30-or-so years or while everyone else moved towards the right and Yves St Laurent.
I went to listen to him at the Islamic centre on August 8 (there was a bigger event later that evening at the Royal Armouries) expecting to hear a voice from the old left, only exciting to the many young people packing his meetings because they hadn’t heard it before.
Nor, I think, had they encountered a male MP (barring Dennis Skinner) who didn’t think that a sharp blue suite and a costly tie were essential to electoral success. A constant complaint of Corbyn’s critics – the ones who say he could never win a national election – is that he hasn’t moved with the times. Which is partly true, but fails to recognise the inadequacy of the English political class, who responded to the banking crisis by continuing to dress like bankers and to the housing crisis by dressing like property developers.
Corbyn, perhaps by luck rather than good judgement, now looks more like a cool, modern anti-austerity campaigner than his younger, more image-conscious rivals – more like Alexis Tsipras, say, than Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper.
Which might seem a superficial way to view the Labour leadership election, but unlike the traditional left, including Tony Benn and Corbyn himself, I can’t accept that politics should always be about issues rather than personalities. We really need to know that politicians can think for themselves and are decent and well-meaning otherwise we might end up with all sorts or monsters, such as Cyril Smith, George Galloway or Iain Duncan Smith.
Corbyn seemed quite at home in the Islamic Centre. He looks like a man more interested in mixing with local communities – or real people, as they’re sometimes called – than in grandiose ideas or personal ambitions. I imagine he spends much of his time speaking to small gatherings in draughty halls (which may explain the vests).
His views are quietly expressed (no finger-jabbing, no attempts at knock-’em-dead soundbites, no tedious over-use of the word ‘passionate’) and seem more relevant than you might expect of a leftie said to be stuck in the 1970s or 80s. After all, the great problem of the age in Europe and America is the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash, which Jeremy Corbyn talks sensibly about, the Tories misrepresent so as to further their galloping hard-right agenda and many Labour politicians, for reasons I can’t fathom, seem too scared to mention.
I’m really not surprised that Corbyn appears to be building a firm base for left-of-centre activists who had given up on Labour, even if he doesn’t get the nomination. The main theme, or perhaps the mood, of his speech was that people should work together; should help each other out and that conflicts can only be resolved by talking (Corbyn was reviled in the 1980s for advocating negotiations with the IRA – and just look at Northern Ireland now).
All of which sounds soppy but it’s a sense of fairness and co-operation which gives us, very precariously, decent public services, the NHS and a better chance of living peaceful, productive lives. I can’t quite remember the context, but Corbyn in his speech did use a very important word seldom heard in snarling, PR-led, post-crash political discourse – happiness. I think, if I had a vote in the Labour election, that I’d probably give it to the happiness candidate.