Like most radical reformers, Jeremy Corbyn has a limited lifespan as a political leader

5 Feb 2016


Will the Member of Parliament for Islington North share the same fate as a 15th century Florentine monk?


Jeremy Corbyn has gained a reputation for his steadfast beliefs. In mid-September, Corbyn’s lifelong republicanism meant he refused to kneel in front of the monarch during the initiation ceremony for the Privy Council.


Staying true to his CND credentials, Corbyn has also suggested that the nuclear submarines that currently host the Trident missile system – Britain’s nuclear deterrent – could patrol without nuclear weapons.


Corbyn’s inability to compromise or foster an attitude of flexibility has not only damaged his and the Labour Party’s reputation, but also the philosophies that he represents. Republicanism has been made to look petty and short-sighted following Corbyn’s refusal to kneel before the Queen, and his disarmament policies have made few friends with the voters that once upon a time formed the core of Labour’s electoral base.


Corbyn-the-individual commands respect; he has the lowest expenses claim of any Member of Parliament and there is no question of the sincerity of his beliefs. He is the ideal backbencher: principled, tenacious and stubborn with decades worth of experience representing people and opinions that have been overlooked by the frontbench.


However, these are not the values and traits that are needed to make Corbyn-the-PM. He allows no room for political compromise with Labour MPs – the help of whom he urgently needs to create a unified opposition. Corbyn’s somewhat radical beliefs also make him a divisive figure; a 15% rather than a 50% leader.


Corbyn also supplies his opponents with plenty of political ammunition to discredit and, somewhat ironically, gun-down his proposed policies. His attempt in November to defeat the government’s proposed plans for RAF bombings of ISIS in Syria, was successfully opposed by the government and even members of the Labour frontbench. Hilary Benn, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, made a stirring speech in favour of bombing that was met with cross-party support - challenging Corbyn’s authority.


Throughout history, principled reformers have often experienced promising beginnings only to eventually acquiesce to or be defeated by the underlying political environment. For example, the Gracchi brothers of the ancient Roman Republic had popular support to redistribute agricultural land. This ultimately led to a confrontation with the Roman elite classes which resulted in their execution. For a modern-day example, one need look no further than Syriza in Greece, who are currently implementing the very austerity agenda that they were elected to oppose.


Strong parallels can also be drawn with Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican monk who attempted to revolutionise the city-state of Florence at the end of the 15th century. A genuine advocate of his beliefs, never prepared to jeopardise them for individual or political gain, Savonarola’s attempts to ‘Christianise’ Florence by removing the corrupt and tyrannical Medici family won him many supporters.


Unfortunately, his inability to understand or accept the political environment of Renaissance Florence served only to harm and ultimately undermine his crusade. Disobeying the Pope as well as alienating the powerful Florentine elite (who held all the purse-strings) led to his alienation and arrest, after which he was burned at the stake as a heretic. It also contributed to the return of the Medici and another century and a half of oligarchic rule for Florence.


Corbyn is unlikely to meet a similar fate to that of Savonarola, and it is highly improbable that his leadership will prompt a century and a half of Conservative rule. However, unless Corbyn changes his tune, the popular wave that threw him into power will very quickly drag him back to obscurity.


Perhaps more importantly it will discredit the case for nuclear disarmament and left-of-centre opinions on important issues such the Middle East. Voters will become more critical of such beliefs and will be reminded by the media that these were the views of the hapless Jeremy Corbyn. It could take generations for these beliefs to return to the mainstream fold once more.  


‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme’ quipped Mark Twain, a 19th-century American writer. Corbyn won’t be burned on Islington Green for being a heretic, but as a sincere reformer with an allergy to compromise, the Labour leader may become as commonly discredited as the Dominican monk.


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