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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

How Jeremy Corbyn went from zero to hero in the space of a year

The Labour party leader was on a hiding to nothing at last year's party conference — now he is king of all he surveys

In the space of 12 months, Jeremy Corbyn has achieved an extraordinary transformation in his fortunes. REUTERS/Toby Melville
In the space of 12 months, Jeremy Corbyn has achieved an extraordinary transformation in his fortunes. REUTERS/Toby Melville

When Jeremy Corbyn looks out at the sea of ecstatic delegates assembled for his leader’s speech at Labour’s conference on Wednesday, he could be forgiven for pinching himself to make sure that the last 12 roller-coaster months have not been a dream.

After all, The Economist newspaper, the bible of the boss class and sensible moderatism, has just featured him on its front page, dubbing Mr Corbyn "The Likely Lad" and concluding that he was “Britain’s most likely next prime minister”. His party is besting Theresa May’s Conservatives in opinion polls, and Labour stands as more united behind its leader than it has for years.

Political reporters applying to attend the parties’ conferences had foreseen that one event could see a hated leader hounded out of office, while the leader at the other would bask in adulation after a successful election campaign. Instead, Labour is welcoming blue-chip companies willing to work with the party to exhibit at the Brighton Centre, while the best business for the Tories in Manchester will be selling popcorn to those witnessing the many murderous spats.

What a difference a year makes. This time in 2016, the Labour party that met in Liverpool for its annual conference was in desperate shape. They had just spent the summer engaged in a bitter and destructive campaign for the leadership, after a "coup" against Mr Corbyn by a majority of the party's MPs, furious at a perceived lack of support from him during the campaign to stay in the EU.

Mr Corbyn survived that crisis, re-elected with a crushing majority by the party's rank and file, but relations with the parliamentary arm remained abysmal. Many predicted a meltdown at the next elections the party faced.

Mrs May, who took over unopposed as Tory leader and prime minister after the vote for Brexit, appeared to be impregnable. Channelling Margaret Thatcher, she regularly embarrassed a wooden Mr Corbyn at weekly prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons to gales of laughter from her backbench MPs, who took to calling her ‘Mummy’ and trusted her to successfully steer Britain through the process of disengaging from Europe.

Labour was flatlining in the opinion polls, as support for the party as whole and for Mr Corbyn reached levels unseen since Michael Foot, a similarly left-wing leader, took it to an electoral disaster in 1983. The party lost a by-election in Copeland, one of its northern industrial heartlands, and many Labour MPs despaired about their chances in the next poll they feared was coming soon.

It came as no great surprise when on April 18, Mrs May called a general election to be held less than two months later. Politicians and journalists of all hues began to write Mr Corbyn’s obituaries, and those on the right of Labour who had kept their counsel about the leader since the abortive coup, started to plan for a future without the now 68-year-old at the helm of the party.

And then something rather magical happened. Despite a drubbing in local elections on May 4, which many read as confirming the forthcoming slaughter at the national polls on June 8, Mr Corbyn and his followers were stealthily enacting a political revolution.

Freed from the stuffy constraints of Westminster, the Labour leader stormed around the country, drawing crowds of thousands of young and old alike. He presented a Labour manifesto that was "extreme" for recent British political history - “but which would not raise eyebrows in much of western Europe,” as The Economist drily noted – but chimed with the millions who had spent seven years of Tory and coalition rule living under a programme of austerity.

Mr Corbyn’s message was being spread by thousands of activists from the Labour-affiliated group Momentum and by a party operation that was revitalised by the hundreds of thousands of new members who had joined since he became leader after the 2015 election.

On the doorstep and the internet, through a brilliantly planned and executed social media campaign, the leader was creating a new coalition of voters; the young, yes, but he also succeeded in convincing parents and those with concerns about health care that only Labour could save public schools and the National Health Service.

Lacking genuine support from the traditional media — even newspapers such as The Guardian and Daily Mirror were lukewarm — the party’s digital strategy just bypassed the "dead tree press" and spoke directly to voters through their mobile phones and computers.

Videos created by Labour were shared by millions, many of them syrupy and emotive but packing a genuine punch; platforms were created to funnel activists to the constituencies where their endeavours would be best utilised. Mr Corbyn also became an unlikely hero to the younger generation, with a succession of popular culture memes (the chant of "Oh Je-rem-y Cor-byn" to the tune of a White Stripes song was heard at festivals and football matches all year) and endorsements from artists and actors.

While Labour were fighting the election with 21st-century tools, Mr Corbyn’s Tory opponent appeared to be trying to re-enact Thatcher’s 1983 landslide. Theresa May was carted around to a succession of what appeared to be out-of-town service depots, where she parroted a line that will forever haunt her, about the "strong and stable" future she would ensure the country.

At each location, she would stand against a backdrop of faces that suggested little had changed in the United Kingdom over the last 30 years, taking few questions from a press that was beginning to see little novelty in her.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was obvious that Britain had changed during the election campaign, but the opinion polls remained steadily against Mr Corbyn. Many people lauded the energy and verve of his effort, but were still predicting that the country would wake up on June 9 to a possible Tory majority of 100 seats and Labour taking less than 200 MPs, their worst performance since the 1930s.

And then the earthquake came; Mrs May’s great gamble failed as the Tories lost seats and were denied a majority in the Commons, and Labour gained 30 MPs and ended on 262 seats.

Despite leading the party to its third consecutive defeat, Mr Corbyn had achieved a share of the vote for an avowedly socialist programme — 40 per cent of the electorate — which had seemed impossible when the party was in the low 20s. More importantly he had asserted control over Labour. Previous critics, with degrees of sincerity and enthusiasm, bent the knee to the leader, accepting that his unexpected triumph had gifted him control of the party.

And then, less than a week after the poll, came the appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower, when upwards of 80 people died in an inferno at the building of social housing flats in an area of west London where rich and poor exist side by side.

The view of an unequal Britain that Mr Corbyn had preached on the campaign trail could not have been more horrifically illustrated; many believed that the residents of the tower had died because they were poor, and the terrible state provision for the victims of the fire seemed to emphasise this.

The day after the disaster, both Mrs May and Mr Corbyn visited the scene. The Labour leader looked prime ministerial as he hugged residents and walked among the community, clearly moved, while the actual prime minister was heavily guarded and escorted around stiffly by senior police officers.

The optics of the three months since the election have continued to reinforce this bizarre inversion of roles. Mr Corbyn has been feted wherever he has gone; his address to the Glastonbury festival in June drew immense crowds; the prime minister has seemed cold and aloof, and has lost her previous edge in PMQs exchanges.

The Tory party has essentially told their leader that she will be around for as long as they say she is worth keeping as a human shield on Brexit; Labour has allowed Mr Corbyn and his allies to change rules to allow for the strain of his politics to continue long after he has retired. Their relative personal ratings in opinion polls have also flipped; with 40 per cent of respondents viewing the Labour leader as being of sound judgment compared with 36 per cent for Mrs May, a swing of 15 per cent in his favour.

Although no one inside Labour is taking anything for granted, the party is in possession of that absolute essential in politics: momentum, fittingly enough. Labour appears to be the party with the ideas; the compromise offered by Mrs May in Florence last Friday was originally suggested by Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary.

While many felt that Brexit could become Labour’s Achilles heel, with the millions of europhiles who voted for the party in June potentially defecting to the Liberal Democrats, the dominance of the left held by Mr Corbyn means that few have departed the fold.

The ultimate victor in this unlikely turnaround has been the British public, whose quixotic nature over the past two years has been well-documented. Mr Corbyn has displayed an authenticity that has eluded his political opponents: where once he was seen as an ideological anachronism, he is now viewed as a cussed survivor, a man who stuck to his guns in the face of societal changes that were not what the British people wanted. They changed their minds about him, and they delivered a revolution at the ballot box.

Whether his success reflects a post-Trump rejection of populism or a reassuring rebuttal of the political "truth" that voices outside the establishment view will not appeal to the electorate, Mr Corbyn has injected excitement and uncertainty into the British body politic, for better or worse.

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