Jeremy Corbyn’s first seven days as Labour leader have been shambolic, refreshing and absolutely fascinating.
No other new leader has faced such universal contempt from the media or his own parliamentary party. Fewer than 20 of Labour’s 232 MPs voted for him. Instead, he has an eye-popping mandate from more than a quarter of a million people.
The bearded North London MP won a landslide victory with nearly 60 percent of the vote. One supporter told me, “I’ve pinched myself so often I have a bruise – I still can’t believe it is true!”
There were more bruises to come when Corbyn appointed his shadow cabinet. He provoked outrage by giving all the top jobs to men.
The deputy editor of the New Statesman magazine, Helen Lewis, tweeted: “Oh dear. Just realised Jeremy Corbyn has married more women than he’s appointed to great offices of state. Good night.” Ouch.
In fact, Labour’s front bench team had a female majority for the first time ever, but this crucial fact was lost in the chaos around the announcement.
Then there were questions about his patriotism. Would he wear a white poppy on Remembrance Day? And why hadn’t he sung the national anthem at the Battle of Britain memorial service?
“Corb snubs the Queen” was the splash in Britain’s best-selling tabloid newspaper.
The row was reminiscent of the derision Michael Foot received for wearing a green overcoat, caricatured as a ‘donkey jacket’, on Remembrance Sunday, in 1981. It became one of the defining images of Foot’s ill-fated stewardship of the Labour Party.
Corbyn needs to get a communications strategy fast.
However, the week was defined by a remarkable first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions. Corbyn gave voice to the experiences of ordinary people, choosing six questions that were submitted to him by members of the public.
He read out queries from Marie on housing, Steven on rents, Paul on tax credits, Claire on benefit thresholds, and Gail and Angela on mental health.
This was the “new politics” he had promised and even his enemies were forced to give him credit.
The Labour leader’s performance played to his greatest strengths – honesty and authenticity. That’s why over 40,000 people have rushed to join the Labour Party in the past few days.
But there was time for one more PR disaster. On Friday, it was announced that convicted arsonist Mike Watson had been made a front bench spokesman on education.
Lord Watson was sentenced to 16 months in jail, in 2005, after admitting trying to set fire to the curtains at a hotel, following a heavy drinking session at an awards dinner. Most of Scotland’s political journalists were in attendance and they have long memories.
Corbyn says he believes in rehabilitation and second chances. This is generous and laudable, but even some of his supporters thought it was a wind-up when they first heard the news.
Britain has a tradition of partisan journalism that uses distorted facts like bullets, but many of Corbyn’s wounds have been self-inflicted. He needs a spin doctor who can anticipate bad headlines before they happen.
It’s been a bumpy first week, but he can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s over and he’s still standing.
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