Here is the wild, unproven theory about Jeremy Corbyn that is currently making the rounds inside Westminster: Corbyn never expected to be elected leader of the Labour Party, he didn’t actually want the job, and his victory was pretty much an accident.
We heard this notion from several different sources who work as staff for the Labour Party in parliament. The gossip is being happily repeated — with anti-Corbyn intent — by folks inside the other parties too.
Westminster is largely hostile territory for Corbyn. Only 14 of the 232 Labour MPs he now leads voted for him. He was elected with more than 250,000 votes from ordinary party members outside Westminster, from the length and breadth of the country.
Labour’s MPs in the House of Commons are much more mainstream and moderate than Corbyn and the membership who supports him, so it not surprising that there are whispering campaigns against him within the parliamentary party that is supposed to be supporting him.
So take the theory with a large pinch of salt.
Nonetheless, the theory is fascinating because it explains some of the more puzzling aspects of Corbyn’s leadership so far. And, as Corbyn refuses to move the Labour party to the political centre ground where it will have more chance of winning a general election, this theory that Corbyn ended up as leader by accident is only increasing in popularity.
At first it might sound really odd that Corbyn, who addressed 99 rallies in his campaign to be elected the leader of the Labour Party isn’t happy that he won the election. To understand why this might be the case, you need to go back to the start of the leadership contest. After just making it onto the ballot paper, Corbyn was asked by the Guardian why he was running. “Well, Diane and John have done it before, so it was my turn,” he replied.
Corbyn was talking about Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, two of his close political allies who ran for leadership of the party in 2010 and 2007 respectively. There has been a kind of informal arrangement among left-wing Labour MPs to take it in turns to run in Labour’s leadership elections so that their political viewpoint is always represented. Corbyn told the Guardian back in June that he was running only reluctantly:
All of us felt the leadership contest was not a good idea — there should have been a policy debate first. There wasn’t, so we decided somebody should put their hat in the ring in order to promote that debate. And, unfortunately, it’s my hat in the ring.”
When Corbyn entered the leadership contest, he expected to be the token candidate from the left, and to lose. As he told the Guardian, “I have never held any appointed office, so in that sense it’s unusual, but if I can promote some causes and debate by doing this, then good. That’s why I’m doing it. At my age I’m not likely to be a long-term contender, am I?”
Corbyn wasn’t alone in thinking that he wasn’t a long-term contender, some bookmakers initially had him at 100-1 to win the leadership. Put simply, no one expected Corbyn’s brand of uncompromising left-wing politics to propel him to leadership of the Labour party.
But it did.
A grassroots campaign swept Corbyn to a landslide victory; propelling him in three months from elderly backbench MP to the leader of the British Labour Party, with a solid majority of votes from ordinary party members.
Over his 32-year career as an MP, Corbyn displayed a remarkable lack of personal or political ambition. He rarely claimed expenses and voted against his own party more than 500 times. That is an astonishing number of times for an MP to cross their party leadership.
His reputation as a rebel ensured that Corbyn was never considered for promotion within the party, and he seemed perfectly content with that. Before his elevation to the leadership, Corbyn spent his spare time addressing small socialist gatherings and championing his pet causes. His non-mainstream interests include Venezuelan solidarity activism and the socio-economic history of manhole covers.
Since he won, Corbyn’s life has changed dramatically. Instead of pursuing his own interests, he is all of a sudden having to deal with mutinous MPs who fundamentally disagree with some of his core values and deal with the unrelenting spotlight of the media. Most leaders of political parties have spent their career forging alliances, learning to negotiate and accepting compromise. Corbyn has never shown interest in any of those things.
With all this in mind, it’s unsurprising that Business Insider has been repeatedly told by Labour parliamentary staff that they don’t believe their 66-year-old leader ever wanted to lead the party.
If this theory about Corbyn is true, it goes some way to explaining some of the strange things going on in the Labour party at the moment. For instance, Corbyn almost never mentions the 2015 election. This is a very unusual thing for the leader of the opposition not to mention, but kind of makes sense if they have no interest in being leader of their party, let alone leader of the country.
Corbyn also keeps making decisions that are unlikely to win wide public support, from allowing rumours that disloyal MPs will be deselected to persist, to appointing the former Stalinist Guardian columnist Seumas Milne as his head of communications (Milne once argued that Stalin didn’t kill that many people).
The unanswered question — and the central weakness in the theory — is this: If it is true that Corbyn doesn’t want to be the leader, then how is he going to get out of it?
Of course, it’s possible that Corbyn likes his new job, wants to be Prime Minister, and believes the surge of votes he got to become leader will become broad enough to win the next election. His campaign added tens of thousands of new voters to Labour’s membership rolls, reinvigorating the party’s base in the process, after all.
But right now a 2020 victory seems unlikely, especially as his own MPs have begun a mutiny against him after only two months in office.