Despite his IRA views, Corbyn is a good man who could end up a tragic figure

Jeremy Corbyn is too radical to be leader but has too long a track record to change his views. He has been undermined by colleagues since his first day in office
Jeremy Corbyn is too radical to be leader but has too long a track record to change his views. He has been undermined by colleagues since his first day in office

It is usually poignant when a person is over promoted to a role.

It won’t initially seem so, if their shortcomings are not evident.

Ben Lowry News Letter deputy editor

Ben Lowry News Letter deputy editor

And even if they are, the misplaced elevation won’t at first attract sympathy, but rather irritation, particularly in deserving candidates who’ve been bypassed.

But people who cannot rise to the challenge of their place at the top often lose the respect of the men and women they are trying to lead and become figures of pathos.

This process began the day Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, since when he has been repeatedly undermined. In excruciating scenes on Wednesday, his shadow team lined up to reject his refusal to say he would authorise a nuclear attack.

In terms of brainpower, Corbyn has the ability to be leader. But he has almost no capacity to fulfil that function on terms that his MPs will demand, which is that they retain their seats.

It has been widely observed that Labour faces electoral ruin if Corbyn stays true to his radicalism.

There is, however, still a feeling that he can plausibly moderate his views. But he is coming from so far left that if he does, his reputation will be ruined among the people who elected him – and the public won’t believe him anyway.

If he tries his mooted third way, of consultation and ‘respect’ for a range of shadow cabinet views, collective responsibility will collapse and he will appear weak.

Consider the anthem debacle. With his professed atheism and unwavering republicanism, Corbyn would look absurd singing “God Save Our Gracious Queen, Long Live Our Noble Queen”.

I anticipate a time, after the reign of our current popular sovereign, when even monarchists concede change to those archaic lyrics. Until that distant day there is no third way for Corbyn.

Singing is a betrayal of everything he has stood for, but if he tries next time to take part without enthusiasm and mumbles, as John Redwood did the Welsh anthem, he will look even more unstatesmanlike than staying firmly silent.

And if he sings lustily, that patently isn’t his personality (aside from the repudiation of his core values). Whatever course he takes, the next time he is present amid the anthem will be a PR disaster.

It is said Corbyn did not want to be leader. No wonder – he must have had a foreboding of how it could pan out.

You cannot be a Commons rebel for 32 years and have no concept of the role of the leaderships you keep opposing.

Corbyn is surrounded by an experienced party machine and a parliamentary party that can outwit him. It has not been pleasant to read of him arriving at Labour HQ, clutching sandwiches and seeming to lack authority.

Shadow ministers have pre-empted policy, seizing the notion that diverging views can be accommodated on issues such as Trident or Irish unity.

When Corbyn tries to regain initiative, restating radical stances, it reinforces an impression of chaos.

He is a decent man, now embarrassingly at sea. There are parallels with John Major, a good bloke who would have been thought the ‘best prime minister we never had’ if he had not reached that post, to which he was so ill suited.

I have two brief experiences of Corbyn: when I lived in Islington in the 1990s I walked past him on the street, looking content and carrying a child. He was not showy but had the authority of a long established local figure.

Last month I tried to interview him after the West Belfast Festival debate. The throng of wellwishers was such that I had to thrust a phone camera in his face as I asked if he still wanted Irish unity.

He was briefly silent and then, in a civil fashion, said it was a complicated topic and not the time to discuss it. He knew, as he did when he seemed to panic on Nolan, the leadership was in grasp and that he would have to navigate that responsibility with ideological consistency.

Many people in Northern Ireland reject any idea that Corbyn is decent, given his views on the IRA. My sense (influenced by the fact that I became aware of him in the 1980s when I was a left wing teen) is of a principled politician who has never come to accept the unpleasantness of the groups he backs.

Consider his silence for the IRA men killed at Loughgall in 1987. If Corbyn was taken to isolated Protestant border homes to meet victims of some of those eight terrorists (the worst of whom, I think we will one day find, were even disliked by doveish Provos), and if he heard of victims who stayed on the farm and served in the security forces when it would have been easier to move to the east of the Province, but were picked off by calculating killers, I bet he would recoil at the sectarian savagery.

But Corbyn is a unilateralist, and not just on nuclear policy. He will give, give, give to people who just bag it, and give nothing back. That is often the way with good men.

People like Corbyn illustrate the problem with pacifism. Look how Obama’s rigid anti-war stance has put him second fiddle to Putin amid carnage in Syria. Great.

Corbyn is the sort of uber liberal who was committed to gay rights at a time when few MPs were, and yet he is so passionately multicultural that he would readily air at Westminster the grievances of Islamic fanatics who are the most violently homophobic people on Earth.

But it would be nightmarish if parliaments did not have Corbyns. An American example was the fine liberal Senator Paul Wellstone.

They are as important as lawyers who represent any defendant.

But they cannot lead mainstream political parties.

Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor