Since he disdained materialism, culture and anything spiritual, Corbyn was an empty vessel, uneasy with a race complicated by its history of survival over two thousand years of persecution. While Jamaica was black against white, and South America’s indigenous Indians fought against the Spanish, Jews in London were the victims of discrimination by all classes of Europeans, including the working class. That truth did not quite fit the Marxist theory of history that Corbyn had imbibed in Jamaica and Skegness: workers exploited by employers, who needed his protection as the first stage before eventually seizing power to govern the country.
Those nuances eluded him even as he found his metier. Here was a cause that secured him both an office and status, so that his sense of inferiority was partially alleviated. With a regular income, he could afford a better home: he left Islington and rented a flat in neighbouring Hornsey. There he joined the local Labour Party, a moribund group split between the extreme left – communists, Marxists and Trotskyites – and conventional social democrats. At meetings held in a dilapidated headquarters on Middle Lane in Crouch End, Corbyn deftly gave the appearance of not belonging to any faction. But Barbara Simon, the branch’s long-serving secretary, was not fooled. ‘He was a natural Marxist,’ she noted, seeing him as a sly, diligent agitator seeking political advantage at every turn to secure control of his small domain.
Corbyn was transformed, and politics became his life. Soon he was appointed chairman of the branch’s Young Socialists, and he would regularly cycle around the constituency, chatting to potential voters in every public venue and council estate, and offering application forms to join the party. His energy transformed Labour’s status in Hornsey. Through jumble sales and collections, he also helped to raise enough money to repair the local party headquarters. Toby Harris, a member of the branch from the age of sixteen, was struck when in the summer of 1972 he returned from Cambridge University and saw the newcomer tirelessly undertaking the thankless chores hated by everyone else.
The one odd note was Corbyn’s parsimony. Ever since he had witnessed the treatment of farm animals in Shropshire, he had been a vegetarian. In addition, he rarely drank, and did not smoke, go to the cinema, watch any sport or enjoy any social activity, so he had little in common with most members. His one concession to frivolity was to sing Irish protest songs in an Irish pub. Commitment to the reunification of Ireland was not wholly outlandish at the time. In March 1971 Harold Wilson had flown to Dublin to speak to the IRA’s leaders about peace and a planned transition to a united Ireland, and he later welcomed them to his home in Buckinghamshire. The former prime minister, however, received no credit for that initiative from Corbyn, who shared his fellow members’ anger at what he saw as Wilson’s betrayal of socialism during his last government. Unlike Corbyn, Wilson was not dedicated to hastening the imminent collapse of capitalism. Rather, as ‘the principal apostle of cynicism’, he was blamed for ‘too great a number of tawdry compromises [which] pollutes the atmosphere of politics’.
Like others on the left, Corbyn was not taken in by Wilson’s compact with the trade unions, and in 1973 he joined the new Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, an organisation that reflected his own commitment to establish a communist society. Thereafter his ideals never changed. To secure victory in the class war, he embraced the mantra of Tony Benn, at that time the rising star of Labour’s parliamentary radicals, to encourage direct action by workers on the streets and in workplaces to establish what the left called ‘industrial democracy’. Benn had just read The Communist Manifesto, and had become passionate about the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a Utopian, classless society, a mystical world. In this vision, the economy would be nationalised without compensation. That would include all the major industries, banks and property corporations. To turn Labour into the agent of that revolution, Corbyn adopted Benn’s rallying cry: ‘There are no enemies on the left.’ Their only adversaries were capitalists.
Douglas Eden, a polytechnic lecturer and a member of the Hornsey Labour Party, watched as Corbyn manoeuvred patiently to secure control over the branch. ‘In his carefully self-controlled way,’ said Eden with bitter admiration, ‘he presented himself to the lower orders of society, the vulnerable and inadequate people who felt indebted to him, as working-class. Once he got power, he dominated the branch and got their votes.’ One of the early casualties was the branch’s moderate chairman Andrew McIntosh, who Corbyn eased out. ‘Andrew didn’t learn his lesson,’ recalled Eden, who openly described Corbyn to the Labour Party’s headquarters as ‘a patrician from a wealthy background’. In revenge, Corbyn marked Eden for similar treatment – an official complaint to force his expulsion.
By late 1973, Corbyn felt emboldened. The tailors’ union moved its headquarters out of London, so he resigned and moved on to become a researcher for Tony Banks (later MP for Newham North-West) at the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AUEW), one of Britain’s most powerful associations, with nearly 1.5 million members. Banks apparently assumed that the well-spoken ex-grammar schoolboy could produce the required research. Corbyn’s self-esteem and confidence rose, as did his salary. He would later boast that he even organised a picket of striking AUEW workers outside their own headquarters against the union’s moderate leadership.
In September 1973 Salvador Allende was killed by the Chilean military, supported by the CIA. Washington’s involvement aroused worldwide outrage. Naturally, Corbyn demonstrated against the CIA’s conspiracies. His antagonism would be justified after Senator Frank Church delivered volumes of evidence to Congress in Washington in 1976 about the CIA’s undercover operations. That, combined with the earlier revelations in what became known as the Pentagon Papers of the lies told by President Johnson and others about American involvement in Vietnam, and the collapse of Richard Nixon’s presidency after Watergate, strengthened Corbyn’s loathing of American influence. And then British intelligence, frustrated by a ferocious IRA bombing campaign, was exposed for torturing the innocent as well as the guilty in its attempts to identify murderers in Ulster. The eventual consequences of those sensational disclosures were unpredictable.
On 6 October, while Israelis were observing Yom Kippur, the three neighbouring Arab states, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, launched a surprise invasion intended to drive the Jews into the sea. After a fierce nineteen-day war, the intruders were routed. Any chance for a peace settlement between Israel and the Arabs was lost. Days later, Opec, the cartel representing the world’s dominant oil producers, quadrupled its prices. Global mayhem followed. Emboldened by the financial squeeze on Britain, the country’s miners sensed another opportunity to overthrow Heath. The government’s latest 16.5 per cent pay offer was rejected, and an overtime ban imposed. As ‘flying pickets’ dispatched by Scargill prevented coal deliveries to the power stations, Britain’s economy suffered, and by year’s end the miners were out on strike. With electricity supplies cut, Heath ordered industry to work a three-day week. Just as in wartime, streets were dark, offices were unheated and unlit, and ration books were needed to buy petrol. TV broadcasts finished early, and unemployment soared. A Tory government was overseeing a nightmare. In Scotland, shipbuilders on the Upper Clyde occupied their yards, and a wave of strikes immobilised the car industry. Left-wingers gleefully anticipated the collapse of capitalism. Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group (IMG), Gerry Healy, a Trotskyist who would head the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), and other far-left groups demonstrated to advance the revolution. Predictions were made that, just as anti-Marxists had overthrown Allende, so Heath would be toppled by the masses.
To save his government, Heath called an election for February 1974, posing the question ‘Who Governs Britain?’ The Tories were expected to win a landslide against a Labour election manifesto that promised ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift of wealth and power’. Corbyn’s role in that campaign was to prove decisive for his own future. Ignoring his obligations at the AUEW, he worked indefatigably as the agent for Irving Kuczynski, Labour’s candidate in Hornsey, described by the Tories as ‘communist-backed’, against the sitting Tory MP Hugh Rossi, a staunch Roman Catholic who was to be a junior minister under both Heath and Margaret Thatcher. Corbyn flooded the constituency with party workers, knocking on every door and posting leaflets for a candidate he did not particularly like. In the process, he himself was transformed. The unsocial outsider formerly employed by the tailors’ union had become an energetic, effective and popular organiser, utterly committed to scoring an electoral triumph.
In the midst of the campaign, officials employed by a government pay board, a socialist quango, ruled that the miners’ pay claim was justified by Lord Wilberforce’s inquiry in 1972. As a result of the chaos that ensued, the electorate turned. Angered that the deprivations caused by the three-day week – including shortages of petrol, sugar and bread, and hospitals without clean bed sheets – was all apparently pointless, the electorate became incensed with Heath. It was not only his cack-handed management of the economy: asked by a journalist to name his favourite dish, he had tactlessly replied, ‘Lobster Thermidor with two wine sauces.’ Harold Wilson, asked the same question, chose Cornish pasties with brown sauce.
Unexpectedly, although the Tories won a quarter of a million more votes, Labour emerged on election day as the largest party. Heath was ousted and Wilson returned as prime minister, knowing that he would have to call another election soon as he lacked an overall majority. However, for his supporters it was an important victory. The organised working class had overthrown a Tory government. Tony Benn would acclaim the result as a decisive moment. Rejoicing on the far left was met elsewhere with apprehension and dismay. The middle classes were visibly terrified by the prospect of widespread unrest, manifested by an outbreak of Marxists and anarchists squatting in empty houses, and the trade unions, led by Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, celebrating their return to power.
In Hornsey, Hugh Rossi survived Corbyn’s best efforts, albeit with a much-reduced majority. During the endless hours leafleting, canvassing and cajoling Labour’s supporters to the polls, Corbyn had met the woman who would become his first wife. Jane Chapman was twenty-three, an attractive university graduate researching the French textile industry in the 1920s for a doctorate at the London School of Economics. Soon after they met, Corbyn declared his feelings. ‘He professed love early on,’ she recalled, ‘and said that I was “the best of the best”, so I thought this must be the thing.’ Consumed by what she described as a ‘whirlwind romance’ over three months – ‘he constantly urged us to marry’ – she agreed, because ‘he was friendly and lively and seemed bright and not bad-looking’. Most important, both of them were devoted to changing Britain in a fundamental way. They would celebrate together at any sign that events were running in their favour: in April 1974 they were excited by the overthrow of Portugal’s fascist regime, and they rejoiced in the continuing defiance of left-wing organisations to government diktats: socialist councillors in Clay Cross in Derbyshire had been declared bankrupt after refusing to set low rates dictated by the Tory government, but their action made them martyrs to the left.
Corbyn and Chapman’s enthusiasm for their cause made an impression: their respective local Labour branches selected each of them to stand in the May 1974 council elections for Haringey, a north London borough that included Hornsey and that embraced both affluent areas in Muswell Hill and Highgate and severely deprived sections in the east, around the Tottenham football stadium. They were both elected. Two days later, on 4 May, they were married at Haringey Town Hall.
Neither set of parents was impressed by their child’s choice. Chapman’s mother, a lifetime Tory, was not pleased that her daughter, ambitious to be an MP, was marrying a poorly-off, uneducated trade union official. On her side, Naomi Corbyn disliked her new ‘alpha female’ daughter-in-law. It was wrong, she thought, to have such an obvious competitive element in a marriage. However, since the Corbyns avoided confrontation, nothing was said. Chapman became fond of her husband’s generous father, although she remained wary of his uncommunicative mother. From the outset the tensions were aggravated when Piers Corbyn arrived at the town hall looking even more scruffy than normal. Embarrassed by her son, Naomi swept him off to buy a shirt and a suit. They did not return until after the ceremony was over. Everyone then headed for the reception at Chapman’s father’s bowling club in Weston-super-Mare, 140 miles from London, before the newlyweds headed off for a brief honeymoon in southern Ireland.
They returned to a tiny ground-floor studio room in Etherley Road in Haringey, which they had bought with a mortgage from the Greater London Council. One year later, they moved to a bigger ground-floor flat in Lausanne Road, near Turnpike Lane. Several chickens, a cat christened Harold Wilson and a dog named Mango ran around the garden. Married life became a succession of meetings, demonstrations and campaigns. At 5.30 on some mornings they would head for a picket line to support strikers, then meet up again at the end of the day. Their social life was confined to meetings of the Labour Party, functions to support Troops Out and Cuba Solidarity, council meetings and demonstrations, while Chapman intermittently researched her doctorate in Paris and Corbyn ostensibly worked for the AUEW.
To Corbyn’s delight, as a councillor he represented mostly immigrants: Greek Cypriots, Asians and Afro-Caribbeans. He genuinely enjoyed mixing and socialising with the rainbow of communities in Haringey, assiduously attending their main social events and promising to look after their needs. However, that did not include the inhabitants of Chapman’s ward adjoining Stamford Hill, in the south of the borough, where the Orthodox Jews were the backbone of local Labour. To Chapman’s regret, while she showed interest in her husband’s constituents, he was indifferent to those in her ward, including her fellow councillor Aaron Weischelbaum, who was Jewish. ‘Jeremy,’ she explained, ‘was conflicted because he supported Palestine and the abolition of Israel so that Palestinians could recover their homes.’ Corbyn spoke of Israel as the worst example of American imperialism. Occupying land, in his opinion, was an obvious form of colonialism. This made Zionists racist, and therefore he opposed Israel’s existence. He condemned the Balfour Declaration, the British government’s promise in 1917 of a homeland for the Jews, and dismissed the effect of the Holocaust as explaining the Jewish people’s longing for their own country after 1945 to avoid future persecution. In Corbyn’s hierarchy of oppression, the descendants of slaves were the most victimised, while Holocaust survivors were at the bottom of the list. He did not distinguish between Jews in London and Zionists in Tel Aviv. To him, they were all guilty.
Among the surprises for Chapman was the absence of books in her husband’s life. Throughout the four years of their marriage, he never read a single book. He did not think deeply about ideology or political philosophy. Her initial judgement that he was ‘bright’ was mistaken. As an agitator, he relied on his wife for political friendship. ‘He didn’t get depressed. He was driven by his motivation to change society,’ she recalled. His handicap, he was acutely aware, was his lack of a working-class pedigree. By then his parents had moved to a new home in Wiltshire – chosen to enable them to pursue their burgeoning interest in archaeology. During Corbyn and Chapman’s visits for Sunday lunch, politics were politely discussed, but Corbyn’s parents never mentioned that they had been present at the Battle of Cable Street, or that David had ever considered going to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Their son’s introduction of those key events into the biographies of his parents would come much later. Both smacked of fiction.
To compensate for the limitations of his background and education, Corbyn played on his status as a councillor, trade union official and energetic activist. He became expert at working out how to win new votes, and would spend hours calculating where and how Labour could maximise its strength in Hornsey. Although he never read Trotsky’s writings, he adopted his ideas of process, and mastered the political skills to produce what Trotsky had called ‘a permanent state of unrest’ for eventual victory.
With both Corbyns’ support, Haringey’s ruling Labour group increased the rates by 23 per cent, making them the highest in the country. Shortly after, the borough’s housing workers went on strike for more pay. Consistent with socialist policy against any dismissals, Corbyn successfully urged his fellow councillors to award the hefty increase. In recognition of his commitment he was made a vice chair of the subcommittee on development, and would boast that the 42 per cent increase in the council’s overall budget, financed by local ratepayers, had allowed Labour to double the number of its staff. Annoying Haringey’s middle classes gave him particular delight. Faced with a huge housing problem after the arrival of thousands of Cypriot refugees in London, Corbyn proposed building homes on green parkland. Local residents were outraged. The rich, he scoffed, clearly disliked living alongside immigrants – but they would have no choice.
In October 1974, Harold Wilson called another election. With Irving Kuczynski standing once again as Labour’s candidate, Corbyn’s energetic campaigning, supported by the prime minister visiting the constituency, reduced Hugh Rossi’s Tory majority to 782 votes, both a success and a disappointment for Corbyn. Wilson returned to office with a narrow parliamentary majority of three.
Although electioneering was over, Corbyn remained in perpetual motion. Leaving home early in the morning, he would bounce between council meetings, Labour Party gatherings, demonstrations, leafleting and occasional trips to the AUEW’s office to justify his salary. His pride and joy was Hornsey Labour Party. Nominally only the ‘assistant/minutes secretary’, he had swelled the local party’s membership, making it, he asserted, the second largest in the country. The huge influx was divided between moderates and committed hard leftists, who attracted the attention of MI5, the domestic security agency. The branch’s agenda reflected Corbyn’s priorities. Shortly after the general election, three resolutions were passed: to condemn the exploitation of tea-pickers by British companies; to deplore the imprisonment of twenty-one Iranian students after a sit-in at the Iranian embassy in London; and to support the boycott by the Labour leader of Hornsey of a visit by Prince Philip to open a new housing development. ‘I believe you’ve got to stand by your principles,’ Corbyn told the local newspaper. He also put forward motions in Haringey council meetings to impose import controls, restrict individuals spending money abroad, and to oppose Britain’s continued membership of the Common Market. There were no motions to deplore Haringey’s poverty, low rates of income, or the council’s failure to build more homes.
The inspiration for many of Corbyn’s ideas was Tony Benn, the new industry minister. Born in 1925 to an aristocratic family, Benn had been elected an MP in 1950, and was a social democrat as a minister during Wilson’s first term. By 1974, he was moving far to the left. One of a number of Labour Members disillusioned with Wilson’s excessive caution in promoting a socialist agenda, he became popular among Marxists, regularly visiting militant shop stewards at shipyards and factories to encourage class consciousness. At those meetings he railed against Britain’s membership of the European Common Market as a threat to parliamentary sovereignty. European socialists were condemned as revisionists, while East European communists were praised. To build socialism, in 1975 Benn created the National Enterprise Board (NEB) to take over Britain’s biggest twenty-five corporations and nationalise the City’s financial institutions. NEB officials, Benn believed, could manage industry in the public interest. To demonstrate the success of socialism, he diverted taxpayers’ money to support unprofitable corporations.
Among the beneficiaries was British Leyland in Birmingham, one of Britain’s biggest car producers. Neither Benn nor Corbyn understood Leyland’s plight. The company had been managed for years by Donald Stokes, a corrupt salesman, while its managers had ignored their foreign competitors’ technical improvements. Their attention was too often focused on surviving the anarchy on the production lines. Leyland’s Longbridge plant was blighted not only by ruinous restrictive practices imposed by competing trade unions, but also by daily strikes. These were organised by Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, a towering Marxist shop steward who apparently delighted in furthering the ruin of Britain’s motor industry. Neither Corbyn nor Benn ever criticised Robinson. In their world, trade unions were sacred. To that end, on the AUEW’s behalf Corbyn presented Benn with a blueprint to reconstruct the motor industry by increasing shop stewards’ powers. Benn was delighted with Corbyn’s work, an accurate reflection of its limitations. Neither considered the consequence of the constant strikes: defective products. For the first time since 1945, Germany and France produced more cars than Britain, and the country’s vehicle imports rose from 14 to 57 per cent of the market. Neither Benn nor Corbyn was alarmed. ‘He immatured with age,’ was one of Wilson’s less offensive comments about Benn.
As Jane Chapman discovered, her husband’s grasp of economics at the national level was no better than his understanding of their domestic finances. His lack of interest in money was reflected by his complete silence about improving their standard of living. He never talked about buying a bigger home, a car or increasing his income. He had few material requirements. To her surprise, since they had married so soon after meeting, when he returned home at night he would happily open a can of beans, swallow them cold and declare himself satisfied. Occasionally he returned late from a meeting of the Hornsey Labour Party with friends to sing IRA songs while they all got drunk on beer. He would sit on the floor in his greasy, unwashed pea-green jacket, bought at an army surplus shop in Euston, oblivious to her irritation. They rarely went out together. Invitations to dinner with the Venesses were refused. Corbyn, they were told, did not socialise.
Chapman spent lonely evenings in their small flat with Mango, the dog, and Harold Wilson, the cat, as her only companions while Corbyn went about extending his circle of political contacts. Among them was Tariq Ali, a Marxist intellectual originally from Pakistan, and Bernie Grant, a bombastic Black Power Marxist from Guyana and a Haringey councillor. ‘It’s racism to control immigration,’ Grant told Corbyn, adding that it was discriminatory to prevent anyone from the West Indies from settling in Britain. Corbyn adopted that opinion. Similarly, he did not openly protest about Grant’s view that boys and girls should be segregated in school, and that girls should be sent home when they were menstruating. Grant’s interest in questions of race was inconsistent, however: asked by Reg Race about the cultural oppression of immigrant women in Tottenham, he replied: ‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’ In their conversations, Grant and Corbyn rarely mentioned economic or social policies. They focused on community and ethnicity, subjects that were not only congenial to Corbyn, but at the heart of his political ideology. Anti-capitalist and disdainful of markets, he wanted citizens to live together in Soviet-style communes or self-supporting districts, as he had seen in Jamaica and South America. Joining in the black-and-white battle of morality against immorality, of good versus bad, underpinned his feelings of self-worth. Thanks to Grant, he was appointed chairman of the council’s new Community Development Sub-Committee, with responsibility for using public money to build community centres for immigrant groups. Within a year he was accused of ‘reckless spending’ by his fellow councillors, and of recruiting ‘community workers’ without giving them specific jobs. To Haringey’s Tory councillors, permanently in opposition but nevertheless vocal critics, Corbyn appeared to be signalling that he was left-wing on all issues, despite his lack of any coherent programme.
Mirroring Tony Benn, he agreed with the government’s response to rocketing oil prices. To avoid inflation, the American and German governments had cut spending, but Denis Healey, the British chancellor, did the opposite, increasing public spending by 31 per cent in his first year, and by 29 per cent the following year. Most of the money went to state employees, whose wages rose by 32 per cent. To Corbyn’s glee, Healey simultaneously raised income taxes for top earners to 83 per cent, and added an extra 15 per cent tax on unearned income. Some individuals were paying between 92 and 101 per cent in taxation. Healey’s mantra, ‘Squeeze the rich until the pips squeak,’ matched Corbyn’s nostrums. Both men seemed oblivious to the consequences. While inflation in Germany was 7 per cent, in Britain the figure soared to 27 per cent. Rather than face Labour’s punitive taxes and lose their savings to hyperinflation, thousands of the country’s most talented professionals, scientists and engineers emigrated to America and the Far East in what was called ‘the brain drain’, a phrase coined in 1960. The loss to Britain was little short of catastrophic. By the end of 1975, Wilson’s schemes to control capitalism had crippled private investment and Britain was on the brink of bankruptcy. Joe Haines, his media spokesman, later summed up Labour’s policies as ‘trying to make water run uphill – against the facts, against events, against common sense and against human nature’.
Corbyn was deaf to such complaints. Taxing the rich was right; he disputed the possibility of any permanent damage. In the cause of building socialism, he also opposed modernisation, including widening a main road that ran through his borough. During a delegation’s visit to Bill Rodgers, the new junior minister at the department of the environment, he had gone into a long harangue. Rodgers had retorted, ‘You are tiresome, Councillor Corbyn.’ Far worse humiliations followed. He was fired by the AUEW: his research was judged unacceptable. Corbyn would explain his sacking by saying that he had been a target in the clearout of leftists. His boss, he claimed, had decided that his celebrating the American withdrawal from Vietnam, continually attending political meetings or standing on picket lines across the country, was unwelcome. In reality, without an academic background, he lacked the skills to present a cogent analysis of political and economic issues. ‘He never told me he was sacked,’ recalled Chapman, whose own career was advancing: she had been selected as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Dover and Deal, a Tory marginal.
Once again, fortune intervened. NUPE, the trade union for public employees led by Alan Fisher, an ambitious left-wing firebrand, was recruiting officials to increase its membership among the underpaid. Replying to an advertisement, Corbyn arrived in Charing Cross for an interview. Reg Race, at that time the NUPE official in charge of the process, looked at the bedraggled applicant, whom he had never seen before.The Brylcreemed panel of men conducting the interviews, Race knew, would never consider someone wearing unpolished shoes, no jacket, and an un-ironed grey shirt, open at the collar. ‘Go down The Strand, buy a tie and smarten up, or else you’ve got no chance,’ he advised.
On this occasion Corbyn did as he was told, and in truth the union had every reason to employ him. He was tirelessly active and a committed socialist, respected by both the Hornsey Labour Party and the Haringey Labour group. He was duly hired as the organiser for two London boroughs, Barnet and Bromley, a job that gave him responsibility for the area’s low-paid Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) workers, mostly school dinner ladies and caretakers. Given an old green car, he toured his domain in what Keith Veness, also a NUPE official, called ‘a sinecure job’. Corbyn was in seventh heaven. He had status and a good income. As an outstanding recruiter – the union’s membership would increase from 50,000 to 250,000 over the following seven years – and a keen organiser of strikes, he quickly won popularity with the union’s five hundred dinner ladies. However, he had nothing in common with the macho Cockney dustmen swearing over their pints down the local. In an attempt to win their acceptance he renamed himself ‘Jerry’ – no dustman would bond with a Jeremy – and, to avoid their hard-drinking sessions, would make his excuses and go off early to join another picket line.
During his endless discussions with like-minded allies, Corbyn saw Britain’s industrial turmoil, rising interest rates and the collapse of the value of the pound as an opportunity to destroy capitalism. Ranged against Labour were the enfeebled Conservatives, led since February 1975 by Margaret Thatcher, who held that Britain was ruled by the unions, the majority of which were controlled by committed Marxists and agents of Moscow. In that febrile atmosphere, right-wing elements in the military, the City and the media plotted to stage a coup against Wilson, whom they suspected of being a KGB agent because of his regular trips to Moscow in the years immediately after 1945. Corbyn would not have been surprised if the plot had been implemented. Reports from America described the White House orchestrating military coups, assassinations and invasions across Africa, Asia and Latin America. The oppression and torture carried out by the military dictatorship in Chile particularly appalled him. The atmosphere of paranoia and persecution was agitated by leaks from committees in Washington investigating the Nixon government’s secret operations. Adding to the hysteria, ‘experts’ forecast that by 2000 the world would be convulsed by widespread famine, followed by total destruction. The uncertainty excited the left.
In March 1976, Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister because of ill health. In the first round of voting among the 313 Labour MPs to choose Wilson’s successor, Tony Benn and Michael Foot, both left-wing unilateralist disarmers, together outscored James Callaghan, the right-wing candidate, with 40 per cent of the vote. In the final ballot, Callaghan got just thirty-nine more votes than Foot. The left did not feel defeated. Corbyn and his allies interpreted the loss as a temporary blip, and an incentive to redouble their efforts.
Callaghan proposed to cut public spending in an effort to halt the country’s slide towards bankruptcy. Benn disagreed, offering as an alternative a siege economy that limited imports and confiscated even more money from the wealthy. The government was split. Many middle-class Britons feared that proletarian hordes, led by a Bennite commissar, would be incited to seize their property. In Haringey, Corbyn and his brother Piers, himself by now a Trotskyite candidate in a local election, led squatters into unoccupied houses across London. Piers’s group even picketed the home of Hornsey Labour Party member and GLC councillor Douglas Eden near Muswell Hill to protest against the GLC seeking to have unauthorised occupiers expelled from empty properties. Alarmed, Eden telephoned Corbyn to ask him to intervene. It did no good. ‘Corbyn waffled because he supported the squatters,’ said Eden, who realised too late that Corbyn equated his own ambitions in Haringey to those of Salvador Allende’s Marxist government in Chile.
In that febrile atmosphere, Corbyn and Chapman set off on his 250cc Czech motorbike in the summer of 1976 for a camping holiday across Europe. ‘Jeremy always chose to go on holiday in August,’ explained Chapman, ‘because there were no political meetings.’ To her distress, her husband showed no interest in her political duty to nurse her constituency in Dover in preparation for the next general election, nor in her academic work. She also feared that the holiday would be as uncomfortable as the previous year’s in France, Spain and Portugal. The ordeal was not just riding pillion on Corbyn’s bumpy bike, but his passion for abstinence. While Chapman wanted to sleep in a proper bed at night and eat in interesting restaurants, Corbyn insisted on a small tent and cooking tins of beans on a single-ring Calor gas stove. The nearest Chapman got to comfort was after a rainstorm flooded their tent outside Prague. Begrudgingly, Corbyn agreed to spend the night under cover – not in a hotel, but in a student hostel. He became furious when his motorbike broke down in Czechoslovakia, assuming that because it had been manufactured there it would be easy to have it repaired. Instead, he was introduced to the realities of a communist economy. The bike had been made exclusively for export, and no Czech garage mechanic knew how to fix it, or where to obtain spare parts. For two days he fumed until it was finally repaired.
During their journey, Chapman discovered that her husband was not interested in equality within marriage, or in sharing any domestic chores: ‘Women living out their sex lives as a personal statement was ignored by him,’ she recalled. ‘He never spoke about sex, music, fashion or books. He put class first.’ Equally distressing was his indifference to Europe’s most beautiful cities. In Vienna, he refused to enter the palace of Schönbrunn, the Kaiser’s summer retreat, because it was ‘royal’. ‘You go in,’ he told her. ‘I’ll stay outside.’ European culture offended him. Oblivious of his surroundings, he stood in Vienna’s beautiful Ringstrasse and pronounced it ‘capitalist’. He walked past all the museums and art galleries, and found no pleasure in medieval towns. In villages, he was interested to watch the peasants going about their lives. In Prague, soaking wet from torrential rain, he did not lament a missed visit to Hradčany castle, and turned down a walk through the old town. Nor did he comment on the dilapidation of the city’s old buildings, all neglected by its communist overlords. ‘Preservation of architecture and heritage,’ recalled Chapman, ‘didn’t appear to be on his agenda.’ For similar reasons he had always refused to accompany her to Paris, where she did occasional research, or to Los Angeles to visit her aunt. He spoke only about elections, campaigns and demonstrations, although his knowledge even of these was incomplete. Strangely, considering his claims forty years later of his profound sympathy for South America’s indigenous people, he never mentioned that supposed fascination to her. By contrast, he expressed a deep interest in Britain’s manhole covers, especially their dates of manufacture: ‘My mother always said there’s history in drain covers. So most people think I’m completely mad if they see me taking a picture of a drain cover, but there we are.’
Most travellers who crossed into Czechoslovakia from Austria during the Cold War were shocked by the experience. Running just behind the customs buildings were two rows of electrified barbed wire. Between them was a wide, sandy strip of ground concealing a minefield. Looking out over the eerie silence were armed soldiers in guard towers, with orders to shoot on sight anyone approaching from the Czech side. Those caught within five miles of the border without police permission could expect imprisonment. Any Western visitor riding a motorbike through those fortifications would be left in no doubt that Eastern Europe was a prison. Czechs were badly dressed, had limited food, and lived in decaying buildings. Czechoslovakia, a rich democracy before 1939, was a police state. But Corbyn uttered not a single word of criticism, and expressed no sympathy for the country’s 1968 attempt at liberation from the Soviet Union. He simply dismissed what he was seeing as a delusion, just as he dismissed the victims’ accounts of the horrors of Soviet Russia. He wilfully ignored the despair suffered in the name of ‘social justice’ not only by Czechs, but by hundreds of millions of people in Russia, China and the other countries in ‘liberated’ Eastern Europe. He said nothing about the thousands of skilled and scholarly Czechs forced to take menial employment as street cleaners or worse, as punishment for opposing the Soviet occupation. ‘He was a Tankie,’ said Keith Veness, meaning that Corbyn had supported the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956 and the Prague uprising twelve years later. When in conversation Veness mentioned Stalin’s cruelties, ‘Jeremy walked away. He couldn’t do political arguments. He was a communist fellow-traveller. The bastard never apologised for the Moscow trials.’ In that Cold War era, Corbyn’s sympathies were stark. ‘NATO’s object’, he said, and that of ‘the war machine of the United States is to maintain a world order dominated by the banks and multi-national companies of Europe and North America’. Only the South Americans deserved to be liberated – from American imperialism. Both during that European holiday and throughout their relationship, Corbyn never mentioned to Chapman his time in Jamaica, nor his interest in Guyana or Cuba. Considering the profound influence those places supposedly exerted on his world view, his silence was remarkable.
The Corbyns returned to London with Jeremy unaware that their marriage was cracking up. ‘Jeremy never thought there was anything wrong,’ recalled Chapman. ‘He assumed that, because our politics were compatible, that amounted to a proper relationship.’ ‘She tried to make it work,’ said Keith Veness, ‘but he was uninterested. He never came home, and the relationship just slowly broke up.’ Chapman’s requests for more than just a political life – cinemas, restaurants, clubs, children – were ignored. ‘He didn’t acknowledge my emotional side,’ said Chapman. ‘He doesn’t recognise a woman’s feelings.’
Despite their disagreements, early on 20 August 1976 the two set off to Willesden in north London to join the picket line outside Grunwick, a film-processing plant where female Asian workers were on strike and unsuccessfully trying to prevent strike-breakers taking their places. During that long but forlorn struggle, Corbyn became a familiar face as a footsoldier against employers. ‘Jeremy was a Trotskyist,’ recalled Chapman. ‘No doubt about it.’
A hammer blow to the left fell in September 1976. The pound’s value sank still further, and the markets were in turmoil. Britain once again became the ‘the sick man of Europe’. While some spoke of humiliation, Tony Benn and Corbyn saw an opportunity to introduce draconian controls to create a socialist economy. Jim Callaghan took the opposite view. The government appealed to the International Monetary Fund for a loan – the biggest in the IMF’s history – and agreed to reduce inflation by cutting public expenditure and imposing pay limits. The left was outraged. If taxpayers’ money and huge loans were not spent by the government, they believed, unemployment would soar. Labour was irreconcilably split. In the ideological battle chancellor Denis Healey was on one side, Benn and Corbyn on the other, shouting slogans on marches in support of Benn’s ‘alternative economic strategy’. It was a dialogue of the deaf.
On his own patch, Corbyn worked towards a breakthrough. In the 1978 council elections, contrary to predictions that Labour would do badly because of the huge rates increases, his vigorous organisation produced a high turnout, and Corbyn turned the tide by using his links with the immigrant community, who agreed to come out to vote. The count was held in the cavernous Alexandra Palace, an exhibition hall built in the nineteenth century overlooking London and fittingly called ‘The People’s Palace’. Seeing the piles of Labour votes outnumbering the opposition’s, Corbyn felt rewarded. Compared to the national 8 per cent swing to the Conservatives, there was a 2.5 per cent swing to Labour. Excitedly he awaited the formal announcement of victory and then, with a clenched-fist salute, led the singing of ‘The Red Flag’. The Tories had been trounced. Under the headline ‘Hornsey Defies National Picture’, the local newspaper described Labour supporters as ‘ecstatic’, while Tories ‘wandered around dumbfounded’. Keith Veness judged that Corbyn’s skill was to pose as ‘everyone’s mate and not a faction-fighter’. Others, including Sheila Berkery Smith, a former Labour mayor of Haringey who had served twenty-four years as a councillor, saw a different figure. On Corbyn’s orders, she had been deselected from the party’s slate. Where others saw the friend to all, she saw ‘intolerant Marxist extremism’.
The Corbyns were duly rewarded for their hard work. Chapman became chairman of housing, while Corbyn was made head of the Public Works Committee. Houses had up to that point been given to families in need; Chapman instead allocated homes to gays and single mothers. Moderate Labour councillors became alarmed. ‘She was a classy but poisonous lady,’ recalled Robin Young, the party whip in Haringey. ‘Cold, extreme left and not capable as a chairman.’ Others noticed the competition between Corbyn and his wife, and judged Chapman the superior talent. Mark Killingworth, a left-wing committee chairman and an ally of the Corbyns, recalls Jeremy as ‘hungry for power’. Already at that early stage, Killingworth observed, ‘his ambition was to be an MP’.
As the chairman responsible for the council’s services to the community, Corbyn once again set about hiring more workers, doubling the size of the direct labour workforce and increasing their wages. No one mentioned that as a NUPE official representing those council employees, he had a clear conflict of interest. In his mind, that notion was a capitalist ruse. Rewarding the workers was his duty. As a man devoted to causes rather than to the hard graft of implementing decisions and managing their consequences, he had no difficulty spending money to enrich his members. Here he imitated Keith Veness, who as a councillor negotiated on behalf of the ILEA, with Corbyn representing the NUPE workers. ‘I gave NUPE as much as possible,’ recalled Veness, who preferred dealing with Corbyn than with Bernie Grant, who, he complained, would threaten employers with physical violence. By contrast, Corbyn allowed his shop stewards to do the intimidating. The result was the same. Tony Franchi, a wood craftsman and Tory councillor, accused Corbyn of the ‘misuse of our money’. On one occasion he watched five council workers arrive outside his workshop in Crouch End to sweep the road. ‘Only one man did any work. The other four stood smoking cigarettes.’ This was not just a Haringey problem: the waste, repeated across the country by Labour councils, became unaffordable.
In the country as a whole, to prevent an economic collapse Callaghan had imposed a 5 per cent limit on pay increases, but it was not long before the bulwark was crumbling. Trade union leaders warned that high inflation was eroding their members’ wages, and that they were unable to hold back pay demands. In October 1978 Labour was still ahead in the opinion polls, but despite expectations Callaghan refused to call an election. Soon after, the dam broke. When their demand for a 20 per cent pay increase was rebuffed, road haulage and oil tanker drivers went out on strike; some rail workers followed. Then Liverpool’s dockers walked out, crippling not only Britain’s biggest port but devastating local industries and eventually the city itself. Against this background, NUPE demanded a more than 40 per cent wage increase for council workers. The government refused, and Corbyn called on his members to vote for a strike.
Leading the militancy was Jack Jones, the recently retired general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, Britain’s largest trade union. Callaghan was stymied. He relied on Jones to support his economic policy, even though MI5 had warned Harold Wilson that a raft of British trade union leaders were being paid by Moscow to advance communism in Britain. Among them was Jones, identified as a paid Soviet agent since the mid-1930s. Wilson had repeated that intelligence to his successor, but Callaghan chose to ignore the danger. That Christmas, the country sensed the lull before the storm. Corbyn stood and waited.
The Deadly Duo (#ulink_c703207c-8dc6-5ed0-9018-89ac9bb9cbc5)
Jane Chapman was torn. Politically and as an academic, she was a rising star, but her personal life made her miserable. For Christmas lunch she prepared a special five-course vegetarian meal for Corbyn and Piers. ‘They stuffed it down their gullets and never said thanks,’ she recalled in an even tone. Her husband, she knew, would have been happy with a can of beans: ‘Usually Tesco, not Heinz, but he wouldn’t know the difference. It was all just fuel to keep him going.’ Their conversation was, as ever, about politics, mainly the inevitability of widespread strikes after the holiday.
Within Haringey council, everyone knew about Corbyn’s conflict of interest. He was in charge of the employment of NUPE members, and at the same time he was their trade union representative organising a strike against the council. He was also responsible for the housing maintenance department, from which £2 million had gone missing annually for several years in succession. Council employees were both stealing money and inflating their claims for overtime. The consequence was a two-year backlog of repairs to council homes. Because workers had failed to do the necessary repairs, Haringey’s housing was in a bad state, not least on the Broadwater Farm estate, the Tottenham home of over four thousand people that was ostensibly managed by Chapman in her role as chairman of housing. She would claim that the estate’s day-to-day management had been delegated to a local association, but, along with her husband, she was doing little to remedy the borough’s appalling housing shortage. In her defence she could rely on the support of Bernie Grant, who tagged the accusations of corruption as ‘absolutely ridiculous’. The Tories called for an independent investigation, but Corbyn refused to countenance it. ‘We will conduct the inquiry,’ he said, despite a previous internal inquiry ending, according to the Tories, in ‘a whitewash exercise’. No one expressed any confidence in Corbyn’s investigation, especially as his solution was to increase the number of council workers without their either carrying out any identifiable tasks or producing any benefits to the local community.
In late December 1978, Haringey’s employees’ demands for a 40 per cent pay increase were rejected – at the time that private sector employees were accepting 7 per cent rises – and they went on strike. Corbyn, even though he was their employer, joined them as a NUPE official on their picket line outside the council’s premises. Rapidly, Haringey’s streets filled with bags of uncollected rubbish, children could not enter their schools (the caretakers prevented them), and repairs to council homes were abandoned. ‘Volvos are sliding on the ice on Muswell Hill,’ Corbyn gaily told Toby Harris, the local party chairman and a fellow councillor. The sight of suffering middle classes, Harris noticed, evidently pleased Corbyn. Identical strikes hit many parts of Britain. The lurch towards national panic was highlighted by council workers refusing to bury the dead. Newspaper photographs of Haringey’s plight showed the irate parents of some of the 37,000 children denied their education. ‘The press is just full of crisis, anarchy, chaos, disruption,’ Tony Benn recorded in his diary on 22 January 1979. ‘I have never seen anything like it in my life.’
With noticeable glee, Corbyn continued to support the strikers. On NUPE’s behalf, he had skilfully organised the dustmen’s dispute. Only the drivers went on strike. The loaders stayed at ‘work’, and shared their wages with the drivers, while Corbyn refused to hire private contractors to collect the rubbish. He also sided with the school caretakers, who were forbidden to hand over the door keys to headmasters to open the borough’s ninety-six schools. Teachers were ordered not to enter the buildings, and those who agreed to help educate children outside their classrooms were threatened by a NUPE rent-a-mob, vocal agitators summoned by the union to assert its cause. Haringey’s parents were furious that no other children in London were being denied their education, but Corbyn dismissed their protests as immaterial to the workers’ rights, which he said came first. The parents staged several public demonstrations, protesting that Haringey had failed in its statutory duty to provide education, but Corbyn arranged for Trotskyites, holding banners that read ‘Low pay, no way’, to stand between them and the TV cameras. ‘He wasn’t a great one for education,’ recalls Chapman, ‘and as he didn’t have kids he didn’t care about opening the schools.’