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Dangerous Hero

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Although lambasted by local newspapers, Corbyn was ignored by the national media – the chaos was universal, not just in Haringey. The strikes ended after six weeks. In that decisive moment, the post-war consensus between Labour and the Tories to accept the state’s control of markets, industries and housing was over. Most Britons blamed the trade unions for crippling industries, and in particular their restrictive practices which prevented modernisation and lowered productivity. Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher was committed to unravelling the monopoly of state socialism. By contrast, the left was excited by the display of raw working-class power. Polls showed that the strikes were highly unpopular with the public, but Corbyn dismissed this, and ignored complaints by local NUPE members that his political agitation was coming at the expense of their private lives.

There were consequences. Corbyn had forbidden private construction workers to cross the picket lines, and eventually the council had to pay them £6,160 in compensation for loss of earnings, the equivalent today of £25,000. A committee was set up to award bonuses to council workers who had to clear the backlogs caused by the strike: Corbyn was its chairman. His conflict of interest was referred by the borough’s chief executive to the director of public prosecutions. He would be acquitted of any wrongdoing, and was merely castigated for managerial incompetence. Around the same time, he forbade an animal circus to perform in the borough.

The strikes divided the forty-two Labour councillors in Haringey. The moderate majority, with the support of the seventeen Tory councillors, opposed Corbyn’s ambitions to turn their borough into a mini-Marxist state. In his undisguised bid for power, he challenged council leader Colin Ware, a conventional social democrat. Although he was defeated, he had demonstrated that he had considerable backing. ‘You could not out-left Corbyn,’ recalled Robin Young, the Labour whip. ‘He detested everyone who disagreed with him. And he always got others to do his dirty work.’ Constantly calculating the numbers and the strategy to assert control, Corbyn quietly ordered junior councillors to propose motions to destabilise the moderates, encouraged activists to challenge his ideological enemies in the Labour branches, and energetically recruited far leftists as Labour Party members. As an organiser he was showing real political gifts. Young’s biggest gripe was that ‘Corbyn played no part in building Haringey’s houses and social services. He just played politics.’ Even Mark Killingworth, a fellow left-wing councillor, had grown to dislike Corbyn’s conspiratorial ways. ‘He wanted all the power and to be the one leader everyone should follow. Jeremy and Jane turned every meeting of the Labour group into a terrible argument.’

Corbyn’s opponents would not go quietly. Raucous meetings of the Hornsey Labour Party were testing Toby Harris, its chairman. ‘Corbyn was encouraging all the left groups to join. Some arrived with fake names, especially the hardliners. They were out-lefting each other, and he loved that, but he never identified with one group. He just distributed leaflets, announced the next demo, but never stood up as a leader to say what we should do.’ A general election was imminent – the five-year parliamentary term expired that year – and Corbyn was certain that Labour would win, especially in Hornsey, which was a marginal seat. All that remained was to select a candidate.

Corbyn was well prepared. His support was based entirely on an individual’s political beliefs, not on their personal relationship with him. So in the final run-off to select the Labour candidate he made no distinction between Reg Race, the friend who had secured his job at NUPE, and Ted Knight, a well-known forty-five-year-old unmarried Trotskyite. Knight was leader of Lambeth council, notorious for its debts, its corrupt workforce, and for failing to prevent serious sexual abuses at a young children’s home. Ostensibly, Corbyn supported Race’s nomination by introducing him to the members in every ward, but he seemed untroubled when Knight won selection by a single vote. With the support of the local party’s far-left professionals, recruited by Corbyn, he would be the Labour candidate. Corbyn, however, had private reservations. Always dressed in a dark suit, Knight addressed everyone as ‘Comrade’, delivered with a distinct hint of menace, and in private screamed obscenities. ‘He scares me,’ Corbyn admitted to Keith Veness. No genuine friendship was ever forged between the two, not least because they supported opposing Trotskyist factions.

In a campaign leaflet issued by Corbyn, Knight pledged to strengthen the legal protection of strikers, to ‘weaken the capitalist police who are an enemy of the working class’, pay ‘not a penny for defence’, and repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which gave the police emergency powers to deal with suspected terrorists. As IRA supporters, Corbyn and Knight opposed any law specifically targeted at the Irish which empowered the police to stop people entering or leaving Britain, and to control the membership, activities and finances of proscribed organisations like the IRA. Going well beyond Labour’s official policy, the two men also advocated mass nationalisation of banks, industry, major shops and newspapers – all without compensation. These promises were important, but in targeting the immigrant vote Corbyn made race an issue by recruiting Martha Osamor of the United Black Women’s Action Group to spread the word that Labour would abolish immigration controls. In his election speeches across Hornsey he accused Thatcher of promoting ‘racism and fascist forces’. To create a false image of the National Front storming through the borough, he and Knight constantly staged protests under the banner ‘No Nazis in Hornsey’. The far left and immigrant groups admired this side of his campaigning, but when he refused to pay homage on Remembrance Day to those who had died in the two world wars, he was criticised even by moderate Labour supporters for ‘exploiting the anti-fascist platform for left-wing political ends’. Tories directly accused his canvassers of telling West Indian immigrants that they would be sent home if Labour lost the election. Haringey’s one black councillor supported the Conservatives’ protest – which was perhaps not surprising, because he was a Tory.

In his unquestioning allegiance to Knight’s utterances – even supporting the extremist demand that all local shops be nationalised – Corbyn for the first time exposed his attitude towards Jews. In July 1976, Israeli special forces had carried out a raid at Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue 102 hostages on board a hijacked aeroplane. It was a spectacular success, but during the election campaign, Knight publicly criticised the operation, and Corbyn agreed. ‘His support for Knight,’ said David Barlow, a middle-of-the-road Labour councillor in Haringey, ‘an awful candidate who was destroying Lambeth council, showed that Corbyn was dubious.’ Jews who were otherwise Labour supporters refused to vote for Knight. Some were also uncertain about Corbyn, by then a prominent local politician in Haringey and now identified as Knight’s henchman.

Galvanised by the industrial unrest, Corbyn and Knight grasped the opportunity to lead a left-wing takeover of the entire London Labour Party (LLP), covering the capital’s thirty-two boroughs, with over a thousand Labour councillors and fifty-one out of ninety-two MPs. They made no effort to conceal their Trotskyist agenda. Corbyn began writing regular articles for the Socialist Organiser, a weekly newspaper representing the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist League, and was frequently seen marching under the banner of the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory with Alan Thornett, a leader of the Workers Socialist League. Corbyn and Knight worked closely with Ken Livingstone, a forty-four-year-old GLC councillor well known for disrupting neighbouring Camden council’s housing department (Livingstone was the department’s chairman) with rent freezes, strikes and compulsory purchase orders. ‘Jeremy’s just like me,’ Livingstone would say. ‘You get what you see.’ Socialist Organiser was Livingstone’s mouthpiece for the ambitious Trotskyite group inside the Labour Party. While Livingstone was selected as the Labour general election candidate in Hampstead, and Knight in Hornsey, Reg Race became the candidate in Wood Green, the adjoining borough.

Corbyn’s continuing embrace of Trotskyites alarmed several of his colleagues. In a plea to Jim Callaghan to stop the left’s takeover of ‘many of our inner city parties’, Douglas Eden, a member of the Hornsey branch for fifteen years, identified Corbyn – along with forty-three Labour MPs and twenty-six parliamentary candidates, including Knight – as one of the ultra-leftists who ‘overtly associated themselves with extreme Marxist activities’. Corbyn and the others, wrote Eden, were ‘unrepresentative of Labour voters’ and had ‘no scruples about associating themselves with totalitarian organisations’. Naming the ‘public-school-educated Cllr Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow-traveller’ Chapman, Eden attacked the ‘fascist left [who] manipulate any public office they hold to further their own undemocratic ends’.

Among his examples was Jane Chapman’s removal of three moderate Labour governors of Creighton School, a Haringey comprehensive, which she carried out without notice or hearing. Allegedly, the governors had tried to open the school during the caretakers’ strike, and were accused of ‘not giving support at a critical time to the strikers’. Despite their denials, they were replaced by three ultra-leftists including Bernie Grant. ‘Are there any moderates left,’ asked many Labour voters in Haringey, ‘to stop these empire-building fanatics, or have they been eliminated by the “deadly duo”?’

The reckoning was unexpectedly swift. In March 1979, Margaret Thatcher tabled a motion of no confidence in Callaghan’s government, which was passed by just one vote (311 to 310), triggering a general election to be held in May, six months before the end of the five-year term. In April, just weeks before the election, Labour’s ruling group in Haringey fired five left-wing chairmen, including Corbyn, Chapman and Mark Killingworth. In what the moderates called ‘The Night of the Long Knives’, their spokesman explained: ‘We were fed up with these individuals. The elite was making a mess of certain jobs.’ Corbyn was naturally outraged: ‘The council leadership have given us a tremendous kick in the teeth despite all the good work we have done.’ Killingworth blamed the departing chairman’s self-interest: ‘I didn’t like his ambition and conspiracies. He created the “organiser” job so he could be powerful and then allowed the Trotskyites to infiltrate the constituency without us knowing.’ Not surprisingly, the local Tories highlighted Labour’s ‘wild extravagance’ and pronounced, ‘The party is over.’ That proved to be true on 3 May, the day Margaret Thatcher swept to power with an overall majority of forty-three. Labour lost a total of fifty seats.

Corbyn was shocked. He had even printed a leaflet announcing Hornsey as a Labour win. Every copy had to be dumped. Hugh Rossi, supported by traditional Labour voters changing their allegiance, secured by far his biggest majority – 4,037, up from 782 in October 1974. In endless post-mortems, Corbyn failed to draw the link between the strikes and how people had voted. Instead, he blamed Callaghan for refusing to destroy capitalism. By imposing a wage limit, the ‘non-believer’ had ‘betrayed the working class’. As a result, the party’s natural constituency had refused to vote Labour. ‘You’ll see,’ Corbyn told his acolytes. ‘The Tories will be out in four years after the people see the truth.’ The only immediate consequence was a court summons for Corbyn and Knight for breaking electoral law by overspending in the campaign by £49.

Corbyn rightly saw Thatcher’s pledge to reverse his community-style socialism and resurrect individualism and the market economy as a threat. Her instant dismissal of the government-appointed regulators of wages and prices, her introduction of laws to prevent trade unions organising wildcat strikes, the denationalisation of inter-city coaches, the abolition of exchange controls so that Britons were allowed to take more than £50 a year out of the country, and the sale of council homes all enraged him. Her promise to cut government expenditure despite inevitable unemployment was, in Corbyn’s world view, a declaration of war. He demanded ‘a massive campaign against the cuts’. Together with Ken Livingstone, Bernie Grant, Ted Knight and Keith Veness, the knights of the Socialist Campaign for Labour Victory, he plotted to reverse Labour’s political fortunes.

Haringey was one of the Tory government’s prime targets. Over the previous five years, the council had employed an additional thousand people and accumulated a £6 million deficit, yet its services were deteriorating. Now, Thatcher forbade all councils to increase their debts, and at the same time reduced their government grants. Most councils sought to improve their efficiency, but Corbyn protested that less money meant cuts in services. Without appreciating the irony, he told the Labour group, ‘We must positively defend and protect services which have already been badly hit.’ He took no responsibility for the uncollected rubbish, closed schools and unrepaired council homes. Instead, as the leader of the left, he launched a counter-attack, demanding that the Labour group defy the government by setting illegally high rates. ‘We’ll be personally surcharged,’ the moderates retorted, fearing that their privately-owned homes would be seized to pay the fines. Corbyn continued to demand the sacrifice, without revealing that his own flat had been bought with a GLC mortgage, and was therefore safe from repossession.

Robin Young, Labour’s new council leader, discovered that there was nothing gentle about Corbyn’s politics. ‘He was very ambitious but always careful not to get into trouble with the party,’ Young observed, echoing Mark Killingworth’s assessment, adding that ‘he always disguised his grabs for power’. Toby Harris also noticed that while Corbyn presented his arguments in calm and considered terms, he deliberately generated hostility towards moderates, while managing the inevitable disputes among the left about demands and tactics to present a united front. His success, observed Barbara Simon, the Hornsey party’s general secretary, owed much to his being ‘good-tempered, patient and hard-working’. But despite his qualities, Corbyn still led only a minority of councillors. Undeterred, in 1980 he sought to topple Young by standing against him in the Labour group’s leadership election. Once again, he employed a mild manner to disarm his opponents. ‘He never had stand-up rows,’ Killingworth noticed. ‘He was more cunning than that.’ Without being confrontational or physically threatening, Corbyn expressed his bitter intolerance of his ideological enemies in quiet tones. ‘He would propose motions about housing, rates or council employees in party meetings,’ recalled Killingworth, ‘with extreme demands but worded as if only the Tories could oppose his ideas. And he cleverly presented himself as seemingly detached while encouraging his supporters to threaten his opponents with no-confidence motions. Those meetings were really nasty.’ Nevertheless, on this occasion Young came out the victor.

The intensity of these political battles finally destroyed Corbyn’s marriage. Just before Christmas 1979, Chapman walked out of the family home. ‘He didn’t see it coming,’ said Toby Harris. Keith Veness agreed that Chapman ‘just gave up on him’. Nothing about Corbyn was an enigma. The monochrome was reality. As she packed her belongings, Corbyn told his wife, ‘You should read Simone de Beauvoir and never write your autobiography.’ Clearly, ever the non-reader, he had heard about de Beauvoir from someone, and had failed to understand the author’s philosophy. Women, de Beauvoir complained, were regarded as ‘the second sex’, and defined by their relationship to men. To rescue themselves, they should elevate themselves by exercising the same choice as men – precisely what Chapman had decided to do. Corbyn’s reference to her autobiography also jarred, because the flat was filled with boxes of leaflets, minutes of party meetings and newspaper cuttings – all kept, he explained, for when he decided ‘to write my memoirs’.

Corbyn was exhibiting all the contradictions of an unresolved personality, disconnected from the real world. His self-portrayal as a universal ‘do-gooder’ was at odds with his inability to care for his wife, or indeed any female companion. He was quite incapable of understanding why his marriage had collapsed. ‘He thought I left him on a feminist kick,’ recalled Chapman, ‘but it was because I wanted some fun. His lack of emotional awareness didn’t change. My emotional life as part of a relationship was forgotten.’ Finally she realised that his judgement at the beginning of their relationship that she was ‘the best of the best’ was because ‘I was the only woman who admired him and would put up with his political obsessions’. There was no parting gift. ‘I got neither the dog nor the cat,’ said Chapman, ‘because I moved into a single room in a West Indian’s flat. I had nowhere else to go.’ Nearly twenty years later, Corbyn invited Chapman for tea in the Commons. ‘You should lighten up,’ he advised her, convinced as usual that he had been in the right. If anyone lacked a sense of humour, thought Chapman, it was her former husband.

Shortly after his wife’s departure from Lausanne Road, Corbyn encouraged Keith Veness and another local party activist to join him in posting leaflets around a council estate and starting to canvass for the next local elections. At about 11.30 in the morning he announced, ‘We need to collect more leaflets,’ and drove them back to his flat. The three of them walked in to discover a naked woman on the bed. Diane Abbott, Corbyn proudly announced, was his new girlfriend. ‘He wanted us to see her in his bed,’ recalled Veness. ‘She was shocked when we entered.’ She had quickly wrapped herself in a duvet.

Abbott was the antithesis of a white, middle-class English woman. Born to Jamaican immigrants in 1953 (her father was a welder, her mother a nurse), she went to a grammar school in London, then to Cambridge. As the first female black student from a state school at Newnham College, she enjoyed a hectic social life. Articulate and determined, she became firmly hard left, committed to the class struggle. She would always blame ‘the system’ for the educational failure of black British children, never their parents or her own community. After graduating with a lower second in history she was hired by the Home Office, but swiftly moved to the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) as a race relations officer. Belying the human rights group’s name, her fellow employees rummaged through her desk and found her private diary. One entry recorded her sexual fantasy of being manhandled by her lover Corbyn, ‘a bearded Fenian and NUPE national organiser’, and also descriptions of a motorbike holiday with him around France and a passionate romp in a Cotswold field, which she described as her ‘finest half-hour’.

Corbyn’s passion for Abbott ended any hope Jane Chapman might have had that their relationship could be restored. He had found a political soulmate who shared his anger at Callaghan’s treachery, regarded Britain as the country that ‘invented racism’, and echoed his praise for the IRA. ‘Every defeat for the British state,’ Abbott would say, ‘is a victory for all of us.’ Feisty and, in her early years, good-looking, Abbott persuaded Corbyn to change his habits to suit her, at least for a while: he enjoyed social evenings with her and friends at restaurants and dinner parties. ‘We had a working supper in our living room one time,’ recalls Barbara Simon. ‘Jeremy brought Diane, who didn’t come across as noisy and brash. She must have found the scene of two warring factions in Hornsey intimidating.’ Simon had equal sympathy for Corbyn: ‘Women were chasing him and he got trapped.’

Despite his and Abbott’s sexual and political closeness, Corbyn spent Christmas Day 1979 alone. ‘What will you do?’ Toby Harris had asked him. ‘I’m going to the Suffolk seaside and letting my dog run along the beach,’ Corbyn replied. Others described his despair because there were no political meetings on Christmas Day, as he could not face his family.

He returned to London to pursue his vocation – politics. As leader of Haringey council’s left-wing caucus, he could not be ignored. The safe option was to elect him chairman of the planning committee, a role without any budget. Unlike his predecessors, he did not attract even a suspicion of favouritism – he appeared wholly incorruptible. He refused all invitations for drinks with possible lobbyists, and would not even meet developers. His hatred of the middle class was as fervent as ever: he encouraged plans to build council blocks among private houses, and when people protested he dismissed them, scoffing: ‘The arrogance of all those doctors and lawyers, talking about the environment when what they’re scared of is black kids.’ To further spite Muswell Hill’s middle class, he allowed gypsy families to set up an encampment on local playing fields.

Corbyn’s high profile locally was not mirrored across the capital. Only Ken Livingstone, a better speaker and a consummate networker, had the ability to take control of London’s left. After his defeat in Hampstead in the 1979 general election, Livingstone recruited Corbyn, Keith Veness and Ted Knight for ‘Target 82’, a secret timetable he submitted to the Trotskyist Socialist Campaign for Labour Victory (SCLV) to take control of the GLC after its elections in May 1981. After long discussions, their fellow members in the SCLV dismissed the plan. The Trotskyites, Livingstone grumbled, were ‘gross, grovelling toadies’ – a slightly odd insult, as one of his hobbies was keeping newts.

‘I’m pissed off with factional Trots,’ agreed Keith Veness. Like the other three, he wanted to concentrate on gaining political power rather than engage in internecine warfare, the usual fate of most far-left groups. Breaking with the SCLV, some time in 1980 Veness invited Livingstone, Knight, Corbyn and Bernie Grant to his Highbury home, and together the group created a new cadre, London Labour Briefing. ‘We’re an open conspiracy to get rid of the right wing,’ Corbyn declared. ‘It’s a two-stage insurgency,’ added Veness. ‘First grab control of the GLC, and then Thatcher’s government.’ The first step towards Target 82, they agreed, was to take over the London Labour Party and secure the nomination of fellow Trotskyists as Labour candidates in the GLC election. Acting to a strategy outlined by Trotsky, the minority would eventually make itself a majority. Trotsky himself, wrote the historian Robert Conquest, was ‘a ruthless imposer of the party’s will who firmly crushed the democratic opposition within the party and fully supported the rules which gave the ruling group total authority’. Abiding by those tactics, the Target 82 group agreed to remove their enemies as quickly as possible, consolidate their control, and never give it away.

The launch of London Labour Briefing was staged at the GLC’s headquarters in County Hall. It attracted two hundred people, and was regarded by Livingstone, its prime organiser, as a ‘great success’. Like all such groups, Briefing’s credibility depended on publishing a newspaper. ‘Even if it’s not read,’ said Veness, laughing, ‘we’ve got to have one.’ The editorial board of the weekly news-sheet included Corbyn as the group’s general secretary, the reliable dogsbody prepared to undertake the unglamorous chores. Their aim was to deselect moderate Labour councillors and take over constituency parties, which would vote for Tony Benn as Labour leader when Jim Callaghan, as was expected, resigned. In the alphabet soup of initials of the rival left-wing groups, London Labour Briefing was affiliated to the London Representation Committee (LRC), a group chaired by John McDonnell, a member of Liverpool’s Trotskyite Militant Tendency. The LRC urged ‘mass extra-parliamentary action’ to disrupt the economy, and published hit lists of Labour MPs it described as ‘traitors’. McDonnell openly enthused about riots as the precursor to an uprising. That difference did not prevent him and Corbyn bonding during the endless meetings favoured by the left.

In their joint cause, Corbyn eagerly began to organise his supporters in Hornsey to force out his enemies. He particularly targeted Douglas Eden, not least for his having mocked him as ‘public-school-educated’. ‘It was a grammar school,’ Corbyn told the Hornsey Journal, adding that it was ‘now happily a comprehensive’. This was another small untruth. The school remained fee-paying for selected children. If it burnished his left-wing credentials, Corbyn was still willing to lie about trivialities.

Chairing the inquiry into Eden’s loyalty, Corbyn allowed the social democrat to speak in his own defence for forty-five minutes – then promptly announced his expulsion. Eden protested to Reg Underhill, Labour’s national agent at party headquarters, that he had been ‘hounded out by Corbyn’. Underhill, who was leading the hunt against Trotskyist infiltration, notified Haringey’s branch secretary that she had failed to follow the proper procedures, and the inquiry should be reheld. Unabashed, Corbyn started the expulsion process again, with the same result.

Eden’s fate was replicated across London. As moderate members were forced out of the party, Corbyn, Knight, Livingstone and McDonnell were elected to the national executive of the London Labour Party, and immediately began the deselection process of moderate councillors who had been put forward as candidates for the May 1981 GLC elections. Under the banner of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, every candidacy was to be openly contested, ostensibly to allow greater democracy but in fact to allow the left to take over. This would, to use Tony Benn’s catchwords, transform Labour into a ‘pluralist grassroots party of the masses’, one that would exclude dissenters, especially social democrats. In Brent East, where Livingstone hoped to snatch the parliamentary nomination from a moderate MP, he, like Corbyn, had forged close relations with immigrant groups by pledging to remove the restrictions on migrants settling in Britain. In return, over a hundred Asians – many of them unable to speak English – were enrolled as party members in the constituency and obediently voted against Livingstone’s rivals. A similar pattern emerged in Islington. ‘If voting changed anything,’ sniped one moderate, ‘they’d abolish it.’

Livingstone asked Corbyn if he planned to stand in Haringey for the GLC, and was surprised when Corbyn said he did not. As a full-time NUPE official, he explained, he would find it difficult to attend the GLC’s daytime meetings. The truth was different. Corbyn was sceptical about joining an authority with limited powers, and was still harbouring his secret ambition to become an MP. His allies were unaware that because of his extremism he had already been rejected as the prospective parliamentary candidate in Enfield North. Next, he had unsuccessfully applied in Croydon, but a chance encounter in the Croydon party’s headquarters with his old friend Val Veness, who was also applying for the seat, changed his life. ‘I didn’t realise you wanted to be an MP,’ she said. ‘I might be able to help you. But it’s got to be kept secret.’ Keeping secrets had never been a problem for Corbyn.

For years, Keith and Val Veness and their claque had been trying to remove Michael O’Halloran, the Labour MP for Islington North. Despite being accused of corruption and incompetence, O’Halloran had allegedly been installed, then protected, by ‘the Murphia’, the local Irish mafia. O’Halloran accused the Venesses of bombarding him and his family with personal abuse in their attempts to hound him out. In the standoff, the Venesses had agreed with their group that if O’Halloran were removed, none of them would seek the nomination to replace him. The left therefore needed a candidate to counter any moderate applicants. Secrecy, they decided, was essential if they were to outwit their opponents. When Livingstone persisted in his attempts to secure Corbyn’s nomination to the GLC, he was told sharply by Val Veness, ‘Keep your hands off our candidate.’ He backed down, accepting Corbyn’s promise that he would work tirelessly to execute the coup at the GLC and also act as the agent for Kate Hoey, a member of the Marxist IMG, to win the Labour GLC nomination for Haringey.

During that frantic period of plotting, Corbyn paid little attention to Diane Abbott, who by then was working as a TV producer in London. ‘She was noisy, ambitious, lefty and overweight,’ was Jonathan Aitken’s impression during their encounters in the television world. In her excitable manner, Abbott fretted that Corbyn and Chapman were still meeting each other at Haringey council. Chapman recalled a ‘nervous, tense and slightly hostile’ Abbott knocking on her door one evening, and when Chapman answered making her demands clear.

‘Get the hell out of here,’ said Abbott. ‘You’re in the media and everywhere and I want you out of town.’

‘I can’t,’ replied Chapman. ‘I’ve been elected to office.’

Abbott was clearly disgruntled.

Later, Chapman explained, ‘She wanted a clear run. I was in the media a lot then because of my political work and she wished I wasn’t.’ Abbott was also fed up with Corbyn’s way of life; just as he had ignored Chapman, he was now ignoring her. Although she had enjoyed many relationships, none had led to as intense a friendship as she now had with Corbyn, but that too was failing. At twenty-seven, she wanted marriage and eventually children. Corbyn wanted neither.

One morning, Bernie Grant called Keith Veness. ‘Diane’s had enough of Jeremy. She’s moving out. Come and give us a hand.’ Veness arrived at Lausanne Road in a large van. The flat was strewn with papers and clothing. ‘It’s hard to have a relationship with someone who doesn’t come home for two weeks,’ said Abbott defensively. She, Grant, and Veness set about packing away her things. Suddenly the door opened, and in walked Corbyn. ‘Hello, mate,’ he said to Grant. Then he saw Veness carrying out Abbott’s possessions. After hearing why the two men were there, he walked away without comment; he was off to a meeting, he said. Appalled by the way Abbott, a fellow child of the Caribbean, had been treated, Grant chased after Corbyn. ‘Get real,’ he said, knowing full well that Corbyn remained insult-proof, and would certainly feel no guilt. Later Corbyn would recall, ‘Diane always says to me, “You learned everything you know in Shropshire, and unfortunately you’ve forgotten none of it.”’

In his political life at least, Corbyn was feeling empowered. Inflation was still rising, and Tory cuts were causing high unemployment and widespread distress. Daily, he would rush off to join picketing strikers or anti-government marches through another city centre against cuts and apparent Tory heartlessness towards the sick and unemployed. In March 1980, convinced that Labour’s 1979 election defeat could be reversed by direct action, Corbyn and twelve other left-wing Haringey councillors urged Robin Young not to bow to government pressure to limit rises in the rates in order to control inflation, then running at 14 per cent. Young refused to act illegally, and set a 36 per cent increase, a phenomenal hike, but insufficient for Corbyn, who wanted nearer 50 per cent, and refused to support the Labour council. Young had no illusions about the forthcoming encounter: ‘Corbyn built his own Berlin Wall and stood on the other side. He introduced hatred and divisions between us. He got it so that the left would not speak to the right, and after that battle we barely spoke. He hated anyone who didn’t subscribe to his view. He wanted them out.’ In the vote over the rates increase, Corbyn led his group of thirteen fellow-travellers to side with the Tories. The Labour moderates won – just. ‘They were pretty horrible people,’ recalled Young, but he did not dare discipline his rival. Two months later the group made a renewed attempt to oust Young, and again failed.

By then Corbyn’s relationship with Tony Benn had become unusually close. ‘Benn would come to love Corbyn as his son,’ reckoned George Galloway, a twenty-six-year-old Dundee-born Marxist and a rising star in the Scottish Labour Party. Corbyn was devoting much of his time to supporting the ambitions of Benn, who embodied the aspiration of many idealistic young socialists, for the party leadership. For Benn, corporate capitalism was incompatible with democracy, and formed the main threat to civilised life, a philosophy embraced by Corbyn. At Labour’s Blackpool conference in September 1980, Benn won a vote in favour of unilateral disarmament and cowed Jim Callaghan into allowing the mandatory reselection of MPs, a critical part of the strategy of ‘democratising’ the party. The left was gaining power.

Popular discontent about early Thatcherism created fevered excitement among Corbyn’s associates, who believed that the government was heading towards a cliff edge, with the cabinet divided over her abandonment of the post-war consensus. Losing public support, and even her customary self-confidence, Thatcher was expected by the left to capitulate to their demands. Instead, she turned defiant. At the Tory party conference she scolded: ‘To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’ That phrase had been written for her by Ronald Millar, her speechwriter and a well-known playwright.

Five days later, on 15 October, Callaghan resigned as Labour leader, hoping that Denis Healey would be elected as his successor. If Tony Benn were chosen, Callaghan feared, Labour would be transformed into a genuinely revolutionary and unelectable party. There were three candidates: Benn, Healey, and that veteran of the democratic left, Michael Foot. Convinced that enough moderates had been expelled in the constituencies, Corbyn assured Benn that he would win, but Benn decided not to divide the left’s vote, and withdrew. As a result, Foot, who distrusted Benn as a disloyal, divisive and opportunist upstart, became leader. Healey’s defeat plunged the party into turmoil after Bennites won a majority on Labour’s National Executive Council (NEC). Led by European Commission president Roy Jenkins, a sophisticated former home secretary and chancellor, the moderates openly debated whether to quit Labour and set up a new political party. But for Corbyn and the left, Michael Foot was equally unacceptable, as a ‘prisoner of the right’.

The growing likelihood of Benn challenging Foot encouraged Tariq Ali, a member of the IMG and the author of, among other publications, Trotsky for Beginners, to abandon Trotskyism (in public at least) and, with Corbyn’s encouragement, apply to join his local Hornsey Labour Party. In practical terms, it made sense for Ali to jump aboard the Benn bandwagon and try to take over Labour from within. Although he condemned Benn’s politics as ‘bourgeois’, he could see how popular he was among voters. In Hornsey, Corbyn’s alignment with a well-known Trotskyite angered the moderates. What he called a ‘rainbow coalition’ was, in their opinion, outrightly subversive of the Labour Party. Even Toby Harris, a Corbyn ally and a leading member of the local branch, objected to Ali’s membership. Within weeks, Corbyn manoeuvred for Harris to be voted off the General Management Committee. Max Morris, a former communist and the chairman of the ward Ali joined, denounced Corbyn as Ali’s puppet. He too was threatened with expulsion by having his ward packed with new members, all Trotskyists. In response, a local party executive publicly condemned Corbyn for ‘the most extraordinary manipulation of the rules’.

On 13 May 1981, the Queen opened a new shopping centre in Haringey. Corbyn made sure he was absent – another move calculated to drive moderates out of his local party. The resulting tumult persuaded party headquarters to veto Ali’s membership application. Labour’s leaders, complained Corbyn, were ‘hell-bent on an unremitting war on the socialists in the party – they have no intention of disarming or taking power from the City’. In defiance, he accepted Ali’s second application to join the party, and persuaded Barbara Simon to issue him with a membership card. After all, he said, Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe, both members of the Trotskyite Militant Tendency, were members of the party in neighbouring Islington: the discrimination against Ali reflected outright political prejudice. This was not Corbyn the obedient class warrior on a treadmill – he had become engaged in a frontal war.

Immersed in ideological battles in Hornsey and Haringey, he was simultaneously engaged with violent strikers – his own council employees, who were hurling abuse at Haringey’s moderate councillors (such as remained). In the middle were the police – ‘a barrier to the people’s revolution’, as Corbyn saw them. Inside the town hall, he plotted with local trade union chiefs to challenge his party leaders with a new demand for a 43 per cent rates increase. ‘They object to rate rises,’ he said of his Labour opponents, ‘because they can’t get over them like they can fiddle corporation tax and their profits.’ The moderate Labour councillors retorted that he was pandering to the totalitarian left by ‘speaking out unashamedly in favour of terrorism’ and by leading the ‘anti-patriotic, anti-police faction’. From the Tory side, he was dubbed a ‘tinpot dictator’ for protecting what they dubbed ‘Jeremy’s Angels’ – Haringey’s corrupt council workers. The indictment was irrefutable: the district auditor had discovered that Haringey’s caretakers were submitting fraudulent overtime claims and the dustmen had stolen council property.

Corbyn’s response was to approve a triple pay bonus for dustmen. ‘While the Labour council remains in power,’ he said, ‘no trade unionist in its employ will want for anything.’ Equally, he ignored the consequences of his demand for rates increases, which had caused two major employers, Gestetner and Thorn Electrical, to move away from the borough. Corbyn did not comment. Instead, he tried again to topple Robin Young, but again failed to get a majority of the forty-two Labour councillors. In revenge, the moderates voted Corbyn off the planning committee. Characterised as a spendthrift, he even lost the vice chairmanship of the allotments committee. Undeterred, he continued to plot Young’s removal by deselecting more long-serving moderate councillors in favour of his own sympathisers. By early 1981, fourteen out of twenty-two new candidates in Haringey had been nominated by London Labour Briefing. Across the capital, at least twenty moderates had been deselected, and 130 Labour councillors had stepped down rather than face humiliation. Inevitably, Corbyn denied any part in orchestrating the purge. ‘We don’t draw up lists,’ he told the Hampstead & Highgate Express. Instead, he explained, the councillors selected were ‘politically experienced in community politics’ – ‘community’ being his euphemism for using the Labour Party to spread revolutionary socialism.

In March 1981 the skirmishes in Haringey, replicated across the country, finally provoked senior moderates within Labour to split. Exasperated by the activities of the far left, the anti-Marxists led by Roy Jenkins resigned from Labour and created the Social Democratic Party. Few believed the SDP had any chance of electoral success, but within months it had won both parliamentary seats and council elections. Corbyn and Benn blamed Michael Foot. Although the Tories criticised the Labour leader as a dangerous leftie, to Corbyn he was a paternalistic parliamentarian obsessed with ‘bureaucracy’ rather than mobilising the masses for revolution. Even worse, Foot ignored Benn’s protest against ‘the thought police’ in the party, and ordered the expulsion of Trotskyites, Marxists and other entryists. Among the first casualties were the editors of Liverpool’s Militant newspaper, although their expulsion did not undermine Derek Hatton and his fellow Trotskyists on the city council intent, like Corbyn, to challenge the government.

In April 1981, anti-police riots erupted in Brixton – home of the largest police station in the capital outside Scotland Yard – sparked by disaffected black youths living in deprived areas. The riots spread to Liverpool and Manchester. After a mob outside a police station yelled ‘Kill, kill,’ Corbyn condemned the ‘capitalist police’ and attacked the media’s reporting of the riots as ‘disgraceful’. He and John McDonnell welcomed the rise of revolutionary fervour against Thatcher, and were delighted when it spread to Northern Ireland. The world’s attention was focused on Bobby Sands, a twenty-six-year-old IRA member leading a hunger strike in the Maze prison outside Belfast. Naked and near death, Sands had just won a by-election to become a Member of Parliament. For Corbyn and the far left, his defiant martyrdom symbolised the resonance of their struggle. The next stage was to deliver the Target 82 coup in the GLC elections in May.

Ken Livingstone believed that all his work over the previous two years to replace moderate Labour candidates would win his faction a marginal majority within the Labour group in the GLC. But every vote was important. To his irritation Kate Hoey, the candidate in Hornsey, unexpectedly resigned to stand for Parliament. Livingstone renewed his appeal to Corbyn to stand, but he again declined, not least because of the way he was approached. ‘Politics is like biting lumps out of people,’ Livingstone had told him. Biting people was a practice Corbyn resisted – both verbal attacks and violence. He preferred others to do the dirty work. If he engaged in front-line warfare alongside Livingstone he would be exposed, not least to journalists who might begin investigating his past. That would interfere with his parliamentary ambitions and more. Instead he found a new candidate, David Hart, the son of Judith Hart, a left-wing Labour MP, who was duly voted in. Hart celebrated his victory with Livingstone, one of fifty Labour councillors against forty-one Tories. Within twenty-four hours Andrew McIntosh, the party’s moderate GLC leader, had fallen victim to the Target 82 plotters: just as planned, Livingstone marshalled a bare majority of the Labour councillors – many his hand-picked leftists – to usurp McIntosh and win election for himself as Labour’s leader. McIntosh, who six years earlier had been ousted as a councillor in Hornsey by Corbyn, had failed to learn his lesson. ‘He wasn’t a proper politician,’ scoffed Livingstone.

The new GLC leader had much in common with his loyal acolyte. Like Corbyn, he too was portrayed by the media as a ruthless revolutionary living for politics and happy to be separated from his wife. ‘Ken’s not interested in ordinary human relations,’ said one Labour councillor, ‘simply in getting to the top of the greasy pole.’ He wasted no time in putting his agenda into action: remaining moderate Labour members of the GLC were appalled by his imposition of higher rates to pay for cheap transport fares and, after Bobby Sands’ death had incited the IRA to burn a mother of three children to death, his instant declaration of support for the IRA. Corbyn, by contrast, cheered Livingstone’s audacity. Phase One was completed: the GLC was theirs. Thatcher was next.


The Other Comrade (#ulink_3092d5f8-2006-54dd-821a-56a0480de980)
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