I have never met Jeremy Corbyn, but the better half did, a year or so back. She was representing a development company, which had bought a derelict building in the London Borough of Islington, for which a planning permission had been granted. They wanted to develop it as medium-value flats. The original planning permission ran out and the Council took the opportunity to list the derelict building as of historical value. The company made a new application and were summoned to a meeting with the Council. They were told that Jeremy Corbyn, who is the local MP, wanted to attend the meeting.
The company’s representatives introduced the scheme. There was a shortage, they said, in the Borough of housing for the non-wealthy middle class: teachers, nurses and so on; the scheme would alleviate this. The better half introduced the company. She said that it was English and it would pay its taxes and fulfil all its other social duties; its funders were Russians, one was an Israeli citizen, but they were not oligarchs; they were hard-working businessmen who wanted to do business in England.
Jeremy Corbyn brushed this aside. “No,” he said. “If you are Russians you are oligarchs. And you owe us.”
He made it clear that he considered all developers and all Russians as leeches on society. He airily dismissed any suggestion that the development might improve life in the area. Developers never improved anything, because they were evil.
When a developer applies for planning permission that would otherwise be unacceptable, the Council may grant permission if the developer gives some value back to the community. When Jeremy Corbyn said that the company ‘owed us’, he meant, among other things, cash; in this case the Council wanted an unusually substantial payment of cash per flat. They also wanted two of the nine proposed flats for free. And there were some bits and pieces with the pavement that the Council would like fixed. If this shopping list were committed to – and this is the extraordinary bit – the derelict building’s historical value, currently a bar to any planning permission, would magically evaporate.
The Russian investors were surprised when they were told this. They had wanted to do business in England rather than Russia, because in England, as they understood things, the rule of law prevailed, unlike Russia, where what mattered was the whims of the local political gangsters and of course who provided the fattest brown envelopes.
The meeting ended with a commitment to meet again in three weeks, to give the developer time to consider the new demands. As it turned out, Jeremy Corbyn had a new cause and was much too busy to meet. So, apparently, were the representatives of the Council.
After the meeting the Council called. They said that Jeremy Corbyn wanted to establish that what he had said was off the record. Of course, if you want to put remarks off the record you do so before and not after you make them.
Jeremy Corbyn then wrote a letter (which I haven’t seen). The derelict property had once been a stationmaster’s house, with a booking hall attached. The railway company had sold it because there was no longer a stationmaster who needed housing, and the booking hall had become unnecessary when they invented ticket machines and then Oyster cards. Nevertheless the fruit of his further thought was this: It would be lovely if the house were in single occupancy as it had been when the stationmaster lived there: in other words another two-million-pound house in a borough crying out for affordable housing. And he wanted to see hard-working families once again buying their tickets in a resuscitated booking hall. One can imagine Thomas the Tank Engine mugging cheerily in the corner of this comfy vision.
So far, the derelict building is housing neither the rich, the poor nor the middle class of Islington. It is still empty.
Several things can be deduced from this vignette, which have a bearing on Jeremy Corbyn’s present aspirations.
1 He has scant regard for the law. This was a technical matter for the Council to deal with in accordance with planning law. He might be the local MP, but it was none of his business, and it should not have been made a pretext for grandstanding.
2 He is a racist. Saying that all Russians are oligarchs who ‘owe us’ is racist. It may not be very racist. Indeed, many people consider that Russians, like Americans, are exempt for the normal rules. I mention it because of the persistent stories of his anti-Semitism.
3 His attitude to small business is confrontational.
4 He is a slave to cliché. Presented with a Russian (hiss!) developer (hiss!), all capacity for thought deserted him.
5 He doesn’t listen because he knows best.
6 He is a sentimental old thing.
7 He is not very bright.
Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents in the leadership contest are unappealing. One is not yet up to the job, one is deeply creepy and will say anything to get a vote, and the other is dull. You can see that in comparison he might seem like a human being. A picture has grown up of him as honest, down-to-earth, capable, a bit old-fashioned but in the best way: as the NHS is old-fashioned. There was an amusing piece recently imagining what a pub would be like if he were the landlord.
The Left likes to attack straw villains. You can see it every day in the Guardian online. There might be a story in which people act not particularly well nor particularly badly; that will not have been the point of the story, but the comments underneath will quickly descend into shrill little cries of generalised hate. (You can see the equivalent on the Right in the Telegraph, of course, and here the shrill little cries are often deeply malign.) Here we have the Left building up a straw hero. Jeremy Corbyn may well be a nice man, he may have twinkly eyes, but he does not have the virtues that are being thrust upon him. If he were asked to organise a Shadow Cabinet, let alone a country, the interests of us all would undoubtedly be sacrificed for the sake of a grand gesture, a nice big red cliché.
If Jeremy Corbyn were the landlord of a pub, there would be no beer.