29 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: Getting to 2020

I met Jeremy Corbyn back in 2003 when I was spending a day being educated on the ways of Parliament which included discussions with MPs. Three of us, perhaps at the time not appreciating what would eventually become memorable, went for a cup of tea with Corbyn in Portcullis House. Casting about for a non-partisan topic, I asked him about ways to improve electoral turnout (it had been down to 59.4% in the 2001 general election). I remember the question but not the answer, so in retrospect it seems unlikely that anything particularly radical was suggested. Twelve years later Corbyn has emerged from relative obscurity and is Leader of the Labour Party and the Opposition and, although it seems unlikely, could become Prime Minister in 2020.

The commentariat are going flat out with Corbyn prognoses. Even before he was elected, Sebastian Payne asked on Spectator Coffee House
If Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader, how long would he last?
and concluded that, if not challenged immediately,
Corbyn would be challenged a few months/years in his leadership. There is one particular flashpoint next year to watch: 5 May 2016. If Labour fails to win the Mayor of London race, loses Wales and fails to make any progress in Scotland, there will be calls for him to go.
Dan Hodges in the Daily Telegraph thought that the vote on Trident replacement in March 2016 would be a moment of reckoning (though Corbyn later told Andrew Marr that the vote would possibly be in June). On the other hand, John Rentoul in the Independent thought that the Labour Party
is so denuded of talent that it is hard to see where the succession to Corbyn will come from. Part of the reason for his success is the thinness of the field against him, but look beyond them and behold a wasteland.
Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer was full of misgivings:
For the moment, the spectacle of a leader and his top team agreeing to disagree on a host of critical issues at least has the merit of being unusual. It is the price Mr Corbyn is being forced to pay to avoid an immediate civil war with his MPs. It can’t be sustainable. There will be a crunch point between leader and parliamentary party. Then things will get really interesting.
but was not inclined to speculate about timescales:
Earlier foolish talk about a rapid attempt to unseat him has evaporated. The thumping scale of his victory means that his opponents within will have to tread very carefully for the moment. Yet the truth can’t be concealed. This leaves Labour MPs more divided than I have ever known them. Divided between those who are convinced that the Corbyn leadership will be an instant disaster and those who reckon it will be more of a slow-burning catastrophe for their party. Then there are those who candidly confess that they have no idea where their party is now going. “I think I know how this will end,” says one. “But I can’t say when.”
The Guardian made public Peter Mandelson’s private views that it would be “a long haul”:
Nobody will replace him, though, until he demonstrates to the party his unelectability at the polls. In this sense, the public will decide Labour’s future and it would be wrong to try and force this issue from within before the public have moved to a clear verdict.
In the FT Magazine, out just as the Labour party conference started, George Parker and Jim Packard had a long piece, Jeremy Corbyn: how long can he last?, but, not surprisingly, didn’t provide a specific answer. On the one hand:
“We have to give him time to fail and to make it clear to all his supporters that this cannot work,” says one moderate Labour MP. “There can’t be a coup now: we would have blood on our hands.” 
… “It’s going to go wrong,” says another senior Blairite former minister. “We just don’t know when.”
And on the other:
From David Cameron’s point of view, the longer Corbyn stays in the job the better. … “This is proof that God is a Conservative,” says one Cameron ally. The Cameron/Osborne strategy is to hope that Corbyn remains leader as long as possible and that years of leftwing-inspired chaos will cause irreparable damage to the Labour brand. 
… Cameron’s allies ponder whether Corbyn can hack the responsibility, the pressure and the mental strain of his new job and the need for constant accommodation and compromise with his party. “Cameron’s mentally extremely strong and even he can find it tough,” says one friend of the prime minister. “Corbyn’s 66. He’s never faced anything like this.” But Dave Prentis, head of the union Unison, says Corbyn has the stamina to survive the coming months. “He has done 100 rallies this summer. I have seen a man who, wherever he has gone, has shown commitment and fortitude,” he says. “Do I think he has the stamina for this? Yes.” 
On the totalpolitics website, James Skidmore explained Why Jeremy Corbyn will still be Labour leader in 2020, described the three hurdles any challenger would have to clear and concluded, fairly convincingly:
Essentially, the choice facing moderates now is how much rope do they give Corbyn? Until after the 2016 elections or until after 2020? Your correspondent reckons that when they sit down and think through the process they will leave it to 2020.
Given such uncertainty, I thought it might be interesting to look for any statistics which sum up the experiences of past Leaders of the Opposition (Leaders or LoOs hereon). To illuminate Corbyn’s position, comparisons should be made only with those individuals who have sought Leadership as a first step towards possible premiership. This rules out those who have had the office thrust upon them, that is those who have become Prime Minister (PM) by another route and then lost an election, most notably Churchill. Also excluded are interim, if recurrent, Leaders like Harriet Harman.

Initially the selection was confined to the last 80 years, beginning with George Lansbury who became Labour Leader in 1935 and, because of his pacifist views, is seen as having similarities to Corbyn. Over that period there were 14 men and one woman Leaders ab initio, nine Labour and six Conservative. Three of each party went on to win an election so the success rates are 33% for Labour and 50% for the Tories – success being defined as moving from LoO to PM. However, on examination Attlee’s position is exceptional. Lansbury resigned in October 1938, Attlee becoming Labour leader and losing the general election held a month later. Attlee eventually became PM in 1945 but had ceased to be Leader of the Opposition in February 1942 on appointment as Deputy PM in the wartime coalition.

Leader of the Opposition statistics
(notes at the end of the post)
So while it is useful for some purposes, like age on becoming Leader to include Lansbury and Attlee, comparisons with Corbyn for issues like age at the first subsequent general election are more appropriately made looking at the last 60 years. This is the period since Gaitskell became Labour Leader in 1955 and reduces the selection to 12 men and one woman. Seven of these were Labour and six Conservative with two Labour and three Conservative successes, 29% and 50% respectively.


Age is unarguable and Corbyn is certainly younger starting as LoO at 66 than Michael Foot or George Lansbury but at nearly 71 would be older at the time of the next election (7 May 2020) than any of the 11 of his 13 predecessors who survived to an election. Only two of them were over 60, neither man was successful. (In the last 80 years the only successful LoO older than Corbyn was Churchill at nearly 77 in 1951, but, as an ex-PM, and for other good reasons, there is no comparison).

Time in office

In May 2020, Corbyn would have been Leader longer than any of his predecessors except Heath who was successful. The five successful LoOs were in office slightly longer than the six unsuccessful ones but this masks an interesting difference between the two successful Labour LoOs who were in office for less than three years (2.2 average) and the three Conservatives, all more than four years (4.5 average). One could theorise that the UK media builds up Tory LoOs, who thereby benefit from time in office, but conduct a war of attrition against Labour LoOs who do better the sooner they can get to Election day.


Although correlated with age, health is always a matter of speculation. It seems reasonable to assume that if Corbyn has, or has had, any significant medical events and issues, they would have emerged in the media by now. To judge from his appearance, Corbyn does not look particularly young for his age. His not dowsing his hair in dye, like so many other politicians, if anything adds to his “authenticity” – perhaps it will encourage others to stop. He is long-sighted (presbyopia) to judge from the photograph of him looking over the top of his glasses at the TUC audience (below top left), as to be expected at 66. He looks slightly overweight to judge from the St Paul’s photograph of him not singing the National Anthem (below top right) – more than might be expected of a vegetarian, almost teetotal, cyclist. In future it can be assumed that he will be cycling less and making more use of the transport provided for LoOs (below lower) and gain weight.

When he was forming his Shadow cabinet in the House of Commons on 13 September, Corbyn was observed by Darren McCaffrey, Politics Reporter for Sky News:
… at the end of a bookshelf-lined corridor, opening up to the members’ lobby and behind a door grandly named Her Majesty’s Official Opposition Whips’ Office, Jeremy Corbyn was holed up. … And again Jeremy emerged, which he seemed to do once every hour, when a toilet break was needed.
Needing to urinate that frequently suggests that Corbyn has an enlarged prostate pressing on his bladder. If so, that would be a common condition (BPH) in a 66-year old male.

Corbyn is in the unusual position of a man having to give up his hobbies to work at an age when many others have already done the opposite. Should he become PM, he and a future King Charles could at least have that in common. Until now Corbyn has been doing what he enjoys with the salary and continuity of employment of an MP with a safe seat. His interests seem to revolve around the far left of politics and he has been able to spend his time engaged with like-minded people. As an MP answerable to no-one, certainly not his party’s whips, he has been able to avoid the stresses and conflicts of working life which he would have encountered in white collar employment. Men of his age at his salary level in the real world, if they haven’t already quit, will mostly be about to escape from having to meet the unrealistic aspirations of self-serving senior managers while overcoming the reluctance of subordinates to embark on anything but the mildest change.

It seems likely that nothing in Corbyn’s previous experience (apart from two divorces) will approach the stresses that he will encounter in The Worst Job in British Politics. So far he seems to be avoiding confrontation where possible, for example the first PMQs. If an interviewer, and there have been few so far, raises difficult issues, these are being deflected with vague promises of consultative forums and discussions which will arrive at agreements acceptable to all involved. That sort of obfuscation can only go on for so long. For Corbyn the stress of having to compromise sincere beliefs which have hardly ever been challenged, let alone had to be defended could eventually take its physical toll. Oddly enough, the two Labour predecessors to whom he is most often compared, Foot and Lansbury, lived on to the ages of 96 and 81 respectively. However, two Labour LoOs have died in office, Smith and Gaitskell, at 55 and 56.

Leader of the Opposition
Month of taking office and outcome

As investment funds make clear, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results – or words to
that effect. This is particularly so when the underlying statistics are so scant. But if Corbyn’s health holds out, and, in the hope that 70 is the new 60 I would not want otherwise, the statistics for previous LoOs in terms of age and time in office are not encouraging for him. Nor is the final table (right) which shows the outcomes for the 13 LoOs depending on their month of taking office, unfortunately September in Corbyn’s case.

On past performance Labour would do well to change Leader about two years before the next election – February 2018 looks a particularly auspicious time for a Corbyn successor, someone in their late 40s, to take office. In the unlikely event that anyone takes previous posts on this blog seriously, it would seem a good idea to select a second-born who went to Oxford!

(a) Died in office 12 May 1994
(b) Resigned 6 November 2003
(c) Died in office 18 January 1963

21 September 2015

Canaletto at the Holburne, Bath

It is difficult to imagine anyone taking a strong dislike to the art of Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768). Representational certainly, camera obscura produced even, nonetheless it provides an invaluable, almost photographic, record of the Europe of nearly 300 years ago. From 1746, when he was invited by the Duke of Northumberland to record the construction of the new Westminster Bridge, to 1755, Canaletto painted English scenes, mostly in London. Canaletto Celebrating Britain, now at the Holburne Museum, Bath after a first showing at Compton Verney, brings together major works from his time here.

The son of the painter Bernardo Canal, and hence known as Canaletto, was born into a townscape shaped by architects like Andrea Palladio (1508-80). So starting the show with a reminder of Canaletto's Venice and two fine canvases from Manchester of about 1740, Church of the Redentore (below) and Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, seems wholly appropriate.

Canaletto's Britain then follows, starting with two of Compton Verney's own scenes of the London pleasure gardens of the day, The Interior of the Rotunda, Ranelagh, London (1754) and The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens, London (c1751, below):

followed by Dulwich Picture Gallery's View of Walton Bridge (c1754, poster above) and the Royal Collection's two Views from the Terrace of Somerset House (1750-51) of the City and of Westminster (below):

The Old Horse Guards from St James' Park (c1749, below) is complemented by the rarely shown c1752 view of the New Horse Guards.

Canaletto's paintings are large so there is an inevitable loss of detail in small scale reproductions. A close look at the originals reveals some pleasing features, for example the coach and horses going over Walton Bridge and the carpet beaters at work near Horse Guards:

And they invariably flatter the English climate by making it resemble the Italian spring of an aristocrat's Grand Tour.

Finally, Canaletto's legacy is demonstrated in works by Samuel Scott - An Arch of Westminster Bridge (c1751, below):

 and William Marlow's dramatic and imaginary fusion of London and Venice, Capriccio: St Paul's Cathedral and a Venetian Canal (c1795, below):

Although the construction of Georgian Bath in the Palladian style had begun in the early 1700s and the Circus was under construction at the time he left England, sadly for us Canaletto does not seem to have had the opportunity to paint in the fashionable spa.

Canaletto Celebrating Britain ends in Bath on 4 October and will be at Abbot Hall, Kendal from 22 October to 13 February 2016.