The following is a review of the Vice documentary, “Jeremy Corbyn: The Outsider”, which is a half hour long behind the scenes look at Corbyn and his team, directed and presented by Ben Ferguson. I know what you’re thinking: here’s my chance to revel in another Corbyn media misstep. But I genuinely watched the documentary with as open a mind as was possible.
The first thing I have to say is this: why the hell did Corbyn’s people allow this level of access? I realise that Ben Ferguson is a). a stated Corbyn supporter and b). from an outlet that could hardly be described as a mainstream outlet. Still, on a cost-benefit analysis, who couldn’t see that they always had more to lose than to gain by agreeing to let a documentary crew into the heart of their operation? Anyhow, I’m glad they did – whatever else it happens to be, it is an important document of this period in left-wing politics in Britain.
Early on, there is a moment that gets to the heart of so much that is wrong with Crobyn’s leadership. He’s on the phone with Milne, discussing a Jonathan Freedland article about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Milne trying to stick up for his ex-colleague has been much discussed already, but what I found most revealing about this conversation was the bit when Jeremy says, “He’s a bit obsessed with me.” This speaks volumes about Corbyn’s approach to the Labour leadership job. If Jonathan Freedland wasn’t obsessed with Jeremy Corbyn, that would be a bit weird. You do know you’re the leader of the opposition, in other words, the person democratically in line for leading the entire country if there is a change of government, Jeremy? The “obsessed” comment reveals this fact isn’t completely clear to Corbyn.
The documentary is also a good behind the scenes look at the IDS resignation fallout and just how much of a missed opportunity it was for Corbyn and for Labour in general. The chance to really stick it to Cameron and the government was spurned because Jeremy wanted to talk about refugees, something close to Jeremy’s heart. I have no problem with refugees being near and dear to him, and indeed, he spoke passionately about the issue at the time, but does he not understand the basic beats of politics? Throughout the documentary, one gets the sense that the answer to that question is a resounding “no”.
At least, Westminster politics, which Corbyn has a clear dislike for. The most revealing portions of the documentary, in a way, are the ones filmed when Corbyn is out and about in his constituency, meeting his voters. Here, he seems like a completely different person to the one who grunts his way through meetings. Talking to people on the street and on the doorstep is clearly his passion. He’s clearly a very, very good constituency MP – and just for clarity, there’s no negative undertone meant in that comment, I mean it as a genuine compliment. Being natural and empathetic with constituents is not something every politician is good at (I’ve seen a few horror shows in my time) and it was actually a pleasure to see someone really fantastic at it do their thing.
But there’s the rub: the contrast between Corbyn the local MP and Corbyn, Labour leader is stark and painful to watch. We come from some nice footage of Corbyn interacting naturally with Islingtonians to him being questioned, not particularly harshly at that, by Ferguson regarding the Livingstone and anti-Semitic stuff. Corbyn is tense, bitter and who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are during this interchange, handled terribly by Corbyn, all things considered. This is the kind of interview most mid-level politicians could get through unscathed without a beat – but Corbyn finds it all unbearably difficult to manage.
I came away with an overriding image of Corbyn as being a bit like an American evangelical pastor. He believes so deeply in what he believes in, and spends so much time around those who believe so deeply in the same things, that he finds it impossible to handle when he speaks to an outsider. There’s the same sort of subdued anger in Corbyn when he’s questioned in a direct manner; that same thing you get when an American priest is asked about issues outside his comfort zone and responds with a “have you any idea that the God I represent owns the universe?” type of oversensitivity. It is a deeply felt idea that right is on your side, and that anyone who has doubts must be touched by evil in some way. The religious overtones shine through brightest in Corbyn’s final word to camera, when he speaks about why some members of the PLP still resist him: “Some people are slower learning than others”. In Corbyn’s mind, everyone comes around to good eventually – and good equals his way of doing things, unequivocally.