Bower isn’t inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. And that’s perhaps the biggest flaw in an otherwise damning book. Bower’s colours seem nailed to the mast, for all that he was once a student Marxist himself, and particularly towards the end there are times when his criticisms feel like something of a stretch. Even if it is true that his handling of last year’s failed vote of confidence in Theresa May left John McDonnell “fuming, wondering whether Corbyn wanted to be prime minister at all”, it seems unrealistic to think Corbyn could have persuaded Tory MPs to trigger an election they might lose simply by sounding more emollient. Nor does Bower spend enough time analysing the popularity of his economic beliefs, or why he succeeded where bigger characters on the hard left failed in taking over the party and almost winning an election...This is the most compelling in-depth study so far of a man whose head is unusually difficult to get inside, given his suspicion of anyone who isn’t a fellow traveller. Just don’t expect it to change anyone’s mind.
Bower’s book is fast-paced and readable. It describes the journey of a middle-class boy, brought up in some comfort in the shires and educated privately, graduating with two Es at A-level, an educational underperformance that his critics still hold against him. After a period teaching in Jamaica and dropping out of polytechnic, he was caught up in the political activism of the early 1970s, finding his calling in local London politics before becoming an MP in 1983. For the next three decades he established a profile on the far-left of Labour, showing a passion for foreign affairs with an anti-American and “anti-imperial” flavour.
Tom Bower, an experienced biographer who claims an expertise on the British far-Left, has produced interesting new material... Bower produces no serious analysis of any of the issues which make Corbyn noteworthy... Bower does not attempt to answer this very important question. Instead he relies on sneers and distortions, made much worse by numerous errors... Bower does make some fair points... He notes that Corbyn gives the impression he opposes only western military aggression, not aggression from our enemies. A fair, though not original, observation.
Precisely because his book is so unremittingly negative, though, Bower never makes sense of the millenarian expectation among Corbyn’s young supporters, who have elevated him into a kind of prophet. Instead there is far too much padding about Britain’s recent political history. To pick a small but tellingly inaccurate example, Bower gives a potted account of the 1978-9 winter of discontent, for which he blames the union leader Jack Jones — despite the fact that Jones had already retired, and spent his final years trying to restrain the militants. All this feels superfluous. Yet Bower never really unpicks precisely why so many people, despite everything, continue to support such a joyless, limited and dogmatic man.
...there are inadvertent doses of humour... As a biography, it tells us nothing we don’t already know and gets things wrong. As a hatchet job, it is a dismal failure that condemns Corbyn’s decision to skip a meaningless Arsenal match with equal intensity as it does his failure to tackle antisemitism in the Labour ranks. Its only value is as a gift to send to an enemy – and if Tom Bower had confined the readership of this book to Corbyn alone, I for one would be better off.
The reader has no idea where these stories come from, though. Bower provides no footnotes, making it impossible to trace the origin or context of any piece of information. And given his tendency to scatter his own prejudices and minor passages of polemic throughout the book — sometimes almost at random — the effect is often to make Bower’s biography read like a 350-page Daily Mail column. Where the target has led an exciting life the story alone may sustain such clunkiness — but Corbyn hasn’t.
Much of Bower’s book, or at least the general narrative, will be familiar to most political observers: Corbyn’s privileged middle-class upbringing, his academic failures, his willingness to sacrifice other people’s happiness for the purity of his own political ideology. But with the help of some entertaining and impressive research, a new layer of detail has been added to the picture... Bower’s meticulous and highly readable account must be absorbed from start to finish. Funny and devastating, it stands as an indictment of both the Labour Party and a political system that allows an individual such as Jeremy Corbyn to come within shouting distance of the levers of power in this country.