The rise and phenomena of Jeremy Corbyn has a variety of explanations, ranging from his conviction-based approach to politics, to his rejection of the modern political consensus of free market and liberal capitalism.
As a leader, Corbyn has both been praised and criticised. His rejuvenation of grassroots socialist campaigning is almost unprecedented in modern politics, and has led to over 100,000 more members of the Labour Party since the time of the EU referendum. At the same time, his focus on social politics has arguably led the Labour Party from a party with visible parliamentary presence to one of social activism.
Undoubtedly, Corbyn’s commitment to a deep-running and fundamental set of beliefs has presented him as a man of true conviction. Whilst many argue that this is a refreshing change in a climate of professional politics, others highlight his inability to react to new situations accordingly. This has led to the view that pragmatism is indeed a virtue in politics.
Pragmatism, however unfortunate, is not currently one of Nolan’s seven principles of public life – the list of values put forward by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995 as the basis of ethical standards in public office. A value which is included alongside selflessness, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership, is integrity. Similar to many other political concepts, integrity is a trait that many aspire to cultivate, but more struggle to define.
A quick look at the Dictionary produces two definitions. The first is the quality of being honest and having strong moral beliefs. This is largely true of Jeremy Corbyn. Despite giving an arguably half-hearted endorsement to the Remain side of the EU Referendum, Corbyn’s inner-section of core beliefs have remained fundamentally unchanged since he was first elected in 1983. His relentless objection to the incorporation of enterprise into state-sector delivery, in addition to his unshakeable opposition to Trident, are two examples of such political and moral resilience in action.
The second definition of integrity regards it as internal consistency or lack of corruption. This is a test of character, and usually considers actions which are deemed to be unethical, subversive, and against the values of honesty and human decency. For Corbyn, examples of such action are unsurprisingly rare. Many will recall his 1984 interview in which he expressed a sense of pride in publicly announcing that his clothes were knitted by one of his female relatives. With such an incorruptible track record, Traingate comes as a surprise to many. When Corbyn uploaded a video to his social media accounts purporting that there were no spare seats left on the train he happened to be on, many felt a sense of empathy and compassion. Some were even induced to declare their ardent support of nationalisation. When the train company later that day revealed CCTV footage of Corbyn walking past a number of empty seats, a sense of despair and betrayal soon set into the public imagination and replaced those former, more positive, sentiments with a strand of scepticism regarding the authenticity of politicians. Perhaps this was a man, who after a lifetime of political innocence, had finally succumbed to the knavish tricks of presentational public politics?
Admittedly, one isolated example of political subversion is hardly a general representation of an individual – even for someone who is in the public spotlight as much as Jeremy Corbyn. His barely visible profile during the EU referendum could also be excused as someone who was just beginning his career on the front-bench.
The fact that many of Corbyn’s colleagues are now sounding the alarms over his electability, however, should not go overlooked. After all, many of these are the same individuals who had supported his first leadership bid, and had subsequently worked with him in opposition. Life in high-profile politics is hardly forgiving, and has seen many become susceptible to political games. The next few weeks and months will be crucial for Corbyn. Whether he manages to reclaim his image as the exemplar of honest politics, or continues his journey on the gravy-train will be the real test.
Whilst it may be a little far-fetched to claim that Traingate has shattered Corbyn’s integrity, this event undoubtedly draws into question his political innocence as a man who defines himself as being above the realms of spin and superficial gesturing.