The first time the idea of Jeremy Corbyn becoming party leader was suggested to me was in June 1994 as I headed into a meeting of my local Labour Party. It had been called in order to vote on nominations for the leadership which had fallen tragically vacant by the death of John Smith the previous month.
“I take it you’re voting for Blair,” said a friend who also happened to be a member of the Trotskyite faction, Socialist Organiser. I confirmed this to be the case and when I asked him who he would support, he said, “I think Jeremy Corbyn would make a first class leader.”
This surprised me because although I had heard of the Islington MP, I hadn’t ever speculated that he might be a candidate for the top job. As indeed he wasn’t, until nearly 20 years later.
And today, after four and a half years, that era has come to an end. Corbyn appeared at the despatch box today for the last time as Leader of the Opposition, giving us an opportunity to reflect on his tenure and where it has left UK politics and the Labour Party.
I have used this column frequently to disparage Corbyn and his brand of far-Left politics and his departure leaves a gaping hole in the subjects I’m asked to write about. Nevertheless, on occasions like today we should try to be magnanimous and look for the positives. So let me repeat something I said back in 2015: Jeremy Corbyn was a kind and generous colleague to me, and I was genuinely touched, when I arrived in Portcullis House in the aftermath of my defeat at that year’s general election, when he rushed across the room to embrace me and offer his condolences. You don’t have to agree with someone’s politics to be a human being towards them.
That memory makes me yearn for an alternative history, one in which Jeremy failed in his bid to become leader, where he returned contentedly to his traditional role of back bencher, a voice always to be relied upon to make the case for minority (and often misguided) causes.
Had his fellow MPs, in the summer of 2015, been suddenly convulsed by an uncharacteristic dose of common sense and refused to sign Corbyn’s nomination papers, one of the other three leadership candidates would have succeeded Ed Miliband as Labour leader, and who knows what political trajectory the country would then have taken. Perhaps a Leader of the Opposition who genuinely and passionately opposed Brexit would have meant the difference between a narrow Leave victory and an even narrower Remain one in 2016. Theresa May (assuming she succeeded David Cameron in this parallel universe) would have been most unlikely to call a snap general election in 2017, since any leader other than Corbyn would not have reduced Labour to such depths of public popularity that it could conceivably have lost the Copeland by-election in February 2017.
Had Corbyn failed – as the Campaign for Socialism traditionally fails in its regular tilt at the party leadership – he would have continued his 32-year parliamentary career in the same fashion as before: complaining about both his own party leadership and the government, taking sides with every enemy of America and addressing various angry crowds of Stop The War protesters.
But no one would have minded much. They would have rolled their eyes and smiled indulgently: “That’s Jeremy for you,” they would have said before instantly erasing from their minds everything he’d just said.
Now, however, Corbyn is Someone. He is (or soon will be) a former leader of the Labour Party. As such, people will pay far more attention to his outbursts than would have been the case in that alternative universe. He made that clear today, even as he took part in his last jousting match with Boris Johnson. In his response to a generous tribute from the prime minister, Corbyn seemed offended: “I thank the Prime Minister for his very kind remarks. He was talking as if it was some kind of obituary.
"To let him know: my voice will not be stilled, I will be around, I will be campaigning, I will be arguing and demanding justice for the people of this country and indeed the rest of the world.”
And he means it. This could prove troublesome for his successor. Sir Keir Starmer has been careful not to be seen to appear to dispense with the ideological and policy baggage of the last four years, not until he’s safely secured the crown, that is. There’s even been some talk of Corbyn being willing to serve in his successor’s shadow cabinet, perhaps as shadow foreign secretary. Starmer has stayed commendably silent on such a prospect but few expect him to wish to extend Corbyn’s shadow into his own tenure.
But even as a back bencher, Corbyn’s continued commentary is likely to provide a benchmark to all those supporters of his – particularly those party members who voted for Starmer – that they can use to judge just how far Starmer is taking the party from the true socialist path. Such a service from Corbyn will also be useful to those who want Starmer to lead the party away from the vote-repelling years of 2015-2019.
Either way, Corbyn and the years of his leadership have been significant, one way or the other. The last four years have divided the party and the country and all the signs are that Corbyn will continue to perform that service in the years ahead. As for his legacy, there are competing contenders: Labour’s renewed commitment to public ownership, Brexit, a party membership of more than half a million.
But his defining legacy will surely be the fact that at PMQs today he was still standing on the opposition side, with his opponent, the prime minister, enjoying an 80-seat Commons majority and 50 per cent support in recent polls.