20 Sep 2015

Jeremy Corbyn – Labour leader, but what’s he like as an MP?

As the Labour leadership election dust begins to settle and the future of New Old Labour is set, Islington North constituents discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s work as their MP for 32 years.

Jeremy Corbyn in London

The Conservatives criticised the Labour leader for his absence at England’s opening game of the Rugby World Cup saying he “would not support our country” – Corbyn was instead meeting his constituents as he has done for the last 32 years.

Whilst the 66-year-old’s stance on Apartheid, Sinn Fien and the Iraq war are common knowledge, Jeremy Corbyn’s work within his constituency is far less well known – at least to those outside of the borough.

Not everyone in Islington North supports his socialist politics, and he has been criticised for failing to cope with criticism.

However, to many of its inhabitants he has always been somewhat of a local celebrity, long-time Islington resident Nicola Baird says.

Nicola, who interviews a vast range of Islington locals for her blog Islington Faces, says regardless of her interviewees politics, he’ll usually crop up in conversation. And off the bat, she begins to reel off anecdote after anecdote, ranging from him opening the fete of a local school and posing with the children’s ‘rubbish monster’ to giving ‘rousing’ speeches at protests to keep Whittington Hospital A&E open.

“Last year I was celebrating the 100th interview of my blog and I asked if he might be able to come to the event at the King’s head pub.” she recalls.

“He contacted me and said he wouldn’t be able to come- but only because he would be presenting reading awards to children at Archway Library.”

‘Unfashionable’ causes

One of the biggest causes Corbyn has backed within the borough has reportedly been mental health, coinciding with his recent appointment of Luciana Berger as shadow minister for mental health.

“It’s an unfashionable cause but necessary, given Islington has one of the highest incidents of mental illness in the country. It means a lot to the local community to have somebody who has been representing their issues and concerns,” says Peter Leigh, the General manager at Key Changes, an Islington-based charity promoting positive mental health through music.

He describes him as a “real champion for mental health and disability issues.”

“He literally would run from the Commons to make sure he was able to attend our events. He’s very, very warmly known within the borough and the mental health community here in Islington.”

‘I don’t know how he does it’

Similar sentiments were echoed by a representative of Elizabeth House – a community centre operating through a board of trustees that he helped found, in order to keep the building open for local residents.

“No matter how busy his political life has been, he continues to have an input and support the organisation. Even within the last few weeks he’s been in touch through his secretary, checking that there’s nothing he needs to be doing and keeping up with briefings.”

“When I first joined, he took about an hour and a half out of his day to come and see me and walk around with me and chat about what we were going to do and what the plans were. There’s an incredible amount of micro level involvement from him – I don’t know how he does it”.

Jeremy Corbyn in 1998

Party factions

However Marytn Sloman, a lifelong Labour Party member who lived in Islington during the period Corbyn was first elected, recalls his time spent as an MP being marred by an unfortunate personality trait:

“He was unable to cope with criticism,” he says.

“When questioned- not even challenged, but questioned- he would get very, very bristly. I’ve challenged him before regarding his comments on an MP and he got quite upset.”

“He is entirely principled- there’s no question of that. But having said that, he was also without doubt one of the most organised factionalists in the Labour party at the time he was selected and the North Islington Labour Party was in a state of all-out war – Jeremy was the beneficiary of that.”

The same factionalism already appears rampant in the party post his election. But if there’s one group he seems to get along with at least, it’s the members of his constituency.

“What people remember of who lives in Islington is white males who dominate politics- Blair, Boris Johnson, Nick Robinson. But Jeremy doesn’t come into that group,” Nicola explains.

“I don’t know those people, I’ve never met them. But Jeremy, I’ve met loads of time. He’s at the things people in Islington go to; local events, cycling around, crossing a road; and just being really friendly.”