Corbyn: the making of a cover star
PUBLISHED: 13:00 07 December 2017
GQ editor DYLAN JONES made Jeremy Corbyn his most recent cover star and discovered a man who is part rock star, part grandpa
Jeremy Corbyn is a mass of contradictions, a man who has the aura of a rock star when he’s on stage, and who can be a humble, almost ghostly figure in person.
He is someone who many think is a stooge, and yet is passionate in his espousal of what he believes. What are we to make of him?
At 7pm on a weekday in September, more than a thousand people were queuing around the corner of a side street on Brighton’s seafront. Some had been waiting for more than two-and-a-half hours to see the man who was speaking that night, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. This was a fringe event during Labour’s annual conference, and yet as The New Statesman pointed out at the time, it felt more like a gig. Inside the auditorium, as stage lights bathed the expectant crowd – some of whom were acting as though they were over-excited teenagers about to see Harry Styles perform for the first time – a compère took to the mic: “Brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, welcome to The World Transformed!” he screamed, before introducing “the next prime minister of this country, the absolute boy, JEREMY CORBYN!”
Then, as if by serendipity, dry ice filled the room and the thunderous introduction of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army blasted out of the PA, as the assembled throng sang as one: “Ooohhh Jeremy Corbyn, oohhh Jeremy Corbyn...”, chanting their saviour’s name as though he were a deity or a tribal warlord. According to one source, one of the organisers claimed they had hired a series of lasers, too, but decided to hold off as they were deemed unnecessary.
Why? Because he was already being treated like a rock star. Jeremy Corbyn is nothing less than a phenomenon. Actually, he is plenty of other things, many of which can be described as less than phenomenal, but in terms of having achieved genuine political cut-through with the public – what analysts increasingly refer to as traction – he is a phenomenon.
Polls continue to suggest that voters between the ages of 18 and 34 have been drawn to Corbyn because of his overt commitment to the NHS and his position on education funding and apprenticeships, improvements to public services, and a more democratic (or at least reliable) benefits system. They also like his self-deprecating humour, his deliberately slovenly dress sense, and even his stage-managed courting of grime artists.
He sells himself – or perhaps, as we learn from Stuart McGurk’s fascinating cover story on Corbyn in our new issue, appears to allow himself to be sold – as a saviour, albeit one sheathed in a crumpled raincoat rather than a superhero’s bodysuit. There is certainly something of the rock star about him, however, something you can’t fail to notice when he’s in public. Twice now I’ve seen him at high-profile society events, and twice I’ve seen a man besieged by people wanting selfies, wanting to touch him, wanting just to see him at close quarters. He came to our annual Men Of The Year Awards at Tate Modern a few months ago and the clamour both outside the venue (with the public) as well as inside (with celebrities and media) was extraordinary; he has an attraction that is undeniable, and while it might also be indefatigable, you can’t deny it isn’t real.
But what is real about Jeremy Corbyn? GQ’s senior commissioning editor Stuart McGurk, this year’s PPA Writer of the Year, has spent several months trying to find out. His portrait of the charter member of Corbynism is fascinating not just for its examination of the man at close quarters, but also because of his exposure to the internal circus around Corbyn, and McGurk paints a picture of a man at the eye of a hurricane that is not his making, a storm he himself is unable, or unwilling, to coherently explain. Corbyn’s Labour coronation is often portrayed as a political equivalent of an X Factor victory, yet it was far more shocking than that, as so few could see it coming. Seriously, who would have bet on a Hard Left ideologue assuming the Labour leadership in this day and age?
“There is simply no historical model anywhere in the world for what we want to do, which has been successful,” a senior Labour insider said a few weeks ago. “A Left government being elected in a post-industrial society and then successfully managing to transition into a major new settlement, whether a new form of capitalism or socialism: this is not easy to achieve.”
Traditionally, politicians are not exactly thought to be catnip where magazine covers are concerned, as they are obviously too polarising. In the same way that a footballer can alienate your audience, so politicians split opinion. However, we have had some success in this area, having been the first magazine to put David Cameron on the cover, as well as Boris Johnson (twice), Barack Obama (perhaps not so surprising) and, more recently, Sadiq Khan.
We had been negotiating with Jeremy Corbyn’s team for three months before I met him, at the Men of the Year Awards in September (where Khan won Politician of the Year for the second year running). We had been trying to get him to agree to being interviewed by Alastair Campbell, who tends to do most of the big political interviews for GQ. He had refused, time and time again. At the Tate, I asked him again in person and he deftly, and rather charmingly knocked me back. I have to say Corbyn was rather good company, if a little timid, and certainly nothing like the rock star he can look like on stage. It’s this larger than life persona which made us think he would make a good cover star, even if he is the most divisive politician in the country right now.
Eventually his team agreed to allow Corbyn to be interviewed by Stuart McGurk. In the negotiations for the piece, Corbyn’s team — steered by Seamus Milne, his director of strategy — turned out to be somewhat controlling, which is something that we have started to expect from politicians. When you deal with people in Hollywood, you expect to be met with an army of sharp-elbowed gatekeepers, some of whom can be abrasive in the way they deal with the press. But British politicians in opposition are usually grateful for the publicity, and keen to appear in a forum often denied them. But recently they’ve started to try and wield far more control.
Corbyn’s team tried to control the situation at every turn.
The interviews were actually fine, with McGurk being given more than ample time to prod and cajole. As for the shoot, we were again given a decent allocation: We had an hour in the meeting room at his offices (at 7pm, after he’d completed a long day’s politicking), which is a lot more than we were given with Sadiq (20 minutes), or the ten minutes we were given for one of Boris’s shoots. The big issue concerned the clothes.
They didn’t really seem to understand that he would need to be presentable and he couldn’t just turn up in his old, crumpled suit (two sizes too big). Understandably his team didn’t want him wearing some £5,000 suit (not even if it was from Savile Row), and would only agree to him wearing M&S. This was fine with us as M&S is a great British brand, but most Labour leaders have had bespoke suits made for them, even Gordon Brown.
At one point McGurk was taken to one side by one of his advisers and told that Milne wanted cover image approval, which had never been discussed. Corbyn, meanwhile, was actually rather benign, and never less than courteous. The photographer Marco Grob said afterwards that he has shot three US presidents and two vice-presidents, and that Corbyn was far more accommodating than any of them. He would follow his directions more than any of the US politicians.
At one point someone said that it was almost like he was being pushed around like a “grandpa” for the family Christmas photograph, although having seen Theresa May at close quarters I don’t think she’s actually much better at this sort of thing.
And at least Corbyn looks like a rock star at least some of the time, which is more than May does. The thing that the team found most fascinating was the extraordinary difference between the rock star they see on stage, and the man they saw on the shoot.
You’ll finish the piece with your own ideas about whether or not Corbyn has what it takes to go all the way (and indeed, whether you want him to), but Stuart McGurk’s article is certainly a fascinating and more intimate insight than has ever been published before.
Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ