The Sunday Telegraph

How the outsider with two grade Es at A-level became a prime minister in waiting

- By Tim Ross and Patrick Sawer

He left school with his headmaster’s admonishin­g words ringing in his ears that he would “never make anything” of himself. And for many years it looked as though Jeremy Bernard Corbyn might indeed fulfil the low expectatio­ns held of the earnest, pleasant, but politicall­y obsessive former grammar-school boy.

With poor school results, a modest career as trade union official turned hard-Left backbench MP, and two failed marriages, Corbyn’s life could – until now at least – be described as a study in well-meaning mediocrity.

He has never held a ministeria­l position, nor even been a shadow minister or at the head of any major organisati­on. His trademark has been principles over strategy, idealism over pragmatism.

Nobody – at least until his campaign gained an unstoppabl­e momentum to victory –thought of him as leadership material, least of all himself.

Corbyn was born neither to the wealth and privilege that all-too often lends a sense of entitlemen­t, nor to the poverty and despair that can drive ambition and a thirst for revenge, but to the modestly aspiring yet politicall­y conscious, middle-class.

His father David, the son of a solicitor, was a gifted electrical engineer who used his skills in the Second World War effort. His late mother Naomi Josling, the daughter of a surveyor, was a scientist – a rarity at

a time when few women attended university – and later a maths teacher.

The couple were imbued with the radical left-wing politics of the Thirties. They met at an event in support of the Spanish republic’s struggle with Franco’s Fascists – and Mr Corbyn remembers they both took part in the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, when a coalition of trade unionists, Jews and Londoners famously prevented Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirt­s marching through the East End of the capital.

Politics were an enduring theme for the Corbyn family. Indeed in her later years, Naomi would make a 50-mile round journey on a scooter from her Wiltshire village to deliver food to the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common airbase.

During the Second World War, David worked on a secret scientific project and joined Westinghou­se Brake and Signals, in Chippenham.

The Corbyns lived in a detached house in Kington St Michael and had four sons; Jeremy, born in May 1949, was the youngest. They moved to Shropshire, on the Duke of Sutherland’s estate near Newport: seven-bedroom Yew Tree Manor had been a guesthouse and David liked it so much he decided to buy it.

David Mann, 66, a childhood friend of Corbyn who now runs a chain of sports centres, said of the manor house: “The house was a bit chaotic and very bohemian. There were books everywhere.”

Despite their Left-wing politics, the Corbyns sent their sons to a fee-paying prep-school; all four went on to win scholarshi­ps to Adams’ Grammar School, which was founded in 1656 and models itself on a minor public school.

Heralding his future anti-militarism, Corbyn – already a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmamen­t – refused to join the school’s cadet force “and prance around in uniform” and was given gardening duties.

Mr Mann, who went on to become an Army officer, said: “Jeremy never struck me as the brain of Britain, but he was doggedly determined.”

However, the young Corbyn left Adams’ with just two E grade A-levels. It is unclear what happened, given his family’s love of learning and ideas, but he has admitted he was “not a very good student”, telling the Shropshire

Star newspaper: “The headteache­r’s parting comments to me were: ‘You will never make anything of yourself.’”

He later added: “I liked reading about things, doing my own course of study in that sense.”

Without the grades to go to university, Corbyn worked on a farm and as a reporter on his local paper, before two years’ volunteeri­ng in Jamaica – an experience he described as “amazing”.

On his return to Britain, he began a course in trade union studies at the Polytechni­c of North London, but dropped out after rows with his tutors.

That stint helped him land a job as a senior organiser with the now-defunct National Union of Public Employees, followed by time with the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers. Aged 24 he became a councillor in the north London borough of Haringey.

It was here that the political obsessive emerged, as he threw himself into each new campaign with all the enthusiasm of the last, including the vain attempt to get Tony Benn elected as Labour’s deputy leader in 1981.

Two years later, when Michael O’Halloran, the sitting MP for Islington North, defected to the SDP, Corbyn was himself elected to Parliament. Although he establishe­d himself as a powerfully independen­t voice on the backbenche­s, questions still remain in the north London

‘Jeremy Corbyn never struck me as the brain of Britain, but he was always doggedly determined’

constituen­cy about how much notice Corbyn took at the time of the brewing scandal of abuse taking place in its children’s homes.

By then he had gone through one illfated marriage, to fellow activist Jane Chapman. The couple, both Haringey councillor­s, had met while working on Labour’s 1974 election campaign, but his unrelentin­g political activism took its toll, leaving no room for anything else such as going to the cinema or out for a meal. The marriage ended in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.

Ms Chapman said recently: “He’s a genuinely nice guy. The problem is that his politics are to the exclusion of other kinds of human activities.”

She paints a picture of an English “socks and sandals” eccentric, a strict vegetarian and teetotalle­r, who would eat cold beans from a can to save precious time on cooking and named his cat after Harold Wilson.

Her husband’s idea of a good night out was apparently to head off to the local Labour Party HQ for a spot of photocopyi­ng.

Although their courtship seemed to consist mainly of meetings, Corbyn did splash out on a 116-year-old emerald engagement ring.

Ms Chapman, now a professor of communicat­ions at the University of Lincoln, said Corbyn’s biggest flaw was “not taking into account other human interests” beyond politics.

She said: “He’s totally committed to politics, so your emotional life as part of a relationsh­ip takes a back seat. He liked the Rolling Stones and the bands that were current at the time but he had his priorities sorted.

“I wanted to spend some of my time doing other things and that would be my criticism of him, that his time management doesn’t allocate sufficient time to doing other things.” Politics also did for Corbyn’s second marriage, to Claudia Bracchitta who like him campaigned against Augusto Pinochet, dictator of her homeland Chile in the 1970s and 80s.

The couple split in 1999, over her insistence that their son Ben went to a grammar school outside their borough rather than to one of Islington’s thenfailin­g comprehens­ives.

Ms Bracchitta said at the time: “It isn’t a story about making a choice, but about having no choice. I couldn’t send Ben to a school where I knew he wouldn’t be happy. Whereas Jeremy was able to make one sort of decision, I wasn’t. It’s a position you are pushed into rather than one you choose.”

The couple remained close, however, buying a house which they divided into two flats to continue to provide a family environmen­t for their sons: Ben, now a successful juniors coach at Premier League team Watford FC, Sebastian, a key member of his campaign team, and Thomas, a student.

Corbyn now lives with his third wife, Laura Alvarez, 46; they met at a Latin American support group six years ago.

Ms Alvarez runs a small fair trade company importing coffee from her native Mexico.

Such is the emphasis that Corbyn places on integrity – he is one of the MPs to claim the least in parliament­ary expenses – that a Sunday newspaper exposé which found that the farmers who grew some of her coffee were underpaid caused the couple significan­t embarrassm­ent and led to her apologisin­g, but never caused his leadership push any real difficulty.

In fact the campaign had almost failed before it even began.

Corbyn was initially reluctant to stand, following Labour’s disastrous showing at the general election in May and leader Ed Miliband’s hurried resignatio­n.

MPs such as John McDonnell – a fellow London MP and Corbyn’s oldest Commons friend – Diane Abbott and Michael Meacher, from the party’s Socialist Campaign Group, discussed which should stand to ensure that Blairites and Labour centrists did not control the debate. McDonnell had stood before and failed; in 2010, Abbott had come last.

By the end of May, it seemed that the Labour Left would be unrepresen­ted yet over the course of the next few days McDonnell persuaded Corbyn that 2015 was his turn to carry the flag.

But it was only on June 3, after yet another meeting of the Campaign Group, and with just 12 days until nomination­s closed, that Corbyn – with all eyes turned to him – finally agreed.

According to one ally, he “did not think for one second that he would win.”

Corbyn even told one MP: “A few weeds are going to be springing up in my allotment, but I’ll be able to get back to it shortly.”

Team Corbyn now had to persuade 35 party MPs to nominate him if he was to make it to the vote. At the

‘He’s totally committed to politics, so your emotional life as part of a relationsh­ip takes a back seat’

outset, Corbyn had just 10. Bombarded with tweets and emails from activists demanding a “full debate” via the inclusion of a Left candidate on the ballot paper, more MPs reluctantl­y nominated him.

As June 15, nomination deadline day, dawned Corbyn did not have 35 names and he began preparing for defeat. Over cups of tea among the fig trees in the atrium of Parliament’s Portcullis House, his team – son, Seb, McDonnell and Harry Fletcher, McDonnell’s adviser, drafted a press release to be issued if he did not make the ballot – denouncing the “undemocrat­ic procedures” by which the 0.1 per cent of Labour members, represente­d by its MPs, had denied the vast majority a proper choice of next leader. But it was not needed. At 11.59am, Andrew Smith, a former Cabinet minister under Tony Blair, nominated Corbyn. Seconds before the deadline, the veteran backbenche­r had made it on to the ballot.

Although some of the MPs who nominated Corbyn for the sake of a wider debate – such as Margaret Beckett – now regret it, Smith stands by his decision: “Given the level of support shown for Jeremy during the contest, it would have been indefensib­le not to have had him on the ballot paper,” he said.

The following week was chaos. There were rallies to organise but Corbyn had no office – not even a desk – from which to run his campaign. He began piecing together his campaign team, including Simon Fletcher, who was Ed Miliband’s union liaison officer, as director.

Meanwhile, Corbyn’s performanc­es at leadership hustings were winning him powerful friends. The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Associatio­n union gave him its backing – and a floor of its offices at Euston Station for his HQ.

Neither Corbyn nor his team initially thought he had much hope. This changed at the first leadership hustings, on June 27 in Birmingham.

The event was more raucous than many anticipate­d: Liz Kendall, the Blairite candidate, was shouted down by the audience when she argued that austerity measures were needed to balance the budget. Corbyn, who railed against Tory cuts, was cheered to the rafters.

Ironically, George Osborne, the Chancellor, arguably did most to inject life into Corbyn’s campaign. In midJuly, he called a Commons vote on the Welfare Bill, which set out to reduce the welfare cap.

It was a classic trap for Labour. The party’s acting leader Harriet Harman argued that the public wanted Labour to be responsibl­e and that the party should not oppose all of Mr Osborne’s cuts. Jeremy Corbyn was the only leadership candidate to defy her and vote against the Bill.

This led to a huge groundswel­l of support for the Left-winger and also brought him the backing of key trade unions including Unite and the GMB.

Corbyn’s campaign unleashed a grass-roots revolution.

He raised £300,000, much of it in small donations from individual­s, and more than 16,000 volunteers signed up to canvass for him and run phone banks at offices nationally.

Everywhere he went, he was mobbed like a rock star and cheered wildly at crowded rallies from which hundreds had to be turned away. Huge numbers of online supporters portrayed him as a messenger of hope,

‘Given the level of support shown for Jeremy, it would have been indefensib­le not to have had him on the ballot’

a man with passion and energy, despite his status as a 66-year-old MP from the 1980s.

Corbyn and his supporters say they have tapped into part of the electorate that for years has felt ignored by establishm­ent politician­s.

Never one to toe the party line he has enthusiast­ically supported numerous “maverick” causes which seemed neither popular nor winnable and saw him labelled a Trotskyite.

He opposed Apartheid before it was fashionabl­e to do so and championed a united Ireland long before the Good Friday Agreement ultimately brought Sinn Fein into the Northern Ireland government.

In 1998 he was the only Labour MP to vote in a favour of a Liberal Democrat amendment to outlaw homophobic discrimina­tion.

But he also backs the creation of a Palestinia­n nation – condemning what he calls Israel’s apartheid state – and has shared platforms with groups many consider to be dangerous Islamists and anti-Semites, such as Hamas and Hizbollah.

He remains a committed antimilita­rist, anti-Nato and anti-nuclear weapons.

Given Corbyn’s history of underachie­vement and his politics of permanent opposition, it is perhaps no surprise that his leadership bid should have been derided and underestim­ated by his Labour rivals.

They may just be about to regret it.

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 ??  ?? Corbyn’s wives, from left: Jane Chapman, Claudia Bracchitta and Laura Alvarez
Corbyn’s wives, from left: Jane Chapman, Claudia Bracchitta and Laura Alvarez
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 ??  ?? ‘Socks and sandals eccentric’: Jeremy Corbyn near his home in North London, a day before winning the Labour leader ballot
‘Socks and sandals eccentric’: Jeremy Corbyn near his home in North London, a day before winning the Labour leader ballot
 ??  ?? Poor prospects: Adams’ Grammar School, where Corbyn was told he ‘would never make it’
Poor prospects: Adams’ Grammar School, where Corbyn was told he ‘would never make it’
 ??  ?? Irish allies: Corbyn with Sinn Fein’s Gerry MacLochlai­nn, left, and Francie Molloy in 1992
Irish allies: Corbyn with Sinn Fein’s Gerry MacLochlai­nn, left, and Francie Molloy in 1992
 ??  ?? Bucking trends: Corbyn rides a mechanical bronco at a Friends of the Earth event
Bucking trends: Corbyn rides a mechanical bronco at a Friends of the Earth event

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