For any news outlets hoping to catch the reader’s eye, it’s been a very difficult week. The Labour party conference was always going to be a vertiginous drop-off in spectacle after the Chelsea flower show, but coinciding with the national petrol shortage has been an aesthetic disaster for the media – all lanyards and tarmac and recrimination, with only Daniel Craig’s figure-hugging puce smoking jacket to relieve the monotony, like a lone pimple in the middle of a corpse’s back.
Keir Starmer’s team did their best to help out by arranging a pleasant snap of their boss on the balcony of his Brighton hotel room, suited but tieless, perusing his conference speech with the sea behind. Over his left shoulder hover the ghostly remains of the west pier, crumbling and cut off from land, as inaccessible as a Commons majority. Perhaps it was meant to be a subtle signifier of the decay Britain has been reduced to by Boris Johnson, though, since the pier closed under Harold Wilson, it may be one of the few of the country’s woes that genuinely have nothing to do with Covid or Brexit.
Speaking of battered Piers, Jeremy Corbyn’s elder brother has been accusing people of assault. Piers Corbyn was attending a climate emergency debate on the fringes of the conference at which Jeremy was one of the speakers when, according to Piers, he “attempted to ask a question”, but according to the organisers he started heckling. I don’t know who’s right but it’s worth noting that the he-was-heckling camp believe in climate change while team attempted-to-ask-a-question don’t.
A bit of pushing and shoving ensued as Piers was encouraged to leave – “they grabbed me and they assaulted me,” says Corbyn major – at the end of which Piers was still there. “You need to sit down and show some goddamn respect,” said the chairwoman, to applause. “They tried to remove me and they gave up,” concluded Piers proudly. His little brother wasn’t so lucky when it came to the Labour party.
Jeremy Corbyn is a divisive figure but he’s never more sympathetic than when contemplated alongside Piers. Most people have family members who sometimes let them down or behave badly or oddly or worryingly. In Boris Johnson’s family, that person is obviously Boris Johnson. But between those two Corbyns, Jeremy, for all his unusual qualities, is the normal one.
Imagine his exasperation. He was attending an uncontroversial event. He would have been looking forward to a straightforward session of mutual congratulation about being right about how screwed the environment is – serious remarks, smatterings of concerned applause, a comforting atmosphere of doom with no upsetting talk about antisemitism or changes to party election rules. Then up pops Piers who, not content with going around telling everyone that Covid is a hoax, has found a gap in his schedule to shout that, as the leaflets he later handed out put it, “man-made climate change does not exist”.
It’s a strange thing about conspiracy theorists that they’re often so keen to collect the full set of conspiracies. Despite the odd and unlikely nature of each individual theory, few adherents seem able to limit themselves to just one. For me, it severely undermines the plausibility of any given claim. For example, it seems very unlikely, but not totally unthinkable, that the moon landings were faked. But it’s off-putting when you’re trying to open your mind to that possibility if whoever’s claiming it swiftly adds that the planes going into the World Trade Center were holograms, Covid is spread by 5G, Elvis is still alive and the Queen’s a lizard. As any statistician will tell you, if the chances of each one being true are small, the probability of all of them is vanishingly minuscule. Conspiracy theorists determined to change the minds of anyone rational would do well to limit themselves to one mad thing each.
But Piers’s mind is too active for that. Despite seemingly having his work cut out trying to persuade everyone that the coronavirus is imaginary and that we’re needlessly wrecking our society by locking down and sticking needles in one another, he can’t resist the opportunity also to mention that there’s absolutely no problem pumping infinite amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Can’t he see that that’s a potentially disastrous split in his focus? At this rate the wider public is going to be convinced of neither of his views. Will he not look back with regret and wonder whether, if he’d just stuck to the carbon dioxide thing or the Covid thing, he might at least have prevailed in one of his aims?
Or is it not about prevailing? Does he simply have a deep psychological need to smash into any consensus purely because it’s a consensus? So that, if the existence of Covid were somehow disproved, he would immediately start banging on about a deadly virus he’d imagined and claiming that the government was keeping it secret? Or, if humanity’s effect on the climate was disproved, about some invisible gas that was making the weather get vengeful? Is it the boos that echoed around the climate emergency debate when he started interrupting that he’s really in it for?
What is admirable about the Corbyn brothers is that, considering how very different their views are, they don’t often slag each other off. Goodness knows, they’re constantly called upon to do so but, wherever possible, they allow their very different approaches to politics to proceed independently. Piers didn’t interrupt Jeremy in the debate and Jeremy didn’t comment on Piers’s intervention. It feels as if there’s some sort of fraternal truce in operation. In fact, at the start of the climate debate, Piers was sitting next to Jeremy’s wife, Laura Alvarez – how harmoniously we can’t know, but perhaps they were discussing family plans for Christmas? Or perhaps they weren’t even arguing at all.
Is this something the brothers and sisters in the conference hall could learn from? That it’s OK to rub along with people you don’t totally agree with? How ironic if it was the example of Jeremy Corbyn that led the Labour movement away from all the fruitless bickering and mutual disdain and demonstrated the moral acceptability of compromise.