On 13 May 1997, Jeremy Paxman interviewed former home secretary and vampire Michael “Dracula” Howard about the dismissal of the governor of Parkhurst prison, John Marriott. During the infamous Newsnight grilling, Paxo (who was smeared in crushed garlic and brandishing a wooden stake) asked Howard a simple “yes or no” question 14 times in succession, and still didn’t get an answer. The interview was thought to have contributed to the stalling of Howard’s political career, along with sunlight and cuts to NHS blood transfusion services. Either way, it was a virtuoso display of measured political sidestepping, almost to the point of madness from the Count, who barely broke a sweat.
Last week, Newsnight released another video, this time from 1984. In it, current Labour leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn is interviewed about comments made by Tory MP Terry Dicks (ha! Dicks!), who had called for “higher sartorial standards from his fellow members”. Dicks had suggested that “Labour scruffs” such as Corbyn should be barred from addressing the house. In the clip, the reporter asks Corbyn (who is wearing a nice fawn sweater): “Is that the jumper your mother made for you?” “Yes, it is,” Corbyn replies immediately. “It’s very comfortable and it’s perfect for this kind of weather, because I’m hopping in and out of different buildings all day long, going to meetings.”
“Did your mother make your shirt, too?” the sneery dork goes on.
“No, she didn’t,” Corbyn says. “The shirt is from the Co-op.”
Obviously, the stakes were much higher for Howard than they were for Corbyn, but as I watched the Labour MP for Islington North calmly, proudly and matter-of-factly defend a pullover his mum had knitted for him with love, against the bullies of Westminster and the condescending press, the chorus to Dolly Parton’s Coat Of Many Colours whirred around in my head. Suddenly I understood Corbyn-mania. I had my own personal Jeremy moment. I understood how this principled, unassuming 66-year-old man had captured the hearts of so many young people and disheartened Labour voters.
I don’t agree with everything Corbyn says, but I do agree with a lot of it: his anti-austerity measures (now backed by 41 leading economists, including a former adviser to the Bank of England), renationalisation of the railways, scrapping of tuition fees and zero-hours contracts, his women’s manifesto and his housing and environmental policies, among others.
But it wasn’t his economic plan, his position on green energy, or his nice flat caps that made me think Corbyn could shake things up a bit. It was the man himself, who has done for the Labour leadership race what John Travolta did for Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction: he has jabbed an adrenaline shot into its heart and brought it back to life.
Corbyn is that rare thing: a politician who speaks like a human being. He doesn’t sound like a robot, wearing a latex human costume, doing an impression of a real person; he sounds like us. His sentences aren’t littered with cliches and meaningless slogans. He gives straight answers. (Although he did reply to Emily Maitlis’s question on whether Tony Blair should be tried for war crimes for his part in the Iraq war with, “Yes, it is. It’s very comfortable and it’s perfect for this kind of weather because I’m hopping in and out of different buildings all day long, going to meetings.”)
If Corbyn does become leader of the Labour party, he might just change the language of British politics – and that can’t come soon enough. Politicians are now so stifled by having to toe party lines that political speech has become farcical to the point of insanity. During a 2011 interview by ITV news correspondent Damon Green about public sector strikes, Ed Miliband responded to every single question with the same pre-scripted answer. Afterwards, Green said he had felt like “a recording device for a scripted soundbite”. Corbyn is the antithesis of all that.
Corbyn doesn’t dress like other politicians, and he doesn’t talk like them, either. He is polite, honest, sometimes dishevelled and wears beige. He’s been patronised, sneered at and bullied. But make no mistake, Corbyn is the Lieutenant Columbo of British politics. Underestimate him at your peril.
• Bridget Christie’s A Book For Her (Century, £14.99) is available at bookshop.theguardian.com for £11.99. She will be appearing at the Leicester Square Theatre from 16 November-2 December.