Jeremy Corbyn election bid to promote ‘warmer’ style of leadership

Rowena Mason and Jessica Elgot
Jeremy Corbyn meets NHS nurses, student nurses and midwives on the campaign trail. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Theresa May is slipping into a “presidential bunker mentality” because she is an insecure leader who wants to feel stronger, Jeremy Corbyn has said, as he seeks to contrast his own leadership qualities with those of the prime minister.

The Labour leader compared his belief in “empowering others to make up their minds and come on board when they are ready” with the prime minister’s focus on soundbites and squeezing dissent.

The Labour leader drew the comparisons following a series of personal attacks from May and Boris Johnson. The latter earlier this week branded Corbyn not just a “mutton-headed mugwump” but a danger to security.

In his most personal speech of the campaign so far, Corbyn drew attention to his activism against the South African apartheid regime and in support of Nelson Mandela in the 1980s, when the Tory government was refusing to impose sanctions on the regime.

He highlighted his maiden House of Commons speech in 1983, when he criticised Tory cuts to public services, saying it was a tragedy that he could give a similar speech today and it would hold true.

Corbyn said the years of Tony Blair’s premiership showed what can go wrong if leaders go unchallenged because his Labour government “bought into Conservative ideas” about the economy that left Britain with no defence against the global financial crisis.

Addressing an audience of supporters in east London, Corbyn said he recognised similar traits in May. “It taught me that if leaders go unchallenged, they can make some of the most damaging mistakes. And if party leaders put themselves ahead of serving the people, they stop listening and even put our country at risk,” he said.

“Barely nine months into Theresa May’s premiership, there are clear warning signs that she and her closest advisers are slipping into that presidential bunker mentality. Whereas it is the job of leadership to hold open the space for dissent, new thinking and fit-for-purpose policy.

“So while it might not be the stuff of soundbites, I have always believed in standing firm and empowering others to make up their minds and come on board when they are ready. It is the mindset that gets community centres and nurseries built, and increasingly defends them from closure.

“It is the mindset that negotiates hard for better conditions in the workplace. It is the mind-set that serves the many, not the few.”

Corbyn said he thought political leaders had to give in to vested interests while manipulating the public. “I didn’t want to be like that, and it wasn’t clear to me there could be another way,” he said.

“But I’ve learned there is. Whereas insecure leaders want to feel stronger by asking you to give them more power, I recognise strong leadership as equipping you with more power.”

May has been repeating a stock phrase about her own “strong and stable leadership” at every opportunity, while saying Corbyn is a “risk to the country and the economy”. A number of Labour MPs have avoided putting Corbyn on their election leaflets because May has a personal lead in the polls, preferring to emphasise the party’s policies and role as an opposition.

But aides to the Labour leader believe the public will be won round the more they are exposed to Corbyn’s warmer and more collegiate style, as the Conservatives seek to make the campaign all about May’s image as prime minister.

Younger voters are more likely to back Labour, according to opinion polls, with the latest Guardian/ICM poll showing a strong lead for the party with 18 to 24-year-olds and level-pegging with the Conservatives among 25 to 34-year-olds.

May is holding a campaign rally of her own on Saturday, heading to Scotland in a sign the party is going after a handful of SNP seats. The Conservatives are expecting to outperform Labour north of the border, and will be targeting seats such as Moray, which is held by the SNP’s deputy leader, Angus Robertson. It has not been Tory since 1987.

At the rally, May is expected to say: “My message to the people of Scotland today is clear. If you vote for me it will strengthen my hand in the Brexit negotiations. It will strengthen the union, strengthen the economy and together the UK and Scotland will flourish. Because when Scotland is flourishing, the rest of the United Kingdom is flourishing too.”

The prime minister was criticised for avoiding workers at a business centre in Leeds, as she claimed the Conservatives were a threat to seats in Labour’s northern and Midlands heartlands.

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