Theresa May is slipping into a “presidential bunker mentality” because she is an insecure leader who wants to feel stronger, Jeremy Corbyn has said.
The Labour leader contrasted 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 “sound bites” and squeezing dissent.
But he failed to directly answer a question about whether defeat for Labour, who are still lagging behind in opinion polls, would constitute a bad performance for him and the party.
In his most personal speech of the campaign so far, Mr 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.
Mr 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, Mr Corbyn said he recognised similar traits in Mrs 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.
“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 mind-set that gets community centres and nurseries built, and increasingly defends them from closure.
“It is the mind-set that negotiates hard for better conditions in the workplace. It is the mind-set that serves the many, not the few.”
Mr Corbyn said he always 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.”
Asked whether anything other than victory for Labour and him becoming prime minister would constitute a bad performance, amid speculation that he may attempt to continue as party leader in the event of a defeat, Mr Corbyn said: “I’m going all over the country, and you know what? - the printed papers say one thing but the mood on the street tells me something very, very different.
“There’s a positive energy and a positive anger out there.
“People are fed up - they are fed up with not being able to get somewhere to live, they are fed up with waiting for hospital appointments, they are fed up with zero hours contracts, they are fed up with low pay, they are fed up with debt, they are fed up with not being able to get on in their lives because of a system that’s rigged against them.
“And so we have got the rest of this election campaign until June 8 to get that message across.”
He added: “Watch this space. On June 8 there’s going to be some very interesting stories for you to report.”
Mr Corbyn urged young people, who could hold the key to his electoral prospects given that they are more likely to back him, to “step up” like he did for the Labour leadership in 2015 and register to vote.
He said he respected his critics “when they make a reasoned case” because they, like him, are trying to challenge leadership.
And at an uncertain time he urged voters to reject Mrs May’s “fake reassurances” and “simple slogans” and back Labour who will bring people together for “real and lasting change”.
“We could seek a fragile calm and hope someone in power knows what they’re doing and will guide us through,” Mr Corbyn said.
“That means looking to whoever’s in charge and welcoming their reassurance. We don’t look further, we don’t ask questions.
“It’s the response the few have bet on the many settling for.
“I’m in this job because I believe there is a better way to respond.”
He went on: “If you agree our times demand a response from all parts of our society and all corners of our country, then I am proud to be your leader.
“And if you want someone to hold that space open for you to help change the direction of your life and our country, then I am proud to be your leader.”
“Because it’s only through unleashing our talent that Britain will succeed on the world stage.”
Responding to the speech, Conservative Party chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin said: “Jeremy Corbyn can promise anything but we all know he can’t deliver. His nonsensical speech today demonstrated that he is just not up to it.
“Only a vote for Theresa May and her team can provide strong and stable leadership in the national interest, strengthening Britain’s hands in the Brexit negotiations and helping us get on with the job of making life in the United Kingdom even better.”