10 August 2015

What I think of Jeremy Corbyn

The Labour Party. I joined it in 1989. I had never before, and have not since, been a member of any other political party. I can't remember when I let my membership lapse - a number of years later. It wasn't a point of principle, not the Iraq war or anything like that, just that I was bored with it; it didn't seem to have anything to do with what really energised me.

The reason I joined was that I had recently moved out of the south London housing co-operative where I'd been living for the previous nine years, into my own flat – becoming a home-owner late in life – this move being triggered, I'm embarrassed to say, by the time-limited availability of a Thatcher bribe to tenants of charitable housing associations. In the co-op, I'd been in touch with what was happening in local community politics. Now I was on my own. So I thought the local Labour Party would substitute for this.

My first ward meeting encapsulated what was wrong. There weren't too many people there. Predominantly male, white working class. They seemed very nice people. I was introduced by the membership secretary: "This is Ken Edwards, first-time member of the party." The chair asked: "And what's your job, Ken?" I'm a freelance journalist, I said. "And what union do you belong to?" The National Union of Journalists, I said. "Welcome to the party, Ken," said the chair, then, addressing the membership secretary: "And you have another membership application, I believe?" "Yes, chair, a Mr Patel – he runs the corner shop at [he described the business]." People nodded; some of them knew that corner shop. "And does Mr Patel belong to a trade union?" inquired the chair. "No, he doesn't," explained the membership secretary, "he owns a business, you see."

There was a silence, followed by a desultory discussion while members traded opinions on the rules of the party. They decided that, whatever the merits of  the application, it was not possible to admit someone as a member who was not a trade unionist. Eventually someone, the chair I think, came up with a solution: Mr Patel was to be told he was welcome to join but only if he first joined USDAW, the shop workers' union. (The meeting went on to talk about who was representing the branch at that year's national Labour Party conference. It was Bill So-and-so, from a neighbouring ward. Ah yes, Bill, I know Bill. Good bloke. Labour Through And Through. They were all good blokes.)

Well, I was a newbie, so I felt a bit shy of expressing my opinion at the time. But here we were, still in the Thatcher era, and yet a small businessman, and one from an ethnic minority to boot, was expressing a wish to join the Labour Party. And he was rebuffed. What the hell was going on?

This was a good illustration of why reform was needed to bring the party up to date. I remember, following the widely lamented death of John Smith, who was trying to do something about this, I voted for Robin Cook as leader, someone with strong convictions about social justice who also saw the need for modernisation. But he was deemed too ugly, or something. That beard. (We'll come to Jeremy Corbyn in a moment.) What we ended up with was Tony Blair and New Labour. And yes, he led Labour to an unprecedented three consecutive terms in office. And Labour did some good things. But also furthered Thatcher's neo-liberal agenda. And then there was Iraq.

Backtracking a bit further. The early 1980s; I was briefly a union activist in Bermondsey & Southwark. Not the NUJ, I wasn't a journalist yet, but ACTSS, the white-collar section of the then TGWU. I was instrumental in getting our branch to support Peter Tatchell as Labour candidate in the 1983 by-election. He was being subjected to a vicious homophobic campaign by the popular press after then Labour leader Michael Foot, to his shame, had been persuaded to denounce him as an extreme left-wing entryist to the party. Tatchell lost the previously rock-solid Labour seat to a newcomer, the Liberal Simon Hughes. Irony 1: Hughes, who went on to become a front-bench politician, years later candidly revealed confusion about his own sexual preferences. Irony 2: another prospective Labour candidate for the vacancy, Chris Smith, perceived at the time as the moderate option, went on to win a Labour seat elsewhere, became culture minister in the first Blair government, and was the first MP to out himself as gay. Meanwhile, Tatchell, whose integrity as a campaigner I continue to admire, is on the way to National Treasure status.

The by-election was followed a few months later by Labour's catastrophic defeat under Michael Foot in the 1983 General Election, on a leftist ticket – the "longest suicide note in history". Then followed Neil Kinnock, the expulsion of the Trotskyite entryists (mostly the Militant Tendency), defeat to John Major in 1992, John Smith and ... New Labour.

OK, let's get to Jeremy Corbyn. Where Corbyn comes from in the Labour Party is not, despite the insinuations of some of the media, that Marxist entryist left: the "finger-jabbing" tendency recently despised by Alan Johnson. Nor has he ever plumbed the depths of the egregious George Galloway. He appears to be a courteous and mild-mannered man with old-fashioned socialist beliefs, an inheritor of the politics of Tony Benn, and, indeed, Michael Foot. The thing that worries me about him is that, as Johnson astutely points out, he doesn't really want to be leader of the Labour Party or Prime Minister, any more than Johnson himself does. You can't do that without being willing to give your all to the necessary compromises. You can't do it without being media-friendly, and without involving yourself in the really dirty stuff.

I think Corbyn has been taken aback by the volume and breadth of his support. I don't believe that in his wildest dreams he expected to be the front-runner in the contest for the Labour Party leadership. The three other candidates were all spouting identical sound-bites emptied of all content. It was so bland that even Labour MPs who opposed Corbyn and didn't intend to vote for him were persuaded to endorse his candidature just to maintain the party's credibility and preserve the appearance of a contest. Nobody, least of all Corbyn himself, thought he really had a prayer.

And then suddenly there were all these young people rallying to his support. A social media frenzy. Suddenly, Corbyn's campaign was connecting with similar surges elsewhere: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain. This was not just the traditional, union-based, tribal Labour-Through-And-Through people, but disenfranchised folks, many unemployed or in fragile, low-paid and non-unionised work, those trying to run their own businesses, youngsters who had never voted, people clobbered by the insane austerity policies they perceived as serving only to reward those at the top who had triggered the economic collapse in the first place. This is how "old-fashioned socialism" connects with the modern world. It's not the union block vote, for sure.

To those of us who are a bit older, many of Corbyn's policies seem unexceptional. It's obvious, even to many not on the left, that Trident is a grotesquely expensive obscenity, the only purpose of this so-called independent nuclear deterrent being to keep the Americans onside. It's obvious that the public good is served by a thriving public sector: that, far from benefiting us by competitively driving down prices, the "big six" energy companies are collectively fleecing us both in charges and in public subsidies for their operations; that the privatised railways are costing us more than British Rail, for all its faults, ever did; that education is, as Blair once famously stressed, of paramount importance, but that it needs to be supported by our taxes, that is, taxation on those who can afford it, because it benefits the whole country in the long run. It's obvious that immigrants and the unemployed are not the people causing our economic plight, and that cracking down on them will not only cause untold misery and hardship but will scarcely make a dent anyway on a welfare bill that is mostly spent on state pensions. It's obvious that, far from wanting to see a food bank in every town, we should be making every effort to eradicate the need for this obscenity. For me, this is all middle-ground stuff.

If I have some unease with the Corbyn brand of leftism, it's perhaps on foreign policy – where support for the Palestinians sometimes seems about the sum total of it, ignoring or downplaying threats, injustices and alliances elsewhere. And the Labour left could do with better co-operation with those campaigning on environmental concerns.

But ... Corbyn doesn't really want the leadership. And if he does win it – what then? I don't have any illusions about his electability in the country at large, in what would be an extremely hostile media environment. Especially as so many of his most prominent party colleagues have painted themselves into an anti-Corbyn corner. So would it spell the end of Labour's prospects of achieving outright power again for a generation? Perhaps. But maybe those days are at an end anyway. Maybe what we should be looking to is a broader alliance of the centre-left and left against the Tories. Maybe campaigning for proportional representation is the way to go. But nobody in the Labour Party seems keen.

The General Election did not result in overwhelming support for the Tories. The anti-Tory vote, if you count the nationalist parties, the Lib Dems, the Greens, was pretty strong. Yet the erstwhile front-runners in the Labour leadership race – before Corbyn came along –  all caved in, assuming the British electorate want austerity and neo-liberalism, and, instead of showing leadership in opposition, offered more of the same, whether they believed in it (as Liz Kendall probably does), or not. As if that was going to cut any ice.

I hope Corbyn wins. Next best: that he loses the race by a small margin and forces the winner, either Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper, to acknowledge the depth of feeling in the party and the country and act accordingly. Already Burnham is saying he will re-nationalise the railways. Feeble, of course – if he really believes in this, why wasn't he saying it a month ago? – but an indication of the effect the Corbyn campaign is having.

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