Uncanny Resemblance: British actor, Jack Shepherd (left) played the role of a firebrand socialist Labour MP in the 1976 series, Bill Brand. Nearly 40 years later, a real firebrand socialist, Jeremy Corbyn (right) is leading the race to replace Ed Miliband as Leader of the British Labour Party. The question posed by Bill Brand, and now by Jeremy Corbyn, is: "Are Socialism and Labour compatible?"
WAY BACK IN THE 1970s there was a red-hot political drama series called Bill Brand. Produced by Thames Television, it starred a (very young) Jack Shepherd (more familiar to today’s Sky subscribers for his lead role in the Wycliffe TV series). Back in 1976, however, he was Bill Brand, a young socialist firebrand elected, almost accidentally, to the House of Commons in a run-of-the-mill by-election in a safe Labour seat. Written by Trevor Griffiths, the 11-episode series explored the question of whether or not it was possible to be both a socialist and a Labour Party MP. The answer, at least as far as Griffiths was concerned, appeared to be – “No.”
I raise the ghost of the long-forgotten Bill Brand only because Griffiths’ question about socialism and Labour is being tested again. This time, however, the stakes are much higher. This time the question is: Can a socialist become the Leader of the Labour Party? The man who may yet provide an affirmative answer to that question is Jeremy Corbyn.
A man of the 1980s, rather than the 1970s, Corbyn’s record, in just about every other respect, marks him out as a sort of real-life Bill Brand. (Amazingly, he even looks like Jack Shepherd!) A supporter of just about every radical cause that has emerged over the past 35 years – from Anti-Apartheid to Animal Rights – Corbyn is among the most rebellious of Labour’s back-benchers. He is, however, much more than a mere darling of the NGOs. Corbyn is also a self-proclaimed socialist, and former trade unionist, who does not shrink from advocating swingeing tax rises for the rich, abolishing student fees, or renationalising the railways. (All extremely popular policies with British voters BTW.)
If Corbyn sounds a bit like a square left-wing peg in round Blairite hole, it’s because that is exactly what he has been for practically the whole time he’s been the MP for Islington North. And it was only as a forlorn standard-bearer for Labour’s long-abandoned socialist ideals that he put himself forward as a candidate to fill the vacancy created by Ed Miliband’s resignation. Indeed, most of the 35 MPs who signed his nomination form did so in the spirit of political charity. Why? Because everybody “knew” that Corbyn didn’t stand a chance.
And then something very strange began to happen. One after another Labour’s constituency organisations began declaring for Corbyn. By the end of the nominating process, to the abject horror of the Labour Party leadership, Corbyn had amassed 70 constituency nominations to the erstwhile (and very moderate) front-runner, Andy Burnham’s, 68. And, as if that wasn’t enough bad news for the Blairite establishment, the polling agency, YouGov, put Corbyn well ahead of his rivals Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper.
Talk about putting a very red cat among a whole coop-full of pink and blue pigeons! Almost immediately, Blairite MPs were threatening to organise a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in Corbyn should the membership of the party do anything so utterly irresponsible as electing a left-winger leader of the Labour Party. Others called for an ABC campaign (remind you of anything, Kiwis?) to unite the anti-Corbyn vote behind Burnham. Chiming in to the furore, in reflexive support of the Labour Right, came the lofty pundits of the Guardian and the Observer. “Surely,” they exclaimed to their shuddering keyboards, “Labour could not be that suicidal!
It is all so reminiscent of Bill Brand. The sheer madness of attempting to storm the ramparts of The City of London; of believing, even for a moment, that the news media might give you a fair shake; or assuming that your colleagues harboured the slightest respect for the wishes of the Labour members and supporters who sent them to Parliament.
And yet, Jeremy Corbyn is in the lead. He is winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the British Labour Party. Socialism may be dead in the committee rooms of Westminster, but in the suburbs of London, in the green valleys of Wales and in the grim post-industrial cities of the angry North, it still lives. And to the shock and horror of the entire British Establishment, the socialists have found themselves a champion.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 25 July 2015.