Oh Come All Ye Faithful: How can Jeremy Corbyn possibly be in the lead? After all, the man is an open and unashamed socialist – an affliction which should have ruled him out of serious contention immediately. Even worse, Corbyn’s clothes look like they were bought at a jumble sale – and he has a beard!
POLITICS CAN BE HARD on friendships. Radically diverging views on the nature and worth of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Greece’s Syriza-led government recently ended a relationship of more than 20 years. What student politics and the Labour-Alliance split could not break, was destroyed by my friend’s extraordinary, and, from a distance of 18,000 kilometres, utterly inexplicable, animosity towards any left-wing iteration more exciting that Gordon Brown’s watered-down Blairism. Ending the friendship was made easier, I suppose, by the fact that he has, for many years, lived in Scotland, while I’ve been here in New Zealand. Had I been there, or he here, I suspect things would have come to a head a lot sooner – and it would have been a lot nastier.
My own personal setback has, however, made it a lot easier to understand the rapidly rising level of aggro afflicting the British Labour Party’s leadership election.
The rise and rise of Jeremy Corbyn is threatening to split the party asunder. The Blairite Right, like my former pal, simply cannot understand the 60-year-old backbench MP for the London suburb of Islington North’s burgeoning popularity. After all, the man is openly and unashamedly left-wing – an affliction which should have ruled him out of serious contention immediately. Even worse, Corbyn’s clothes look like they were bought at a jumble sale – and he has a beard! So why have upwards of 20,000 people joined the Labour Party on the strength of his candidacy? Why have his younger followers taken to chanting “Jez we can!”? And why, oh why, do people insist on abbreviating his name to “JC”?
The simple answer is that the Corbyn Campaign is offering people hope. It’s what the SNP offered the Scots, and Syriza the Greeks: a sense that, actually, something can be done; a better tomorrow is possible. Significantly, hope was the attribute most conspicuous by its absence from Ed Miliband’s appeal to the British electorate. That’s because, if my ex-mate is anything to go by, the Labour Right treats hope as the political equivalent of nitro-glycerine – useful in small amounts, and in strictly-controlled settings, but potentially devastating if tossed about all over the place. Labour must be very careful not to raise people’s hopes too high. Why? Because then they’d have to fulfil them!
The so-called “left-wing” British commentariat are, for the most part, marching in lock-step with the Blairite Right. Their argument against Corbyn boils down to: He’s going to win, therefore he must not win.
That the MP for Islington North is filling halls from Manchester to Luton is, according to the pundits, the best reason for not voting for him. The people turning out for Corbyn, they insist, are nothing like the rest of Britain. The latter know nothing about him, and care even less. Apparently, the only sort of person who can lead Labour to victory, is the sort of person who knows how to woo these know-nothing/care-even-less voters.
That sort of leader will, of course, be given his lines by professional political consultants, who will, in turn, have plucked them out of focus groups – filled with, you guessed it, know-nothing/care-even-less voters. The idea that a candidate like Corbyn might, if elected, be able to generate the same sort of hope and enthusiasm among know-nothing/care-even-less voters as he is currently generating among Labour’s rank-and-file, is dismissed out of hand. And yet, all that really distinguishes the people who are turning out in the hundreds to hear Corbyn, from the know-nothing/care-even-less voters, is that somewhere along the line someone gave them enough knowledge to make them care.
It’s what lay at the heart of the falling-out between me and my old friend: how we viewed the electorate.
To him, the voting public are nothing more than an abstract electoral resource – something to be tapped. They cannot be entrusted with important decisions because they lack the knowledge and experience required to make them. Political power properly belongs to those with the best understanding of how the game is played. The rest of us are merely punters to be convinced.
To me, there is always much more that unites the voting public than divides them. This is because, when all is said and done, they are human-beings with human needs. Left-wing politics should be about uniting the electorate around these most basic needs, and then allowing the resulting political energy to change society in ways that allow them to be met.
Corbyn’s speeches are not examples of great oratory, but they are peppered with collective pronouns. He talks about “we”, and “us”, and the things that are “ours”. And in the surge of solidarity such language inevitably generates, his listeners catch a glimpse of an alternative future. In Luton, it brought them to their feet. The youngsters chanted “Jez we can!” And their parents reached for Labour Party membership forms.
Such is the contagion of hope.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 6 August 2015.