Polarising - In A Good Way: As the British Labour Party's leadership contest drew to a close this week, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign team estimated he had taken his message, face-to-face, to more than 50,000 people. Literally hundreds-of-thousands more have paid Labour £3 for the right to participate in the leadership vote. The polls predict a Corbyn win on the first ballot.
IN LESS THAN 48 HOURS the world will know whether Jeremy Corbyn has won or lost. There will be many, still, who scratch their heads and ask: “Jeremy Who?” And why not? Until the unexpectedly savage defeat of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party in the recent British General Election, the identity of the MP for the London seat of Islington North was known to very few people outside of … well … Islington North. And even among those who have regularly returned him to Westminster since 1983, only a handful would have picked their MP – a bewhiskered, 66-year-old, self-proclaimed socialist, by the name of Jeremy Corbyn – as Ed Miliband’s most likely successor.
That his name appears on the ballot-paper at all is, like so many other aspects of his candidacy, a virtual accident. Other, better known, left-wing flagbearers had already been approached, and declined, before Corbyn said “Yes”. He accepted the nomination in a spirit of honourable self-sacrifice: the left-wing of the Labour Party had to have someone to vote for. (And it wasn’t as if there was any chance of him winning!)
The Germans would blame it on the Zeitgeist – the Spirit of the Times. Others would say that Corbyn’s candidacy only took off when Labour’s Interim Leader, Harriet Harman, urged her colleagues to join the Tories in putting the boot into Britain’s already bruised and battered beneficiaries. His hard-line left-wing comrades would merrily opine that there has always been a massive constituency for Jeremy Corbyn’s simple socialist message, but until he came along no one had quite mastered the knack of communicating it effectively. Whatever the explanation, the brute fact of the contest for Miliband’s replacement was indisputable: the moment Labour audiences saw and heard Jeremy Corbyn, they fell head-over-heels in love with him.
And no one in the British punditocracy could work out why. It wasn’t as if Corbyn was especially telegenic. (Dear Lord – that beard!) Nor was he an especially gifted speaker. And the nonsensical things he was saying: who could possibly take such antiquated socialist sloganeering seriously? Certainly not his rivals for the leadership: lynx-eyed Yvette Cooper; bluff and blokey Andy Burnham; the ambitiously lissom Liz Kendall. Those three all looked completely at home in the Labour Party Tony Blair had made. The Party that no longer believed in “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. The Party that had allowed Blair to lead it into the crime that was Iraq.
But that was just it! Corbyn had never swallowed a drop of the Blairite Kool-Aid. He still believed in common ownership. He’d voted against going into Iraq. He was, 32 years after being elected to the House of Commons, the same unashamed socialist he’d always been. And when the TV interviewers asked him questions about where he’d like to take Britain, he answered them. Without the benefit of pollsters, or spin-doctors, he talked about renationalising the railways, reanimating the trade unions, restoring the NHS. Cooper, Kendall and Burnham were dumfounded. The pundits were non-plussed. The Blairite Faction was, very publicly, appalled. But Labour’s members and supporters just couldn’t get enough.
The people who now find themselves vilified as the opponents of “Jez we can!” Corbymania should have seen it coming. But, not only did they fail to grasp the meaning of the emergence of left-wing populist parties across Europe; they also (and quite wilfully) refused to comprehend the meaning of the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) near clean-sweep of Labour seats north of the border.
The SNP ran on an anti-austerity platform, positioning itself well to the left of Labour. But their crushing victory was about a lot more than that. By optimistically orienting themselves towards the future, and promising the Scots that it would be a future they determined, the SNP unleashed that most potent of all political forces: Hope.
Corbyn’s authenticity and simplicity have encouraged similar hopefulness among the English. As the leadership contest drew to a close this week, Corbyn’s campaign team estimated he had taken his message, face-to-face, to more than 50,000 people. Literally hundreds-of-thousands more have paid Labour £3 for the right to participate in the leadership vote. The polls predict a Corbyn win on the first ballot.
If that happens, it will no longer be a case of “Jeremy Who?” But of “Jeremy – What Now?”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 September 2015.