Ed Moloney looks at the Jeremy Corbyn bid for the leadership of the British Labour Party. Ed Moloney blogs @ The Broken Elbow.
I must confess to having mixed feelings about the British Labour Party. On the one hand I owe it an awful lot. Without the National Health Service, I probably would never have been able to walk or function like a normal human being. The horrors of the alternative, a class-based, wealth-biased system which still dominates America, Obamacare notwithstanding, tell me what life otherwise would have been like.
Nor would I have had the education I got, free from the year dot until I graduated from university. In fact better than free. Not only were all my fees paid but I got an annual grant to go to college. Unthinkable in this day and age!
In those days, the Labour Party paid more than lip service to the ideals of equality and the goal of social and economic justice. Where and when it all started to go wrong is a matter of debate but there’s no doubt in my mind that when Labour elected Blair as its leader and Mandelson as its guru – with the disgusting Frank Field, Thatcher’s best friend, crowing the background – then it was all over bar the crying.
I suppose the rock bottom was reached recently when Harriet Harman, acting Labour leader, voiced support for the Tories’ new, draconian welfare cuts of £12 billion, announced recently. As you can see in this article, those with disabilities are in the firing line; they may not suffer this time round but they sure as hell will soon. So it was a good thing I was born in the last century and not this.
There are, however, some tentative signs that the worm is turning, well maybe adjusting its rear view mirror might be more accurate. A substantial number of Labour MP’s voted against the Cameron welfare cuts when the House of Commons voted on it recently, while some contenders for the Labour leadership decided to abstain. That’s one pointer.
The other is the absolute panic surging through the ranks of the Blairite establishment at the groundswell of support in the Labour leadership polling for Jeremy Corbyn, the CP’ish left-winger from Islington. Corbyn is what people of my generation – which happens to be his – would recognise as a Tony Benn Labourite: pro the NHS, pro-nationalisation, pro-free education and so on.
What distinguishes him from the Blairites is that he actually believes in something while the Mandelson’s, Fields, Blairs and Browns see the Labour party almost entirely as a vehicle for personal enrichment and career fullfilment – in Blair’s case add a heavy dose of war-mongering.
The other aspect of Corbyn’s appeal is highlighted in this current piece from The New Statesman (an unlikely source, I know!). He is anti-austerity, and taps in to the zeitgeist (minus Tsipras!) current in Europe. Not surprisingly it is young members of the British Labour party who are his most ardent supporters. Wouldn’t it be fun if he won? The howls of outrage from the Blairites would alone be worth it.
Who’s backing Jeremy Corbyn? The young
Perhaps it’s a form of the Streisand effect, but the more we hear about Jeremy Corbyn – and let’s be honest, most of it has been disparaging – the more people seem to like him. The commentators and politicians highlight his “outdated” socialist values, his flat cap, his supposed unelectability, and instead of turning away, many people (myself included) look at him and think: “yeah.” A YouGov poll for the Times has put Corbyn on course to win the leadership election, with a 17 point lead ahead of the other candidates.
The snobbery around Corbyn has been something to behold. And yet, the more the snobs and the political cardboard cut-outs, the Blairites and the Tories and the brown-nosers slag off and berate Corbynites (and in ways they would decry as “patronising” if they were directed towards shy Tory voters), the more Corbyn steadily gains support. In contrast to the other candidates, who have never taken him seriously and now appear to be panicking, Corbyn comes across as dignified, principled, unconcerned with personal advancement, and passionate about his politics
Hearing Tristram Hunt on the Today programme yesterday, plumming off on one about how Corbyn supporters want to return to a “comfort zone of Labour politics” and how if Corbyn wins Labour will become little more than a “pressure group” because being an “anti-austerity populist party isn’t going to get us into government” didn’t make me “see sense” as Hunt probably intended. It just made me think, “screw you all, you don’t deserve to be in government.” From what other young new Labour recruits have been telling me, I’m not alone in thinking this.
It’s been reported that a significant portion of the support Corbyn is receiving is coming from new, young Labour members. People like me, who are too young to remember the unelectable eighties, or indeed what “a comfort zone of Labour politics” feels like. This certainly seemed to be the case at the Islington North meeting I attended last week, where people of all ages, but notably young people, stood up in support of Corbyn. And, despite what his opponents might say, it’s clear he has a support base outside of Islington.
Rebecca Chambers is 19 and from Southampton. She joined the Labour party this week to vote for Corbyn. “He is much more relatable than the ‘suits’ that you would ordinarily see in the forefront of a leadership vote like this,” she tells me, “which I think is more likely to win over voters (perhaps in a similar way to the ‘Everyman’ persona of Nigel Farage).” Joe Rivers, from Surrey, is nearly a decade older but feels similarly uninspired by the candidates: “I’m not sure Jeremy Corbyn would make a good PM and I’m not naive enough to think he’s going to lead Britain into some kind of socialist utopia,” he says, a standard disclaimer that is understandable in the face of the sneering Corbyn supporters are facing. Rivers has “zero trust” in MPs having voted Lib Dem in 2005 and 2010 and seen their U-turn on tuition fees. “It bothers me a lot that nobody in Westminster seems to have an ideology or stand for anything in particular,” he says. “In a political climate where everyone is so scared of losing votes that everything they say is endlessly caveated, no-one says anything at all. Jeremy Corbyn stands for something and, faced with the cruellest government since Thatcher, that counts for a lot.”
And that is the crux of what Corbyn supporters in their teens and twenties are telling me again and again: that the current crop of candidates are so uninspiring that you can forget about winning a general election – they’d rather just have someone who represents their views about inequality, for once. Better a passionate and interesting opposition that has moral conviction than a bunch of identikit shysters who will jettison their values as soon as electoral victory looks likely, is how the way of thinking goes. Those of us who are inspired by Corbyn can expect to be called young and idealistic, or be told we need to “do our research”, but there it is. It’s obvious that, for some young people at least, Corbyn is scratching a persistent anti-Blairite, anti-establishment itch.
Some of Corbyn’s ideals, such as re-nationalisation of the railways and the need to protect a publicly funded NHS undoubtedly have national appeal. Others, like the abolition of tuition fees and his anti-austerity stance, are policies with the potential to appeal to young people across the country (particularly those in danger of losing their housing benefit). Hunt is not wrong to make comparisons with Syriza and Podemos; some of those I spoke to in their teens and twenties cited the left wing movements on mainland Europe as inspirational. There’s an untapped stream of young people in Britain who feel their politics are not being represented. You see them on the austerity marches, on social media, in the words of Charlotte Church and Owen Jones and Mhairi Black. But the surge in support for Corbyn isn’t just about young people re-engaging with left-wing politics, it’s also to do with the quality Zoe Williams identified earlier this week as being central to Corbyn’s campaign; it’s about hope.
Hope, in fact, is the exact word that many of the Corbyn supporters in their teens and twenties conjure when I ask them “why him?” They feel that we are at a crucial point when it comes to deciding, as a nation and as a society, what our values are, and that only Corbyn offers an optimistic vision for the future. Jamie Scott, 19, from Luton admires Corbyn’s desire to “invest in housing and infrastructure that the country actually needs yet no other candidate is willing to sign up to”.
“All of the successes of the post-war government were based around investing to create a better society rather than not trying to improve peoples lives with the aim to ‘get by’ which is what I see in the other candidates”, he says.
Corbyn’s background also appeals. “He doesn’t come from the Oxbridge, SpAd/Researcher background which all of the other candidates do, an elite which is massively over-represented in Parliament,” says Jamie. “The other three candidates can’t connect to me as they do not inspire hope of anything better, simply more of the same.”
Some of the people I spoke to came from traditionally Labour-supporting households and think Corbyn represents a return to those values. “I think that, being from the North, it’s the IDEA of the Labour Party that I like,” says Alex McBride, 24, from Manchester, “the idea that my grandparents, and parents voted for them; for ideas like decency, fairness, representation, respect, unity, hope – ideas that transcend the Watford Gap at least!”
Laura Fisher, 24, meanwhile, “used to be pretty Tory” before going to university and becoming interested in feminism and social justice. Then, during the election, she was saddened to see her historically Labour-voting family sway to the right. “My family all live in working class areas in the North (Middlesbrough and York) and many of them were saying they were going to vote for UKIP. These were life-long Labour voters or at least supporters of what I feel are (or definitely were) Labour’s values.”
Laura says she knew that her family were not going to feel “any more listened to” by any of the other candidates. “I felt that Labour were looking in all the wrong places for their support and trying to replicate 1997, which was a once in a generation thing,” she says.
These are young Labour supporters who know their politics and their history, and have a clear vision of the sort of society in which they would like to live. They state the importance of fairness and inclusivity. They feel passionately that the generations that came before them have failed to provide for them, or have betrayed them politically, especially over student fees. They also feel that their voices have long gone unheard.
Lucie Spadone, 17, joined the Labour party last September, when she was 16, and as well as being inspired by Corbyn’s anti-austerity stance, also thinks that he would “give young people a platform to air their views” because his views are in line with theirs. Abby Tomlinson, the 17 year old activist who founded #milifandom, agrees that he is a vocal supporter of her generation. “I think he represents a voice for change that a lot of young people want to hear,” she says. “A lot of young people feel angry at all of the measures the government seems to be taking to make the lives of young people harder. The contempt David Cameron has for young people I think means that a lot want an alternative who they know will support them, and for a lot of people that person is Jeremy Corbyn.
There’s certainly an excitement around Corbyn that is notable on social media and at demonstrations. Whether or not, as some commentators suggest, his popularity ends up being merely a blip, a symptom of the silly season after which Labour members and supporters will abandon the underdog and resign themselves to the centre ground remains to be seen. But you can’t deny that there’s a contingent of people in their teens and twenties out there who think he’s brilliant while remaining underwhelmed, if not disgusted, by the others and their perceived support for austerity