Jeremy Corbyn has been elected by a quarter of a million people – but the Labour right is already on the attack. How do we defend Corbyn and seize this opportunity for the left?
An era has ended, and I can actually remember how it began, or at least the moment when I first noticed Tony Blair. “Who” is asked my flatmate as we watched the TV news “is this pompous little shit who’s Shadow Home Secretary now?” This would have been in 1992. I don’t need to recount the later career of the pompous little shit. It’s summed up, I think, by a comment Margaret Thatcher made in 2002: asked what her greatest achievement had been, she replied “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.” Blair created a political world in which all the major parties supported basically the same things – which in the context of the time meant privatisation and war. It’s a joy to see that particular world come to an end.
And, to be quite honest, a complete surprise. Liz Kendall had every reason to think, when Ed Miliband had edged nervously leftwards and met with disaster, that she would win leadership votes with her claim that Labour wins elections by moving to the right. Yvette Cooper (PPE at Oxford) and Andy Burnham (Cambridge and then a special adviser to Labour minister Chris Smith) are just the kind of people who run political parties nowadays. What chance was there for Jeremy Corbyn, who – as the Telegraph pointed out yesterday – had finished his education with two E’s at A level and was told by his headmaster that he would “never make anything” of himself?
At the liberal end of journalism, Guardian columnists including Jonathan Freedland (independent school and Oxford) and Andrew Rawnsley (Rugby and Cambridge) all took their turns to argue against Corbyn and undergo a thorough monstering by the paper’s readers as they did so. Polly Toynbee – descended from such a longstanding dynasty of the liberal ruling class that her Wikipedia entry actually includes a family tree – claimed in mid-August that Yvette Cooper was about to deliver a knockout blow. Toynbee’s assumed status as friend and adviser to the Labour Party involves overlooking her actual track record – that she joined the SDP in 1981 and stayed in it until its final collapse around ten years later – but at no point did she refer to this period herself, and nobody at the Guardian was so tactless as to mention it.
In any case, over 400,000 people have intruded into this complacent little world where political power circulates among pupils of elite schools and graduates from Oxbridge. Thousands of people who have for years taken the view that “it’s all shit, but there’s nothing you can do” have rushed for what they see as a credible chance to change things – just as people did in Scotland with the independence referendum. The Mirror reports this morning that 14,500 people have joined the Labour Party in the 24 hours since Corbyn’s election. People now have a focus for their anger at austerity – for their opposition to NHS privatisation, to a murderous benefit regime, to student loans which make working-class students think twice about getting a degree – and are seizing what they see as the opportunity to shift the whole political spectrum to the left. At 325,000, Labour Party membership is at its highest since 1999. Last night, Facebook friends who I never thought would even consider joining the Labour Party were seriously discussing doing exactly that.
Part of this, I think, is a desire to defend Corbyn from the attacks which have already begun. David Cameron, of course, has declared that the Labour Party is now a threat to Britain’s national security. But the Labour right are also on the offensive. David Blunkett and Charles Clarke – both Home Secretaries under Blair – write articles in this morning’s Daily Mail condemning Corbyn. No doubt much more of this is going on behind the scenes. Corbyn is relatively isolated in the midst of a right-wing Parliamentary Labour Party. His deputy, Tom Watson, in no sense a left-winger, is an experienced operator who was backed by more Labour MPs than any other candidate. We’ve already seen with Miliband how capable the Labour right are of undermining a leader to whom they have taken a dislike. Leading figures like Yvette Cooper and Tristram Hunt, who have said they will refuse to be members of a Corbyn shadow cabinet, have gone off to sharpen their daggers and await the right moment. As Blunkett and Clarke demonstrate this morning as they scuttle off to write for the Tory press, ideas of loyalty to a democratically elected leader mean nothing to such people.
How can Corbyn best defend himself? His weakness lies in his position among 232 Labour MPs: his strength lies in the quarter of a million people who voted for him. The Labour right’s view will be that those people have had their say, and now they should respectfully leave the political stage once more to the professionals. Corbyn needs to do the opposite, to keep his supporters mobilised, to put himself at the head of a mass movement for social change. The fact that his first act as Labour leader was to attend the London demonstration in solidarity with migrants is a fine example of doing just that. The anti-austerity protest on 4 October at the Tory conference in Manchester is another opportunity – a huge protest will both undermine the Tories and strengthen Corbyn’s position.
Which brings me back to my friends who are thinking of joining Labour. To go on the London demo yesterday, or on the Manchester demo on 4 October – to do the things which strengthen both the movement and Corbyn’s position – you don’t need to be a member of the Labour Party. In fact, if you do become a member, I worry that you’ll have to spend time attending constituency meetings, sticking Labour leaflets through doors and fending off the right. Actually, you’ll be less effective at defending Jeremy Corbyn, at taking advantage of this huge opportunity for the left, at building the movement, than you would otherwise have been. But, regardless of the decision you make about Labour membership, we can all unite on one thing – the years when politics was conducted by two wings of an elite are over. They were brought to an end by the intervention of a quarter of a million people. Mass involvement in politics is on the agenda again, and can bring the Tories down.