The first thing I did as an adult, aged 18, was join the Labour Party.
Well, strictly speaking, the first thing I did was buy every type of spirit my local express supermarket sold, mix them all with cranberry juice and then spent the next 24 hours regretting said decision…. But the first major decision I made, was to join Labour. It was my first direct debit. My first membership of any group or organisation that I had chosen to join. My first difficult decision as a grown up.
It shouldn’t have been a difficult one. I had supported Labour throughout my school years – something which wasn’t easy through the naughties. Seeing the wars in Afghanistan & Iraq and having to somehow justify them to my school mates. Seeing tuition fees be introduced and having to defend that, even as I knew I would have to pay them myself one day. Having unpopular policies; ID cards, 90 day detention, PFI schemes put forward by the people you’re supposed to agree with, whilst they cosied up to Rupert Murdoch and allowed the wealthiest to get away with murder, just so long as the poor weren’t quite so poor…
But I still joined the party. I have always lived under the theory that politics is the art of the possible and that compromise is part of that. Staying ideologically pure may let you sleep at night but it often times doesn’t accomplish much. So I worked under a simple theory; join the most left-wing electable party you can and work within them to make them closer to your position.
Years passed. Elections were lost. The austerity myth was developed. A leadership election took place. Once again I voted on my premise of picking the most left wing electable option and went with Ed Miliband. He wasn’t the Blair clone his brother seemed, whilst he seemed infinitely more viable at the ballot box than Diane Abbot. He seemed poised to take on the austerity myth, to rally the Labour base and still reach out as a credibly electable bloke in a suit.
Then he drove straight to the centre of the road and got crushed.
So by the next leadership race I was angry. A lot of Labour members were. Things got worse when Harriet Harman told her MPs to abstain on exactly the sort of policy Labour MPs are elected to stand against. It seemed our MPs had given up fighting the austerity myth. That all they were willing to do was carefully manage the demise of a party both ideologically and in terms of its political purpose.
Then along came a man who said the opposite. He voted against the bill. He refused to accept the austerity myth. He described the situation the party was in without political spin, he described the situation the country was in with facts. His name was Jeremy Corbyn.
Going into the 2015 leadership race I was firmly behind Yvette Cooper. She had been a brilliant front bench shadow minister. She did a fantastic job holding the Tories to account, she came across as smart, eloquent, caring. I wanted her to be our next leader. All she had to do for me was prove her left-of-centre credentials. It wouldn’t take much, just something, anything, to tell me she believed what was on the back of her membership card; that she would be the leader of a democratic socialist party.
Instead she went to the centre. They all did; Kendall, Burnham. They rejected Corbyn’s facts, Corbyn’s correct assessment, they seemed to embrace the austerity myth. All the talk was of accepting the country’s decision post-election. There was no talk of changing minds, of busting myths, of making a strong case for Labour values – it was capitulation. It was accepting the errors of our ways, of repenting for our sins… bud we hadn’t sinned and our biggest error was going to the middle of the road, becoming ‘Tory-lite’. But here they were – the mainstream Parliamentary Labour Party – advocating three shades of Tory litism.
My mind was made up. I was voting for the only one of the leadership contenders who was living in the real world, who had his basic economics right, I was voting for Corbyn… yeah, weird when the furthest left-wing candidate in the Labour party is the closest to the economic mainstream in British politics, but that’s the situation we were in.
So I voted Corbyn. A last minute realisation had Burnham suddenly push to the left with promises on nationalising the railways and such, but it was too little too late. The chance for Cooper or Burnham to be the next Ed – most left wing viable option – was gone. The membership went nuclear and we went for Jeremy.
Time passed, criticism came. Plenty of the criticism was valid. He was not a polished politician; but then, that was the point. We’d had our fill of the same second-hand care salesmen politicians, we wanted someone different, someone who avoided spin, who stuck to his principles. He was a message that the politics of style over substance had to end. Nobody listened.
But then a moment of opportunity. Brexit happened, the Prime Minister stepped down, the Tories were vulnerable. This was our chance! Every Labour MP needed to get on Television, write newspaper articles, tweet, whatever, that right now we needed a general election! The next Prime Minister would be unelected. They would be unsettled, potentially unpopular and the Brexit result would rally people to vote to stop it. This was it, our moment to strike, barely a year into a new parliament and we had a chance to get the Tories out!
So why, at that moment, the PLP decided to try and oust Corbyn I will never know. I imagine it was like that tweet that went round after Trump was elected:
TORIES: Brexit is the stupidest, most self-destructive act a political party could do to itself.
LABOUR: Hold my beer.
To me it was an act of stupidity unrivalled in British politics. The most ridiculous aspect of it though was the incompetence. A line of Labour MPs all queued up to call Corbyn useless, incompetent, unable to win, unable to function, politically inept, whatever. Meanwhile they were squandering the best chance we would get to hit the Tories, perhaps for years. You want to talk political ineptitude; that was political ineptitude.
Then there was the incompetence in ousting him. The whole PLP seemed certain they wanted him out – even my local MP who I wrote to on the issue – but they weren’t really sure what to replace him with. The Labour Party displaying the competence it claimed it’s leader lacked… In the end – after an aborted leadership bid from one of the only Labour MP’s to possess less charisma and political ingenuity than Corbyn – Owen Smith came forward. A man no one had heard of, standing on a platform no one was sure of, in an attempt to do something immensely stupid which was almost certainly doomed to failure; but remember folks; Corbyn is the incompetent one!
It was hilarious. In the way a car crash involving a car full of clowns is hilarious. My mind was made up well before I ever received my ballot paper. In 2015 I had voted for Corbyn because he was the only candidate speaking the truth, living in the real world. This time I had a plethora of reasons to vote for the man; the principle of giving someone more than a year as leader before ousting them, the lack of competence from his opponents, the seemingly absurd reasoning of pinning the lost Brexit vote on him, the identikit candidate put up against him, the fact he was still the only one talking about the issues the membership cared about…
Corbyn won again.
That should have been the end of it, a chance for unity. Yeah – and Eric Pickles might fly…
I think one of the problems the PLP was facing was that they viewed their struggle as them versus Corbyn. Never themselves versus the membership which is what it was always a matter of. Yes, lots of young people and lefties have joined the party since Corbyn has been leader – making the Labour party the party with the largest membership in the country – but Corbyn won his first race against three mainstream PLP candidates thanks to the membership of the time.
I can’t speak to what any other member of the Labour Party thinks, or why they have done what they did. But I wanted Corbyn to face an election as leader for one reason above all else: I wanted to give the electorate a choice. I’ve been on doorsteps, I’ve leafleted, I’ve done the whole trying to get my work colleagues, mates etc to turn out and vote. Any argument against Labour, I can counter. The one that irritates me the most though is the ‘they’re all the same, aren’t they’ argument. It annoys me because it is wrong, even under Blair-Brown, who for all their failures and mistakes, did right by public services, reduced child poverty and introduced a minimum wage. They did things to make the country a better place which the Tories would never have contemplated. But they also did some crap and rightly or wrongly, the public perceived the distance between New Labour and the Tories as small – a view which has persisted in some people’s minds ever since.
Just once I wanted to be able to campaign for someone who I actually believed in. To put someone forward who could not be seen as Tory-lite. If the public rejected him, fine, but we tried, we gave you the option; don’t turn around and complain when the NHS is privatised, your kid’s educated in a class of forty and poverty is the norm rather than the exception. Don’t complain about rich people holding all the power, tuition fees going through the roof, no houses being built. Don’t complain that all politicians are the same, that they’re all in it for themselves, that they don’t car. We gave you a choice. That’s all I wanted.
Still, Corbyn’s second election win opened the floodgates of criticism. Apparently I was a naïve youngster being led astray by entryist Trotskyists… I’ve never met a Trotskyist entrysist. I can barely spell it. Nor was I naïve in my actions. I wanted what I wanted out of experience of seeing our centrists fail, our centrists fail to grasp the importance of challenging the austerity myth, of failing to distinguish the party from the Tories, of failing to inspire.
I will, however, admit I was naïve in 2010, when I voted for Ed. It was my first leadership election, I was only twenty. I had no experience of this sort of thing, and I voted for the person I liked the most. It was a mistake. I saw in Ed traits I liked and had in common with him. I liked that he seemed to be where I was politically. I hoped he would succeed, even though there was little basis for believing it. That was naivety. Voting for Corbyn was voting based on experience, knowledge and out of a desire for seeing change implemented.
Still the criticism came. The PLP seemed unsatisfied with just destroying the party’s electoral chances, now they wanted to go to war with their (ever increasing) membership. And the criticism kept coming from across the political spectrum, from the Guardian, from within the left, from within the membership. We were reckless, naïve, fools. We were idiots. We were dangerous. We were entryists and Trotskyists (Or Marxists, or Leninists or one of those Russians who died because of Stalin or in poverty – there were quite a few.) We were more concerned with ideological purity than electability. We were bullies. We were… I gave up listening to the criticism.
I was happy with my choice and I would bear the responsibility for it. All I wanted was for Corbyn to get one chance in a general election. One chance. If it went to hell, then fair play, hands in the air. But I wanted him to get that chance and would vote for him as leader as many times as needed for him to get it – which I expected would be at least once more before 2020 rolled around.
Then Theresa May called a general election. Wow. You have no idea how happy I was. Not many others on the left seemed to be apart from some Corbyn fans. This was going to be a disaster they told us. It would be 1983, it would be a landslide, a wipeout and so forth. I didn’t really mind. The thing that I hated the most at that moment was the infighting, the slow death by a thousand cuts that Corbyn was suffering. Another three years of it was more than I could bear, so to skip to the end, to have the election now was perfect. We would get to put Corbyn before the electorate, worst case scenario the Tories go from one majority to another and Corbyn gets ousted. Best case; we actually get the Tories out of power. Spin the roulette wheel, I’m all in.
The beginning of the campaign was as expected. The Tories expected to win big. The polls said they would win big. Everyone talked about the Labour casualties, the Labour losses, how this would be a disaster for Corbyn and for Labour. At one point I remember looking at my phone at work and seeing Bet365’s over-under odds on Labour seats at 162.5. This meant that, so far as they were concerned, the chances of Labour getting more than 162 seats were the same as them getting less. This was insanity. I quickly placed a bet.
But was it insanity? Len McCluskey was saying 200 seats for Labour would be a success. It seemed expectations were being managed. Oh dear. Then quite a funny thing happened. The two parties released their manifestos. The substance of what so many Labour party members had wanted put to the electorate finally went live. And then a really funny thing happened; Labour’s support began to increase. It was almost as if a decent number of the public backed the vaguely social democratic policies of a proper left-wing Labour Party leader; nationalised railways, scrapping tuition fees, putting the tax burden on the rich were things people wanted… Shock horror.
The odds shortened. 180 became the new over under. Then 200. McCluskey seemed to have lowballed Labour’s chances. The polls narrowed. May got spooked. Pundits began to talk about her chances of a landslide ebbing away. She’d still win, but not by the margin she’d been hoping for. YouGov were even predicting a hung parliament – even though they were taking criticism for it in the process. After all, Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t force the Tories to lose seats right?
I would like the election result to be seen as vindication for people like myself. People who were members before Corbyn, but who backed him on two occasions nevertheless. I would like the result to vindicate anyone who joined the party and voted for him. I would like it to be a vindication for anyone who voted Labour, said a nice thing about Corbyn, dared to bet that Labour would win more than 162 seats. I would like that a lot, and I say fair play to everyone who has made amends for what they may have said before June 8th.
There are still those who make the very valid point that Corbyn did not win. To them I would say; neither did the Tories, they are clinging to power thanks to a Northern Irish party with terrorist links (ironic right?) and that Corbyn’s ‘victory’ stems from his increasing Labour’s vote share, seats and doing it all despite his own MPs sabotaging him at every opportunity. For Chris Leslie to call the election a missed open goal is like saying Mandzukic’s Champions League Final goal isn’t very good because Real Madrid still won the match. Corbyn did his bit, the Emily Thornberrys, John McDonnells, they did theirs. Where were you Chris? Deflecting shots past the keeper?
We tried. The Labour Party membership put forward a candidate who was different. A man of integrity, of substance over style, who presented a set of policies which no one was ever going to mistake for a Tory party manifesto. We did it and were called reckless, naive idiots for it. So please, let us just have this moment, just this moment to rejoice. To go ‘screw you!’ to everyone who doubted. It’s not out of vindictiveness, or because we’re nasty bullies. It’s because those months of seeing the party rip itself to pieces were hard and all any of us can think now is how much better could it have been if the PLP had backed him. So please, give us a moment and forgive us if we don’t welcome every member of the PLP with open arms and let us savour this moment as well, because what comes next is going to be hard as well.
Indeed, I am less optimistic now than when I was when the election was called. The Tories will go on, propped up in a MayDUP coalition of chaos. I think they’ll get behind their leader in a way our PLP could learn lessons from and if they don’t, I fear what a Boris led Tory party could do at election time. The way to overcome substance may well be to double down on style. I hold little faith that the cult of Corbyn and the remnants of Blairism (or whatever title you wish to bestow on them) will find common ground. I worry the media will not learn their lessons, that the bias will continue and that death by a thousand cuts will simply be deferred. I worry my generation will see the battle as won and look away whilst the Tories screw us over again. I worry the future is not much brighter than in was a few months ago.
The Labour Party is still not where I want it to be. It still has issues I want to see corrected. But considering where the party was in 2008 when I joined and where it is today, I have to say I feel happy and vindicated in my decision to join. I feel vindicated not just against the criticism of Corbyn – who I’ve never had a particular affinity for (a near teetotal, Arsenal fan who takes pictures of man-hole covers is not the kind of person I’d share a pint with… for obvious reasons) – but for the reasons I joined the Labour Party in the first place. For believing that joining Labour and working from inside to make it better was the right decision. For putting up with crap like Iraq and ID cards. For the brilliant people I’ve met in the party and the inspirational stories I’ve heard from fellow members, councillors and MPs that inspire me everyday and make me believe change for the better is possible.
The Labour Party may never be perfect, but it is the best left of centre party the UK has. It is, I believe, incumbent on all progressives, liberals (whatever your slogan) to join it, make it better and work within it for the success of left-wing politics. It’s worked in the past, it’s faired better than anyone could have expected lately and it might just get us a government one day.