Take Your Idealism Out of the Freezer
Just before the British General Election in early May, I encountered local candidates hustling for our votes in the neighborhood park. Among them was North Islington’s longstanding Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn, whom I found delivering a heartfelt defense of the National Health Service. The dogs in his audience—all six of them—outnumbered the humans.
On September 10, I spent a rousing evening in the community center two minutes from that park. This was Corbyn’s ninety-ninth public event of the summer, marking the end of his season of campaigning to become Labour Party leader: the building rocked with the thousand-strong crowd, swathed in red t-shirts and screaming for Corbyn as if he were Beyoncé, raucously chanting “Jez We Can” until the lights went up. Onstage, his allies retold the story of the last hundred days, chuckling as they reminded us how many times they’d had to pinch themselves since the campaign began.
Labour had been leaderless since Ed Miliband stood down in May after the Conservatives’ outright election victory (34 percent of the disillusioned electorate didn’t bother to vote). Corbyn—a backbencher throughout his career—was persuaded to stand for election to ensure that Labour’s hard left faction would be heard in the approaching debate; he began the fight as two-hundred-to-one outsider, having achieved the requisite thirty-five nominations with seconds to spare, thanks to MPs who agreed that a broader debate was a good idea. Several publicly regretted their support when, almost immediately, “Corbynmania” began to sweep the nation.
On Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn sailed to victory as head of the Labour Party with 59 percent of the vote: the biggest mandate for a British political leader ever.
At first, it was almost too easy for the media to ridicule the sixty-six-year-old socialist, who has, in thirty-two years as an MP, voted against Labour policy over five hundred times (more often, apparently, than the Conservative leader David Cameron). Corbyn is teetotal, and a vegetarian! He rides a bike everywhere, and takes night buses instead of taxis. His middle name is Bernard! The “beardy weirdy” narrative didn’t seem to put off anyone—indeed, Corbyn’s five-time victory in Parliament’s Beard of the Year competition went down as a pretty impressive accolade. They criticized his penchant for beige jumpers and tweed jackets, and they dug up archive footage of him proudly admitting to a journalist that his mother knitted his sweater. Yet people were signing up to the party in their thousands. These were older people who’d quit the party, disillusioned by its “Tory-lite” policies; they were young people, who have been written off as an apathetic generation because they hadn’t previously found anyone they could get behind.
The media pointed out Corbyn’s links to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Sinn Féin. His friends in the party, too, were portrayed as a pretty rum lot: as hippies and idealists, white-haired Trotskyites and gap-toothed union bosses. But then, Corbyn was the only leadership candidate to oppose a Conservative welfare bill from which interim leader Harriet Harman had encouraged abstention. Suddenly, the joke candidate became the frontrunner, perhaps because he’d distinguished himself, showed that he had convictions. In failing to pass any opinion whatsoever, the other candidates had confirmed the general view that they, like Corbyn’s jumpers, were indistinguishable shades of beige.
Crowds at a “refugees welcome” march in Trafalgar Square roared for Corbyn’s victory, while back at Westminster, Labour cabinet members began to resign, citing their differences with the new leader. David Cameron sent a tweet which made it sound like the opposition had just elected a terrorist, rather than a committed pacifist, to the top job: “The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.”
Among other rare qualities, Corbyn is offering the British electorate hope. The popularity of his slogan “straight-talking, honest politics” is founded on mistrust of politicians who appear to play the game in the interests of themselves and their mates. This unassuming, unfashionable, decent, principled man doesn’t have to protest that he’s an ordinary human being—no PR stunts involving bacon sandwiches necessary—because he actually speaks like one. The right-wing media has been quick to compare him with Donald Trump, perhaps because support for both—alongside UKIP and the SNP in the UK, and Bernie Sanders in the United States—has sprung from widespread disillusionment with the status quo. But Corbyn’s not a personality politician (at his own rally, the laughter was more nervous than rapturous when he confessed a niche fascination with railway history). Rather, it’s the traits he epitomizes, not historically associated with sharp-suited politicians, that people so respect: kindness, empathy, politeness, humanity.
Corbyn’s most enthusiastic backers have been among workers and trade unionists, led by general secretary Len McCluskey, and those fed up with class divisions, welfare cuts, uneven wealth distribution and the demonization of the unemployed in British society—all of which he pledges to eradicate. But this leaves Corbyn with powerful enemies among the banks and bosses, and as Syriza in Greece quickly learned, such opponents have ways of shoving idealism straight in the freezer. Time will tell whether Corbyn can get the rest of the party to unite around his policies, and how much compromise he’ll allow on questions such as Trident renewal and NATO membership. His open challenge to Conservative austerity—to which Labour has over the last five years capitulated, to wide public dissatisfaction—promises a radical alternative that no one else is talking about, but his strategy will be painstakingly scrutinized by sceptics.
He wants to be a figurehead for a social movement, not a one-off Messiah-like leader, and as an inspiration and mobilizer he’s doing very well. Hundreds of thousands joined the party to have a vote in the election—many as “affiliate supporters,” for just £3—and tens of thousands more have pledged allegiance since Corbyn won. This means his mandate comes not from fellow MPs, but from the hopeful—it’s yet to be established whether this moment will go down in history as thrilling or dangerous. Tony Blair bluntly said that those Corbynistas voting from the heart should “get a transplant”; there are fears that Corbyn’s Labour will split, or be relegated to a protest movement, dooming the country to at least another term of Tory government. Against all the cynicism stand the chanting crowds in red, faces upturned towards their leader, their ubiquitous placards held aloft: “I voted for a new kind of politics,” they read. Is hope enough? We can only hope so.