Undermining hope: The toxic legacy of a pointless leadership election
A year ago today Jeremy Corbyn was elected, by a landslide, as leader of the Labour Party. It was the culmination of a remarkable campaign that had galvanised hundreds of thousands of ordinary people to join the Labour Party, or register as supporters. After the grim despondency of the General Election a great tide of hope emerged, and I am proud to say that I was one of those swept along in its wake.
I can remember the day well. I had taken the train into town, in order to join a ‘refugees welcome’ rally, but I had only one thing on my mind; the special conference to announce the winner of Labour’s leadership election. Corbyn had begun as a rank outsider, owing his place on the ballot to a desire to ensure at least the appearance of a broad church. Nobody actually expected him to win. In fact so certain were Labour’s so called ‘moderate’ wing of his also-ran status, that even Margaret Beckett and Sadiq Khan signed Jeremy’s nomination papers.
What they had not factored into their calculations was the power of hope and the deep yearning in the party and wider society for profound change. Years of apathy and a growing sense that all politicians are as bad as one another, had now given way to the belief that at last a man of genuine conviction and integrity was providing a real alternative to the Westminster elite.
At the outset, I confess, I didn’t think he could win either. The odds, and more importantly the establishment, were stacked against him. But I had hope. And as Vaclav Havel, leader of Czechoslovakia’s so called ‘velvet revolution’, once said; “Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Corbyn’s campaign was truly inspirational. I attended one of his rallies, at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. It blew me away. In fact I hadn’t seen anything like it since the 80’s, and while there were similarities in terms of the energy and enthusiasm behind the movement, this was very different from past campaigns. The overwhelming majority of people in the room, and those crowded into doorways and standing on tip-toes in the lobby, had never been to a political meeting in their lives.
I left that night utterly certain of victory; not because of this one meeting in Liverpool, but because I had seen the hope in people’s eyes, and I could see that Corbyn had tapped into something universal; the desire for a better world. Why should the working class of Liverpool be any different to those in London, the midlands or the north? Of course I was right and on the day of his victory, twelve months ago, I wrote the following words in these pages:
“The rules of conventional wisdom and political spin said that Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t get this far. He has torn up that rule book. The Labour Party will never be the same again. Beyond it there will be millions of people whose prosperity, health and well-being depend upon the success of this fledgling movement. As I rode the train homeward I realised that ‘New Labour’ is now dead. Long live ‘True Labour’ and a new hope for a better future.”
I was under no illusions. I knew that the onslaught against the new leader and his supporters, during the campaign, would pale by comparison with the barrage to come. We were now in uncharted territory and success was not guaranteed; but as Havel so eloquently put it, this just made sense, regardless of all that.
I still believe this today. In fact my resolve has strengthened. Some have accused me of being an idealist, or a dreamer. When did those things become a crime by the way? I am both, and unashamedly so. Life is painfully short and to devote your energies to anything other than imagining a better world, and striving to make it a reality, is a life wasted.
Besides, I have spent far too much time listening to those who say change is impossible, only to see old orders, once considered permanent, cast aside by people sick of the status quo and desperate for a life worth living. Think of the Berlin Wall, think of Apartheid, once considered immovable monoliths; now consigned to the rubbish heap of history. What is it that gives the current establishment such confidence in their longevity?
Of course they have the full weight of the state at their disposal. From unattributed briefings suggesting military coups, to CCTV footage illegally supplied by billionaires and reported gleefully by Fleet Street, Corbyn has been treated to a ‘baptism of fire’. All of this and more was to be expected. It could even be seen as a sign that we had picked the right candidate. After all no Labour leader worth having is ever going to receive an easy ride from these people.
However, his treatment at the hands of the Parliamentary Labour Party has been hard to take. In his book, ‘A very British coup’, Labour MP, Chris Mullin, shows us a world in which the state conspires to destabilise a left wing Labour leader, Harry Perkins. This is not as far fetched a vision as you might imagine. After all, this week cabinet papers have revealed how Downing Street used the police and law courts to smear striking miners.
However, In the case of Jeremy Corbyn, it seems many of his shadow cabinet colleagues were more than happy to do the establishment’s job for them. Indeed their methods have been far less subtle and much more overt than anything Mullin’s security services could have dreamed up.
We’ve had accusations of far left, and even Thatcherite infiltration. Corbyn’s supporters have been branded Trotskyist Nazi’s, a completely new political ideology, presumably from outer space; and of course linked, spuriously, with violence and intimidation.
But by far the most insidious weapon used against the Labour leader and his supporters is, in my view, the undermining of that wide eyed sense of hope fostered by Jeremy’s campaign for the leadership and his ultimate victory. This ‘we know best’ mentality only serves to poison aspirations for a fairer society, when Labour should be nurturing such ideas.
Too often the the challenges posed by the most right-wing Conservative government in living memory have been ignored, only for the focus to be shifted onto their ill conceived and poorly executed coup. As a result of this senseless act of sabotage Labour is losing ground to the Tories, and the people it is meant to be fighting for are left behind. After being lectured that socialism is a discredited dream, we are apparently now allowed ‘diet socialism,’ but only if it is packaged in a shirt and tie combo and emblazoned with media friendly soundbites.
Time and again the ‘moderates’ seek to dilute the ideals of the movement in order to make them palatable to the establishment. It seems it is sacrilege to suggest we can partake of the feast, instead we must make do with crumbs. If this is their message now, before they have even engaged the Tories in an election campaign, imagine how much more the message will be diluted, in the face of a hostile press. Conversely consider how steadfast Corbyn and McDonnell have been, in weathering a storm that has lasted for more than a year, and shows no sign of blowing its self out. Doesn’t that epitomise courageous leadership?
I refuse to accept that another world is not possible. I know it will be hard, but it’s time for a Labour Party that offers a real and tangible alternative to a system that plunges millions into poverty and destroys our public services. The time for tinkering and reforming is passed. We need a total transformation and a shifting of power away from an elite few, and into the hands of ordinary people so that they can have control over the decisions that affect their lives.
Only Corbyn’s team are offering this vision. To those who say he is incapable of delivering it, I point to his courage under fire and offer these inspirational words, from Shel Silverstein, an artist and poet, who lived in Chicago in the 1930’s.
“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
If you are still undecided in this contest I implore you to choose hope.