What do political commentators do every day before they write their columns, or opine on the political talk shows?
They do what I do, and what you do, perhaps, if you’ve happened to chose to read this blogpost. I consume the political media, in all its forms. It’s a total emersion in the world of London-based political hacks. So I know what they think.
And one of the things they think is that the quarter of a million people who made a conscious choice to vote for Jeremy Corbyn did so for a range of disparate and crazy reasons, above all because in the days of social media, left-wing activists choose to lock themselves in an electronic echo chamber where they hear no voices but their own.
Excuse me? There’s no echo chamber quite so hermetically sealed from other voices than that of the London commentariat.
Despite my political nerdishness, I lead a normal life in a large, diverse European city. I use buses and trains, the public library, cafes and pubs, Waitrose and Poundland. And wherever I go, I meet people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn.
Few of them are raving Trots or swivel eyed commies. When I went to a Corbyn rally I’d expected to have to fight my way in through hoards of Socialist Worker sellers and TUSC leafleters, but there was nothing more than half a dozen mostly elderly representatives of the revolutionary left at the doors, all of them keeping a polite distance from the official Corbyn stewards.
What the Corbyn supporters have in common, at least in my experience, is a feeling of being left out of the national conversation. A sense that people like them have been de-legitimised, stigmatised, or that the moral values they hold dear have been trashed by two generations of professional politicians and their media cheerleaders.
First, the de-legitimised and stigmatised. These people include public sector workers, like teachers and medics, as well as many young people with debts and poor career prospects. Thirty years of private sector = good, and public sector = bad, a mantra which is wholly false, takes its toll on the morale and confidence of the people who provide our vital services. And they’ve had enough.
Young people bear the brunt of the narrowing of employment prospects for those not born to privilege. Some young people also feel stigma, a feeling expressed by young Muslims at the meeting I attended. Cuts are directly impacting on many young people, especially those in further education who find that library closures and shorter opening hours are making it hard for them to study – not to mention the loss of EMA. They felt despair, but many also feel anger, and need a political voice for that.
People with high rents and insecure tenure are also frustrated by a political imperative of “home ownership” as the only legitimate ‘aspiration’. They, too, want a voice.
Then there is Corbyn’s moral constituency. These tend to be middle aged or older, often modestly affluent, whose sense of propriety is offended by the coarse materialism and lack of compassion of conservatism, whether it is Big C or Labour-conservatism. They feel affronted that people they regard as genuinely politically extreme are somehow, in some Orwellian way, branding decency as the ‘extreme’ position. These people are articulate, and very, very cross.
It is fair to ask, can the Corbyn coalition be electorally viable for the Labour Party? Is the greater part of the public in England, for that’s where most of the parliamentary seats are, open to an anti-austerity programme? Or is the public, as many commentators have argued, essentially conservative?
The answer to this is complex – much more complex that waving some numbers from polls and focus groups around and yelling that all the evidence says that Corbyn’s on a hiding to nothing. It’s true that most people don’t like to perceive themselves as being on the wacky fringes, but it is also true, as Zoe Williams observed on C4 News yesterday, that even in the last five years political rhetoric has moved radically to the right, with previously ‘unsayable’ things becoming normalised. The “centre ground” is objectively way to the right.
Moreover, the successful Tory narrative about the ‘need’ for ‘austerity’ may begin to wear increasingly thin as the consequences begin to be felt. Whilst only poor kids felt the loss of EMA, or library closures, comfortable middle class, Conservative supporting people will feel the crisis in social and medical care for the elderly as their parents or partners begin to need services that are no longer there, and which cost serious money to purchase privately. Small business owners whose sense of moral superiority has long been boosted by Tory rhetoric about ‘entrepreneurs’ may wonder what’s hit them as Osborne’s minimum wage rises and stripping away tax credits confronts them with the real costs of running their businesses without public subsidy. Roads unrepaired, trains overcrowded, rural buses axed, post office services pared back, a crisis in school places, all the consequences of continuous cutbacks will bite all but the most comfortably off, and a reoriented Labour Party might be in a better position to expose what’s wrong and, crucially, to offer hope that there is another way.
Virtually none of this is about Jeremy Corbyn, the accidental Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. He “has all the charisma of the average branch manager of a provincial building society,” to steal the words Eric Hobsbawm used to describe Clement Attlee, the hero of 1945. But Attlee had been Churchill’s deputy throughout the war, whereas Corbyn does not have that level of experience. Neither did David Cameron when he became Prime Minister in 2010.
My own feeling is that if Labour MPs and the movement as a whole work with, not against Corbyn, in a critically supportive way, he may surprise everyone. Or he may flounder. But the movement that elected him won’t go away, and if Corbyn is not JC but John The Baptist, so be it. Labour must tread another path now, whoever leads it.