Is it a portent? Will the Tiber foam with much blood? Reading and listening to the political pundits was almost enough to convince me that the apocalypse was upon us.
Red Labour will de-select ‘modernisers’ of Blairite hue. Yvette Cooper will be defenestrated, Tristram Hunt will be poked into a Potteries kiln until he screams, and poor old Chris Leslie will be marched to a gibbet on Threadneedle Street. There will be blood.
Oddly, these terrifying scenes were predicted by the same people who scoffed at Corbyn and McDonnell for ‘weakening’, doing ‘U turns’, and ‘backing down’ over Trident, austerity, and Europe.
So which is it? Is Corbynism compromising, and will this lead to his disappointed red hoards storming the Islington barricades? Or will the mighty battalions of Unite and the NUM form a Red Guard to flatten the forces of ‘moderate’ resistance?
As usual, the pundits are wrong. Political leadership isn’t about crushing your enemies, and mobilising a lot of excited people around a different sort of politics isn’t about re-running the 1980s. It’s a mark of how far we are from the 1980s that I didn’t think twice about writing a reference to Threadneedle Street, but I wondered whether some potential readers might need an explanation of what the letters ‘NUM’ stand for.
Let’s say it again – the political commentators got Scotland wrong, they got UKIP wrong, and they got the election result wrong. So what are the odds of them once again ending up in Ballad of a Thin Man country? As the Bob Dylan lyric goes, “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is….”
The fact is that most of Corbyn’s constituency probably think that Trident is a waste of money, but it’s not an issue at the top of their list of worries. Most of them don’t care if Corbyn does or does not renationalise the utilities, though they’d like it if he did. They wouldn’t care if the next Daily Mail ‘revelation’ is that Liz Kendall is having Jezza’s ‘love child’ (note to readers, I made that up, so if it is in tomorrow’s papers, don’t blame me).
The legions returning to Labour are not Trotskyists, Communists, anarchists, class warriors, or any other swivel eyed ideologues, or at least not in anything other than homeopathic quantities. I’ve stumbled on a few of their street protests recently, and its the same few old blokes shouting to make themselves heard over assorted proselytising religious nuisances. The biggest crowds gather around the Roma buskers (they are very good).
Corbyn’s lot are, as far as I can see, people who latched onto his campaign because they thought he understood their concerns and interests. Most of them, as far as I can tell, are middle class people with social consciences, who have values which elevate knowledge, creativity and moral worth over material goods or vapid ‘aspiration’. Many also have worries about material needs, for security in housing, health or infirmity. Many experience insecurity in employment, as public sector wages for teachers, medics, and others are cut, and pensions and conditions of service made worse. Many others are in that section of the precariat mentioned by John McDonnell in his Today programme interview today: the self-employed. The Tories complacently characterise the growing numbers of self-employed as “people building businesses”. Like hell they are. It’s how people scape a living doing things that used to be paid properly, and McDonnell understood this.
What Corbyn’s victory represents in not “faith” in the man on the part of people who are politically at odds with most Britons. It is a groundswell by those who have felt deep unease with politics as it has been practiced over the last thirty years or so. Oddly it has something in common with Cameron’s unexpected general election victory. Its foundations are shallow.
There is no deep-rooted mass support for Jeremy Corbyn. There is no deep-rooted mass support for the Tories, either. Within our election system that currently means that campaigning targeted at small numbers of swing voters in marginal seats can buy a victory, and Cameron shelled out a lot of hedge fund money to do exactly that. They will hope to repeat the trick in 2020.
But the days when the Tories were a mass party, culturally rooted in large parts of the middle-class, with deep pockets of support even in the working-class are long gone. Ditto Labour of old, with its miners’ galas, brass bands, and Co-Op divvies. In those days, turnout in elections was high, and people ‘knew’ which side they were on.
Corbin’s audacious hope is to try to rebuild Labour as a mass movement which represents lives as they are today, precarious, insecure, yet also tech savvy, highly educated and creative, and with a clear set of values around public service and the good life as embracing more than work and material acquisitiveness.
It’s hard to see how the Tories can aspire to do the same. Their policies are bankrolled – by bankers. Not the guys in sweatshirts hanging around the ATMs in the branch on your High Street hoping to flog you some insurance, but remote people who live a How To Spend It lifestyle of private jet seclusion. Retail offers to buy votes can’t build deep roots if they don’t work. Inheritance tax, right-to-buy, pension annuity freedoms, are all paltry offers with in-built disaster potential a little down the line.
So whether Corbyn is to be the next Prime Minister or not, he and his new, energised party base offers a chance to Labour to rebuild the party, to enthuse it, to deepen their local roots, to go on voter registration drives, and to make it a much more formidable opponent. That’s in everyone’s interests, from Abbott to Umuna, from Glasgow to Exeter, from union boss to freelancer.
Time to pull together.