Corbyn or Bust

by Oscar Rickett

I don’t think I’ve ever thought about a politician as much as I’ve thought about Jeremy Corbyn. A lightning rod for people’s competing hopes and furies, he has come to symbolise so much. He is the man who will heal Britain. He is the man who will destroy it. 

The question of “reality” and what is possible in life has always been at the heart of the way people respond to Corbyn. When he first appeared as a contender for the Labour leadership, I couldn’t believe it: at long last, a potential frontline British politician with integrity; someone other than a vacuum-packed centrist in a suit; a real left-winger. 

He came to be, for me, a fiercely potent, yet desperately vulnerable symbol of what might be possible. I began to dream that a transformation in our British political life could take place, that we could be guided by something other than the grinding drudgery of what is deemed to be possible by most of our political class.

Many of Corbyn’s critics say that he is implausible, unrealistic. Their definition of reality is blinkered. It is a reality in which left-wing politicians can only win power by dressing in the clothing of the right, in which to remain idealistic is to be a callow teenager, naïve to the ways of the world. The language used here is always assertive, condescending: “naïve”, “idealistic”, “realistic”. 

Perhaps, more than anything, Corbyn has, like Bernie Sanders in the US, highlighted the perilous divide among those who view themselves as being on the left. Broadly speaking, leftists have stood with Corbyn, while liberals have decried his supposed incompetence, his lack of electability. This is an incomplete assessment. I know, I once even attended a meeting of communists during which one old comrade registered his fury at the idea that proper revolution should be jettisoned in favour of the gentle politics of a “man with a nice beard”. And all the while, another divisive lightning rod of a leader lurks in the background: Tony Blair, the man who always won, now reviled.

My hope that a Corbyn-led (or at least Corbynite) Labour party would win over the public has waxed and waned, but it has remained. It is a hope too large and too frequently under assault not to be profoundly fragile, but it also feels like the only hope worth having for British politics at this juncture—now that the electorate essentially faces a choice between Labour and an incompetent Conservative party continuing to destroy the country’s public services—it’s Corbyn or bust. 

Which, of course, is not to say that the Labour leader hasn’t made mistakes, hasn’t tested his followers’ faith, mine included. At times, he has struggled to be an effective politician, to show a facility for the practice of politics; he has come across as irritable or vague; his response to anti-Semitism needs to be much stronger, and Labour’s policy regarding Brexit can tend towards the torturous.

I could add to that list. There were times when I wished that Corbyn would be replaced by some hack politician who would neither elate nor disappoint. But given the mitigating circumstances—chief among them that almost the entirety of the British media and establishment, not to mention much of his own party, wish he’d spend the rest of his life napping on his allotment—it’s a miracle he’s made it this far. 

Now, the benefits of his getting here are becoming clear. In the weeks since Theresa May broke her word by calling an early general election, Corbyn has been afforded the opportunity to speak to the wider voting public without heavy-handed mediation by a press and political establishment who find his position an affront to every bland assumption they hold dear. At the same time, the British have been exposed to a Conservative party that offers nothing to capture their imaginations while boasting more draft manifestos than Donald Trump does draft tweets. The result: a significant surge in the polls for Labour—granted one that is unlikely to end in victory, but one which poses urgent questions about our democracy in all its corrupted and compromised forms.

Corbyn’s supporters are often those who have been traditionally sidelined by the British political system, including young people, people of colour and those who haven’t voted before (the phenomenal, but I would argue entirely predictable, support Corbyn is receiving from grime artists speaks to all three of these groups). Polls show that if only those under 50 could vote, Labour would win easily.

When Corbyn spoke before a Libertines gig at Tranmere Rovers football ground recently, he talked of the importance of music and sport, and in doing so he struck upon movements of the soul that remain baffling to many politicians. He spoke easily, and truthfully, about the art and activity that make people’s lives worth living, rather than presenting them with a series of “tough choices” that remain unexplained and result only in worse circumstances for those affected.

For the first time in decades, the British public have a clearly defined choice to make, one which involves a Labour party that is putting forward unashamedly left-of-centre policies. If we lived in a well-functioning democracy this would already have been common knowledge. Instead, the ideas Corbyn’s party have been proposing have usually been ignored in favour of scare-mongering relating to his appearance and past.

For much of the UK’s media and political establishment, Boris Johnson—a notorious liar who previously wrote that the African continent’s problem is not that the British once had colonies there but that they left—is a plausible foreign secretary because he went to Eton and Oxford and indulges in British exceptionalism. Jeremy Corbyn, who has talked with distrusted, sometimes murderous, foreign groups who are little understood here, is seen as being an implausible leader because his ideas sit outside a narrow definition of what is and isn’t acceptable for a British politician to do and say. I don’t always agree with Corbyn, but am confounded that his having a more radical, international view of the world sees him branded a traitor. He wants the history of the British Empire to be taught in schools—his opponents want to believe the jingoistic and exclusionary British worldview is and always was the right view.

But then, when it comes to our national story, honest self-examination isn’t in the British psyche. Our democracy is reduced, again and again, to tabloid patriotism; to the idea that by impersonating something strong and safe we become strong and safe. With their campaign, the Conservatives are feeding the public more such myths. Corbyn’s Labour would rather actually feed them. They would rather make lives materially better, as opposed to pumping us up with fallacies of greatness while depleting the public services we depend on.    

People are struggling to get by, both materially and spiritually. The gap between the rich and poor widens, the environment totters on the brink of irreversible catastrophe, and younger generations struggle to imagine life beyond working till death in increasingly precarious conditions—if automation doesn’t render them obsolete. If elected, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party won’t be able to resolve these issues overnight. And they will, of course, have Brexit to contend with, at which point we’re all in uncharted waters. 

But what Labour does have under Corbyn is a start. What they have is a programme that looks to build some kind of future, that seeks to redress the balance between the people and the market; that hopes to take things that are not working and see if a new approach will foster a better outcome. What they have is a leader committed to trying to help people who have not been helped nearly enough. It’s a no-brainer: Corbyn or bust. 


Photograph by BBC / PA

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