When pushed for answers by journalists – about his personal prospects, say, or his relationship with his MPs – Jeremy Corbyn has a special knack for finding his way back to what he really wants to talk about: inequality, injustice, the need for the Labour Party to become a ‘social movement’. This is a common enough tactic for politicians battling to stay on message, but in Corbyn’s case it reflects an abiding set of concerns to which he returns repeatedly. What we notice with him is not usually a change in content, but in tone. When in a good mood, he exhibits a good-natured, smiling patience, taking a breath before explaining, yet again, why Britain is a sick society and what measures should be taken to improve it; when he’s in a bad mood (it often depends on who’s asking the questions), he becomes impatient, irritated, as he explains yet again – if you’d only bloody listen – why Britain is a sick society and what measures should be taken to improve it.
Some, clearly, have been listening. On 16 July, I joined an ‘emergency march’ against austerity and racism that I’d found out about by following the #KeepCorbyn hashtag on Twitter. It was now ten months into Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, five days since Angela Eagle had announced a leadership challenge, four days after Labour’s National Executive Committee had voted to allow Corbyn onto the ballot in the subsequent contest without his having to muster fifty nominations from his fellow MPs (which he would have been unable to do), and three days after Theresa May had become prime minister. When I arrived at Broadcasting House for the start of the march, a few hundred people were gathered around a speaker from the UK wing of Black Lives Matter, orating into a megaphone. There were people selling the papers you always see for sale at demonstrations: Socialist Worker, the Socialist, the Morning Star, Socialist Solidarity and the Workers’ Hammer. A variety of placards were stacked against lampposts: ‘No to Islamophobia. No to War’ (Stop the War Coalition), ‘Migrants and Refugees Welcome Here’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ (Stand up to Racism), as well as signs belonging to Momentum, the group set up last year to maintain the energy of Corbyn’s campaign after his election. Momentum’s signs were printed with Corbyn’s face and the text ‘For Health, Homes, Jobs, Education. JC4PM’. Stuck to railings were posters reading ‘Defend Corbyn! Fight for Socialism!’ There were old anti-apartheid and union standards, as well as a Momentum branch flag and a ‘Women for Corbyn’ banner.
The crowd was largely young and white, but there was an older generation too – veterans of the struggle. Behind me a young man who had come with his mother dipped into a Waitrose bag and – perhaps eager to pre-empt the charge of champagne socialism – produced a mini bottle of prosecco. Once we started off, the sun at a blistering peak, the people around me chanted ‘Refugees are here to stay, let’s deport Theresa May,’ and ‘Tories Out, Corbyn in.’ Bemused tourists on Oxford Street raised their cameras. When we reached Trafalgar Square I noticed an EU flag tied to the equestrian statue of Charles I. Passing down Whitehall, just after Banqueting House, where Charles had his head cut off, removal vans could be seen parked outside 10 Downing Street.
In Parliament Square, the Hare Krishnas were dishing out free lentils and rice. There was another Morning Star stand. The Fire Brigades Union, which re-affiliated to Labour after Corbyn’s election, had set up a platform for speeches. A message from Corbyn was read out, including a few of his favourite lines: ‘Austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity. We can do things differently. We can make our country a very good country.’ I spoke with a middle-aged woman standing next to a large York Momentum banner. She was wearing a ‘Corbynista’ T-shirt (she told me she’d had it printed herself); next to her a man was wearing a ‘Superman’ T-shirt, blue with ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ spelled out in red and yellow block capitals on the front. Corbyn was the Labour leader she’d been waiting for all her life, the woman told me, after years feeling ‘disenfranchised’. She’d only just joined Momentum, prompted by the ‘despicable’ way Labour MPs had turned on their leader – she’d met the other members of the York branch on the train down to London that morning. She was cheerful and confident: ‘We’re not going to go away quietly. We are many.’ I wondered whether she had been reading Shelley.
Judged by any normal criterion, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is in crisis. Since his election, with 59.9 per cent of the vote, he has been attacked for organisational inefficiency, poor media management, inadequate performances at Prime Minister’s Questions, being soft on anti-Semitism in the rank-and-file, tacitly condoning the bullying and abuse of his opponents in the party, and for giving only half-hearted support to the campaign to remain in the EU. Labour performed badly in local elections in May (though not as badly as some predicted), losing 11 seats overall, and suffered another ignominious defeat in elections to the Scottish Parliament, for the first time falling behind the Tories. The party has consistently lagged behind the Conservatives in the polls (which tend to overstate Labour support) – the gap has recently been as wide as 16 points. Corbyn is the most unpopular opposition leader on record, polling worse than Michael Foot, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and Ed Miliband, all of whom went on to lose general elections by significant margins, or did not get to contest them.
There are 230 Labour MPs; on 28 June, 172 of them voted in favour of a no confidence motion in Corbyn, and only forty against. (He wouldn’t have been able to stand for the leadership in the first place if several of his colleagues hadn’t voted for him in order to encourage ‘debate’ – one of them, Margaret Beckett, has described herself as a ‘moron’ for doing so.) His shadow cabinet, devastated by a series of staged resignations, is now a patchwork of very young MPs and very old ones, many of them doing more than one job. After 29 years in Parliament the 81-year-old Paul Flynn has made his front bench debut as both shadow leader of the house and shadow Welsh secretary. Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have also been abandoned by several of the high-profile economists they signed up as advisers in 2015, including Thomas Piketty and David Blanchflower (who tweeted ‘he has no economic policies’). Corbyn’s former policy chief, Neale Coleman, who was often described as the most effective member of his team, has now been announced as a top adviser to his opponent in the leadership contest, Owen Smith.
Despite all this, Corbyn seems likely to defeat Smith, possibly with an even larger share of the vote than he received last year. As his personal ratings have plunged, Labour’s membership has shot up – it now stands at more than 500,000 – making it by far the largest political party in the UK. Indeed, according to a poll of party members, Corbyn is more popular than ever.
Momentum, which operates independently of the official party machinery, has branches all over the country and claims to have 12,000 members, is resolutely committed to keeping Corbyn in power. Like anything or anybody associated with the Corbyn project, the organisation has not had a good press. Momentum has been painted as a modern-day Militant Tendency, its members as ‘hard left’ entryists intent on deselecting MPs who offer any resistance. When I turned up early for a Momentum meeting in Hackney one evening (Owen Smith had emerged as the ‘unity’ candidate to challenge for the leadership a few hours earlier, after Angela Eagle abandoned her campaign), it was another stiflingly hot day, and there was already a small crowd of people waiting on the street, many of them leaning on bikes. When we got inside, we organised chairs in a large circle and were told to introduce ourselves to the person next to us. More people arrived, and then more, so that eventually a second ring of chairs was set up outside the first. There were around sixty people in the room.
The chair of the meeting, probably in her late fifties, introduced herself as having been a Labour member for the last year (i.e. roughly since Corbyn’s election), though it was not, she said, her first time in the party. She asked how many people in the room had been disenfranchised by the NEC ruling that only those who joined before February this year would be eligible to vote in the leadership election; a good number put up their hands. The meeting was supposed to be running in connection with the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, but it had been decided that we should focus on Jeremy and his campaign (Corbyn is almost always ‘Jeremy’ to his supporters and in Momentum literature). Still, there was time to hear from two members of the NHS campaign, Coral and Carol, who spoke with quiet force about the funding crisis in the health service and creeping privatisation. Afterwards, we were split into discussion groups on different topics: the NHS, how to convince people to stick with Corbyn’s agenda, and how best to organise the new leadership campaign, inside and outside the party.
I joined the ‘sticking with Corbyn’ group. There were more than ten of us, the majority in our twenties, but stretching well past middle age, with many attending a Momentum meeting for the first time. When I introduced myself there was some momentary scepticism (‘Are you here to report on us, or what?’), but no one seemed very concerned, and an Irish man in his seventies indulgently described me as a ‘participant observer’. (It turned out that two of the group were LRB subscribers.)
The discussion that followed, which lasted for the best part of forty minutes, was as far from the tabloid stereotype as could be imagined: earnest, friendly, intelligent, honest, nuanced and reassuringly normal (two people referred to the shadow chancellor as John McDonald). What emerged in the discussion was a clear acknowledgment that the anxieties about Corbyn and his agenda were real and needed to be tackled. One woman confessed that several of her friends had lost faith in him, feeling he was unelectable, and that she wasn’t sure where to find a list of his policies to help deal with their concerns. Several recognised the risk of appearing to be a personality cult: one man said that Corbyn was simply the first person ‘close to power’ who had articulated the values and ideas he believed in; another agreed that there was a need to find a ‘narrative and language beyond Corbyn’; the Irish man, who wouldn’t have ‘touched Labour with a bargepole’ after Iraq, said he’d been brought back into the fold not by Corbyn, but by the enthusiasm he generated, the sense of a popular movement being born.
The group emphasised the need for popular education: to issue FAQ sheets dispelling myths, and to publicise the YouTube videos of John McDonnell’s ‘New Economics’ seminars held at universities earlier this year, as well as the findings of a recent LSE report on media bias against Corbyn (75 per cent of press coverage, it says, has misrepresented his views). It was agreed that there was a need to move away from social media, and to take the battle offline. The PLP should be attacked for choosing exactly the wrong moment to launch a leadership coup: fire should have been focused on the rudderless Tories post-Brexit.
I listened, and was impressed. It was impossible to disagree when someone pointed out that a year or so ago the idea of this many people sitting in a hall during a heatwave to discuss the Labour Party would have seemed fantastical: I don’t think I’ve ever talked about politics in a way that felt so practical and purposive, so engaged with the world. When the groups came back together and reported their conclusions, the sense of common purpose was palpable. I felt some of the contagious enthusiasm that has persuaded so many people of the possibility of a new politics, a community-based social movement.
Yet this particular meeting was essentially concerned with more traditional politics, with ensuring the election of Jeremy – perceived as the guarantor of this social movement – and much of it was focused on organising stalls and phone-banks, and on the NEC’s rulings on the franchise for the leadership election. There was also a partisan edge, sharp against all the good feeling: one older man stood up and shouted that Saving Labour, the group set up to mobilise party members opposed to Corbyn, was out to ‘destroy any form of socialist thought. They are the enemy within.’ My Irish friend recommended that people get to know the enemy by reading a biography of Alastair Campbell.
The meeting lasted longer than two hours. Throughout, in what people said, there was a frequent, unthinking slippage between ‘members’ and the ‘public’. In our small discussion group it was never quite clear whom we were meant to be persuading to stick with Corbyn’s agenda; one person intervened twice in order to try to confine the debate to the membership. Even those who acknowledged the need to move ‘beyond Corbyn’ felt the public just needed to see more of the real man, unobscured by media bias, to understand his longstanding fealty to his principles, and his honesty in expressing them. The problem with this is that the polls show that the public already believes that Corbyn is principled and honest (and that he is more in touch with the concerns of ordinary people than David Cameron or Theresa May). They just don’t want him as prime minister. Even though many of his policies are popular, they are tainted by association with him, as Labour’s policies at the last general election were by association with Ed Miliband, who was also seen as more in touch with ordinary people than Cameron.
While Corbyn’s supporters and the wider public agree that he does not look like a traditional leader, they disagree on what that implies. For the former, it is a signal of his break with a bankrupt political orthodoxy, with the spin and slickness of New Labour (‘straight talking, honest politics’, the slogan goes). For the latter, the worry is not simply Corbyn’s brown jackets and red ties, but the instinctive feeling that he would look out of place outside Downing Street. (Anyone who rules instinct out as a force in politics is naive.) Corbynites would no doubt reply, with some justice, that we need to reconceptualise Britain’s Westminster-centred politics and break with the Victorian trappings of our democracy, cobwebbed with pretensions to the status of a great power. But there is no sign that the public shares in this revolutionary spirit. ‘Prime ministerial’ persists awkwardly as a desirable quality.
There are two other anxieties. One – and this is something no one at the Hackney meeting acknowledged – is that some of Corbyn’s positions are flatly unpopular: on Trident especially he is way out of step with public opinion. For many people, he’s a 1980s throwback – an authentic Bennite discovered on the steppe and thawed out in the 21st century – rather than a believable symbol of a new politics. The other is that Corbyn is in open conflict with the great bulk of the MPs nominally under his leadership. Since this wasn’t coming up as an issue in my discussion group I raised it myself, suggesting that in a parliamentary democracy, it’s untenable for Labour to be unable to provide effective opposition and at the same time appear as a functioning government-in-waiting. To return Corbyn as leader surely means accepting that the party will split, or at best dig in behind existing lines of division? No one seemed to have given much thought to any of this. But in any case, they asked, what was the alternative?
The next evening I arrived in what was possibly an even stuffier room, Conway Hall in Central London, for an Emergency Rally to support Corbyn’s campaign. Outside there was the inevitable Morning Star stall, and Momentum posters that read ‘#KeepCorbyn. We are the Labour Party. And we’re here to stay.’ (There was no sign of any official Labour Party material.) The hall was full – its capacity is around four hundred. There was again a palpable feeling in the air, difficult to convey in print: the closest equivalent I can think of is the experience of attending a gig – a narrowed, concentrated attention, a consciousness of shared knowledge and understanding, that peculiar sense of security you have when surrounded by people who like what you do. The tone of the speakers was bullish, and the audience was tensely excited, forever on the brink of applause, rushing gratefully into it at any opportunity.
Like the people in Hackney, the speakers emphasised that this leadership fight was not about Jeremy, but about the values he represented: ‘Because we believe … that a better world is possible and we are prepared to fight for it’, in the words of Diane Abbott. The crowd cheered wildly at any mention of increased house-building, a break with neoliberalism, the end of austerity, support for junior doctors, environmentalism, the end of tuition fees, nationalising the railways. But nothing matched the reaction given to Corbyn himself, when he appeared as a surprise speaker halfway through the evening. There was a great intake of breath and a long exhalation of delight, the audience arriving on their feet in one swift, imperceptible motion; I looked round and saw that everyone was grinning, whooping, pumping their fists. A moment later the room was resounding to the chant of ‘Jez we can,’ the slogan of his 2015 campaign. Once the room finally became quiet, Corbyn thanked everyone ‘for staying the course’, and people shouted back: ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ This was Corbyn in his natural habitat, energetic in his moral seriousness. His short speech touched in his usual haphazard way on familiar themes – Ronald Reagan, Pinochet’s Chile, Latin America in the 1980s, colonialism in Africa, the need for a new economy, environmental protections, new homes and quality mental health services, a plea for respectful debate, the need for Labour to reinvent itself as a collective force that could ‘chase down and defeat’ the causes of inequality, the power of social media as a tool – and earned him another standing ovation and round of ‘Jez we can.’ Then he headed off to another meeting.
One line stood out: Corbyn referred to last year’s leadership election, when ‘we were elected as the leadership of the Labour Party’. This ‘we’ has a different resonance from Mrs Thatcher’s, but is just as suggestive. The idea of the party developing as a social movement – Corbyn is determined to give the membership the primary role in formulating policy – obviously represents a shift from the model of a top-down politics, but the rally made it clear to me that the story of this new campaign is of a Labour leadership joining hands with its supporters in order to crush its own parliamentary party. What was even more startling was the degree to which this feels like a one-sided battle, with the MPs helplessly outnumbered and outsmarted. (Corbyn’s refusal to budge in the face of the attempted coup, and the slow drift into a leadership campaign they’re not sure they can win, show how few options MPs have remaining to them.) Marsha Jane Thompson of Momentum told the audience of the group’s reach on social media – 18 million people on Facebook – and claimed credit for ‘bussing in’ activists who helped win the recent by-election in Tooting and the mayoral election in Bristol. We were told to take out our phones, and send the message ‘JEREMY’ to a particular number, thus contributing £5 to his campaign (everyone around me did so). Hailing the 180,000 people who had paid £25 each in a 48-hour window so that they could vote in the leadership election as registered supporters, Thompson claimed most of them as Corbyn backers and stated that the opposition had ‘completely failed’: the process had raised an estimated £4.5 million for the party and represented a ‘great start to Jeremy Corbyn’s general election campaign’.
The mood wasn’t defensive, but confident, even swaggering. Corbyn had claimed on stage that he ‘wasn’t going to get down in the gutter with anybody’, but his fellow speakers were much less scrupulous. Maryam Eslamdoust, a Labour councillor for Kilburn, who referred to Corbyn as ‘our current leader, our future leader and our next Labour prime minister’, suggested that the ‘plotters’ – the 172 MPs who voted no confidence – ‘are not afraid of losing, but of winning. They don’t want us to change this country. They are the ones who are unelectable.’ A Unite representative who had left Labour during the Blair years and rejoined in the Corbyn era blasted ‘the 172’ – a number destined to go down in infamy – and sneered at the ‘Kinnock dynasty’ and ‘their ilk’ (Neil opposed the Bennites as Labour leader in the 1980s and has supported the moves against Corbyn; his son, Stephen, was one of those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow administration).
Christine Shawcroft, a member of the NEC, attacked the decision to suspend CLP meetings during the leadership campaign in response to the much publicised death threats, abuse and intimidation suffered by Corbyn’s opponents. She announced that the brick reported to have been thrown through the window of Angela Eagle’s constituency office on the day she announced her leadership bid was actually thrown through the window of a shared stairwell and looked to her more like a ‘bodged break-in’. She dismissed Owen ‘what’s-his-name’, declaring that ‘if he was that left-wing we would have known about him’ (Smith was, until a few weeks ago, Corbyn’s shadow work and pensions secretary). Chris Williamson, the former Labour MP for Derby North, described the behaviour of the 172 as ‘sickening, disgusting’. It was as if, he said, they had been planted as sleepers in the Labour Party thirty years ago by Lynton Crosby (election strategist for the Tories) and had now been activated. These MPs had ‘declared war on the membership’ (‘Yes! Yes!’ shouted the woman next to me). Richard Burgon MP talked about the ‘parliamentary bullies’ who wanted to drive Labour members to ‘turn their backs on anti-austerity’ and warned that ‘socialists don’t give in to threats.’ At least twice, members of the audience shouted ‘Deselect!’ Three young women I spoke to afterwards were unfazed by the prospect of a showdown with MPs after Corbyn’s re-election: ‘Get them out,’ one said. ‘They can join the Tories.’
The speakers at the rally had an explicit relationship to Labour Party history: the catastrophe of Iraq is its totemic event but it is seen only as a symptom of the iniquity practised by those who have sought to move Labour to the centre, from Kinnock (whom Burgon bashed for not fully supporting the miners in 1984) to Tony Blair, whose craven capitulation to capitalism is New Labour’s other defining sin. Corbyn is sanctified by his relationship to this past, having stood in opposition to every one of New Labour’s most hated initiatives (accounting for some of the 428 times he voted against the Labour government); most others are damned by it. Many of those I spoke to or heard speaking at pro-Corbyn events had been active on the left in the 1980s, had given up on the party then, or at the latest over Iraq. For these people and others (especially the generation that has come of age post-2008) Corbyn alone can offer a full-blooded socialist programme. Maryam Eslamdoust, who looked to be in her twenties, told Conway Hall that she was tired of being lectured to about ‘electability’: she had spent years ‘making excuses for our policies. I’m fed up of tame policies, with offering no hope … It lost us Scotland.’ The campaign for Corbyn is, we were told again and again, a ‘battle for the soul of the Labour Party’. The left of the party understands his grip on power to represent their best and possibly last chance to create the party of their dreams.
If the Labour left has actively fostered this Manichean perspective, so too have those on the right of the party. But Corbyn’s election came only as a consequence of the failure of the party as a whole at the last general election and before. Its inability to rethink its intellectual foundations and policy agenda, to respond to the drift away from it of many of its traditional working-class supporters, were symptoms of a decline Corbyn too has failed to arrest. The pallid prospectuses offered by the establishment candidates Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham in the 2015 leadership election campaign made clear that the mainstream left had no idea how to confront this problem. Only Corbyn dared to speak from conviction.
But whoever is to blame for the impasse at which Labour has arrived (and of course Britain is not the only nation in Europe struggling to reinvent social democracy for the 21st century), it is clear that the failure to separate Jeremy Corbyn from the project of a revived left – the representation of any opposition to his leadership, of whatever kind, as an attempt to return the party to a dismal appeasement strategy – has created a situation fraught with danger for the party and for the left. It obscures (and by extension denies) the existence of legitimate concerns about Corbyn’s leadership: most notably, the functioning of the leader’s office and his ability to lead a shadow cabinet. ‘I had the opportunity to see what was happening inside the PLP,’ Richard Murphy, once credited as the author of Corbynomics, recently wrote on his blog. ‘The leadership wasn’t confusing as much as just silent. There was no policy direction, no messaging, no direction, no co-ordination, no nothing. Shadow ministers appeared to have been left with no direction as to what to do. It was shambolic.’
Several MPs have supported this claim. Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West, was appointed a shadow minister without her knowledge while she was being treated for cancer, then sacked the next day when Corbyn ‘realised he had given away part of someone else’s role’. Unfortunately she wasn’t informed of this either, and worked in her new job for six weeks before making the discovery when she returned to Westminster (she was finally appointed again, to avoid further embarrassment). Lilian Greenwood, who resigned as shadow transport secretary, claimed that on several occasions Corbyn had undermined agreed policy positions on national television or radio without warning or consultation. Speaking to her constituency party, she asked ‘How would you feel if you were part of a team and you knew that not only was your boss undermining you but that this was happening to other colleagues?’ Alan Johnson, who led the Labour campaign to remain in the EU, has alleged that Corbyn and his team regularly failed to take up agreed positions, avoided taking part in meetings and watered down speeches. (In truth, the pro-EU Labour vote held up pretty well, but we don’t know whether or to what extent Corbyn’s low-key performance played into the national mood, rather than challenging it.) For many MPs, Corbyn’s suggestion on the morning after the EU referendum that Article 50 should be activated immediately (again made without consultation) showed an appalling lack of judgment. Baroness Smith, the Labour leader in the Lords, where a great number of government defeats have occurred, told BuzzFeed, ‘It is a bit galling when Jeremy stands up and says, “Under my leadership we won on tax credits and we won on trade unions and we won on the housing bill.” I don’t think I had any conversations with Jeremy about those issues.’
That Corbyn has become synonymous with the wider left agenda also inhibits a fair assessment of the politics of the 172 MPs who have no confidence in his leadership. This is far too large a number – and the spectrum of belief it covers too wide – for it to represent the ‘right wing’. The grouping includes both early opponents of Corbyn and those who resigned from his shadow cabinet, themselves a broad church, as well as MPs who nominated him for the leadership (and not just to promote debate). Jo Cox was one of those who opposed Corbyn, but since her death she has been lauded for her principled positions on the positive benefits of migration and the futility of bombing in Syria. The Blairite category has now become so capacious that it seems to include any Labour MP who admits wanting to win an election.
It should not be heretical, either, to argue that Labour needs to develop a broad base of support, and that this may involve some compromise with an electorate that has so far shown little enthusiasm for its leader or his message. Labour MPs are aware that the party membership is well to the left of the country at large – something that will also be brought home to them by regular contact with constituents – and that they have a duty to acknowledge this reality. Even if the party clawed back huge chunks of the vote it has lost to the Greens, the SNP and the Lib Dems, it would fail to win a majority without also winning over Tory voters in Tory seats. There seems to be little chance of this happening at the next election, whoever the leader is, and it’s unclear too whether a less ‘extreme’ leader would be able to reverse the long-term decline in Labour support. But something has to be tried.
What authentic version of the Labour Party is Corbyn fighting for? Presumably one that existed before he entered the House of Commons in 1983, given that he was one of the top ten Labour rebels even in the 1983-87 Parliament. It is, I think, from the foundation myth of the Labour Party as a movement of idealists and working people, finding solidarity in the struggle for their rights, that he derives his chief inspiration. Corbyn’s hero is Keir Hardie. Yet Hardie first ran for Parliament on the slogan ‘A vote for Hardie is a vote for Gladstone,’ successfully argued for the party to be called ‘Labour’ rather than ‘Socialist’ for fear of alienating potential supporters, and refused to back campaigns for the extension of the franchise because he was more anxious to secure practical reforms within the existing system than to fritter away his energy on constitutional struggles, even if it meant leaving some working men without the vote. There has never been a Labour Party that has not made compromises in the hope of improving its chances at electoral success. There have always been refuseniks too. But Labour at its most radical won in 1945 after spending more than a decade painstakingly stitching together a body of support; later serving as chancellor was Stafford ‘Austerity’ Cripps, who for most of the 1930s had been a stalwart of the extreme left.
The Corbynite refusal to compromise – compromise is Blairite revanchism – ignores the existence of vast tracts of common ground. As several observers have pointed out, John McDonnell’s ‘new economics’, with its emphasis on the use of strategic investment and higher wages to create the returns needed to reduce the deficit without further squeezes on spending, bears a striking resemblance to the policy advocated by Ed Balls. Though Ed Miliband’s reluctance to break with the language of austerity was frustrating, it was a (failed) strategic decision rather than an ideological choice: during last year’s general election campaign the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out that under Balls’s plans the party could have ended cuts in 2016 and still met its deficit targets. Margaret Hodge, who tabled the motion of no confidence, is another MP attacked as an unregenerate Blairite, but she spent the last Parliament as chair of the Public Accounts Committee pouring scorn on the PFI deals and outsourcing to the private sector that were Blair’s lasting domestic legacy, and was in large part responsible for publicising tax evasion as a national concern. Only last summer Angela Eagle was John McDonnell’s choice for deputy leader of the party.
Corbyn supporters increasingly resemble devout Brexiters, insistent on a golden future that is in contradiction to all known facts. They appear to believe that Jeremy Corbyn can win a general election without the support of his parliamentary colleagues, without the backing of the majority of Labour councillors, without support in the national media, without needing to demonstrate competence in his office, without even average personal approval ratings, without public confidence in his economic policies and without anything close to a Labour lead in the polls. The fear, based on current projections, must be that the British left will bury itself for good in 2020 (or earlier, if Theresa May chooses to junk the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act and hold a snap election). Those who talk of a ‘marathon and not a sprint’, of a long-term strategy of renewal that will bear fruit in 2025, do not seem to consider the possibility that Labour's position could get much worse at the next election: a marathon gets a hell of a lot longer if you lose your legs halfway through.
My final visit, a week after the march on Parliament Square, was to a Momentum rally, held on another hot Saturday afternoon, in Nuneaton. Corbyn had launched his new leadership campaign the day before, echoing William Beveridge with a promise to eradicate five modern evils: inequality, neglect, insecurity, prejudice and discrimination. He also appeared to confirm what had seemed inevitable listening to the speakers in Conway Hall and observing the response of the audience: the constituency boundary changes planned for 2018, which will reduce the number of MPs by fifty, would require every sitting Labour MP to stand for ‘reselection’ by their constituency party. This alarmed many MPs: reselection was a major demand of the Bennites in the late 1970s, and was used to weed out some of their enemies.
Nuneaton is a former mining town, and has the same pinched, hard done by quality as similar places further north. It was number 37 on Labour’s ‘battleground target seats list’ for the 2015 election. A classic marginal, it voted Labour from 1935 to 1983, Tory from 1983 to 1992 and then Labour until 2010, when the Tories won it back again. Last year, the Conservative MP not only retained his seat, but increased his majority by nearly three thousand votes. When Cameron was asked at what point he knew the Tories were going to win, in defiance of expectations, he replied ‘Nuneaton – that was Basildon’ (Basildon was the marginal seat Labour failed to win under Kinnock in 1992, signalling similarly that the polls had overestimated their support). On 23 June Nuneaton voted by 65 per cent to leave the EU. It remains exactly the sort of seat, in what John Lanchester called ‘Deep England’ in the LRB of 28 July, that Labour has to win to stand any chance of returning to power.
The Momentum rally was scheduled for midday in front of the George Eliot statue in the town centre (she was born in Nuneaton). I had checked the local branch’s Facebook page on the train: 35 people were confirmed as attending and someone had recently posted an article entitled ‘1983: The Biggest Myth in Labour Party History’. As I approached a woman was bellowing ‘Vote Labour! Save yourselves! The Tories will destroy you!’ to no one in particular. A sign propped against the hem of George Eliot’s skirts read ‘Austerity – No. Corbyn – Yes.’ The speeches were similar to those I’d heard elsewhere: an emphasis on Jeremy’s honesty and principles and the increase in Labour membership, attacks on austerity, the proliferation of foodbanks, the crisis in the NHS and the housing shortage. Again, I heard that the brick only went through the window of a shared stairwell in Angela Eagle’s office block. Chris Williamson, the ex-MP for Derby North, was back too and made his joke about the 172 being ‘sleepers’ (it didn’t get as big a laugh).
And yet we were a world away from Parliament Square, Hackney and Conway Hall. Most of the people gathered round – the crowd fluctuated between forty and fifty – seemed to be existing supporters and several were members of the pro-Corbyn Socialist Party, which had a stall. Only a handful of passers-by stopped to listen. There was a large butcher’s van parked nearby, and the speeches were punctuated with sales patter: ‘Do you want flavoured or plain chicken?’ ‘Peppered steaks, loads of them. Who’s got a fiver?’ The market traders nearby were angry that their patch had been invaded. There was some heckling: one man walked past and said ‘Absolute joke. Can’t think of anything worse’; another shouted ‘Bollocks’; a third booed loudly. An elderly man wandered over and told someone in a Momentum T-shirt that Corbyn had ‘good points’ and ‘bad points’: ‘The problem is that he just sits there and takes it.’ One of the organisers noticed me taking notes and asked curtly who I was writing for. When I said I was writing for the LRB he responded, ‘That’s a right-wing paper, isn’t it? Aren’t you owned by the Telegraph group?’ His friend told him to relax.
Afterwards I spoke to another of the organisers. The Momentum group had started off with four members, she told me, and was now up to twenty. They had had four meetings so far, and this was their first public demonstration. She was completing a PhD on attitudes to the working class, which had involved interviewing people in some of the poorest wards in the area (where the BNP vote is high). Was Corbyn capable of speaking to these people? I asked. ‘He could, but I’m not sure they’d listen.’ She wasn’t sure what would happen in Parliament if he was reselected as leader: ‘Do you think they’ll split?’ she asked me. Afterwards, I chatted to a young woman standing nearby, who was unaware the event had taken place. She was 16. Was there a groundswell of support for Corbyn among people her age? I asked. She didn’t think so. She thought his ‘heart was in the right place’ but she didn’t agree with his ‘pacifist views’. Her parents were lifelong Labour voters, and were very unhappy with him. She was angry about Brexit: she felt people in Nuneaton ‘didn’t think’. But she could imagine herself voting for the Tories in the future, and thought Theresa May was ‘the right person for the job’.