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Corbynism after Corbyn

Corbynism after Corbyn

I.

Last Thursday morning, stuck indoors because of the pandemic, I opened my laptop and started to scroll through the British Library website. I also searched through online copies of Hansard.

I didn’t read The Mirror and The Light. And I didn’t use Netflix to watch Better Call Saul. I was on an investigative rampage, my mouth soaked in coffee, my shirt crumpled in exhaustion.

No baking salted caramel cheesecake for me. No time to plant exotic flowers. My quarantine was fully dedicated to uncovering what I set out to uncover.

The ordeal finished when I discovered, ultimately, I was on a goose-chase. No tears were shed. For I was not going to be the next Woodward and Bernstein; or even Seymour Hersh: I was just an unsuccessful hack.

Nevertheless, the next day, after the strain of searching multiple sites had worn off a little, I started to write this piece: it is my tribute to the Corbyn revolution.

I knew Jeremy Corbyn indistinctly before he rose to prominence as the standard bearer of the Left in the 2015 Labour leadership election. He was that man with the beard: while people were getting their fruit and veg on a Saturday morning, he would be attending an event to commemorate an arbitrary anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. You were more likely to see him on Press TV than a Parliamentary select committee. In other words: a true hero to the masses.

And then he won.

And he transformed the party of Keir Hardie and Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson and Tony Blair into the biggest mass movement in Western Europe. Galvanised by his eloquence and integrity, Labour won 203 seats in the December 2019 General Election. Ultimately, they won the argument.

What was I searching for online?

II.

Before my day of digital rapture, I was calmly researching a piece to counter the doom and gloom of post-election Labour. I wanted Corbynites to assert their dignity. But to give some balance, I wanted to include ex-Corbynites too.

So I met up with a former Labour party member. I initially thought about using Skype or Google Hangouts. Then I remembered Zoom. The name kept cropping up on Twitter. I was attracted by the name itself: Zoom. I wanted to get at the heart of the Corbyn project: I wanted to zoom into it.

The former Labour party member was called Polly. The Zoom chat started, thankfully, without any hiccups. I asked her about Corbyn.

T: Tell me about the early days. How were they for you?

P: Oh, really fantastic. Many young people joined the party. And many other middle-aged people, too. Jeremy was so great at the beginning. A breath of fresh air.

T: Yes. Yes. Wasn’t he just?

P: Yeah, there was a vibrant energy in the movement. It was like being part of a protest movement. We knew we were on the right side of history. Something huge and significant was going to happen soon. Politics won’t be the same again.

T: Can you expand on that?

P: Politics would be about the people. Democratised. There was passion.

I was noting down furiously. I couldn’t keep up with her intense lyricism.

T: So why did you leave the party, then? What happened?

Her eyes, pellucid blue, looked at me sharply. (My laptop camera is HD).

P: Look, I just got frustrated with things.

T: With what?

P: Things started to go bad in November last year.

T: What happened?

P: I went door-knocking. Speaking to people. Not like us, who love the party and obviously hate Boris. But people…

Where had her eloquence gone? Her clarity?

T: Which people?

P: People who can’t stand Corbyn. Who think he's politically inept, morally corrupt.

And we continued to speak for two hours. Her heresy eventually led to apostasy. She is no longer part of the movement.

After I closed the Zoom chat, I ordered many books I didn’t read.

The books that intrigued me most, however, were Alex Nunns’ The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn's Improbable Rise to Power, Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, and Tacitus’ Annals. They all seemed so cheerful and uplifting.

I had my flask of coffee, my packets of Mini Cheddars, and my passion and integrity.

And so began my journey to the strange end of the Corbyn leadership.

III.

A Tribune article that celebrates the legacy of Corbyn starts like this:

As we sat, struck dumb and winded by the exit poll, it was impossible not to notice the thin glee of the pundit class on election night. There were none of the commiserating platitudes granted to soft-left candidates like Neil Kinnock or Ed Miliband. As they transitioned from their panic in 2017 to smugness in 2019, the media ghouls were clearly determined to kick Jeremy Corbyn while he was down.

The reasoning evidenced here is tight. It is a logical and moral travesty that the partisans of the Corbyn revolution were unrewarded by their endeavours. The pundit class were so ‘clearly determined’ to kick Mr Corbyn when he was down that they could only muster ‘thin glee’ when he was responsible for Labour’s worst electoral defeat since 1935. They should have at least waited till he officially stopped becoming leader.

But the gem of this article is here: ‘He may not be a street fighter, or able to appeal to blue-collar workers interviewed by grifting journalists due to the supposed lack of “fire in his belly,” but Corbyn has a moral courage that surpassed his predecessors’.

I do not doubt this claim at all. There is something infinitely noble about being anti-political. Before becoming leader, he had never been a Member of the Cabinet. He has thus been at greater liberty to say what he thinks. And what he thinks is extraordinary precisely because, free from the responsibility of being an orthodox politician, he has been at greater liberty to say them.

Corbyn is saintly: the corrupt mendacity of politicians trying to win elections and improve the country for the better is, and ought to be, subordinate to ideological energy. And then this glorious piece climaxes thus:

I met Corbyn once, briefly, at the Labour Party conference in 2018. As he stood chatting amiably and posing for photos with delegates, I approached him and was overcome by a sentimental urge to garble my gratitude to him for putting up with the revolting abuse he was incessantly subjected to. ‘Oh,’ he replied, smiling at me slightly quizzically as he rested a hand gently on my shoulder, ‘you mustn’t feel you need to thank me.’ But I did. I do. I need to thank him by helping to finish what he started. We all do.

I can see it. Can you?

The figurehead of a movement that shoulders the responsibility of all. A talisman to whom we must constantly thank. And to whom we must ‘finish what he started’.

Jeremy Corbyn's initials are J.C: he is the latter-day Jack Cade. Long may the English revolution continue!

As David Graeber, in a faultlessly balanced piece for the New York Review of Books, put it: ‘If the results of the 2019 election mean anything, they reveal an overwhelming rejection of centrism.’

The crux, in short, is this. Corbyn was not the problem. He was never the problem. And any analysis of the election that suggests otherwise is bunk.

IV.

I was doing yoga to unstiffen my body after the strain of digesting two Guardian long-read essays, one of which was entitled 'How Ultra-Processed Food Took Over Your Shopping Basket', when I received a text from another Corbynite friend. His name is Santiago. He knew I was writing this piece and wanted his say.

We arranged a Zoom meeting for that evening. I knew it was going to be a long and intense conversation, so I prepared a hearty meal beforehand. I made pappardelle with rose harissa, black olives, and capers: God bless you Ottolenghi! This was accompanied with a glass of pinot noir. I was ready to face Santiago.

Santiago wore a black turtleneck jumper.

S: It's too easy to blame Corbyn for the election, you know.

T: Really?

S: Yes. He was never backed by the party. There were always factions within the party, in cahoots with the centrist press, you know, that undermined him. Again and again, you know. How can you expect victory in that context. How?

T: Do you think there was any criticism they made of Corbyn that was legitimate?

S: No.

T: Anti-Semitism?

S: A right-wing conspiracy concocted by a coalition of centrist journalists, right-wing Labour MPs, and Zionist forces, you know.

I asked Santiago about other previous Labour leaders and politicians, similarly gutted by the press, but nevertheless successful in winning elections and implementing progressive policies.

S: Tony Blair?

After he said this a torrent of abuse poured forth. Some of it in Spanish. Young children, naturally curious about the fallout of Corbynism, might peruse this essay. So I shall not repeat Santiago's expletives. He was a tough cookie in our Zoom chat, facing my questions with zest and aplomb.

T: Okay. Just to play devil’s advocate. What about quintessential Labour insiders of the past? Someone like Barbara Castle. She was a politician's politician that nevertheless stood for things, someone who espoused ideals. She played a key role, for example, in the introduction of the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

As I was asking this question, as gently as I could, Santiago's face started to contort, bit by bit.

S: Okay. Yes I get your point. It doesn't change anything, though. Your example doesn't change the fact, you know, that politics needs to change now. We can't have a revolution without a different type of politician, you know.

T: There’s no point to radical policies if you can’t implement them. Especially when we really need to kick the Tories out.

S: Hey! Hey! Hey. Let me finish my point. Then you will make your point. As I was saying.

A long pause ensued. Did I go too far? Oh god.

S: As I was saying, you know, you can't have radical politics which meet the radical demands of today – on inequality, climate change, and other stuff – without a radical kind of politics. Without a radical and revolutionary politician. To change things and make them better. You know.

T: Okay. Do you think we can differentiate between Corbyn and Corbynism?

S: I don't like such questions. Corbyn will be gone but his legacy will remain in the party, you know. The movement won't go away. You want me to define the movement. Okay my friend I'll define it for you. It is about securing freedom and equality and power and rights for every person in this country, you know. Everyone. Okay. And we need a radical politician to radically transform the country. To do that. Okay?

Listening back to this, a day after the interview, I became more and more overpowered by Santiago's cogency. It made Corbyn's loss even more mysterious. And it made my heresy seem patently absurd. It put me back on the trail, searching for my golden egg: the relationship between the collapse of the Labour Party in the December 2019 General Election and Jeremy Corbyn.

V.

On the day before my investigative rampage, I was having a scrumptious cheese and pickled cucumber sandwich in my kitchen when I received a text from anonymous number: IT WAS BREXIT, STUPID. Bemused, I rang the number.

It was a sweet, maternal voice. She told me Santiago gave her my number, and that her name was Blanche. She suggested we have a chat through Houseparty, but I insisted on Zoom. My beloved Zoom.

My laptop was slow. It might be all my research tabs on display – a network of promising, overweight knowledge.

Eventually, Zoom came up. Thank God.

Blanche is a middle-aged woman with a tuft of wild salt-and-pepper hair and pink-rimmed glasses.

B: Hello darling. How is your piece coming along?

T: It's doing alright, thank you very much. By the way, what do you make of the Labour party leaks that's just come out?

B: It just proves the right of the party - The Labour First and Progress lot are just scum, really. The way they tried to undermine the leadership. And they accused us of racism and bullying? Give over. It was simply projection on their part. We haven’t got any racist bones in our bodies. Them, on the other hand? Stunning brass necks.

This was a convincing start.

T: And who did you vote for as the next Labour leader?

B: Becky Long-Bailey, of course.

Keir Starmer had recently become the new Labour Leader. Rebecca Long-Bailey was the candidate ideologically closest to Corbyn. Santiago, the bravura radical, voted for Starmer. I wonder why.

I then asked Blanche about what she meant specifically by the text she sent me.

B: We couldn't win because Brexit put the party, you see, in a double-bind. I voted Remain. Obviously. But I think the party was captured by people so utterly, utterly transfixed by remaining in the EU that they undermined Jeremy. And this made it basically impossible for us to win.

T: Okay, I take your point. But, to play devil’s advocate, what would you say to people who mention the post-election Opinium poll. It shows the main reason voters were turned off by Labour was because of the leadership. Or the testimony of journalists like Sebastian Payne of the FT, who did a Twitter thread listing all the various people he spoke to, who all expressed they would not be voting for Labour specifically because of Corbyn.

B: Nope, nope. Does not change my point.

T: Which is?

B: Brexit did it. Look at the 2017 election.

I couldn’t get past Blanche’s shield. I wondered, as she conceded no point, just as Santiago batted my questions away with Andalusian intensity, whether the recalcitrance of Corbynism is the source of its strength: the hard-left might have lost the last election; they might have lost previous elections; and they might well continue to lose future elections: but they are still HARD. That must count for something, right?

Some of Polly’s heresy has definitely entangled me. How can I resolve this?

T: Out of 10, how would you rate Corbyn?

B: 11.

VI.

In his final PMQs, after listening to Boris Johnson praise his ‘sincerity’ and his ‘determination to build a better future’, Corbyn said this: ‘My voice will not be stilled. I’ll be around. I’ll be campaigning. I’ll be arguing. And I’ll be demanding justice for the people of this country and indeed the rest of the world’.

Was this final testimony consistent with reality or instead reflecting a comforting fantasy?

Is Corbyn saint or fraud?

Oh, no. Oh no. The heresy has developed to a frightening degree. The questions will not go away.

I remained unresolved as I trawled online over the weekend, tab after tab, occasionally stopping to eat, check Twitter, and go to bed. On Friday, I found some semblance of peace. All I did was consider the romance of politics: it is the only salve to my burning heresy.

What is the romance of politics? It is being entranced by the image of Mr Corbyn on a rainy day; condemning something I know next to nothing about with the zeal of a puritan.

I closed my tabs, opened Facebook for the first time in two weeks, and stared longingly into the warm glow of confirmation bias.

There are many things I miss stuck at home. I miss a kebab in the interregnum between Saturday night and Sunday morning. I miss pubs and bars and cinemas. But most of all, I miss meeting fellow Corbynites and soaking their impregnable energy.

The progressive and socialist movement will, however, continue. As a Verso essay declares: ‘The movement can prove Jeremy Corbyn right: there is no such thing as Corbynism. There is socialism. And, things can, and they will, change.’

The romance of politics is more than fantasising about Mr Corbyn; it is proclaiming the inevitable triumph of socialism when an Old Etonian called Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is operating with an 80-seat parliamentary majority.

After this piece, I am going to read The Mirror and the Light. I am going to go to my garden and gently eat grapes. But first, I am going to go to bed for a long time. I have sweet dreams to catch up on.

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