How we regained faith in politics
By Paul Halas
Jeremy Corbyn was a phenomenon. This relatively obscure politician emerged from the backbenches to lead the party five years ago, and almost tripled the Labour Party membership. Labour became the biggest political party in Europe. While his ascension came about almost by mistake, there’s no mistaking the effect Corbyn had on British politics. What was his appeal?
He reached out to those who had lost faith in party politics in a way no one else had done for at least three generations.
I first became interested in politics at college in the late 1960s, while learning the craft of film-making. Many of my cohort were “politicos”, who were more interested in polemic and producing propaganda than the tedious processes involved in movie-making. A particular small group, with a radical left agenda (they were chummy with some people who went on to form the Angry Brigade), wanted to make a short film on the hardship of life on the dole, but, realising it should be lit properly, approached me to join them. What were my politics? Left wing of course, but beyond that I was a bit vague… They weren’t actually too bothered, they just wanted their film to look good, which we achieved. And in the process, through osmosis, I learned a fair bit from them.
From then on I always took a keen interest in left wing politics, but was also drawn to libertarian hippidom as well. While I considered the Labour Party far too intertwined with the establishment – a lost cause – I couldn’t really connect with any of the far left political groups either. It was all too “Life of Brian”, with various groups expending more energy on in-fighting and slagging off everyone else than working constructively for societal change.
As the 1970s wore on it became clear that a major show-down was taking place. The working class and the unions versus the nation’s antediluvian employers and the government of the day. And while some emerging voices on the left of the Labour Party, such as Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott and a certain Jeremy Corbyn, were making a lot of sense, the likes of Dennis Healey and Jim Callaghan ensured that the party remained a no-go area for many of us.
And the 1980s? Labour had our sympathy and our votes. By that time I had quit London and was living in deepest rural Wiltshire, where to support Labour was not so much infra-dig as utterly beyond this galaxy. As Thatcher made a bonfire of the nation’s cohesiveness and decency many of us simply seethed impotently. While the unions and people’s lives were shattered, while our council houses and utilities were flogged off, while spivs and speculators became a new aristocracy and malignant globalism started to grow, mainstream politics appeared to hold no answers.
In the Nineties we were going to have a Labour government but Neil Kinnock tripped and fell in the surf… No matter, in 1997 things could only get better. At the time I was living in Tetbury, a small town in rural Gloucestershire, and a surprising number of people there – nearly all affluent men in their 40s and 50s – were passionate about New Labour. To be “old Labour” instantly became a form of insult. I drank with them in the pubs but I couldn’t join them; this was not a club I wanted to be a part of.
For some the Blair/Brown years were just fine, for others the lustre wore off as betrayal followed betrayal… but many others never bought into the project to begin with. By the time Blair teamed up with Dubya to go search out them WMDs I was thoroughly fed up with the Blair administration. Much is talked about Tories who fail to do the right thing and resign following disastrous mistakes, but if ever there were an instance when falling on one’s sword was called for, it was when the premise for invading Iraq was proven to be baloney. Shamelessness in office is nothing new. New Labour was style over substance, masterminded by Manipulative Mandy and the sultan of spin, Alastair Campbell.
Blair’s role as a Thatcherite continuity leader became ever more transparent, despite all the gloss and despite the real advances such as increased spending on health and education. Inequality was still on the rise; creeping privatisation was still on the march. For a while it even seemed as if Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats had a more radical agenda than New Labour…
And that betrayal of True Labour principles eventually told at the ballot box.
Ed Millband came and went. Politics under New Labour and then the Coalition just seemed to become shabbier and shabbier. How thousands upon thousands of us yearned for a bit of authenticity, for some integrity. For a modest leader who was for the people and not the neoliberal elite. And suddenly that call was answered.
Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t polished, wasn’t slick, didn’t have a media-friendly demeanour. He was the outsider who’d stuck to his ideals through thick and thin, who’d championed those without a voice and who’d constantly challenged his own party when he considered it was wrong. For the first time in most people’s living memories we had a real left wing leader. Hundreds of thousands of us loved him for that. It could have been anyone with those qualities, it happened to be Jeremy Corbyn. We feasted on his appearances and speeches; this slight, allotment-tending, veggie beardo assumed almost rock star status. We flocked to join the party, and when his leadership was challenged countless thousands more signed up to defend him.
For people like me, who’d for years been cynical and disillusioned with politics, especially party politics, here was a cause one could give oneself to wholeheartedly. We could all make a contribution, make a difference. In my retirement, I was suddenly busier than I’d been for years – and together we were going to change British politics forever.
Many of those already in the party, some of them with many decades of dedicated service behind them, had very mixed opinions about Mr Corbyn. Some liked him, some didn’t, most tolerated him. Some had soldiered on throughout the New Labour years with heavy hearts but a stoical loyalty to the party, while others had embraced the prevailing neoliberalism of the Noughties and were alarmed at the new leader’s perceived radicalism. Most, I suspect, harboured a degree of misgiving at the influx of arrivistes in a party mechanism that they had been running for years. New people with a mix of naivety and enthusiasm…But weren’t we ever good when it came to campaigning and canvassing.
2017 was exhilarating, even if we didn’t pull it off. We’d caught the establishment and the media on the hop, but they weren’t going to make that mistake again. If 2017 left us still optimistic 2019 left us numb and demoralised. Corbyn, a thoroughly decent man, despite a number of shortcomings, had been laid low by his political enemies, the establishment, the media, and by many of those who were supposed to have been his political friends. On a global scale his ideas were not even that radical, but in 21st Century Britain they were certainly way too egalitarian for the powers that be.
Now we have Keir Starmer at the helm. In his quest to re-take the political centre ground it appears he is willing, eager it would seem, to throw the left under a steamroller. A series of actions, such the forthcoming whitewash of the “leaked report”, give ample evidence of that direction of movement, the latest being the increase in various forms of disciplinary action against left-wingers, mostly on absurdly flimsy pretexts. Control freakery is on the march. Party membership had dropped by about 70,000 since the general election, and I strongly suspect that many of the ones who have “had enough” are people who’d been enthused by Jeremy Corbyn.
I’m still a Corbynista. That’s why I joined the Labour Party, and that’s why I’ll stay if I’m able to. Certainly change can take place through non-party political means, but the scale and breadth of systemic change that will will be necessary if we’re to have any sort of future can only be brought about by enlightened governments. And in the UK I’m convinced that will have to be a True Labour government. A government that believes in democratic socialism and a government that’s serious about tackling climate change.
Let’s make sure Corbynism isn’t dead, and that we’ll get back on the right track in the future.
Paul Halas a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party last year with a heavy heart.