Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
‘Recognising the car is broken is one thing; knowing how to start it is another.’ Jeremy Corbyn.
As these phrases go, it doesn’t even offer the humour of ‘the wheel’s still turning, but the hamster’s dead’. Yet Corbyn’s soundbite neatly sums up the state of his party – and much in contemporary politics.
It’s from his keynote speech to the Fabian Society’s annual January gathering. You’ll have seen the clips of his eulogy for the NHS (referred to throughout the day as ‘beloved’, rather than ‘something people now trust the Conservatives on more than us’). I saw it live: a lapsed-lefty friend having asked if I fancied going to New Year Conference (it’s one of those capital-lettered, non-definite-articled things).
That I struggled to ascertain the 7,500-strong Fabians’ non-official current positioning (traditionally, socially democratic and supportive of reform over revolution) says more about today than about them. Answers offered in the pub afterwards varied from, ‘We’re wishy-washy liberals’, to ‘Welcomingly apolitical’, to ‘Not Corbyn; not Blair’, and ‘I used to be a Tory councillor’.
On a stereotyping observational assessment, however, the conference audience was predominantly middle-class, London-centred, white, men in their sixties with white beards, men in their twenties with trendy haircuts, and smily middle-aged ladies. ‘Let’s have a question from the guy in the grey jumper,’ provoked a chorus of ‘which grey jumper?’ During the ‘Morning Plenary’ – under the pyramid roof of the Friends House’s not-quite-full main hall – I also spotted one teenager (Tory-boy side-parting, juggling coffees), and one small bored child.
This is the second year running that Corbyn has opened the conference; the chairwoman said, ‘We’ll look forward to welcoming you back again’. (Slight pause.) ‘Next year.’ (Silent question mark.) Corbyn’s timing is still off (I’m trying to crescendo. They’ve got it! I’ll start agai… Ah, they hadn’t stopped clapping), but he’s increasingly slick (which his voter base must love…). As are his lines: ‘It isn’t ideological; it’s straightforward logical,’ was my favourite. Though his description of May as ‘she’d rather listen to spin doctors than real doctors’ was sweet – nobody’s said ‘spin doctor’ since New Labour (which explains it).
That was one of the few references to her. Corbyn’s name also barely resurfaced. It was only in the final minutes of an event asking ‘What should Labour be?’, that one panellist – a commentator – said apologetically: ‘Leaders matter. And, for whatever reason, people don’t like your centre-forward.’ (Shy clap from the bravest.) And that was that. The most obvious white elephanting was that the conference was tied to the Fabians’ recent report entitled, Stuck: How Labour is too weak to win, and too strong to die. That the whole ‘here’s the guy who’s causing this’ was unmentioned shows how far Labour is from ‘starting the car’.
Often at political meetings, everyone assumes you’re on their side. That’s rarely true, but this time, I wasn’t sure anyone knew which side they were on themselves. One panellist introduced himself as representing Progress, ‘that right-wing conspiracy’; Stella Creasy said that ‘you don’t have to be at a conference on a Saturday morning to know that echo-chambers aren’t only on the right’; and an old-timer unintentionally summed it up: ‘I haven’t heard what’s been going on. I’ve just come in from the rain.’
And, as a Green speaker announced: ‘the chance of you winning an overall majority at the next election is…small.’ Sure, we were reminded repeatedly of a bigger trend – centre-left parties (if that’s a fair descriptor, here) flailing across Europe – but that’s neither excuse nor explanation.
If Labour doesn’t see itself as a party of power, it’s unsurprising that others don’t either. Emily Thornberry’s ‘hard-hitting’ speech about frigates was delivered in tones better suited to Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime; when Keir Starmer was introduced as the guy ‘who’s looking after Brexit for us’, a spontaneous snigger resounded; Stella Creasy has the gift of integrity, but it’s so blatant, she constantly seems ready to cry (and the on-stage glares she shared with Jonathan Bartley were embarrassing). Oh, and the shadow secretary of state whom my friend and I happened to sit next to at lunch nearby isn’t up for responsibility: when she disappeared for five minutes, she left her mobile phone conspicuously unattended on the table. Anyway, the exodus has begun. A Stoke-on-Trent voter was refreshingly defeatist: ‘A tough call? Get real. Would you rather be a backbench MP, or director of the V&A?’
‘Listening to the populace’ was solution of the day (isn’t that why the Labour Party was set up?); the new Corbyn asked if it was surprising that people were tempted by the opportunity to make their country great again, or take back control. Problem was that this was always (disparately) a la:”‘if you listened to the people like I do, you’d see they say the same as me”. Anyone suggesting dissent met genuine confusion. Agreeing with Creasy that “progressive politics isn’t dead yet” (Creasy’s approach was to quote the Wikipedia definition of ‘death’), left-wing libertarian Claire Fox told the audience that this was in spite of them having done their bloody best to kill it. (“You should be exhilarated that people are back on the stage of public opinion!” she shouted.) While she was applauded for references to the ‘fat cat bankers’ trope, her anti-EU position bewildered the audience:
Fox: Is it just possible the Left was wrong on the EU?
Fox: Maybe you should get out more…
Audience: [applauds politely]
Aside from populism, remedies included alliances (c.f the aforementioned Fabian report), and the early signs of a pragmatic cross-faction shift rightwards. The latter is particularly interesting for those who recognise that Corbyn cares more about moving the Overton Window leftwards than gaining power. Yet he himself talked of ‘growing the economy’; one MP bragged that ‘we’re talking to business like never before’; another proposed that employers might pay immigrants’ health insurance; and Thornberry revealed that ‘the truth is, there’s no way you can say the current leadership isn’t interventionist. I’m not a pacifist and neither is Jeremy.’
I was left unclear how Labour could meet Baroness Royall’s concluding objective of ‘taking a proud place in the world and winning an election’ (and was left bemused by Paul Mason’s suggestion that their real problem was ‘multi-polyvalent sexuality’ on Coronation Street). But for supporters of other parties, this is no time for schadenfreude. Thinking of Labour voters as bad or lost is to fall into the same boxy trap. Their party’s trouble is that it’s no longer the voice of the worker, the anti-establishment, or those grey-jumper-wearers: its historic internal divisions have left it open to external destruction. This is something we should all learn from, while hoping for resolution.