Who are the 313,209 people who have voted to keep Jeremy Corbyn as their leader? They are a mixture which at first glance may seem bewildering: old, young, well off, badly off, students, teachers, trade unionists, pensioners, ex-Labour members who left because Tony Blair or even Harold Wilson had “sold out” socialism, ex-Green voters who want an angrier and more defiant movement, Stop The War people who hated the Iraq war and know Corbyn is one of them, Londoners who admire his record as a constituency MP, Liverpudlians who see him as a man who will defy London, public sector workers who feel in need of a champion, children of privilege who hope that backing Corbyn is a way of aligning themselves with the under-privileged, and a handful of Trotskyites who think they see a chance to take over the Labour Party.
In most cases, a Corbyn supporter will belong to more than one of these categories. As Mark Wallace reported from the launch event of his local branch of Momentum, the Corbynites’ grassroots campaigning organisation:
“They were a mixed group – in age, in race, and in their reasons for being there. A disgruntled ex-Labour councillor, trade union officials and established local single-issue campaigners mingled with genuinely enthused new recruits to Corbynism and grizzled old veterans of every faction fight of the last three decades.”
There is a nondescript quality to the Corbynites which can make them seem inexplicable. As Nick Cohen has pointed out, “Corbyn has no good writers on his side.”
Neither Corbyn himself, nor any member of his movement, has an eloquence which can reach beyond the converted and explain why 313,209 people – in modern terms, an astoundingly large number, which no other party can begin to match – decided to vote for him.
Communication with the Corbynites is made even harder by their touchiness, which leads them to bridle even at remarks which are intended to sound conciliatory. Best not to say to them, if you are one of the 172 Labour MPs who this summer voted against Corbyn:
“At least we can agree that we want to win the next election.”
That sort of thing produces an explosion of rage. For the Corbynites are completely fed up with being told, over the course of many years, that Labour cannot do various things – raise taxes, scrap Trident, nationalise various industries – because the party wants to win the next election.
The Corbyn vote is a revolution against the tyranny of the Suits. It is a cry of rage against the careerists who for so many years dominated the party.This anger unites the 313,209 people who voted for Corbyn.
And when put like this, one begins to understand why they are so cross. The Suits were insufferably patronising towards everyone who disagreed with them.
They would not engage in debate, for they knew best. As I put it a year ago, in a piece called In Defence of Corbyn:
“in the Labour Party under Tony Blair, virtually all ideas except those held by the Leader and a few others were treated with contempt. Hence the low quality of the remaining Blairites: these dismal careerists have never been encouraged to have an original or provocative or at least faintly interesting opinion in their lives, and now that their Leader has left the stage, are like robots which have lost radio contact with their controller.”
In his first leadership victory a year ago, Corbyn amassed an already impressive 251,417 votes, compared to 80,462 for Andy Burnham, 71,928 for Yvette Cooper and a mere 18,857 for Liz Kendall, the most unabashedly Blairite of his three opponents.
All three mainline candidates were “lacklustre” and “tarred with the Blairite brush”, as Chris Mullin, a former Labour MP, has pointed out. Mullin is a man of the Left who had the courage to criticise Blair, but now says Corbyn needs to be replaced or Labour risks “annihilation”.
He explains Corbyn’s victory by saying that
“Faced with a choice of four unelectable candidates, it was hardly surprising that some people decided to take a punt on the one who was at least authentic.”
In the eyes of his supporters, all Corbyn’s weaknesses are strengths. They show how authentic he is.
The fact that he remained for 32 years on the backbenches proves he is not a careerist. Having entered the Commons in 1983 as a left-winger, he remained true to his beliefs.
So while critics tend to suggest that his attachment to the socialism of the late 1970s and early 1980s demonstrates a lamentable inability to adapt to changing circumstances, supporters see this as principled.
He is so different to the clever young Oxford-educated advisers who were promoted by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, were parachuted into safe seats, and seemed to have the future of the Labour Party in their hands: Ed Balls, James Purnell, David Miliband, Andy Burnham, Douglas Alexander, Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper.
Only the last two of these are still in the Commons. Their brilliant but shallow careers, and their detachment (to put it mildly) from the wider Labour Party, have recently been examined by Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, in a piece entitled “The fall of Labour’s golden generation”:
“Call it vanity, call it hubris, but whatever you call it, the foundations of the mansion built by Blair and Brown were neither deep nor strong. When pressure came, it began to crumble and then, after the 2015 election defeat, it collapsed, and now Jeremy Corbyn and his followers are roaming through the ruins, creating a new party of anti-capitalist renegades.”
Corbyn did not read PPE at Oxford, does not like wearing suits, refused to sing the National Anthem, espoused unpopular causes (Hamas, the IRA, Venezuela etc), has put down deep roots in his constituency of Islington North, enjoys digging his allotment and making jam, and does not see it as part of his job to feed an unending series of glib soundbites to the mainstream media.
All this makes him wonderful in the eyes of his supporters, to whom it demonstrates beyond any shadow of a doubt that he is not some fly-by-night careerist.
And some of it really is admirable. Along with Andrew Mitchell and David Davis, neither of whom can be described as socialist, Corbyn flew in the summer of 2015 to Washington to campaign for the release of the last Briton held in Guantanamo Bay.
At local level, Corbyn is excellent. One of his constituents, André Arokium, whose wife has suffered severe ill-health, told me:
“He’s kind and nice. He helped me a lot when my wife was sick. He’s got time for you. He gives you advice.”
Corbyn has stepped into the gap left by the decline of the trade unions, who created the Labour Party, and used to provide a route to the top for politicians who were not Oxford intellectuals. Ernest Bevin was probably the greatest of these, and Alan Johnson the most recent.
It would be unfair to blame Blair for the decline of the trade unions, and for as long as he was around, he had John Prescott as a conspicuous representative of that tradition.
But the fall of the unions means the working class, and the rebellious-minded, no longer have the capacity to bring the country to a grinding halt.
Nor, one hopes, does Corbyn. But he is the accidental beneficiary of both the collapse of the Blairites and the extinction of the trade union barons. The latter would never have let such a mediocre little man become Labour leader.
Only the ludicrous electoral system introduced during Ed Miliband’s leadership has permitted that: a system which favours self-indulgent protest far above the selection of a serious candidate for the prime ministership.
The Corbynites hate the Tories, but they hate the Blairites far more, as Rebecca Coulson noted when she went to one of their meetings. They are allergic to any success which is achieved as the result of intelligent and prudent compromise. This attitude is likely to kill Labour.
Richard Seymour, an acute observer of these matters from a Marxist perspective, offered in a recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement an expert analysis of the recent politics of protest:
The spontaneous ideology of young people radicalising in the past twenty years has often been a kind of anarcho-reformism. They combined anarchist suspicion of hierarchical organisations, and the tactics of direct action, with a defence of what remained of the welfare state. Resistant to joining Labour, activists once preferred social movement milieux. The unprecedented decision to reverse this trend in large numbers, joining Labour en masse, had less to do with an abrupt shift in doctrine than with changing circumstances. Thanks to an unusual political window created by the crisis of the old regime, Corbyn was able to offer supporters a unique bargain. Labour could be their instrument for addressing their problems. It could be a party of the movements, not of the markets.
This is right. Labour has become a movement, and one which attracts the disappointed as well as the discontented. In Corbyn, they see a kindred spirit: a man who is in worldly terms a failure, and quite dim with it, but who will never admit that he is a failure, for he has convinced himself that he is one of the elect: an illusion in which 313,209 people have now fortified him.
The new Labour members are not much interested in knocking on doors, where one never knows who one is going to meet, and often finds oneself confronted with objectionable views.
The special advisers mentioned above – Balls, the Milibands and so on – were likewise disinclined to spend more than the bare minimum of time on the doorstep. Had they worked their passage through the lower levels of politics for ten or twenty years, they might have developed into formidable politicians.
As it was, they started out with no idea how normal people feel about things, and never listened for long enough to acquire that necessary knowledge.
Corbyn’s supporters are far less gifted than those special advisers, but in a curious way just as divorced from the wider public. Their idea of a good time is holding discussion groups among themselves, but not with anyone who might disagree with them. They live in a world of their own, and it is not a world to which most of the British public wish to belong.