This day’s portion Navigation Menu

Labour and overcoming my pessimism (or how the left started to win Britain)

So Labour wasn’t destroyed and the Tories failed to even get a parliamentary majority. Politics changed over the space of a few hours: the Tories made minor gains in the North and Midlands, and Labour went and won my hometown and even traditionally deeply Tory places like Canterbury.

I thought the Labour party was in danger of extinction; instead, it’s back and in rude health, apparently reanimated by a combination of new younger voters in university towns, returning UKIP voters and middle class folk who simply liked Corbyn’s message. The Tories are beautifully, utterly fucked, hemmed in by a dead leader, its right wing, its remainer left wing, the DUP and a complete lack of talent and ideas beyond being UKIP.

So why did some of us in the Labour party take so long to back Corbyn?

I voted David Miliband for party leader in 2010, then Yvette Cooper over Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, and even abstained when the profoundly useless Owen Smith made his 2016 challenge. Since 2015 I’ve maintained an odd, contradictory I like the policies but he’s the wrong leader line on Corbyn.

The answer probably lies in my age. I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, a nasty, bigoted place, especially for someone in what was termed a single parent family. The Tories ruled from 1979 to 1997, even somehow winning the 1992 election after the Poll Tax riots (the first I ever voted in — for Chris Mullin in Sunderland South, if you’re interested). Britain seemed a fundamentally, permanently Conservative nation.

The 1997 election was one of the happiest nights of my life. I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and got royally drunk, toasting each Tory heavyweight defeat after another. I stumbled into work the next day, the only Labour voter in an office of ad salespeople.

But for all the Things can only get better rhetoric, Blair and Brown shared my pessimistic view that the British are Tories at heart, and the only way to defeat the Conservative party is through compromise or, to use a horrible term, triangulation. So while our beliefs may be socialist (at least, mine are; apostasy is always a risk among pessimists), we knew the basic Thatcherite tenets of a “free market”, privatisation, weak worker rights etc. couldn’t really be challenged. It’s this pessimism (thankfully now blown out of the water) that lie at the heart of my unwillingness to back Corbyn. He didn’t triangulate, he smartly propounded a new set of answers to Britain’s problems.

I’m 45 years old. I guess I just don’t know enough people who didn’t grow up in the 1980s, for whom Thatcher is just history, rather than something lived through and overcome only after a long, careful battle. Without this history I guess you can be more optimistic, less inclined to be so defensive.

I only finally went over to Corbyn when the Labour manifesto (PDF) was published. A clear, radical set of policies for a post-neoliberal world. How could anyone in the Labour party not love this? Who wouldn’t willingly get behind it?

So here we are: and what an opportunity! Not only can we defeat the Tories, but also our own pessimism. Ideas like universal benefits, free education, nationalising the railways and, erm, banning hospital carparking fees are back in play. 40% of the voting public, despite Brexit, a mutinous parliamentary Labour party, a braying, rabidly rightwing press and defensive supporters like me, have already said “yes” to them. This is not the time to start triangulating again: it’s Jeremy or nothing.