As the most political Labour conference in 20 years begins, it is time for all good liberals to come to the aid of the party
You used to know which side of the divide you were on. You were prepared to make sacrifices to help those less well off than you. You knew that social justice was worth fighting for and that fairness was possible. You had a conscience and you did you best to abide by it. You probably thought things could only get better in 1997 and agreed with Nick in 2010.
But at the same time you grew up with scare stories of the Winter of Discontent. You knew that the unions, while necessary and important in principle could be thuggish and authoritarian in practice, putting their own interests above those of the nation. You never bought the line that austerity was the way to recovery, but at the same time, something made you instinctively wary of huge debt and the left’s tendency to pretend that global finance could just be ignored.
Maybe you’re a doctor who’s watching the NHS be privatised before your eyes at the same time as you’re accused of being selfish and lazy; maybe you’re a teacher or civil servant who knows that you’ll never own the home that will allow you to put down roots; you could even be working at a bank, a hedge fund or an accountancy firm, watching absurd amounts of money fly back and forth to no discernable purpose. But what you certainly aren’t is a Marxist, you aren’t interested in which wave of feminism someone claims to represent and you find the left’s obsession with ideological purity a big turn off. In fact, you aren’t ideological at all, you just know decency and fairness when you see it and you haven’t seen it in a long, long time.
Well, now is your moment. Jeremy Corbyn comes to the leadership of the Labour party at a time when the orthodoxies that have informed politics for thirty years are disintegrating (or rather it is becoming clear that they disintegrated circa 2008 and that the cracks can no longer be papered over).
Our economy, though growing, remains reliant on crumbs from the table of international finance and is regularly in the top five in the world for income and wealth inequality.
The rise of Scottish nationalism demonstrates that the UK’s established parties are struggling to convince a substantial portion of those who live on these islands that “Britain” is a concept they can take part in. And the cynical manipulation of English nationalism to secure a Tory victory at the last election seems to indicate that at least at CCHQ, this is not seen as a problem but a welcome chance to have greater control, even if it is over a smaller polity.
Abroad, the refugee crisis has shown that no country can inoculate itself against the human consequences of globalisation and the events in Syria and Iraq that precipitated it demonstrate quite how limited our ability to influence events overseas has become.
In this maelstrom, it appears that an entire generation of political practitioners and theorists are out of their depth. The left never recovered from the fall of the Soviet Union and the right has yet to explain why a quarter century of having things their own way have failed to produce utopia and instead given us the biggest recession in history and what increasingly appears to be a state of perpetual war.
Jeremy Corbyn does not have the answers to these questions. But he is at least attempting to grapple with them and that is what really sets him apart from both New Labour and the Tories. As a leader, he is neither the stern aristocratic patriarch that Cameron projects, nor does he possess the charismatic messianism of Blair, instead he belongs to a different tradition, a consensual tradition, that is increasingly relevant in the social media age where people are able to organise laterally as well as hierarchically and where a multiplicity of voices mean that nobody has a monopoly on the means by which our reality is constructed. .
But that style of leadership only works if there is engagement. And that’s why it is time for all good liberals to come to the aid of the party. If you’re not a party member, join. If you are a party member, go to your next CLP meeting. If you happen to be lucky enough to live in the constituency of one of the Labour MPs who has refused to serve under Corbyn, write to them and ask them why they were happy to use the cash given to them by ordinary members to get elected but refuse to respect the mandate those same members have given to Corbyn and his team.
You may find Jezza absurd, you may think his policies throwbacks to another era, but you have the chance to affect those policies yourself in a way that you never would with Cameron or Osborne, Kendall or Cooper. Corbyn’s election is a historic opportunity to build an anti-austerity alliance that takes in those from across the political spectrum who would rather that this nation was governed in the interests of all its inhabitants rather than by and for a tiny elite.
His many opponents in the media and political classes will continue to try and make it about the man. But the real reason the attacks on him are so vitriolic is because they are terrified that people might realise that individual politicians, entire political movements and decades old orthodoxies are all dispensable.
After all, if a man that looks and sounds like a geography teacher on the verge of retirement can become the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition, then surely anyone can be an MP. And if anyone can be an MP, then anyone can be PM, rendering an entire political class – from those groomed for power on the PPE-SpAd-PPS conveyor belt to the media moguls that boast of changing the fate of nations one headline at a time – obsolete.