I really liked Jeremy Corbyn. When I was campaigning against the invasion of Iraq, he was a hero for me. Watching the dishonesty and malpractice in the build up to war was difficult when you’d been brought up within the Labour Party. After Iraq, I stepped away from politics completely and didn’t return until I received a Facebook post telling me Jeremy Corbyn was on the ballot paper to become leader. I promptly joined the party and voted for him. That was in 2015.
A year later, I found myself at the heart of Corbyn’s team. As the orchestrated resignations began to hit the headlines I, like many others, joined a volunteer online army using Twitter and Facebook to defend him. I dropped the work I was doing and turned up at the Union offices where his campaign was based. A few weeks later I was making grassroots videos for Momentum, profiling the activists around the country who were rallying behind Corbyn. The Midlands and the North were amply represented at that time. The Corbyn movement had broad appeal and its message was addressing the concerns of the traditional heartland Labour voters.
In retrospect I realise how much Corbyn phenomenon was inextricably linked to the man himself. After thirty years of campaigning, Corbyn had become a familiar face for many activists around the country and it was fellow campaigners who drove the movement forward, along with young, university educated middle class children aware of the disadvantages they faced in comparison to their parents. These energies combined to kick-start a movement which, over two years, gained pace, culminating a 2017 election result that seemed to herald the reverse of Labour’s electoral decline.
The campaign in 2017 was as incredible as it was unforeseen. Being part of it, I witnessed the power of mass mobilisation through politics that inspired people. Many of us were united by a feeling that, in our own country and abroad, people were not being treated well enough by our leaders. Looking back, it was simplistic. But the emotions were real and Corbyn made us believe we had the power to change it. We felt like heroes. Whatever small contribution we made, felt important; we felt important. And the more of us who used our talents in support of Corbyn, the more others were inspired to do the same. My fondest memory was of the last night of the 2017 election campaign, we had travelled to see Corbyn speak at Islington Town Hall. There was clearly no chance of getting in to the hall, no tannoy to hear him and no screen to see him. But still, we remained outside along with hundreds of others who wanted to be together on this very special evening in late spring. I stood beside a young woman around whose neck hung a chintzy gold necklace with ‘Corbyn’ written in italics affixed on each side to a chain. It had been made by her friend, she told me, and was available to buy via her Facebook page. The humour, the glamour, the sheer incongruity of this necklace made it effortlessly cool. For me, it was emblematic of how far our movement had reached, and how much further it could go.
With a background in grassroots video, I spent the election campaign making short films in partnership with Stand up for Labour under the banner ‘Brit Rocks’. We toured the country putting on variety shows that raised money for local parties and motivated members to keep fighting on the doorstep. The clips were short and simple: Labour Party members talking about their communities, the issues they faced and the possible solutions. They were shared widely, and through making them, I learned a great deal about the situation faced by people in the Midlands and the North.
The first realisation was how present deindustrialisation still is for these communities. Factories, pits and potteries were closing their doors within living memory of Generation Z. The second was how little investment had flowed into these areas since the massive industrial wipe-out of the 1980s. For a young person living in Whitehaven to learn Photoshop, they would need to travel on a railway un-modernised since the 1950s to a town forty miles away. For those determined enough to learn online, via Youtube tutorials, overwhelming obstacles would still be in their way. The cheap aluminium cables laid in the 1970s when the price of copper was exorbitant means that high-speed broadband cannot reach them, so these videos simply will not play. Without training or a decent internet connection, the gig economy must feel to these communities as far away as the planet Mars.
The psychological impact of deindustrialisation is also very present. A darkness fell over people’s faces when recalling the battle to keep their industries, a mixture of embarrassment in admitting they were so brutally crushed, and pain at remembering the trauma it inflicted. ‘I think the deindustrialisation of Doncaster and towns like it was purposely done…’ one man told me, ‘The working class had improved their lots across Britain.. since the war and they [the Conservatives] wanted to reverse that.” A report by the Centre of Social Justice paints a dark picture of the heavy toll it took; ‘When a community experiences an economic shock, the social problems that evolve as a result make it harder to bring back jobs, investment and opportunity. In Britain this happened in communities when people lost their jobs in coal mines, car plants and steel mills. Many became dependent on welfare for support, and as they lost their sense of self-worth and identity.’ This was echoed during a discussion in Rotherham by a man in his sixties, ‘‘You must know, that the residual of the last forty years of austerity in the town has left it with a severe mental health problem”.
Some of the most passionate Corbyn supporters I spoke to were grandchildren of working families left on the dole. In some cases, activists had previously been alcoholics, drug addicts and eventually, become homeless. Through government funded schemes, they had pulled themselves out of this downward spiral. As a result, Corbyn’s fight against austerity resonated strongly with them. In an old Labour Club on a council estate in March 2017, people were asking questions following the screening of Ken Loach’s recent film. One man’s question summed up the attitude of many in the North at that time, “When my local MP votes for austerity, how can I vote Labour?’
However for many, austerity did not begin in 2010 but thirty years earlier when Thatcher came to power and, from 1979 and 1990, dragged the economy from one model into another. But New Labour, in power for longer than Thatcher, chose not to redress the economic imbalance she left. Of course inroads were made, and I am sure there is a compelling case for New Labour’s success in addressing the economic imbalance in post-industrial Britain, although I have not seen it. To the outsider, New Labour preferred to support wealth creation in the south and use tax revenues, along with government borrowing, to fund welfare benefits and public services in the old manufacturing heartlands. A Labour member in Rotherham contrasts Corbyn’s agenda with the approach of New Labour, “I look back and I think, if Jeremy Corbyn hadn’t become leader and it was say, Yvette Cooper, we wouldn’t have the radical policies that we’ve got. That’s the main thing for me. I think we’d still be thinking: well the Tories are doing this, we’ll maybe look at some of their popular policies and try and amend them a little bit. Or we’ll water down some of our policies.”
Corbyn’s radical agenda, enshrined in the 2017 manifesto, was a blueprint for change. A network of local investment banks would encourage entrepreneurship; infrastructure investment would provide a foundation on which people could build business and gain skills, nationalisation of utilities would bring down the cost of living but most significantly, Labour would bring manufacturing back to Britain. Yes, a great number of people believed Corbyn was a threat to national security, an IRA sympathiser and an apologist for terrorism. But I saw the tide slowing turning. A Labour member I interviewed in Stoke-on-Trent summed it up, “I think now people are resurging in a way where we’re getting this confidence back again… we can still manufacture stuff in this city. We can still offer something to the world and I think that’s what’s changing now”. It is worth noting that in five of Labour’s oldest constituencies, now Conservative, every single one increased their Labour vote in the general election of 2017. In Dudley North, Labour gained 2,200 more votes in 2017 than in 2015; in Bassetlaw, 3,500; In Great Grimsby, 4,000; Rother Valley, 3,000; Bishop Auckland, 4,500.
Sadly, as the months rolled on after the 2017 election, Labour’s economic agenda began to overflow with wilder and wilder spending pledges. The commitment to restructure the economy – already extremely ambitions – became overlaid with public spending increases to which there seemed no end. At the 2017 Labour Party conference in September, to which I was a delegate, I became increasingly uneasy watching Shadow Minister after Shadow Minister promising to increase welfare and public sector spending by the billions. At the moment when we most needed to understand where the battle lines were drawn for this economic revolution, I left Brighton in a haze of uncertainty. What were us foot soldiers being asked to do?
Two and a half years later, the Labour Party had squandered this growing base of support. People like me were voting Conservative for the first time in their thousands. How did this happen?
I voted to Remain in the EU. But like millions of other ‘Remainers’ I instantly accepted the referendum result. Sure, I cried a bit, for the Britain I knew and loved which I felt might be slipping away. But then I did a bit of research and found there were good arguments on both sides. I was not alone in this response. Whenever I watched BBC or ITV News do a feature on attitudes across the country, almost every interviewee, be they a Remainer or a Brexiteer, replied with pretty much the same sentence: we’ve had the result and now we need to get on with it.
As the Brexit debate raged on, I kept waiting for a comprehensive Labour Party vision for post-Brexit Britain. One that saw Britain’s departure from Europe as the first step towards a fairer economy. When interviewing Labour members in Bolton, another Brexit constituency, a father in thirties explained the motivation of many who voted to leave, “People say, ‘you do it for your children’s children’… a lot of people thought they could deal with the brunt of it and then later on we’d be more prosperous”. Corbyn and McDonnell had been sceptical about the EU for years; many of their nationalisation policies (as far as I understand it) would be very hard to achieve inside the EU. As Britain casts around for new trading partners, now is surely the time to assess our skills base, our strengths and our untapped resources? And in doing so, articulate cogently how investment could be intelligently targeted to towns and cities in decline? However, as the prospect of a vision receded into the smoke and mirrors of ‘constructive ambiguity’, a position with the aim, it seemed, of weakening the government, I began to question my allegiance to the Corbyn project.
I understand the dilemma of a leader who has argued his entire political life for members to have a greater say in the direction of the party, and then to find himself with a membership that was approximately two-thirds against leaving the EU. But with conviction and authority I believe Corbyn and McDonnell could have steered the membership away from calls to overturn the referendum result and towards an excitement and energy for what happens next. Certainly they would have been supported in this by many Labour members in the North and Midlands, many of whom themselves voted to leave and understood why their communities had.
However, it is also important to remember that there was the added pressure of New Labour stalwarts, still with huge influence amongst MPs, mounting a serious challenge within parliament and through informal, high-level political channels to stop Brexit from happening.
In the spring of 2017 I attended a conference in central London purporting to discuss what happens after Brexit. Despite the event’s strapline challenging attendees to ‘Think Anew. Act Anew’, The Methodist Central Hall was filled with furious left-wing middle-class professionals refusing to conceive a departure from the EU. Presumably accepting the invitation to participate on the basis that London’s left-wing elite might help in reshaping the country, Brexiteers were faced with an audience that refused to listen. Applause was reserved for those panel members calling for a plan to reverse the referendum result. Prominent members of New Labour spoke. Mr Campbell was on a panel and Mr Blair had been invited but declined at the last moment. It was only a year since the findings of The Chilcot Report had exposed the disregard for processes that safeguard our democracy. By the middle of the first day, it had become uncomfortably clear that attempts were already being made overturn the referendum result and stop Britain leaving the EU.
Over the next two and a half years, the majority of the population watched with mounting horror as MPs and campaigners relentlessly exploited every possible loop hole and parliamentary privilege to stop a deal – any deal – from being reached. The arguments justifying the strategy as a means to avoid economic apocalypse were sounding increasingly absurd, as calls for certainly from business leaders grew stronger. The role of New Labour grandees in this exercise was significant. And yet, following Labour’s election defeat, the media has invited them as pundits to comment dispassionately, rather than challenging them on the fierce attacks they mounted in the three-year battle that ravaged Westminster and further aggrevated the country’s divisions.
For me, and for others, Corbyn was a welcome antidote to New Labour. A year and a half later, Corbyn seemed to be colluding in this mission to reverse the referendum result. As I followed increasingly incensed Facebook updates posted by Labour Brexiteers in the North, it was like watching an edifice slowly crumble. Two-thirds of Labour constituencies had voted to Leave. From the films I was making, I gained some insight into the reasons people in the North and Midlands voted to do so, and often these were linked to deep-rooted and genuine concerns for the future of their families. However, Labour’s top team – intelligent people with huge caches of data at their finger tips and a nationwide network of well-informed supporters – entered into a collective delusion. The Labour Party’s surprise success in 2017 had convinced many in Corbyn’s team that, had the lead-in time been longer, Labour would have won. The constant demands for an election in the face of Mrs May’s increasingly desperate appeals for support to get a deal were, I believe, driven by this belief. So ingrained was the conviction that Labour would win an election the next time round, that when the alignment of favourable elements changed, the conviction nevertheless remained the same. It was like watching the painful end to a tragic farce when the motion for a general election was finally tabled by the Tories. As they realised they had such little chance of winning, Labour then opposed it.
Although bewildering to watch, it has become customary in our political class for a small group of people with very loud voices to construct a fantastical reality, ignore any appeal to the facts, and then try to shut down debate. This is particularly common on the left, and seems to have percolated down to a generation in whom has been instilled the ambition ‘to change the world’. The extent to which this fantastical reality was enveloping Corbyn’s Labour Party by 2019 is exemplified by the almost complete alignment of Momentum with identity politics ideology. Starting life as the focus point for a spontaneous, broad-based, national movement to get Corbyn elected as leader, Momentum morphed into a portal for disseminating an ideology that demands group allegiance (such as skin colour, sexuality, sex, religion or class) take precedence over individual character in order that society should become ‘just’. Ironically, this fight for social justice is then waged through ascribing generalised characteristics and opinions to people based on their group identity. Inevitably, politics rapidly becomes an exercise in accusing opponents of racism, sexism, Islamaphobia, transphobia etc.
I came to realise, with sadness, that Corbyn’s perspective is not too far off this. His lifelong opposition to racism is eminently commendable, but if you see the world through a lens of ‘oppressors’ and ‘oppressed’ there becomes little room left for nuance or understanding. Instead people are pitted against each other along battle lines of group identity. And because complexities are ignored, those placed in a category of ‘oppressor’ – the Israelis, for example – have no right whatsoever to be understood. When you have a Jewish population in this country with quite natural ties to Israel (although often in disagreement with the actions of its government), they can easily be made to feel insecure by a political philosophy that damns. The fear within the Jewish community in Britain now is palpable and should never have been allowed to happen.
This ideology is also unhelpful in a country trying desperately to unify and move forward. The troubles articulated by community leaders in the Midlands and the North are not to do with ‘white privilege’, nor are they the legacy of a colonial conspiracy. Instead, they stem from huge economic shifts that took place across the global in the 1960s and 1970s when countries with very cheap labour forces acquired the knowledge (much of it from Britain) to set up manufacturing and sell products much more cheaply on the world market.
And if there was a consistent message from those I interviewed in post-industrial areas, it was to bring manufacturing back to Britain. The left-wing Brexit camp were putting forward the case for how this could be done, citing conditions needed to bring factories back to this country. However, as I understand it, these people were largely ignored. A tight circle had formed around Corbyn, exacerbated I am sure, by the constant attempts to undermine him from within his own party. But this bunker mentality allowed great mistakes to be made because people with expertise were shut out. ‘Labour Live’, the music festival in London conceived as a follow up to Corbyn’s epic appearance at Glastonbury the previous year, was a startling example of this. A lack of skills and experience led to huge costs and pitifully low ticket sales, rescued only when Unite the union laid on coaches for their members to travel to London and attend for free. The final bill was estimated as somewhere between £650,000 and £1 million. Yet I suspect no one lost their job or was even disciplined. This operational style struck me as particularly dangerous when combined with a far-reaching policy for state intervention in the economy.
As I write this, I am acutely aware of the consternation it may provoke in those who have spoken to me openly and honestly about the concerns they have about a Conservative government and the impact it might have on their families and their community. The simple answer is that I voted Conservative because I believe it was in the national interest to do so. Britain must now leave the EU as soon as possible, and only the Conservatives are prepared to make that happen. The unspoken compact between electorate and those elected was being strained further and further with every show of parliamentary acrobatics landing another blow to the chance of a deal. By denying these communities their political will to leave the EU, Labour became redundant as a force to represent them.
And yet, I still believe Corbyn was the vanguard for a movement which could come. Although he lacked the qualities to deliver on his promises, the excitement around the Corbyn project, particularly in the North and the Midlands should not be forgotten. Brexit sadly, laid bare his personal deficiencies as well as the inefficacy of the tight circle around him. But if incoming Labour leaders can take from this defeat both the knowledge that Corbyn’s policies resonated with community activists, and the humility to listen to those they were founded to represent, they could hold the government to account with authority, re-ignite their grassroots support base, and force the long-term economic and social changes these people are calling for. I saw the power of mass mobilisation through politics that inspired people. There is no reason why, with the right leader, Labour cannot do this again. But for me personally to come back to Labour, there would need to be a credible economic blueprint to reshape the economy that is clear enough to be articulated by members and supporters. The Party would need enough confidence to bring in good people, based on merit, and retain them. It would need to continue to support local campaigns by developing policy solutions and not just promising more and more funding. But most importantly, the Labour Party must have the will to unify the country and a vision that includes us all. Without that, it will continue to alienate its natural supporters. With it, Labour can win.