In the grand chamber of the Plymouth Guildhall, in pride of place above the stage, hangs an exquisite Gobelin tapestry given by Napoleon III to Lord Clarendon. It depicts the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, a parable of a resurrected, unrecognised Christ advising his disciples, who had failed at fishing:
‘And [Christ] said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.’
It is an apt tale for last Friday’s sold-out rally for Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership. Standing beneath that tapestry, his slight frame thrumming with an electric power drawn from the twelve hundred cheering supporters filling the Guildhall – here, in the birthplace of Michael Foot, in the very hall where the TUC voted to form the Labour Representation Committee in 1899, Corbyn seemed a fine fisher of men. But he has not caught us like fishes in his net. Instead, the people who are packing out halls in Plymouth and across the country – themselves just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who are participating in, as he said in his speech, ‘the largest party processual election in UK history’ – have fished Corbyn out of obscurity, and have thrust him to the forefront of an unprecedented movement.
I have seen Corbyn at rallies, conferences, marches and demonstrations, but when he entered the green room, he looked different; invested, perhaps, with that movement’s energy and direction. He told a Dutch reporter:
‘There’s a thirst for politics which is real, which is optimistic. What we’re suggesting here is that the Labour Party should use the opportunity of a lost election to look hard at ourselves…We didn’t offer an economic alternative, we didn’t offer an opportunity for reducing inequality.’
I asked Corbyn if the Labour Party has changed for good. ‘Yes,’ he said:
‘We’ve got now 558,000 people registered either as party members, union supporters or individual supporters of the Labour Party who can take part in this election. I want to convert all those supporters into party members. It’s the biggest ever election and electorate for a single party in Britain in our history – that’s something to be very proud of, this level of participation, I am delighted by that. It will change the Labour Party; I think will make it a much more democratic organisation, it will make it much more participatory. My determination – it’s not about me, it’s about us, there’s a whole lot of us – is that we have a much stronger grassroots democracy, so that ideas come up, rather than decisions are made at the top and are handed down like papal encyclicals.’
He later added:
‘This is not about one person; it’s not about personality, it’s not about celebrity. It is absolutely about the kind of society we want to live in, and how we want the Labour Party to represent that society in the future. That is what is so strong and so exciting about it. But it hasn’t come from nowhere.’
A local organiser for Corbyn and longtime Labour activist compared the organisation of Corbyn’s campaign to past leadership campaigns, whose volunteers came from the party infrastructure. Most of the hundreds of volunteers are new to politics, and phone bank workers report that young people and usual non-voters are strikingly well-represented among his supporters. Similarly, in the largest trade unions and in Labour branches, Corbyn supporters have won through, sometimes in the face of fierce arguments.
Here, then, are our indignados; rail workers, nurses and teachers, pensioners and students, and the legions of the unemployed and disabled. There were a sea of them in the hall, happy, hopeful and angry. ‘He’s saying things in a way that people can understand,’ said Jo, a former secondary-school teacher. ‘He says things that aren’t patronising, that are talking to working people, and that feel like what the grassroots of this party is all about,’ she said. ‘Change is the word,’ said Kate Taylor, a feminist and Labour councillor who was elected at age eighteen, three years ago. ‘I’m a bit sick of having to constantly put aside my own opinions and beliefs for the Labour Party. I would like to get the Labour Party back to what it was made to be, for working people,’ she said.
‘I was brought up Labour and believed in Labour for years and years, and like a lot of traditional Labour voters I feel they lost their path,’ said the exuberant Jules, from Exeter:
‘Jeremy Corbyn, to me, is saying things that feel like common sense that no-one else is saying. I want to let in more asylum seekers and migrants – I feel deeply embarrassed to be from the UK the way that migrants are portrayed in the media right now. Jeremy is being compassionate to people who want to make a new life here who are fleeing the most appalling treatment – stuff that most of us can’t really contemplate. That’s really exciting and refreshing. I’m a nurse and I’m proud of the NHS, so to have someone who’s talking about keeping the NHS but also increasing funding is wonderful.’
As Corbyn took to the stage, he received a standing ovation. Introductory speeches from councillors and trade unionists – including the meeting’s chair, Kevin Treweeks, of the City Council branch of Unison, whose ballot cast for Jeremy was refused – recalled People’s Assembly and Tolpuddle more than Labour election campaigns.
And then, Corbyn. He started slow, with broad thanks that reflected the movement’s breadth and historic roots, but he warmed up fast. He laid austerity squarely at the feet of the banks, and demanded that the public purse be reimbursed the fee we all bore to bail them out. His policies are not new; they are as old as the aspirations of the trade unionists who met in this hall at the turn of the twentieth century. His promise for democracy in Labour is new, though; as a victorious Burnham would move to quash the system that has swelled the ranks of the party, so Corbyn aims to extend that democracy to every level. It is not the end to privatisation and cuts, or the strengthening of public services, that sets my heart on fire for Corbyn, and that has raised crowd after crowd, cheering, to its feet. It is all of those policies transformed into a clear plan of action: the promise of Labour’s demise, and its rebirth into a truly participatory body that can redefine parliamentary politics.
I am filled with a frightening hope, and I am burning with questions. Who are these people, this nameless and agile mass that has shifted from party to party, defining ever more clearly who they are and what they want? What is their will, and their mettle? Will they buckle under crushing pressure, as Syriza continues to do, if Labour grandees conspire to keep Corbyn out of power, or to oust him? Will they break into Labour meetings and conferences if they are locked out? Will they have the will, insight and organisation to force Labour MPs to align with those from other parties – yes, even the SNP – to stop the Tories in their tracks? Will they fight the media, the police and their own party bureaucracy for their democratic mandate? Will they organise as themselves, not as Corbyn’s army, and will they keep Corbyn’s Labour true?
I asked him if he felt that, if elected, that movement could keep him in the seat where it had put him. He said:
‘We haven’t won yet – we haven’t been elected yet, so I’m counting no chickens until they’re hatched, and we’ll see what happens. But – yes, of course everything is challenging, but then those that founded our movement, those that founded our unions – those that had the vision of a national health service, a social security system, those that had a vision of council housing and so many other things that are good in our society, they faced insurmountable odds at the times, and they won through. I think we draw strength from those that went before us in order to take us forward to a future that doesn’t give too much power to global corporations, but instead gives power to people to decide their own future.’
We can do little on the outside to help, but that little we must do. A great part of the essential, awaited movement in opposition to austerity is at hand, and it is no less valid for its origins in the Labour Party. No leftist should condemn Corbyn or thwart his campaign; it is for us to engage that movement, on what can be done in the trade unions; on the streets; in the housing estates; at the borders and detention centres; and, yes, within the Labour Party. As we support and defend Corbyn from the battle that will surely come in ten days time, we support that movement, not a man, not even one as unflinching as Corbyn; and we prove our faith – not in Labour, not in elections, but in the anxious hope for an authentic social movement against austerity.
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