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The rebel’s revenge: Corbyn has created the conditions for Labour to win again

These are new times, as we keep saying. Now to try to understand them.

Just before Christmas, I spent a day in Prague with Jeremy Corbyn and his entourage. Corbyn was a speaker at a conference of European socialist parties and he turned out to be the star turn: everywhere we went in the communist-era conference hall he was received with adulation by young activists of many different nationalities who were eager to have selfies taken with him. His charming wife, Laura, and I looked on as the Labour leader bantered and chuckled and generally had a good time.

As the pale winter light faded on a cold day we drove into northern Bohemia, where we visited Terezín, the site of a Nazi concentration camp and a Jewish ghetto. It was a harrowing experience, and on the return journey Corbyn seemed subdued as we discussed the challenges ahead.

Earlier in the afternoon, Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s chief strategist, revealed that he had a plan: in the New Year Corbyn would be “relaunched” as an unashamed radical populist, in the style of Bernie Sanders or, indeed, Donald Trump. Good luck with that, I thought, and returned to London more convinced than ever that Corbyn – whom I likened to a Prince Myshkin-style holy innocent or fool – would lead Labour to defeat.

Nothing I heard when I spoke to Labour MPs during the campaign changed my mind. They were fearful and expected to lose badly: and yet they did not. “Corbynism was never about Jeremy,” one of his closest allies told me this week. “It still isn’t. It is about policy! We should now draw inspiration and deploy our creativity to push out everywhere – Kensington shows there are no no-go areas.”

Yet without Corbyn, Corbynism would not have been possible. He has been misunderstood and underestimated: these are new times, as we keep saying. Now to try to understand them.

​***

I first interviewed Corbyn in the heady summer of 2015 when he was campaigning to be Labour leader. He had begun the contest of four as the 100-1 outsider but something was stirring when we met in a café close to Euston station in central London.

We had an animated 44-minute conversation (I had been promised 30 minutes) and then Corbyn left to catch a train to Bristol but missed it because, I was told later, he was mobbed by well-wishers on the station concourse. My colleague Xan Rice headlined my subsequent piece “Time of the rebel”.

​***

The Corbyn leadership can be divided into three distinct phases, I think. Corbyn 1 was the outsider who emerged from the Bennite wilderness to capture the Labour Party and promise a socialist transformation. This Corbyn was the radical campaigner familiar from a long career of backbench agitation; a serial rebel who could never command the respect of his parliamentary colleagues.

The Labour civil war had begun. Yet this was also a time of euphoria for the left, as Labour began to reinvent itself as a mass-membership, anti-neoliberal movement. Young people, who knew little of the IRA and the political conflicts of the 1980s and cared even less, were enraptured by Corbyn’s rhetoric and sincerity. Corbyn 1 unlocked forces long repressed on the left which perhaps even he didn’t fully understand.

​***

Corbyn 2 was embattled, the head of a dysfunctional opposition party and under daily assault in the media. Supported by a cabal of hardened left-wingers as well as the Unite super-union, this Corbyn failed to unite his party or persuade his detractors.

He had never run anything apart from his constituency office and it showed. The Labour Party became a standing joke. Even his early left-wing media cheerleaders – George Monbiot, Zoe Williams, Owen Jones, Caitlin Moran – abandoned or denounced Corbyn. (They are cheering now.)

Yet bolstered by John McDonnell and Diane Abbott and supported by some of the emerging younger MPs such as Angela Rayner, Corbyn 2 survived.

He was a long-standing Eurosceptic, and so his leadership in the EU referendum campaign was lacklustre. There followed a botched coup by the PLP to oust him and another period of chaotic party management. But he stayed on to contest a general election from which Theresa May complacently expected to emerge with a 100-seat majority or better.

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Corbyn 3 is today’s triumphant populist leader who, after inspiring a sensational campaign turnaround, is unassailable in the party. His enemies and detractors in the PLP have fallen silent or into line behind him.

The armies of online Corbynites boast about slaying the beasts of the MSM (mainstream media) and abuse anyone who dares to remind them that Labour did not win the election.

However, Corbyn 3 has created the conditions for optimism and national transformation. As I write, these are two of the newspaper headlines in front of me: “Austerity is over, May tells Tories” (the Times); “Tories and Labour hold secret talks on soft Brexit” (Daily Telegraph).

Tory triumphalism has been silenced and so have the independence-fixated Scottish nationalists. There is now no majority for a “hard” Brexit in the Commons, nor in the country. The new buzz phrases are “open Brexit” (Ruth Davidson) and “sane Brexit” (Andrew Adonis). One wishes someone might consider “No Brexit”.

In one of the most poignant moments in all of Shakespeare, King Lear, close to death, speaks of having been “bound upon a wheel of fire”. Jeremy Corbyn has been abused and traduced. He has correctly been held to account for the idiocies of his past associations and default oppositionism.

Along the way, he has also changed and been more flexible and pragmatic than most thought possible. His patience and resilience are perpetual. You could say he has been bound on a wheel of fire. He has come full circle and he is still here, still leader of what is now a revitalised Labour Party. This indeed is the time of the rebel. Call his the rebel’s revenge.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.