Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Like Rocky Balboa, Jeremy Corbyn might not have won – but he sure went the distance

He achieved his underdog’s moment at the top, even if that top wasn’t quite the summit.

Boxing writers called Chuck Wepner the “Bayonne Bleeder” because he was from the city of Bayonne, New Jersey, and, they suggested, he was liable to start bleeding even before the first-round bell. The former US marine (and liquor salesman by day) was prone to cuts – on the nose, ear, pretty much anywhere. Though a solid fighter, he wasn’t considered champion material; so when Wepner was matched with the heavyweight titleholder Muhammad Ali in 1975, most expected him to be whipped. Ali was guaranteed a $1.5m purse. Wepner was offered $100,000.

The challenger lost the fight but he unexpectedly “went the distance”: a technical knockout was declared in the 15th round with 20 seconds left on the clock. It was a heroic failure and, for a while, it made a star of the loser. Somewhere in Hollywood, an out-of-work actor watched the fight and was moved to fictionalise it. Sylvester Stallone’s Wepner, now renamed Rocky Balboa, tells his girlfriend on the eve of his bout with the Ali-like Apollo Creed: “It really don’t matter if I lose . . . if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life . . . that I weren’t just another bum from the neighbourhood.”

What Jeremy Corbyn achieved on 8 June was something of this order: an underdog’s moment at the top, even if that top wasn’t quite the summit. The Labour leader has proved to his sceptical colleagues that he isn’t “just another bum”, and the revival of the party’s prospects of securing power in the near future has earned him, for now, a well-deserved sense of job security.

A crucial point about any underdog narrative is that the hero has a chance of winning, no matter how slim. Even many of Corbyn’s supporters frame his achievement as a rejection of the Conservative record since 2010 – homelessness doubling; the worst performance among G7 countries in real wage growth; a capital city in which gun crime has risen by 42 per cent in the past year alone, yet whose police force faces a £400m cut in its annual budget, and so on – but a vote for Labour in 2017 wasn’t an entirely negative gesture, a dumb protest. It was hopeful. “Listen,” Corbyn told the Mirror on 6 June. “We are going to win.”

In the end, he didn’t win the election but he went the distance and “won” the campaign. Those surprised by the result described it uncomprehendingly as “chaos”, and some self-proclaimed Labour moderates with neural pathways that fossilised in the Blair era moaned that a more “centrist” leader could have waltzed into No 10 under the same conditions. Yet this latter reading ignores Theresa May’s bogus misrepresentation of a British general election as a quasi-presidential race, rather than a choice between parties and their manifestos – something that much of the media reinforced in their obsession with Corbyn’s “unelectability” over the past two years.

It was a lie that travelled, and fear of its effect explains why, according to the Telegraph, some absurd Labour MPs campaigned promising voters that “they will remove Mr Corbyn after the election”. Now that he has done better than the bacon sandwich guy and put the party on a more positive trajectory, you’d expect the doom-and-gloom “moderates” to moderate their misbehaviour. Like it or not, this is Jeremy Corbyn’s Rocky moment. And it’s worth remembering that in the Rocky sequels, the boxer becomes a champion.

What sport and movies such as Stallone’s sell is hope, as Barack Obama understood over in the US. From universal free school meals to scrapping university fees, Corbyn offered hope in abundance, though some claimed it was another four-letter word: “bung”. When students, the economically disadvantaged and the disabled actually get something in a manifesto that benefits them, it’s apparently a bribe; when corporations and the super-rich do, it’s pragmatism.

Whatever you call it, it succeeded in attracting the support of many who otherwise may not have bothered trudging over to the sticky-floored polling station. Locally targeted campaigning, much of it online, helped connect the weird panto at Westminster to the interests of ordinary people in cities such as Canterbury, while the 100,000 voters whom Corbyn addressed across the country at rallies multiplied into millions on YouTube and Facebook.

His message resonated with demographics too often dismissed as politically disengaged. Grime MCs and rappers such as Akala and Jme (who himself had never previously voted) encouraged fans to back Labour, and specifically Corbyn. On the Twitter feeds of record labels such as Wichita, pro-Corbyn retweets punctuated updates about Japandroids gigs. “Corbynite” was more or less a term of abuse among the older generation. But among the young, it was a cool thing to be.

No one would have bothered getting excited if they thought it was all a hopeless cause. Most of the people I know personally – largely public-sector employees, struggling musicians, boozers I met at a Soho club, none of whom work in the “Westminster bubble” – voted on 8 June in the belief that hopey-changey politics can work.

Democracy should, in its ideal state, be a matter of principles and the common good. It’s sensible to warn of the impossibility of reshaping a country without power, but to assume pragmatism must by its nature be pessimistic deprives politics of hope, which is the plutonium to a party’s flux capacitor.

The Tories warned that Corbyn would drag Britain back to the past, yet Labour’s near miss has warped us closer to an optimistic future. No wonder Jeremy Corbyn reminds me a bit of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and those other feel-good sci-fi oldies the kids seem to obsess over.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear