The ultimate triumph of the political right in the 1980s was that its actions eventually forced the left to sell its soul for power – but many of today’s young voters neither remember nor care quite why it did so. All we have known are progressive parties that were callous in office and gutless in opposition. That’s why we almost suspect that it has all been a con. We almost suspect that when Jeremy Corbyn, a sexagenarian socialist with a 32-year parliamentary record of actually having principles and sticking to them, is elected leader of the Labour Party, the jig will be up. Corbyn will pull off his suspicious, bearded mask and underneath will be some baby-faced student organiser, or the unquiet shade of Michael Foot, or Russell Brand declaring that it was just a scam to see what Labour would do with a real left-wing candidate.
What the party has done so far is panic in a manner so incoherent and undignified that the Tories have marvelled, finishing the popcorn and starting on the dodgy dips as they watch the chaos unfold. We are told that a “Free French” resistance is being plotted within the Labour Party. The image of Blairites and vacillating former Miliblands as a “resistance movement” is worth savouring. What on earth would their slogans be? “What do we want? Strategic capitulation to the centre right with a view to contesting an election in five years!” “When do we want it? Subject to legal review!”
The big problem with Corbyn is that he throws the collapsed vacuum of mainstream Labour rhetoric into sharp relief. None of the other three leadership candidates has a single memorable political idea beyond the idea of themselves as leader. The anointed heirs of New Labour appear to believe in nothing apart from their right to rule – and they seem agnostic about even that, given the invertebrates they have put up against the Corbyn threat.
The “electability” conversation is where it all becomes clear. The argument that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable is being made by three candidates who can’t even win an election against Jeremy Corbyn. Their arguments are backed by two former prime ministers: Gordon Brown, whose main claim
to fame is losing an election to the Tories in 2010, and Tony Blair, the Ghost of Bad Decisions Past. Both of them are making the case that the ability to win a general election is the first and only important quality in a leader after years of muttering and shuffling behind Ed Miliband, a very nice man whose middle name could have been “Constitutionally Unable to Win a General Election”.
Corbyn, however, has been re-elected by the people of Islington North consistently since 1983 and, like Bernie Sanders in the US, seems as surprised as anyone suddenly to be reaping the rewards of a lifetime of sticking to his principles – principles that once put Corbyn on the moderate left of Labour and now make him look, at least in the estimation of much of the press, like the nightmare offspring of Che Guevara and Emma Goldman dressed up in a Stalin costume. And all for proposing a modest increase in the top rate of income tax.
Rumours of the death of the political left have been exaggerated. Corbyn, like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the Scottish National Party, is an immune response from a sick and suffering body politic trying to fight off a chronic infection that threatens to swallow hope for ever. There is a crisis in representative democracy in the west and it was established well before the stock-market collapse of 2008. The old centre left is at odds with its electorate because it decided for itself the limits of what was politically possible a decade ago.
The logic is this: it’s all very well to talk about fairer taxes, rent controls, sustainable wages and an end to the scapegoating of migrants and minorities – of course, we would all get behind those ideas if we could – but, in the end, all of the things for which the public has been crying out for decades just won’t make us “electable” and it is better to have power than it is to have principles. So, much as it pains us, we will continue to capitulate to the austerity consensus and wait around for another five years for our next polystyrene leader to fail to inspire a nation.
Corbyn bucks that trend, terrifying a political class that chose power over principles long ago without once asking itself whether power without principles is worth having. The paradox is delicious. For the first time in years, Labour is popular and interesting, but apparently it would rather not be. In some people’s estimation, a surge in party membership of almost a third, from organised labour, the working poor and disenfranchised young people, would be considered a good thing for a party that claims to represent the interests of all three.
Across Europe and the United States, however, professional politicians of the centre left have one idea about what politics should look like and the people they claim to represent increasingly have another. Certain politicians have not properly understood the definition of “representative” democracy.
Today’s voters are not the voters of 1997 or 2005. We are digital and post-geographic; we mobilise fast and we want more. We are not wedded to the electoral machine. Our disenfranchisement has been mistaken for apathy for too long by a political class that claims to want young people to vote but turns out to want young people to do as they’re told and vote for it or not at all.
We want someone to remember that democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box. We want someone to represent the interests of the young, the poor and the marginalised in parliament. These are simple, modest demands. And the most damning indictment on the British political machine is the way in which these simple, modest demands look like a revolution.