Admitting to idealism – and political idealism in particular – can be embarrassing. Especially now. Following the coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and its aftermath, it is clear to me that cynicism is the language of our times. It doesn’t do to express too much hope, especially when you’re young. Veteran columnists await you, their keyboard-tapping fingers sharpened, ready to undermine any feelings of optimism that you may have about the “new politics”. Corbyn is unelectable, they say. His followers are narcissists, fringe hard leftists, abusive Twitter knobheads, lentil-eating Islingtonites. And that’s just the criticism from the left.
I don’t want to come across as a Corbyn hipster (“I liked him before he was cool”) but I voted for him in the general election. I live in the socialist republic of Islington North, where he has a reputation for principled and hard-working dedication to his constituents. Take the events of 18 September. Boris Johnson claimed that Corbyn had failed to “scrum down for England” by missing the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony. That day, the new Labour leader was with someone with far less power. As his constituent Daisy Barber recounted on Facebook, he was busy meeting her sister-in-law and her children at a surgery to talk about their housing situation.
As that story shows, the cliché of Islington as a champagne socialist enclave is wrong. It is a diverse borough with some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country, especially so in Islington North. If Corbyn engages those who are suffering under austerity in his backyard, why wouldn’t he have the potential to do this elsewhere in the country? Anyone who has attended one of his rallies knows that he appeals not just to the tribal left but also to those who have never expressed an interest in politics before. Something exciting is happening, yet precious few are writing about the policies that have inspired this moment.
It is true that Corbyn’s potential electability is a concern, as is the lack of women in the top shadow cabinet positions. There are other areas where his detractors have made salient criticisms. I’m not a blindly optimistic “Corbynista”, incapable of hearing criticism of the dear leader; nor are any of my peers. I was expecting toxic political attacks, too. I was less prepared for the establishment’s cluelessness about why this movement is happening and how it is less about the man than about the values that he represents – fairness, equality, peace – and the hope that he inspires for a younger generation. The tone-deafness was striking. “Wow,” I thought. “They really, really don’t get it.”
From the evidence of the rallies and meetings that I have attended, Corbyn’s supporters come from a wide range of age groups and backgrounds. His popularity with young people, achieved without particularly trying to be anyone other than himself, is particularly noteworthy. He has built a grass-roots movement. As the journalist Ed Vulliamy wrote in the Observer, Corbyn’s victory in the leadership election “was the first time many of our young readers felt anything like relevance to, let alone empowerment within, a political system that has alienated them utterly”.
Yet the cold-water consensus elsewhere in the Sunday paper had let those readers down. Britain’s young people, so starkly disadvantaged in comparison to their elders, deserve better from the media.
The other lesson of recent weeks (as if we didn’t know already) is that you should never look to Twitter – that cynical, nuance-free home of hacks and trolls – to gauge the public mood. Instead, seek out the opinions of those who have little concern for burnishing a public reputation and whose hope and optimism are unspun. In this country, there are tens of thousands of people who have a question mark over their housing situation, or their care provision, or the care of someone they love. (These are not minority concerns, alien to Middle England’s comfortable prosperity. While housing is a huge millennial concern, a social care crisis awaits the baby boomers.)
My generation’s political opinions are often excluded from the mainstream media, which is why I wrote, early on in the campaign, for the New Statesman website about Corbyn’s young supporters. I sensed that a gulf was opening between the media establishment and my interviewees. On a personal level, I have never felt as though I belonged less in this industry because of my politics and my background than I do now. On a professional level, I have largely shut up about Corbyn. The mainstream media have an amazing ability to make your big dreams seem stupid and poorly informed.
Right now, the last thing that young people need is for newspapers to adopt braying tones of avuncular chastisement. They are the readers of the future, yet few print outlets engage with them. Instead, the young express themselves by going on marches and on Facebook, where they describe their relief that the devastating impact of austerity will finally be challenged with passion and conviction. Online, they share their hopes for a more egalitarian future and their dismay at the overwhelming tide of shit being thrown Corbyn’s way. Unlike the occasionally humourless “cybernats”, most young people in this country don’t want unwaveringly favourable, uncritical reporting and they love a bit of satire. They just want to be given the time of day.
Jeremy Corbyn has given many of my generation hope for a better future and he could do the same thing for many more disadvantaged and disenfranchised young voters. Will the establishment allow us that hope? Or at least some engagement with the policies and ideals inspiring that hope? If not, where do we go instead?
This article appears in the 23 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left