If you woke up on the 24th June in shock to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU, you won’t have been alone. Perhaps you also felt similar feelings about the Labour party last September, when it elected its most left-wing leader in a generation.
I am an ex-charity leader and Labour party activist who ended up leading the Remain campaign in the North East. What is happening politically in the UK is less of a shock to me.
I know a world you probably will never see. In my 12 years of working in North East communities, I have worked with children who lived three miles from the beach but who had never seen the sea. I have supported grown women who had never been to a restaurant. I counselled boys who had never left the town they were born in, and handed out food parcels to widows whose benefit sanction meant they had no food. This is Poverty Britain, and people are hurting.
I knew the EU referendum was going to be tough, when on the first day of the Stronger In campaign trail in the North East, we hit the town of Washington, close to Sunderland. Boarded-up shop fronts, grey faces and eyes on the floor all told of hardship and decline. The people here were already converted – they wanted out. These people, like those I had worked with, had been ignored for too long. Their story overlooked, their lives forgotten and their plight becoming harder and harder.
As situations become more extreme, so do the solutions people turn to. Moderate middle ground policies don’t speak to the pain of someone living in the backwaters of a post-industrial city. Saving your NHS, reducing migration, taking back control and blaming “others”, does. It offers a simple solution to complex problems.
Corbynism grows against a similar backdrop. Corbyn has a message of hope. He is calling out for a new type of society, for tackling vested interests, going after the bankers, offering free education for all, speaking up for the vulnerable and doing politics differently. To some, he might seem as extreme as voting for Brexit or UKIP. But to the disability activist fighting welfare changes, or the cleaners and teaching assistants fighting for better pay, or the women’s group fighting cuts in domestic violence services, a more radical Labour party offers hope. Like Brexiteers, these people are disillusioned and fed up of the status quo. They too want change.
Centrists in the Labour party believe a Corbyn-led Labour party means any chance of change will be impossible, because Corbyn will keep them out of power. Corbynism is only for those middle-class, liberal lefty types, they say. He doesn’t speak to the mainstream.
The reality is less clear cut. On the campaign trail, speaking to working-class voters, I sensed confusion. They liked some of what he has to say, but he didn’t chime with their deeply patriotic and nationalist identities (or what they had read in the right-wing press).
The biggest problem for Labour, though, is the focus on a leader to take them to the promised land. But the Labour party is as much about those within it as the leader. The real radical politics is as much about ownership and engagement as policy.
We can collectively decide the future, working together from a grassroots level, and rebuild the Labour party we want to see. There are some brilliant ideas within the party – radical and practical, innovative and traditional. Harnessing these ideas could enable the Labour party to be the central force in British politics once again.
One thing is for sure, without a new left-wing offer that speaks to the dissatisfaction many British citizens are feeling, radical right wing ideas will continue to take root and grow. If that happens, I dread what type of country we could become.