If there were an extended metaphor for the state of the Labour Party since the snap election, it would be the Glastonbury Festival. I was there this year and heard the chant “Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn!” as it echoed across Worthy Farm in Somerset, again and again, shouted to the tune of the White Stripes song “Seven Nation Army”.
In the Left Field, introducing the Labour leader to a sea of T-shirts and paper masks featuring Corbyn’s smiling face, the singer and activist Billy Bragg summed up the spirit of Jez mania. “Last year, the Left Field was offering a kind of emotional triage for heartbroken Remainers,” he said. “This year, the Left Field is the whole festival. Our man’s name [is] chanted across the site.”
Outside the metal fences of the festival, however, Labour continues to be out of government. Glastonbury’s local MP remains the Conservative James Heappey, while revellers at the stone circle could squint across to the 18th-century fiefdom of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Standing in a queue for the infamous toilets, a Labour MP remarked that we were now truly living in a divided Britain. “People here love Jeremy, and so they should,” the MP said. “But the people who don’t and who can’t afford to come to Glastonbury are actually the ones who need a Labour government the most.”
To stand a chance of turning the fields beyond the festival as red as the Sunday-night sunset, Labour’s job now is to reach into its former heartlands with the hope, energy and tenderness with which it has mobilised its base. Empowering and engaging these parts of the UK is not just essential to the left’s future chances; it is these people’s right to have the Labour Party speak up for them.
Some traditional Labour voters are already shifting. But many remain angrily distant from the party that they have (or had) voted for all their political lives.
In the moments just before the exit poll on 8 June, I was thinking about some market traders from Stoke-on-Trent I had met a few days earlier. They hadn’t voted for Labour in 2015, had voted for Brexit, then had surprised themselves by voting for Labour twice two years later. “I like him [Corbyn],” a man called Stan confided, cracking open a can of Fanta on one of those surprise sunny days on a big estate, amid an after-school surge of sunburn and scarf-draped pushchairs. “He’s not my kind of bloke, but you can see he’s genuine.”
Against this, I was balancing a recent trip to the West Midlands, where older, working-class voters were still turning their faces from Labour. Jeremy Corbyn could have walked on water at the Walsall Gala Baths and they would still have been shouting, “Put a bloody tie on!”
These are the kinds of somersaults that your brain can turn in the moments before an exit poll. In some ways, both of those little chats with random voters turned out to be prescient. Walsall North, which had been represented by the veteran Labour MP David Winnick since 1979, turned to Eddie Hughes, the Conservative son of a bus driver. Stoke-on-Trent Central stayed Labour, its torrid Brexit-inspired fling with Ukip officially over.
Stan turned out to be one of the many likely DLJs – Labour canvassing code for “doesn’t like Jeremy” – who quite liked Jeremy, after all. This was down to some of the Labour leader’s personal qualities, but also the effect of a shifting tide of public opinion on austerity.
The Tories considered this year’s election to be that of 2015 on steroids, apparently not noticing that Brexit had, in part, been the revenge of the austerity-bled working classes and the anxious, squeezed middle. Yet, with Theresa May as Prime Minister, the dissembling plausibility of the David Cameron/George Osborne era had suddenly been swept away. Despite her speeches about the need to fight “burning injustice”, May appeared exactly who she was: the head of a mean and compassionless government with scant care for ordinary people, staging a cynical election.
Somehow, despite its best attempts to remove him, Labour had the almost perfect opposition leader for that cold, brittle politician. It was May who had made it a contest of Theresa v Jeremy. It just so happened that, whatever Corbyn’s faults, his evident passion and compassion ruinously illuminated his opponent’s flaws.
In 2015, Labour was still triangulating about welfare, immigration, the economy and a host of other issues. In 2017, however, it was clear and hopeful. Meanwhile, in the blue corner, like pub drunks who couldn’t see that the country had finally had enough, the Conservatives had become intoxicated by their cuts.
“They’re taking the piss now,” Stan told me. “They haven’t even got rid of that deficit. There always seems to be money when they need it.”
The school cuts awoke politically disengaged parents to the “burning injustice” of prolonged austerity. Then, the “dementia tax” tipped Middle England into open revolt. Things that had been in plain sight all along suddenly became pressing: the devastating underfunding of the NHS, for example, or the callous further cuts to disabled people’s livelihoods, symbolised by the broken heart of Ken Loach’s Daniel Blake. The recent terror attacks highlighted the deep cuts to the emergency services. Labour rallies held in safe seats but close to key marginals that shared the same media and social media began to offer a sunny alternative.
The political surf was up. But Jeremy Corbyn and his front bench had the gall to dream of being the tide that floats all boats. In the minutes after the 2017 exit poll, hope returned to the Labour movement, like the colour flooding back into a faded family photograph. Labour didn’t win the election, but it won the prize of future electability. Austerity – as seen in the denuded Queen’s Speech, as well as in the opinion polls – has been dealt a near-fatal blow.
However compelling all this might be, Glastonbury’s Avalon is a mythical island. To be more than a mere spanner in austerity’s works, Labour needs to win elections. To have a chance of winning a general election, Corbyn’s party needs the hearts and votes of the men and women doing their weekly lengths at the Walsall Gala Baths.
There are more of these people than metropolitan liberal England likes to think. And it is wrong and patronising to suggest their issues begin and end with immigration. Walsall’s Labour council recently closed nine libraries with barely a murmur of protest. People there feel angry and abandoned.
Since the Grenfell Tower fire, it feels as if a dangerously unpredictable world were calling even more loudly for different answers. The tide is still rolling forward.
As Glastonbury’s Brigadoon disappears once more into a working a dairy farm, the Labour Party needs to ask itself the question that Jarvis Cocker poses in Pulp’s “Sorted for E’s & Wizz”: “Oh, is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?’/Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?”
This article appears in the 05 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania