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.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel