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Corbyn at Glastonbury, more Brexit variations, and why it's too late for goodbyes

What the Labour leader has at present, the party should bottle – a sense of hope.

Is there another contemporary British political leader who could have enchanted a crowd as Jeremy Corbyn did the hipsters and hippies at Glastonbury last weekend? Perhaps only Tony Blair in his “a new dawn has broken” pomp? The adulation did not last long for Blair. Less than a year after he became prime minister and with the cult of Cool Britannia already tarnished, the NME, then still an influential magazine respected for the quality of its writing and its political seriousness, turned on the Labour prime minister in an issue of March 1998, the cover line of which was: “Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Blair, like Corbyn, had courted the youth vote. He spoke at the Brit Awards and, like Corbyn during the election campaign, chose to be interviewed in the NME. But the music paper was unhappy about the advent of tuition fees (introduced at £1,000 per year), the absence of drug reform and the introduction of welfare-to-work, which would have forced unemployed musicians to take any job after six months. So it took its revenge on Blair, prefiguring how, in time, he would be perceived more generally by those who were alienated by the Iraq War and the excesses of the later New Labour years. The seeds of Corbynism were planted a long time ago, it seems. Et ego in Arcadia vixi.


Corbyn’s Glastonbury speech was cheery enough but essentially banal, as if scripted by a latter-day Chauncey Gardiner. He mocked Donald Trump (always a good idea), praised his host (Michael Eavis, the farmer on whose land the cash-generating festival takes place), spoke of the need for togetherness and for bridges to be built instead of walls, and recited a few lines from “The Masque of Anarchy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the left’s favourite public-school Romantic-radicals.

All of this led to his being received with a kind of rapture. (Imagine Theresa May, Philip Hammond or David Davis in the same setting.) What struck me above all else was how happy and chipper Corbyn seemed, in his open-necked, untucked blue shirt and white chinos. He loves posing for selfies and he genuinely likes meeting people, especially those who share his convictions. This seems to be in striking contrast to the Prime Minister who, as the novelist Robert Harris tweeted at the height of the Grenfell crisis, seems comfortable only with fellow card-carrying Conservatives or people in uniform.

At present, Corbyn radiates a saintly aura: he has suffered, his detractors inside and outside the PLP have been humiliated, and he has endured. The students love him. He has inspired many to believe that the future can be socialist, if only in one non-EU country.

The substance of what he says, as in the Glastonbury address, may not stand up to much scrutiny but he says it with conviction and dogged persistence. And he is gloriously unafraid. What Corbyn has at present Labour should bottle – because he conveys a sense of hope when many are feeling hopeless. Young people in particular believe him and in him, or at least they seem to want to. The harder tests lie ahead, of course – such as settling on a coherent Brexit strategy for Labour, when Corbyn is a Brexiteer who leads a party of Remainers. But, hey, that can wait – for at least six months, because by then, as Corbyn is reported to have told Eavis, the Labour leader will be prime minister. For now, as Chic’s Nile Rodgers also put it while performing at Glastonbury, let’s enjoy the good times.


More Brexit variations. One I neglected to mention last week was of course our glorious leader’s appeal for a “red, white and blue Brexit”. Thank you to Helen Lewis for reminding me of that one: how could I have forgotten? As for Mrs May, today it is unfortunately, for her, a case of “never glad confident morning again” – especially so when you compare her former authority, when she had the wind at her back and the Mail was in full flow denouncing “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people”, with her present diminished status as she scrambles to hold on to power in alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party.

Elsewhere, the Spectator’s James Forsyth has tweeted about what he bafflingly called a “full fat Brexit”, while a group of Labour MPs led by Chuka Umunna has warned against the pursuit of a “hard-right Brexit”. I’m grateful to our alert correspondent Nigel Lack (see Correspondence, page 11) who, during last week’s BBC Question Time (no longer essential viewing for me) heard reference to a “legal Brexit”, an “illegal Brexit”, a “collective Brexit” and a “tolerable Brexit”. Keep them coming, please.


Last week I mentioned the John Lennon song “Nobody Told Me”, which I said was popularised by his son Julian. It seems I got this wrong. Rob Burley, the editor of The Andrew Marr Show and the man who belatedly nudged me into joining Twitter seven years after most of my colleagues, has been in touch to say that Julian never recorded it. (Rob is a renowned Beatleist and was a quiz machine maestro back in his student days.) Rather it was recorded but left incomplete before Lennon was murdered in 1980.

The song was completed in 1983 by Yoko Ono and released in 1984, the same year Julian Lennon released his debut single, “Too Late for Goodbyes”, which reached number six in the UK singles chart. I remember well both “Nobody Told Me” and “Too Late” and somehow contrived to believe they were ­recorded by the same person, which is most peculiar, mamma. Perhaps “Too Late for Goodbyes” would also work just as well as “Nobody Told Me” as part of the soundtrack to the Brexit debacle? As I said before, these are strange days indeed. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.