The Speaker
Saturday, 25 May 2024 – 00:37

Oh Jeremy Corbyn! – Remembering the Labour leader as he leaves office

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

When all is said and done, the history books should remember Jeremy Corbyn fondly.

As the exit poll was released on the 12th of December, the liberal establishment breathed a huge sigh of relief. The mission they started in 2015, was finally accomplished. They pounded the door relentlessly, until it eventually gave in.

So as Corbyn stood for his final PMQ’s, it marked the end of an era. It was perhaps fitting that it took place in a desolate House of Commons. It represented the nature of his battle throughout his tenure. A lone battle against the entire weight of the Westminster establishment, from the commentators to journalists to the MPs.

Inevitably, those to the right of Corbyn’s ideology wasted no time expressing their sheer joy at his departure. The Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Neil Coyle, took to Twitter to do what the right wing of the party have done throughout, and censured him. ‘Labour’s worst ever leader’ he claimed. Former Labour MP Anna Turley was quick to join the party. ‘Thank god. Is that it? Is it over? So much damage done’ she affirmed.

That brief Twitter exchange encapsulated the bitter tendencies a plethora of Corbyn’s own party peers held towards him. But he ploughed on. That is why the idea that his leadership was non-existent is critically perplexing.

He was undermined from the very start, but he did not let it get in the way of the task at hand. There are different types of leaders. There are those who lead by example, there are the inspirational ones and then the level headed ones who keep their eye on the prize at all times.

Corbyn was a combination of them all.

He won the 2015 Labour leadership contest with ease as he amassed 59.5% of the vote, a figure that dwarfed Tony Blair’s mandate in 1994. He was fully aware that his own party colleagues disapproved. So, he responded maturely, giving many of his critic’s senior roles in his shadow cabinet in a bid to unite the party.

But still there was no appeasing them. In a coordinated plot in 2016, orchestrated by Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary at the time, a host of shadow ministers resigned from their posts to accentuate the lack of confidence they had in Corbyn. Included were Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer, two of the three candidates in the current leadership race.

Eventually what followed was a no confidence vote, before another leadership election in September 2016. Rather than resort to vitriolic rhetoric and vulgar tactics after being brazenly backstabbed, it was business as usual for Corbyn. He campaigned, he connected and he collected. Hence, he bettered his result of 2015, garnering 61.8% of the vote.

It was the second time in as many years he was bundled to the ground, but both times he fought back in a dignified manner.

His harshest critics conveniently ignored that he was making the Labour Party a largescale, engaging and appealing party again. The twilight years of Ed Miliband’s rule had the membership at approximately 200,000. Corbyn increased it to more than three quarters of a million within a few years.

The ideas that large swathes of the population believed in, but were hitherto suppressed and dismissed as impractical suddenly became mainstream under Corbyn.

Corbyn yearned for a world where a robust commitment to the welfare state, increased public spending and ergo less austerity would be front and centre. And it goes further. There was a determination to organise the working class and invest in their communities whilst concurrently energizing youth engagement. Nationalising public utilities was also a prime concern alongside the need for an anti-imperial foreign policy based on human rights and peace and finally, a Green industrial revolution.

But often such ideas were derided. However, the details speak for themselves. It is an inescapable fact that with Corbyn at the helm, those disillusioned with the direction of the party under its previous leaders, as well as those who did not otherwise think a simpler and more honest politics was ever possible, coupled with those who wanted genuine change but were not represented, suddenly found a political home.

That is why he won two consecutive leadership elections resoundingly, that is why the membership soared and that is why in the 2017 general election, Labour was able to win seats like Canterbury for the first time. Whether the right wing of the party or the mainstream press wanted to admit it or not, they knew Corbyn was doing what accomplished leaders do – inspiring.

The ‘moderate’ wing of the party failed to hide their aversion. As the 2017 general election exit poll emerged on June 8th, footage shows some of Corbyn’s fiercest critics, including Stephen Kinnock, Lucy Powell and Ruth Cadbury, stare in disbelief and disappointment as it became clear the party was on course for major gains, as opposed to defeat, like they predicted and itched for.

Nevertheless, by the time the 2019 election came around, the unyielding pressure on Corbyn had its desired effects. After 3 years of torturous Brexit internal battles, the moderate wing of the party compelled the hierarchy to adopt a second referendum.

It was political suicide. It was interpreted as a betrayal of the 2016 Brexit vote by the considerable number of Labour Brexit voters in the Midlands and the North. Thus, it was the final nail in the coffin of Corbyn’s leadership, as it led to a thumping Conservative majority of 80.

An electrifying manifesto with proposals including but not limited to increasing NHS spending to alleviate the unforgiving pressure, free personal care for the over 65’s, a commitment to end rough sleeping, a radical programme to build more council homes and welcome relief for schools, was slammed. A spending package for public services worth £82.9billion alongside an additional package of tax increases, brought the cost of the manifesto to approximately £135billion.

‘A recipe for terminal economic decline’ his denigrators proclaimed. ‘A lifetime tax bombshell for ordinary families’ and a host of ‘unrealistic empty promises’ the media declared.

Where on earth would Corbyn generate all that money from? It was ludicrous, they implied.

Yet ironically, here we are, just 3 months after greater spending, state intervention and priority for the vulnerable were comprehensively rejected and labelled as unworkable, it is precisely that approach that the government has turned to at a time of crisis.

Who would have thought that the new chancellor Rishi Sunak would be a delirious socialist?

As the COVID-19 outbreak intensified, Sunak unveiled an anti-coronavirus fiscal package worth £32billion and then a loan guarantee scheme worth £330billion, to help businesses and families. A few days later he said the government would pay 80 percent of the wages of anyone furloughed and kept on their employers’ payroll. Then his latest proposal allows self-employed workers to apply for a grant worth 80% of their average monthly profits.

But how was this unprecedented government intervention received? After all, it was more than double the cost of Labour’s manifesto. So if Labour’s proposals were allegedly going to send Britain back to the 1970’s, Sunak was on course to send Britain back to the stone ages.

Not quite. It apparently illustrated Sunak rising to the challenge and producing an ‘economic bazooka’.

But it reinforced something else. That Corbyn was right all along.

In fact, he said it himself. He told the BBC in an interview that he had been ‘denounced as somebody that wanted to spend more money than we could possibly afford’.

The double standards would be funny if they were not so frightening. Opinion writers, political commentators and analysts rushed to be the first to publish pieces about the new Conservative golden boy who was surely going to be the next prime minister. His defining moment? Introducing Corbynism on steroids.

But this incongruous approach from the media should come as no surprise. Indeed, statistics show that 75% of media coverage of Corbyn factually misrepresented him. The same media that is owned by a handful of foreign-based billionaires. The same media that were merciless in their reporting of anti-Semitism that Corbyn allegedly spurred in the party and opted to neglect his consistent anti-racist past, and yet they looked the other way as Islamophobia plagued the Conservative Party.

And when all else failed, they resorted to criticising his appearance. Be it his suit or his anorak, there were no limits to the denunciation.

That is the extent of the distasteful character assassination that Corbyn had to endure for 5 years. It speaks volumes about his gargantuan character and steeliness that he persisted and did not let it phase him.

Even more impressively was that his values and ethics did not change. In 1992 he was on the record articulating the need for the Labour Party to be dedicated to the provision of universal benefits, universal housing and universal education. Likewise, in 1995 he underlined the need for public ownership. He maintained those sentiments for decades as a backbencher, till those same pledges could be found in his manifesto and were integral to the political discourse in the country.

That level of consistency is scarce and can certainly not be found among those who will remain on the political front lines as Corbyn departs. Lisa Nandy or Keir Starmer may supersede Corbyn, but arguably neither have a consistent set of values. In a BBC Newsnight Labour leadership debate in February, Nandy underscored the importance of honesty with spending commitments, and warned against promising the earth, citing the scrapping of tuition fees. Five minutes later, she promised to scrap tuition fees. Corbyn upheld his beliefs for four decades. Nandy couldn’t for four minutes.

Starmer is no different. Throughout his leadership bid he has outlined his plans for tackling inequality and injustice, but his history suggests otherwise. In 2009, when newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson was killed after he was struck by police officer Simon Harwood, Starmer was head of the Crown Prosecution Service. But he told the press the CPS would not prosecute and even cited a report which stipulated the death was induced by natural causes. Only in May 2011 after a jury inquest found Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed, did the CPS agree to charge Harwood with manslaughter.

Peddling different narratives for different audiences and playing it safe might be considered strategic and effective. But it is not leadership. Leadership is when you are swimming against the tide for decades, but you do not change course just because society tells you to. You fight for what you believe. Leadership is Jeremy Corbyn.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely the establishment will be waxing lyrical about him. There are no restrictions to their besmirching. But even they cannot deny that Corbyn single handedly altered the economic and political conversation in the country, all whilst refreshingly maintaining his principles amid an avalanche of smears.

So, take a look round. The trains are essentially nationalised. The vulnerable are a priority. Businesses are catering for their employees. The state is taking over private sectors.

It is Jeremy Corbyn’s Britain we are living in.


Photo Credit: Jeremy Corbyn via Flickr under licence (CC BY 2.0)

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