When, in June, Jeremy Corbyn managed to scrape together the necessary 35 MPs to back his candidacy in the Labour Party leadership contest, I rejoined the party, although I thought he hadn’t a ghost’s chance of winning. Few thought he did; it was understood that Corbyn entered the race to broaden the debate. It took less than a month to discover we were all wrong.
On September 12, Corbyn collected 59.5 percent of party members’ votes, more than his three rivals put together: a landslide. Between May and September, membership grew from about 200,000 to about 300,000.
I was one of the people who voted for Corbyn. We’ve been called “morons” in need of “heart transplants,” “naïve” and “backward-looking.” Most of the Labour members of parliament have recoiled from him: He’s been called hard-left, Trotskyite, Bennite, socialist, pacifist, vegetarian, even anti-Semitic and anti-feminist. Several ex-shadow ministers refused to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet without even knowing whether they’d be invited.
Corbyn will have a hard time leading this unruly army of MPs, or even keeping in line the somewhat variegated, though interesting, shadow cabinet he’s chosen. His most provocative appointment, of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, may well be his Achilles’ heel. McDonnell is no fool, but he’s given to splenetic outbursts, and apparently once said (as a joke!) that he’d like to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. He, too, hopes for the end of capitalism.
It will be at least as hard dealing with a largely hostile press, which attacks Corbyn daily, in gigantic headlines, mostly for trivia: his clothes, his not singing “God Save the Queen,” his not giving a top ministerial job to a woman — though there are more women in his shadow cabinet than in any previous Labour shadow cabinet. But he has unearthed a tie and said that he will kneel to the Queen during his swearing-in as privy counsellor, and abandoned his bike in favour of a chauffeur.
My friend Polly Toynbee, the Guardian columnist, didn’t vote for him, but I’m glad to say that she spoke sternly to her Labour friends in the House of Commons, advising them to knuckle down and work with Corbyn. He has been congratulated and welcomed by journalist Tariq Ali and by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Both see his election as signifying new and hopeful things in Western politics: a backlash against inert tolerance of inequality and corporate power, and a focus on the young and the poor.
So far, Corbyn has done well. He is no orator, but he speaks simply and with conviction. His refusal to conform to the rowdy boys’ playground of the weekly Prime Minister’s Question Time was successful. Instead, he gently put questions to Prime Minister David Cameron that had been sent him as emails by the public. Within his first week, he spoke movingly and sympathetically about the refugee crisis and defended trades unions and workers’ rights, which are under ferocious attack from Tories.
He has spoken at times of leaving the EU, which he sees as an undemocratic organisation. However, he is wisely keeping his counsel on this and insisting that Labour’s stand at next year’s referendum on EU membership will depend on what Cameron achieves, if anything, in terms of workers’ rights when he negotiates with Brussels.
There are many of us who find this a heart-warming and exciting moment, and also a surprising one. It is, of course, full of tripwires. There is anxiety about the rough-and-ready organisation of his team: no visible spin doctors or advisors, no press officers and not much lip service to Labour’s internal traditions and hierarchies. He has, after all, spent almost 33 years as an MP voting frequently against his own party.
Without doubt, this has been an earthquake for Labour. It’s the second of the year for them: The first was losing the general election and with it their important foothold in Scotland. However, the Conservatives have only a slight majority and considerable troubles of their own. The current state of the world hardly encourages optimism, but the changes we’re witnessing here seem more promising than the vacuous political conversation we’ve endured for so many years.