The Absolute Buoyancy: Why Corbyn and Labour Are Up and the Conservatives Are Down

The message from recent party conferences was clear: Labour is ascendant, while UK voters are tiring of Theresa May and the Tories.

Richard Seymour

Jeremy Corbyn continues to confirm his supporters claims that he is "the absolute boy." (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

There­sa May’s dream, the British Dream” in her words, is turn­ing out to be a night­mare. Like your worst anx­i­ety dream,” as the BBC put it, play­ing out for real.”

A new poll by BMG research shows that Labour holds a 5-point lead over the Tories among the general public, with voters now preferring Corbyn to May as their choice for Prime Minister.

Fol­low­ing the car­ni­va­lesque atmos­phere of the Labour Par­ty con­fer­ence in late Sep­tem­ber, Prime Min­is­ter May’s speech at last week’s Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty con­fer­ence came off as an extra­or­di­nary come down. The speech may have been writ­ten to recall the lyri­cal cadences of the West Wing’s Pres­i­dent Bart­let, but it implod­ed upon May’s read­ing. A slo­gan on the conference’s set, promis­ing a coun­try that works for every­one,” self-destruc­t­ed as she spoke. A pro­test­er hand­ed her a fake P45 notice announc­ing her ter­mi­na­tion. Her voice ground down to a hoarse whis­per, as she coughed and strug­gled through her words.

It wasn’t just bad pre­sen­ta­tion, how­ev­er. The Con­ser­v­a­tives appeared trau­ma­tized, as though some­thing had crashed through all their defences, leav­ing them blind­ly tear­ing at one anoth­er. May is drag­ging out her lead­er­ship, seem­ing­ly flaunt­ing her incom­pe­tence in the process. Her rivals are refus­ing to let her stand down, even though they con­tin­ue to sab­o­tage her — for­eign sec­re­tary Boris John­son is effec­tive­ly run­ning an open lead­er­ship cam­paign in the right-wing press. The mutu­al blood-let­ting is the behav­iour of peo­ple unit­ed only by dis­as­ter and the fear of worse to come.

That dis­as­ter, for the Tories, has been Jere­my Corbyn’s ascen­dant Labour Par­ty. In the June elec­tion, Labour unex­pect­ed­ly attract­ed mil­lions of new vot­ers and expe­ri­enced its biggest increase in elec­toral sup­port since 1945, destroy­ing both May’s par­lia­men­tary major­i­ty and her aura of auto­crat­ic pow­er. A new poll by BMG research shows that Labour holds a 5‑point lead over the Tories among the gen­er­al pub­lic, with vot­ers now pre­fer­ring Cor­byn to May as their choice for Prime Minister.

The June elec­tion wasn’t just dif­fi­cult for the Tories. It showed that all the old tru­isms no longer held up. The Left was sup­posed to be une­lec­table. Non-vot­ers were sup­posed to be lost to the vot­ing sys­tem. The reac­tionary press was sup­posed to crush any­one too left-wing, espe­cial­ly if they could be defamed as anti-British, as Cor­byn relent­less­ly was. All the old ver­i­ties were made to walk a tightrope in that elec­tion, and plum­met­ed down to earth, one by one.

Delayed cel­e­bra­tion

For the Tories, the cur­rent night­mare didn’t start with this month’s con­fer­ence: it has been drag­ging on for months.

A well-attend­ed fringe meet­ing at the Con­ser­v­a­tive con­fer­ence fea­tured a pan­el titled, Is the intel­lec­tu­al ini­tia­tive now with the Left?” The par­tic­i­pants’ melan­choly answer, over­whelm­ing­ly, was yes. A sim­i­lar sad­ness has befall­en the so-called Cen­trist Dad” demo­graph­ic, which has been the sub­ject of glee­ful meme mak­ing by Cor­bynistas. There was a time when Labour’s cen­ter-right had nov­el­ty, glam­our and ideas, a pro­fu­sion of think-tanks and pub­li­ca­tions sup­port­ing it. It was nev­er a grass­roots move­ment, but it had dynamism. No more.

The cen­ter of intel­lec­tu­al grav­i­ty dur­ing this year’s Labour con­fer­ence instead was a rau­cous fringe event, run by the left-wing, Cor­byn-sup­port­ing group Momen­tum, called The World Trans­formed.” Meet­ings at the event were packed, fea­tur­ing dozens of high pro­file intel­lec­tu­als and celebri­ties such as Nao­mi Klein and David Har­vey, as well as Labour MPs includ­ing Diane Abbott and Jere­my Cor­byn. Buzzfeed’s Jim Water­son report­ed one cen­trist del­e­gate, exit­ing the Momen­tum event, as say­ing, Every­one in there is more attrac­tive and talk­ing about more inter­est­ing things.”

The cel­e­bra­to­ry atmos­phere felt like a delayed reac­tion to Corbyn’s 2015 elec­tion as Labour leader. At the time, many on the Left had been too wary, too bat­tle-scarred, too wor­ried about the fragili­ty of the gain, to cel­e­brate much. And Corbyn’s lead­er­ship was imme­di­ate­ly under attack by a Labour Right deter­mined to see off this inter­lop­er as soon as it could con­ve­nient­ly be arranged.

The dam­age done by this dis­rup­tion, the strength of anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ment sig­nalled by Brex­it and the con­stant media fire from both the Tories and Labour’s right-flank all com­pound­ed such ret­i­cence. Since Labour’s shock­ing show­ing on elec­tion night, how­ev­er, the sense among the party’s hun­dreds of thou­sands of mem­bers has been gid­di­ness and exu­ber­ance, years of inter­nalised defeat giv­ing way to absolute buoyancy.

What comes next

Along with the jubilee of delayed cel­e­bra­tion, those on the Labour Left are also aware they’re part of an upward tra­jec­to­ry that comes with con­sid­er­able his­tor­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty. Labour’s suc­cess isn’t due sole­ly to a long-term curve to the left among younger gen­er­a­tions. Since the Gren­fell fire — in which dozens of work­ing-class peo­ple, many of them migrant work­ers, lost their lives — a new pop­u­lar class con­scious­ness has begun to form in Britain.

This mat­ters because Corbyn’s analy­sis has nev­er stopped at elec­tions. His mes­sage has always held that Labour has to orga­nize ordi­nary work­ing-class peo­ple, in unions and social move­ments, to defend their inter­ests and look out for one anoth­er. It is this momen­tous task that now faces the Left in Britain. A left-wing Labour gov­ern­ment with­out such an active base would be iso­lat­ed, encir­cled by hos­tile forces.

So it was crit­i­cal that Labour’s con­fer­ence didn’t focus only on poli­cies and motions. Thanks to Momen­tum, it also took on bold ideas and dif­fi­cult orga­ni­za­tion­al ques­tions — indus­tri­al strat­e­gy, antifas­cism, afford­able hous­ing, fem­i­nist strug­gles — that stand out­side any gov­ern­ing frame of reference.

Yes, Cor­byn and Labour are prepar­ing for the chance to gov­ern. But the move­ments sup­port­ing them are await­ing the chance to change the coun­try, irreversibly.

Richard Sey­mour is a North­ern Irish writer and own­er of the pop­u­lar blog Lenin’s Tomb. He has writ­ten for The Guardian, Lon­don Review of Books, and Al Jazeera and is the author of sev­er­al books, most recent­ly Cor­byn: The Strange Rebirth of Rad­i­cal Pol­i­tics (Ver­so).
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