Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Back to the Future

On holiday in Cornwall last week, my aged vehicle broke down. Happening near the end of our holiday, it was not going to be repaired in time so I spent a couple of days trying to make arrangements to get the car, two adults, three kids, two dogs and a pile of luggage back to East Sussex. Mostly, I was at the top of our holiday home desperately clinging onto a sketchy phone signal whilst I tried to coordinate a major breakdown service, a recovery firm and a local mechanic. It was not easy. It was a stressful time. At one point in the middle of all this my mobile rang and, desperate for good news but fearing it would be more bad, I barked “Yes!?” into the phone.

“Oh, hello. I’m phoning from the Jeremy Corbyn campaign team. I was wondering if we could rely on your vote in the leadership ballot?” said a polite young man.

“Yes you can!” I bellowed. “YES, YOU BLOODY WELL CAN!”

Taken aback by the blend of aggression and affirmation, I suspect he thought I was joking. I wasn’t. He had caught me at a bad time, but I was deadly serious.

Having re-joined the Labour Party at the end of April, the election defeat in May meant that I was quickly forced to consider who I would want the next leader of the party to be. I struggled to think of anyone other than Andy Burnham as a potential leader: working class roots, experience of government, still grounded; and as the candidates began to declare – some unfamiliar having risen without trace, others hamstrung by overleaping ambition – my mind did not change. That is until Burnham launched his own candidacy at a business consultancy specialising in tax avoidance, wearing a navy blue business suit and looking and sounding like all the other fortysomething showroom dummies – Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Osborne – who have lectured us in recent years about the austerity medicine we all need to swallow: my heart sank.

However, due to the largesse of MPs who supported a widening of the debate, things started to look up: Corbyn got on the ballot at the last minute. Those MPs now probably regret their benevolence with him so far ahead in the polls, but this episode perfectly highlights the massive disconnect between the parliamentary party and its members. Of course, spin doctors, Labour grandees and faux-radical superannuated newspaper columnists are queuing up to tell us that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be unelectable; and based on the profile of the recent voting electorate, they are right.

Elections have increasingly been dominated by older voters: the older the age group, the higher the turnout. At the last election, generations that had benefited from decent and available social housing, free further education, cheap home ownership and proper pensions elected the Tories. Manipulated into believing that the country can no longer afford these fundamentals of an equitable society, they pulled up the ladder. The reason Corbyn can win in 2020 is because he will be backed by a different electorate, one that supports those fundamentals for all. What he has done within the Labour Party – energising and attracting young people into politics – will be replicated across the country as those starting out in adult life will oppose their exclusion from education, housing and fair wages

It is not just the young who will win it for Labour. The sages warn that we have to tempt back Tory voters to win an election; this cannot be done with a left-wing manifesto, they say. But most voters do not think in terms of left or right-wing; they think in terms of policies. What Labour needs to go back to is its traditional beliefs. For a long time it has been drifting away from these (for me the New Labour nadir was not the Iraq war but super casinos; remember that idea?) and the number of people voting Labour fell at each election of the Blair premiership despite him winning three times. It is the voters who have deserted the party - not just to the Tories but to the SNP, UKIP and abstention - who will respond to Corbyn’s core Labour ideas for a future of investment not austerity; ideas which will build social housing, create manufacturing jobs, abolish tuition fees and run public services for people not profit. And I am sure that under a Jeremy Corbyn government, my car would not still be in Cornwall.

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