My husband and I have always voted for the Labour Party, and were members. We consider ourselves to be socialists, believe in justice, equality and public services, and oppose greed, rampant consumerism, discrimination and poverty. We were active in our younger days but lost enthusiasm and energy over the years, partly because we lacked time but also through feeling disconnected with decision making. Tony Blair taking us into war with Iraq was the final straw, and we lapsed our memberships.
Now we are back again as members and this is why.
The Labour Party leadership contest on 12 September 2015 was a turning point for us and thousands of others. Jeremy Corbyn, who had been a backbench MP for more than 40 years, overwhelmingly won the election. In the 1980s when I travelled to London for work I remember his constituency office was prominently located in a high street, easily available for drop-in. He campaigned for the right things – justice, peace, equality – often against his own party line. He is a man of principle. He is not a Champagne Socialist. Nothing is hidden; what you see is what you get. Jeremy lives in a modest house, he loves his allotment, he cycles, he is a vegetarian, he hardly drinks alcohol and doesn’t smoke. He is said to rarely lose his temper and one of the principles of his election campaign was to not engage in personal vilification and abuse, which is rampant in politics. He didn’t put himself forward as Labour Party leader, and had to be persuaded to stand. He received enough nominations right at the last minute, and many of his Parliamentary colleagues thought he was a no-hoper, even those who nominated him. It was a pleasure to prove them wrong.
For us, Corbyn has provided hope. He unleashed political spirit in us that had been dormant for years. The campaign to have him elected was creative, focused and very effective. ‘Team Corbyn’ engaged young people, used social media and gave straightforward, ethically sound messages. At the time, our daughter’s partner was close to some Labour MPs and was asked to help with the Corbyn campaign. He recruited his younger brother to help and we now have the added bonus of connections to high places!
Watching the election process unfold was extraordinary. Corbyn threatened everyone except his supporters. The Press despised him and continually tried to dig up dirt about his past, and use it to undermine his credibility. The other three candidates and the majority of MPs on all sides were scathing about his competence and his ability to win a general election. Yet his popularity with party members grew and the Labour Party membership grew and grew as people flocked to join. Once the election was out of the way, the Press then turned to undermining his ability to command respect and lead his Parliamentary party, and this constant assault continues. He has been accused of being too ‘far left’ and his supporters accused of being Communist infiltrators (still a terrible thing to be in the UK).
However, some amazing grass roots activity has emerged from Corbyn’s election, and we have reconnected with our activist and protest genes. Just after he agreed to stand for Leader, we (and he) attended an anti-austerity rally in London in June; on September 12, the day he was elected, he spoke at a Solidarity with Refugees march and protest and we were there. In November we protested against the bombing of Syria, and also against the effects of climate change. In February we took part in a march and demonstration against the UK renewal of Trident nuclear missiles, and wore our old CND and anti-Trident badges from the 1980s. On March 19 we will take part in another Refugees Welcome and anti-racism march and rally, and will wear our old anti-racism badges. The same struggles continue with new generations.
After Jeremy Corbyn was elected, the organisation that helped him to win reorganised into an organisation to support and promote him as Prime Minister, called Momentum. Momentum has cast itself wider than the Labour Party and has set up local branches as well as organising national activities and events. There is a JC4PM roadshow touring the UK which features comedians, politicians, musicians, playwrights and poets all speaking and performers in support of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. We were able to get tickets to the first show in London and it was a truly entertaining few hours, topped by an appearance by the man himself! In all my years I cannot remember there being public entertainment events in aid of a politician and potential Prime Minister.
We attended our first local Momentum meeting and were somewhat disappointed. The energy and new look we had experienced at national level had not quite translated down to the local. The lack of ethnic diversity of members was worrying. There were younger white men in key positions who were good at chairing and giving people a fair chance to speak. But despite this the meeting was dominated by ‘old-style’ members and their habits. For example, the most inordinately long winded discussions and monologues were had about procedure and strategy by older white men used to having their voices heard, and always with something to say about every item on the agenda. I remembered why we had found Labour Party meetings so tedious and thought this might be different. But some of the people had moved over to Momentum from there as another potential platform for power.
It’s a dilemma. To challenge and change the culture of this emerging organisation and prevent it repeating the mistakes of others needs time and energy and a willingness to agitate for change. It needs dissatisfied individuals to bring like-minded people on board and put themselves forward for positions of authority. Although we want to help, we also want a stress-free life and are not in the UK enough to follow through plans and take responsibility for changes we want to see. So we have to be content to do what we can in the here and now.
I signed up as a steward for a local public meeting to discuss the Trident nuclear missiles. It was well attended and rewarding to see the support for disarmament. The day after, I went to London to a meeting organised by the Camden borough branch of Momentum. This was to discuss a new anti-racism strategy for Momentum and to gather together minority ethnic and other support for the Corbyn campaign. I loved the meeting. It was well chaired and there were mostly women in charge and as speakers. There was so much hope in the room. Hope that Momentum as a force for change might be more successful than what exists; hope that the new political leaders would champion the inclusion of minorities and join the fight against racism and other discriminations. Participants spoke of struggles they were already having to be heard even in the new organisations, echoing the dilemmas I mention above. We were encouraged to sign up for action – for example at the moment the Westminster Government is in dispute with junior doctors over working conditions and pay, and there are real fears that our flagship National Health Service will be completely privatised. So days of action in support of the doctors are being planned. Momentum has galvanised people and stimulated people and I sincerely hope we succeed.
In conclusion, this time last year I would never have contemplated voting for a(nother) white man to get into power. Never. But here we are. I don’t think Corbyn can do no wrong – there is still much the Labour Party needs to do to better include and represent all our citizens. But I for one am willing to back the ‘new kind of politics’ and to actively campaign until our leader is elected as Prime Minister.