Saturday, 12 September 2015

Is Corbyn going to reconnect Labour to its roots? Is that maybe a way back to government?

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is nothing if not exciting.

Fraught with risk, maybe, but at least more dramatic, more inspirational than a victory for any of the other candidates would have been: as a journalist told the BBC, their performance throughout the campaign has been boring to the point of robotic.

Indeed, it seems to me that the only time they became less dull was when they attempted to move as far as they dared onto Corbyn territory, picking up challenges to government they had studiously avoided until they saw the traction they were winning inside the Labour Party: back in May, for instance, Andy Burnham was trying to shake a reputation as a left winger by claiming there were aspects of the Tory benefits cuts that he could support, whereas in August he was denouncing Tory moves on sanctions against benefits claimants as “brutal.”

Corbyn, by contrast, has never seemed robotic. Indeed, he comes across as straight, shunning the usual evasions and spin of the classic New Labour injection-moulded candidate. Indeed, the calm and highly effective way he handles hostile questions from journalists was what shook my sense that he couldn’t win the media battle, and started the process of bringing me round to support for him.

It’s no wonder he can mobilise Labour: he speaks for the most profoundly held principles of the party, and he does so with a voice of unwavering commitment and honesty. The issue for crtics in the media or outside the party, however, is whether he can win that kind of enthusiasm from a broader electorate, beyond the Labour Party. He’s out of touch with voters, they claim. They also suggest he may take Labour back to the disastrous period of the eighties, when Labour found itself exiled to the wilderness of perpetual opposition.

I take a less pessimistic view. Corbyn may be taking us back to the eighties, but perhaps more the 1880s than the 1980s. That might be the most constructive move we could make, reminding us of our roots and reconnecting with our fundamental principles. The 1880s were the time time when Keir Hardie, the first occupant of the post to which Corbyn has just been elected, leader of the Labour Party, started the process that would lead it eventually into government.

Did you hear the Gordon Brown BBC tribute to Hardie? it was an excellent piece of radio which I strongly recommend. It included this tribute:

Courage, it has been said, is the greatest quality of all, because upon courage all else depends. You can be eloquent, have wisdom, work very hard but to change things, you need courage to stand up for what you believe, and Hardie never flinched from an unpopular stand.

It seems to me that this is the kind of leader Corbyn is setting out to be: not afraid of taking on the difficult questions, the positions for which some would condemn him. Hardie ran into a deep groundswell of hostility when he opposed the First World War, at a time when even workers were gripped by war fever; Corbyn’s first action after winning the leadership was to attend a demonstration in favour of refugees, at a time when a significant majority of the British population seems to favour pulling up the drawbridges against foreign immigration.

Jeremy Corbyn: the new leader immediately attends a refugee rally
Brown also said of Hardie:

For me his legacy is this: a leader whose moral outrage against what was unjust never left him, but who knew that if he was to do anything about it, he needed to create a party of government.

It seems to me that Corbyn shares that sense of outrage, as every Labour member should. Now the test is to see whether he can enthuse enough of the electorate with that same passion for a fairer society and take Labour back into government.

We’ve had an exciting moment. And there are exciting times ahead.

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