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Tender comrade

09/11/2015

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Last September a mate invited me to a reception at the House of Commons hosted by the Hammersmith and Fulham Labour Party. It was organised by the local MP Andy Slaughter to thank party campaigners for their efforts in winning control of Hammersmith and Fulham Council in the local elections in May 2014. It was a spectacular triumph, perhaps the result of the night, toppling an administration viewed by David Cameron as a flagship Tory council and a reward for solid grassroots campaigning on issues like unwanted academy schools and the closure of local Accident and Emergency departments.

In a crowded, stuffy committee room party foot soldiers roared their appreciation of speeches by Labour Party big hitters like Ed Balls, Tessa Jowell, Sadiq Khan and Diane Abbott. Aside from being elbowed out of the way by Iain Duncan Smith as he sought to get a better view of the women’s triathlon in Hyde Park during the 2012 Olympics (I expect IDS isn’t too fond of moving out of the way for anyone) this was the closest I had been to any politicians for many years and it made for interesting viewing.

There was an almost celebratory feel about the place as if Labour was destined to win the general election in May. As I nibbled on a scotch egg I worried that this optimism was misplaced given that the two main parties remained neck and neck in the opinion polls only months from election day. And I pondered on whether any of the MPs in the room ever wondered why a party that has sacrificed so many of its principles and moved further and further to the right in order to win votes should be struggling to convince the electorate that it is better equipped to run the country than the most shambolic government in my lifetime.

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A year on and the party remains on the opposition benches. Indeed Ed Balls, the former shadow chancellor, is no longer even an MP and looks on as his wife Yvette Cooper battles to become the next Labour leader in a compelling contest. Compelling that is for one simple reason, the entry of a candidate who only secured his place on the ballot two minutes before the submission deadline; Jeremy Corbyn, an old school Labour left winger, who declared that he would fight on “a clear anti-austerity platform”. The bookies rated him a 100-1 shot back in June.

Not long after Corbyn joined the contest a lad at work, a long time Labour member and union activist, reckoned that the left winger could defy the odds and actually win as for many years he’d toured the constituencies and become a popular figure who turned up, spoke, listened to people and asked, in return, only for a lift back to the nearest railway station. No luxury hotels or chauffeur driven transport for Jeremy. A proper hard grafting, tea drinking constituency MP. Ever the pessimist I thought the idea that he could win was barmy; after all, aren’t left wing leadership candidates always meant to fight valiantly but ultimately finish last?

To be honest, the only reason I registered to vote in the leadership election was to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. Many others have done the same transforming the election from a dull three way contest into the biggest internal party election in British history with nearly six hundred thousand registered voters, four times the number of members of the Conservative Party and a remarkable statistic at a time of widespread disillusionment with mainstream politics.

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Given the vetting of people registering to vote I had half expected to be turned away. Party staff have apparently been running internet searches of all new applicants to weed out anyone considered not to be a supporter of the party. You don’t have to delve too deep into my output on social media and on this blog to learn that I have been very critical of the party in recent times. Public figures who have done far more campaigning for the Labour Party than me such as comedians Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy fell foul of the vetting process. Some saw it as a purge of possible Corbyn voters.

There are, of course, many ways of supporting a political party. Voting for them is just one. As a member of Unison who contributes part of my subscription to the union’s political fund I make a financial contribution to the Labour Party. Around half of Unison’s 1.3 million members do the same. But having voted Labour in every general election since 1987 this year’s election was very different for me. Having considered standing for the nascent National Health Action Party, I would have voted for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) had they stood a candidate in my constituency but eventually I chose to vote Green as on almost all issues they stood to the left of the Labour Party. The red mugs during the election campaign boasting that Labour would implement “controls on immigration” were perhaps the final straw. As the party has drifted increasingly toward the centre-right of UK politics so my enthusiasm for it has waned and many of my current political faves have no affiliation with the Labour Party; people like the Green MP Caroline Lucas, the former leader of the Respect Party Salma Yaqoob and Leanne Wood the leader of Plaid Cymru.

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It’s yonks since I was a proper paid-up member of the Labour Party but I’ve always considered myself to be an old fashioned democratic socialist. A bit of a dinosaur with an affection for such loony left nonsense as a more egalitarian society, a properly funded NHS and a world where asylum seekers and refugees are welcomed with open arms. Sadly the party that should be my natural home has become scared to death of uttering the “s” word for fear of scaring off middle England and has become obsessed with winning elections at all costs. So it’s been a joy to see Jeremy Corbyn packing out halls up and down the land and talking honestly about how we can transform society and put people before profit. And aside from the politics, there’s been a simple pleasure in listening to a politician speak from the heart and appear so comfortable in the spotlight. A marked contrast to the cheap soundbites and stultifying delivery of so many modern politicians and yes-men senior managers who will seemingly say anything to clamber up the greasy pole and get a taste of power.

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So much of current political discourse is conducted as if there is no alternative to austerity or austerity-lite with anyone who voices an alternative tagged as a dangerous extremist. It’s been refreshing to hear Corbyn remind everyone that there is an alternative. The notion that electing him as leader would consign the party to years in the political wilderness baffles me. It’s not as if going all pro-business and kowtowing to the media barons has been a guarantor of electoral success has it? Would striving for a fairer, more equal society or fighting to save the NHS from privatisation or returning a horribly fragmented railway system to public ownership or clamping down on billionaire tax avoiders really turn voters away in their droves? Seriously? Too often in recent years the Labour Party has been hamstrung from fighting at full tilt on key issues by its complicity in the likes of the Iraq war and the Private Finance Initiative which has financially crippled many NHS hospitals. Blairism came at a very high cost.

The Labour Party should be at the forefront of the campaign to save the NHS from privatisation – there shouldn’t be a need for a National Health Action Party. Likewise, instead of leaving it to groups on Facebook, it should be the Labour Party organising convoys of vehicles to drive to Calais to deliver aid to the hundreds of refugees living in dreadful conditions only a few miles from our coast.

Peering into the gloom of a future society that consists of no NHS as we know it, a skeletal welfare state, further attacks on trade unions and workers’ rights and more little Englander anti-immigrant bile doesn’t bear thinking about. A better world is possible. That’s why I voted for Jeremy Corbyn. And, you know what, I doubt the softly spoken MP for Islington North would push anyone aside just to take a photograph. Here’s to a gentler, more compassionate and caring form of politics free of personal abuse and focused on creating a better world. Let’s salute our tender comrade.

 

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From → Politics

2 Comments
  1. John Armitage permalink

    Another fabulous article, agree with every word.

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