“Oh Jeremy Corbyn!”. Some time ago these words were belted out at rallies, chanted by the thousands of youths who had been suddenly filled with political zeal by the MP for Islington. Here was a man who whipped up crowds of the previously disillusioned with politics; for the first time since the 1980s bringing a truly socialist ideology to the frontline of Westminster. The lesson we can learn from him is two-fold: that politicians can be genuinely engaging and principled, but also that idealism without compromise can be a dangerous thing.
It is a political thesis that unites all generations that politicians shouldn’t be trusted any further than they can be fired from a catapult. From the Liberal Democrats during the coalition to the current Conservative government, there are frequent U-turns and broken pledges, for example on tuition fees. Yet here came a speaker who was utterly relentless in his attacking of what he saw as inequality and injustice. You knew this from his voting record, he consistently voted to increase the tax rate on those earning over £150,000 and always voting against an increase in VAT. The youth responded to this, his cry of “we can build a better world” at Glastonbury was met with a roar. Despite intense media and public pressure, Corbyn routinely refused to back down on controversial issues.
This stretches far beyond his leadership of the party; he has long been strongly opposed to military intervention: voting against it in Iraq in 2003 and continued operations in Afghanistan in 2010. Contrasted to careerists such as Blair, he chose his own principles over the party line, often flying in the face of it with the case of Iraq. Whilst there is much to be said in defence of the party whip, it can be frustrating when MPs give vocal opposition to a Bill then vote for it anyway (such as during the school lunches debate). It is perhaps no surprise then that Corbyn’s tenure saw a surge in Labour membership, doubling from 200,000 to 400,000 by 2016. He appeared to be genuinely authentic, which resonated with young voters who felt disenfranchised and ignored by Westminster. Perhaps that is the best of Corbyn: he reengaged so many in politics.
A few weeks ago, the Guardian published a piece alleging that Corbyn’s defeat in 2019 was “not a result of his policy”. It is perhaps an uncomfortable truth for some people that this did play a part in his downfall. His colossal manifesto which promised to rewrite British society was emblematic of a detachment between leadership and the electorate. So many of his viewpoints, which resonated so well with the younger generation, alienated him from the rest of the population. One such issue that reflects this well is his attitude to nuclear disarmament. Whilst certainly principled, his admission that he would not launch a retaliatory nuclear strike was met with generally negative feedback; an error on his part perhaps, given the Conservatives are portrayed as the ‘patriotic’ party and so accused him of being lax on national security.
A similar line can be played with regards to Brexit, the monarchy, and the Scottish Independence debate. The Conservatives’ election trophy was the ‘red wall’; when the journalists moved in post-election the most common motivation was that voters did not ‘trust’ Corbyn to lead the country. They thought his socialist state economics too expensive and that his social policy would destabilize the country. There is no doubt that he genuinely believes in Republicanism, or that Scotland should have a vote on its independence. The point of contention is that many voters in the UK do not. Corbyn was from the fringe of politics, when he entered the mainstream he refused to abandon that. His unbending principles were a hindrance in the political game: pragmatism may be cynical at times, but it is ultimately the primary objective of any politician to be elected.
Whatever you think of Keir Starmer, his ascension to Labour leader marks a return to a tamer, blander type of politics for the party. A return to tame politicians making tame decisions, unveiling tame policy. He is an inoffensive figure, willing to bend and concede on issues to hold broader appeal, unlike Corbyn. No matter your opinion of Corbyn as a man or as an ideologue, his rise to the forefront broke the stale political air of Westminster. You may well disagree with his stance on an issue, but that is part of the point. He challenged the nation’s political complacency and drove many thousands into becoming more invested in the democratic process. Maybe one day soon another such politician shall break into the mainstream, and once again force us out of the comfort zone of our own personal politics. Indeed, perhaps we should be hoping one does.
Image: Socialist Appeal via Wikimedia Commons