We live in a small town in Oxfordshire — Cameron country — where Labour are a distant third in all elections, and the Conservative social club is a signposted landmark and a social hub. My wife Libby is never one to shy away from a political discussion, despite being the daughter of a sometime Liberal Democrat councillor. At least once she has stopped to engage those having a fag outside ‘the Con club’ as it’s known and asked them their opinions on matters of the day.
Most of the time it happens with more respect and decorum than PMQs, even though, leaving aside the Chancellor, participants in these impromptu street exchanges are likely to be more intoxicated.
But do you know what? These proud Tories haven’t got a clue what is going on: they have no inkling that there has even been a Health and Social Care Act, let alone what its impacts are. But these are the people, working class in the true economic sense and ‘aspirational’ — if that means that they are happy to work hard, desire have nice things and want look after their families and friends — that we have been told that the Labour Party needs to win over in 2020.
Truth is, it probably is possible for a Labour party to bring these people along: but it’s not going to happen by nodding assent to the direction of Tory policies and then just arguing with the nuance. We have essentially been agreeing that we all have to stand in a lake of excrement, but we’re saying we should have socks on as well as our sandals. We can offer a different, hopeful, fair, path: and that means an alternative to austerity. Out of the Labour leadership contenders I only see Jeremy Corbyn articulating anything like that. The halls across the country, bursting like a boyband concert, are testament to just how many people see the same thing: and that feels fantastic.
I’ll admit to not having been too aware of him before this campaign, but I’ve been more and more impressed by his stature, attitude and messages. He’s being painted as further left than Lenin, but there’s nothing in his policies that sounds outlandish.
Let’s get ‘electable’ out of the way: the ravaging the press gave Ed Miliband is the new standard that every Labour leader can expect from here on in. Pandering to it is not going to work: changing the debate is the only way. Consistency of thought and message, and — yes — being “a signpost rather than a weather vane”. I can’t say that any of the other candidates have improved my opinion of their abilities in this spotlight.
Corbyn is leading the internal party polls, they say, but there are a lot of shy Tories.
No, that’s unfair: every Labour member I’ve ever met is committed to social justice. It used to be that the destination was the same, but members had different ideas about how to go there: now it seems that the ambition and the drive to move beyond small changes are missing from the usual suspects.
The upper tiers seem to be surprised by the support for more socialist ideas in the membership, and that’s part of the problem. At the very least it shows a lack of their supposed electoral nous: who’d have thought that there were a load of left wingers in the Labour party? There may have been four million conversations on the doorstep, but how many internal conversations about policy?
It’s a shame that the leadership seems to hold the steering wheel, the map and the gas money, but at the moment it does and that’s why getting someone going in the right direction is so important. It’s why we need signposts. Deputy leader candidates (especially Tom Watson and the very impressive Stella Creasy) have spent a lot of time talking about the need for Labour to be a movement — and that’s true, I hope whoever wins that contest they can both work towards it. But that means a leader that also wants that.
Movements have to have leaders, it’s what drives momentum, passion and commitment. Far better they are the reluctant type driven by principle rather than personal ambition, for they are most likely to do what is right — and listen to their movement — rather than only opinion polls.
The movement can be big enough, the momentum can be big enough, the membership can be big enough to win in 2020. But we’ve got to offer people a direction, and Jeremy Corbyn is the only one going anywhere.