Before I start I should make a little confession: I’m voting for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election and last week I volunteered to help with his campaign so I am far from an unbiased observer!
The left’s man of the moment was rushed by car from an earlier event in Coventry (where around twice the venue’s capacity turned up to hear him speak) to address a huge, diverse crowd at the Bordesley Centre in Birmingham.
Arriving around 15 minutes later than billed, Jeremy entered the main room to cheers and a standing ovation whilst he tried to work his way through the crush to the platform. The hall was so full that additional chairs were brought in on either side of the platform, and it was standing room only in every available space that wasn’t filled with chairs – it was a good job no-one was too concerned with fire safety regulations! The crowd was so large that another room downstairs was also packed out, and watching via video link.
Despite intermittent microphone problems Jeremy laid out his programme for a better Britain, and a better world, based on his vision of a compassionate society investing in housing, infrastructure, high-technology manufacturing, and building real communities. His key themes were far from the “hard left” position which he is caricatured as propounding, and would be familiar to Social Democrats across Europe. In fact the message, and the mood of the room, reminded me quite strongly of 1997, but let’s not go there ...
Jeremy began by talking about the Conservative Party’s “deeply unpleasant” agenda – cuts to the vital public services on which we all rely; cuts to the tax rates for the wealthiest and corporations; the demonisation of immigrants, the unemployed and the most vulnerable in our “increasingly brutalized” society.
He mentioned some of the good proposals in the 2015 Labour manifesto, but suggested that the reason we didn’t win in May was due to not offering a real alternative to the Tory austerity agenda, and by failing to challenge the false economic narrative throughout the last Parliament. He also talked glowingly about the many positive things achieved by the Labour government of ‘97 including Sure Start, repeal of section 28, and the introduction of the national minimum wage. He also honestly accepted that there were serious mistakes like PFI, the Iraq war and the promotion of the financial sector above other industrial needs (all of which he consistently opposed at the time). When people say he couldn’t lead the Party after breaking the whip so many times, my answer would be that the Party should not be wrong so often!
Tellingly for critics calling Corbyn a throwback to the 1980s, he pointed out that the current government’s attacks on the poor, on manufacturing industry, on trade unions and the welfare state are a direct return to the politics of the Thatcher governments of the 1980s. It is the Tories, not Corbyn, who are stuck in a “time warp” of neoliberal orthodoxy for which we are all still paying the price.
Post-May, Jeremy and others on the left of the Party called for a lengthy and serious debate about the future direction of Labour’s economic strategy, social strategy and environmental strategy – instead we had a leadership election. Because of this, the left had no choice but to put forward a candidate to ensure that this crucial debate was held, and to offer a real choice to all the members, affiliated and registered supporters. Jeremy joked about managing to get the required 35 nominations “quite easily” (following a huge grassroots campaign to ask MPs to nominate him) “we had almost 2 minutes to spare after getting the last signature”.
He thanked those Labour MPs who had nominated him, even those who did it “reluctantly, deeply reluctantly, or extremely deeply reluctantly,” to much laughter from the audience. We were told about how his campaign started with nothing but a diary and a list of places to visit, and has now grown to a campaign covering 21 hustings and 42 public meetings to date, with around another 40 still to come. In only a matter of weeks, over 6,000 people have volunteered to help the campaign, and the public meetings are massively oversubscribed, spilling out of venues all across the country. In Liverpool the night before, around 1800 had arrived at the Adelphi hotel where there were seats for 800.
The people supporting Jeremy come from all ages, backgrounds and viewpoints – many are young people newly engaged in politics that finally speaks to them; others are those returning because they see an opportunity for the Labour Party to represent them after years of disenfranchisement. Corbyn has challenged the myth that young people are not political - against a backdrop of the Tory attacks on our youth (lower wages, higher education fees, cuts to housing benefit etc.) Young people may have been turned off by Party politics and the name-calling that characterises so much political discourse in the UK, but Corbyn has always eschewed personal attacks and it has struck a chord. No matter the nature of the personal accusations, Jeremy is insistent on talking about the policies which are important, providing a refreshing alternative to most politicians.
He praised the achievements of the 1945 Labour government (NHS, Town and Country Planning Act, council house building) and talked about the breakdown of the post-war consensus. He suggested that at some point Labour lost our way when we stopped defending the principal of a universal social security system to stop people falling into destitution. We need to stop blaming the victims, and accept that anyone one of us could rely on the social security system after personal misfortune.
Jeremy said he was disgusted at the language used about immigration at the last election. If there is a housing shortage, it is because we fail to build enough housing – it is not because of immigration. Likewise for all struggling public services starved of investment. Jeremy emphasised that we must use inclusive language because that is how we build strong communities – and it is strong communities which can build the future prosperity we all need.
Jeremy then discussed some of his major policy positions - The Economy in 2020 lays out plans including a National Infrastructure Bank – to invest in rail, housing, and also sustainable energy and high tech jobs – this is how to build a strong economy rather than leaving everything to the private sector. It may sound like a radical socialist platform here in the UK, but it is viewed as entirely mainstream and sensible in other European countries like Germany where they invest far more than we do, and reap the economic benefits as a result.
On climate change he said we have cleaned up our air and water in the UK, but by effectively exporting pollution to other countries due to differing legislation across the world. We need to be part of a global movement to harmonise regulations and to combat climate change. Climate change affects all of us, not just the poorest in the world. The steps we can all take: consume less, save energy, preserve our environment – should not be viewed as those of an obscure interest group but must be mainstream, and part of everyone’s lives.
Jeremy described the major programme of council house building needed. This will be based on investment which creates jobs, provides a better environment for people to live in, and provides the security that is so often lacking in people’s lives in the UK today. In contrast to the post-crash consensus, he stated that we must accept state intervention in the market as the best way to achieve this.
He talked about the importance of education to society and individuals and proposed all free schools and academies should be brought back under LEA control, and that all teachers should be fully qualified. We all benefit from people’s education so why should we saddle young people with crippling levels of debt? Corbyn would increase our already-low corporation tax by 0.5% to pay for university fees and would stop the race to the bottom on taxation.
He finished by saying that this is wider than an internal election within the Labour Party – this is about challenging the consensus politics around economics, around foreign policy and so many other things – surely we can do better than that? We should be opening things up, whatever the result on September 12th, we should come together to discuss democracy in our society and the way forward. Politics within the Labour Party must come from the lived experience of ordinary people – we should be developing this now, not waiting until six months before the 2020 election.
Some questions in the Q&A section proved quite rambling and have been reduced here to a policy heading:
Why didn’t Labour challenge the myth of Labour overspending causing the crisis?
Jeremy answered that the Bank of England should be publicly-owned, publicly-run, and the main regulator for the financial system. Banks must work for us, not the other way round. He opposed the sale of shares in RBS, and the fact that those banks continued to sell buy-to-let mortgages and advice on tax avoidance after the bail-out. We should have used public ownership to invest in housing and industry, he says.
Do we need to give up our principles in order to win power?
Corbyn is quite adamant on this answer - no. Winning is about determination to achieve change. Even people living in very Tory areas will be old one day, we will all need social care, high quality medical treatment at some point. We must be bold enough to say that those with the deepest pockets should pay a bit more. We should be proud of the idea that we can unlock the talents of everybody. Be consistent and specific about what we want to achieve. Some will attack us, they always have – but remember the media is not as powerful as they once were. Newspaper sales are still shrinking; people get information from a much wider range of sources such as social media, which opens up new opportunities to challenge political narratives.
Corbyn talked about campaigning in Thanet before the election and said that when we get beyond the bile and nastiness targeting vulnerable minorities, and instead move on to the collective solutions to the problems, you start to engage with communities. Austerity is a political agenda designed to further entrench individualism and reduce the role of the community in providing services. This government wants a return not to the 1930s, but more like the 1830s.
Will you challenge the power of a monopolistic Tory press?
Jeremy supports the NUJ position of not allowing cross-ownership of print and broadcast media. He called on everyone to support the BBC as a public service broadcaster, for all its faults. We should develop a system which allows for plurality of local newspapers that are not owned by large conglomerates.
What will you do to achieve Party Unity?
Jeremy wryly said he recognises that many in the PLP have a very different view of the world than some of those in the room today. He would remind them that there have been 10s of thousands of people involved in the leadership debate and that it is much wider and more democratic than the old system of MPs electing leader. We must open the party outwards to the wider community and not turn inwards into an arcane discussion group; we need to widen the debate on economic, social and environmental policy direction to the membership. This is probably the most radical part of his agenda, and the one which strikes fear into the hearts of many in the PLP!
What do you have to say about Calais?
It is fundamentally a humanitarian crisis. The only solution is a Europe-wide response to a European crisis. We must stop using dehumanising language.
What should be done about local government cuts whilst we are in opposition?
Local Government must cooperate across Party lines to make the case for the vital nature of local services, not compete with each other for central government funding. Youth Services should be placed on a statutory footing to protect them from cuts.
ISIS and the Middle East
You don’t bring about democracy by bombing with a B52 from 30,000 feet. The only solution is a political one, the exclusion of Iran from the process by the UK and USA has exacerbated the problem in Syria. Not to say that it would be easy, our relationship with Iran is problematic and complicated but excluding them and relying on military action has made things worse. Peace through dialogue!
The “Prevent” strategy only targeting the Muslim community simply adds to division – we need to give everyone a stake in society and be inclusive, not drive people away and into the arms of extremism.
Wrapping yourself in a flag does not get houses or hospitals built, or raise children and pensioners out of poverty – it is important to challenge nationalism.
It is vital to teach our young people about the history of democracy and how change has been achieved in the world: how we got the vote, how we got universal suffrage, how we got council housing etc. We need to teach that power lies with us all to build a stronger democracy. The best ideas come from below, not from top-down impositions.
Corbyn finished the lengthy Q&A in the packed (and now seriously sweaty) hall with this call to action:
“If we want to change our society, our Party, we need all new members and supporters to play a full part in creating a strong, vibrant, coherent democracy within the Labour party that will really help bring about the policy changes that will allow us to challenge the philosophy behind what this government is doing – attacking the poorest and most vulnerable, and destroying the life chances of those who work very hard.”
I have attended several Labour Party events in the last few years and have never seen such an enthusiastic and positive atmosphere – it was electrifying!