Those of us who supported Jeremy Corbyn from the beginning could only watch in bemusement as mainstream media commentators furrowed their brows and hypothesized how such a result could have occurred. “B’b’but he was unelectable!” Some said it’s simply because May was a terrible campaigner. Others downplayed, highlighting Labour’s failure to win government. These responses missed the point.
The Grenfell tragedy and the stark class divisions and systematic injustices it laid bare point to the main reasons behind Corbyn’s gains. The working class know they’ve got a raw deal. They want real change and see it offered in Corbyn’s Left Wing policies and socialist values; values that led to him calling for Kensington’s posh empty homes owned by absentee landlords to be requisitioned to house homeless Grenfell residents. Corbyn hasn’t just given Labour its greatest increase in vote share since WWII, he’s shifted the country’s political centre, the effects of which will last well beyond this election and the next.
Not so Unelectable Anymore?
All those who, for two years, lectured us with utter certainty that Corbyn was unelectable now come out with the same unjustified confidence as to explain the reasons for Labour’s gains. A former Blair adviser claimed it was due to people’s anger at having to go to another election prematurely (though voting isn’t compulsory). Some highlighted May’s wooden campaigning (likely partly due to being spoiled by 95% of the media unashamedly backing her). The outcome was also attributed to Corbyn being that rare breed of honest politician, consistently acting upon his values. Many marveled at how Labour had mastered the ground game, harnessing its surging membership and inspiring the youth.
The reason his consistency mattered though, was because people liked the things he’s been consistent about. They were the same things that inspired Labour’s army of young people to volunteer. His policies: a million new homes, a liveable living wage, more taxes on the richest, refunding the NHS, re-nationalising the rail, nourishing public services rather than starving them, not spending billions on endless wars that benefit the few and increase the terror threat for the many. They’re centred on economics and so unapologetically Left Wing that they’re populist. One of the main turning points in the campaign was the release of Labour's pro-poor manifesto.
Bringing the Left Home
Labour’s campaign slogan, ‘For the Many, Not the Few’, was both populist and an accurate reflection of their redistributive agenda. A Labour win was touted as being for the benefit of most people, but perhaps not everyone. After half a century of political parties punching down at scroungers, criminals, ethnic others etc, Labour now punched up toward the 1%. It refocused the white working class’s anger away from immigrants and towards economic elites, regaining UKIP voters along the way.
In the face of these life-changing, society-transforming policies, the fake smears and ad hominem attacks were less effective, even with the entire mainstream media, both corporate and state, dedicated to broadcasting them. In fact, Corbyn’s achievement reveals that the mainstream media, and its increasing concentration of billionaire owners, is becoming less influential, particularly among the young. They are refusing to believe that the party that oversaw the return of Victorian era diseases thanks to NHS cuts, will protect the NHS.
Naysayers, however, argue that celebration is uncalled for given that Labour did not win government. Of course winning government is the main thing as it allows these policies to actually be implemented. But by mounting a genuine opposition that defiantly advocates socialist policies, Corbyn has managed to shake the political ground, shifting the debate leftwards. Forcing your opponent to change is how you win the long game. It’s how you gain not just an electoral victory, but a revolution. Margaret Thatcher boasted that her greatest achievement was Blair’s New Labour – a mark of shame that all the perfumes (and wars) of Arabia cannot expunge.
Corbyn’s approach isn’t new; it’s where the Left began. In the early 20th century, the Left relied on economic populism for its success. It makes sense. There are more poor people, they have more to be angry about, and what they have to be angry about is being poor. In the US, however, this changed with the Republicans ‘Southern Strategy’. White working class votes were snatched up by shifting focus onto religion, race, ‘values’ etc – forms of identity the Right could concoct narratives around to distract from growing economic inequality. The Democrats bought into it, shifting from being Left Wing to being liberal, similar to Blair. The battle for ideas was surrendered. Privatization became unquestionable, corporations were cast as the underdogs, and regulations like those that would have saved lives at Grenfell derided as ‘red tape’.
Now Corbyn, following Bernie, Occupy movements and the GFC, have helped turned the tide. Theresa May was forced, not only to u-turn on the ‘dementia tax’, but to adopt the rhetoric of economic justice (since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader). Corbyn’s re-mainstreaming of socialist values is a democratic revolution that will likely influence not just one election but political and economic life for decades. Similarly, in America, the real novelty of the 2016 election was not Trump, but socialist Sanders becoming the most popular politician in the country. The last justifications for Thatcherism and austerity have now burned down to the ground, their remains embodied in the smouldering ruins of Grenfell.
As shouted at reporters by the towers’ residents, in the world’s fifth largest economy, people are feeling the biggest division is not race, or religion, or gender. It’s wealth. That’s what will determine whether your children get educated, whether you’ll starve if illness stops you working, whether you’re just one step away from homelessness, whether you’re forced to live in a fire trap so wealthy neighbours won’t be offended by seeing your dilapidated building, whether you’ll have a meaningful human life or one of precarious uncertainty. And through Corbyn they’ve cried no more. Wealth shouldn’t matter in determining these things. As Daniel Blake scribbled in his speech beseeching the state to fulfill its obligations: “I am a citizen”. And, if Corbyn’s movement succeeds, that’s all that would matter.