These are strange political times we are living through. The Tories are actively going against the wishes of big business. The Lib Dems are making a resurgence. Corbynistas on Facebook are arguing that we should be pragmatic and accept Brexit as what the voters want, while Corbyn-sceptics on Facebook are arguing that the party should ignore what voters want because it goes against Labour's core values. Politics has been turned completely on its head and I am finding it hard to make sense of it all.
The outlook for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is not good. Many people in the party are not happy with his pro-Brexit stance and we just lost the Copeland by-election, which suggests that the chances of a wipe out at the next general election are high. If the country follows Copeland’s 6.7% swing to the Tories, then they will have a majority of 114, which fills me with terror.
Personally, I am really disappointed with Corbyn. When I voted for him in 2015 (which seems like a lifetime ago now) I hoped that this would be the beginning of a better Labour Party. Corbyn gave me hope not just because he is a lifelong socialist and anti-war campaigner, he also gave me hope because he was not like other politicians. Everything that was soulless and managerial about New Labour was coming to end and we would have a leader who is passionate and principled. The public was clear about its dislike of normal politics and here we were, offering something different.
In 2015 I went to see Corbyn give a speech at the Camden Town Hall in London. It was a free event and the queue was so long that it wrapped around the building twice. I remember being stunned that this many people had turned up to see a politician speak. Not even the Prime Minister could draw such crowds and the atmosphere was more like a concert than a campaign rally. I thought this was utterly surprising in our cynical and apathetic age; this could be the beginning of something, dare I say it, revolutionary.
Maybe I was naive for thinking that things could be different. Maybe I was stupid for putting my trust in Corbyn. The simple fact is that I did and it hurts when I see that the Tories are up 18% on Labour in opinion polls and are likely to be in government for years to come. I feel responsible for this because I dared to hope that things could be different.
This experience has not changed my politics much. I am a stubborn creature who keeps odd bits of tech in a drawer in my bedroom, because they might be useful one day. My politics are an odd collection of different ideas: a bit Marxist, a bit anarchist, a bit modernist, a bit internationalist, a bit environmentalist, a bit woke and a lot of the time they don't make sense even to me. (If anyone wants to know more buy me a pint and I will happily bend your ear.) In 2015 they aligned to Corbyn more than to the other three candidates.
I still want a left wing Labour Party, but Corbyn himself is too tainted by bad leadership. The way I think of it is like this: in the 2015 Labour leadership election was four people competing to be the captain of a ship. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall wanted to take the ship to Spain. Corbyn said we could sail all the way to India. At first we were not certain, but he made a good case and for a while we believed that we could make it to India and that the only obstacle was that we didn't believe that we could do it. Then Corbyn starts sailing and we ram into the Isle of Wight. India is a great destination, but at this point it is starting to look like we should have gone with Spain if it were achievable. (I look forward to people expanding on this metaphor in Facebook comments.)
The area where I am most disillusioned with Corbyn is over Brexit. I may have been naive to trust a politician who voted against even the nice EU treaties, the ones that protect workers’ rights, to defend Britain's role as positive member of the EU. To put it mildly, I am not happy with Corbyn's complete lack of opposition to the government (although surprise is my main emotional response). The government, supported by Labour, is following hard Brexit and many party members oppose it.
This is where the complex mess of thing I believe comes into play. Although I am anti-Brexit, I am wary about opposing it, because of the damage this could do to the Labour Party, which is still the best vehicle to achieve what I want from politics - or to at least stop the horror show that is the current Tory government (sorry Greens, fuck you Lib Dems).
I am not convinced that there is a clear electoral strategy around opposing Brexit. It won a referendum, which gives it legitimacy even in the eyes of people who voted Remain. There is also the thorny issue that people do not like elections and most people - even those who voted Remain - are a) consigned to the result; and b) want immigration to come down and are happy to get this from Brexit.
At the very least, most peoples’ attitude (judging from all my conversation with people and a wide spectrum of media from left/right and remain/leave) is that they do not want to be asked again, do not want more elections any time soon and want the government to get on with Brexit. I see no evidence that a second referendum would go any differently than the first. In fact, it would probably return the same result only more so (like Corbyn vs. Owen Smith) because people hate being asked the same question twice.
None of this answers the question of what direction Labour should take. There is no consensus or even good ideas. Oppose Brexit and we might as well batter ourselves and serve ourselves to the Tories in a chippy. Go hard Brexit and Lib Dems will pull us apart like pulled pork in a London craft beer establishment. Some combination of both? Well in the words of Harry Perkins, the fictional PM in Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup: "I tried going down the middle of the road. I was hit by the traffic in both directions".
I still want a radical left-wing agenda, but I do not see the Labour Party rushing to embrace anarcho-syndicalism. So I am willing to compromise to get some of what I want done. To support Liz Kendall would be a huge climb down for me, but I would take her as PM over Theresa May in a heartbeat. The only problem is I am not sure if there are good compromises out there. No one has any good ideas. Corbyn has shat the bed. The great hopes of Lisa Nandy or Tom Watson look as befuddled as everyone else. What does the right of the party have to offer besides their usual plan of moving to where the country is (which is what Corbyn is already doing on Brexit)? A friend tried to convince me that despite the poor leadership, Corbyn has opened the possibility that things can be different. Can they now be different in a good way? I feel like attaching my hopes to Rebecca Long-Bailey, but, you know, everything I have written above.
One thing I a certain of is that we need a new direction. We do not need a 80s throwback. Also we don’t need a 90s throwback who tries to recapture the Blair glory years. We need leadership that is engaged with the problems of today and tomorrow, not refighting the battles of yesterday.
We need some decent leadership more than anything else. We also need to address a few issues while we're at it. Labour is clearly disconnected with its base in working class areas, from what I have been told by people who know more about this than me and who I respect. However, Labour is also disconnected with its base in metropolitan areas. Round my way, as people are fond of saying, the party's stance on Brexit has gone down like a cup of cold sick, but so has Corbyn's refusal to talk about electoral reform or his lack of support for decent new ideas like basic income. Why aren't we talking about mutualisation? Why aren't we talking about non-market solutions to problems?
Bigger than all this, we need an answer to the question of: “what does Labour stand for?” in one sentence. It sounds glib, but this is the real estate that politics takes place on. The only way to do this is with a leadership election where the different answers to this question can compete with each other, and I mean all the different answers. Including those from factions of the party that I disagree with. The outcome will only be legitimate if it is comprehensive. I do not mind if the party turns around to me and says: "we don't want your metropolitan, craft beer drinking, two-meme T-shirt wearing, New Statesman reading, Kraken podcast listening sort in our party". I reserve the right to leave such a party (sorry for the mean things I said above Greens), but if the party genuinely decided that this was the direction it should go in then I would be fine with that.
Right now no one is happy with the Labour Party. I have come to terms with the fact that I will never get exactly what I want from any party, because a party that did everything I wanted would receive the vote of precisely one person, i.e. me. I am willing to compromise because above all I hate the Tories and want them given a bloody nose. I will always hope for George Orwell to be Labour Party leader, but I am resolved to the fact that it is not going happen. What we do need is some kind of change; and change that the members believe is legitimate, if not one they agree with.
The alternative, as I see it, is the biggest Tory electoral victory ever, followed by 10-15 years of pain meted out to everyone who is not a tabloid newspaper owner, then followed by a Labour government running on a platform similar to David Cameron in 2010 (which by that point will be considered a left wing alternative). This is what I fear most and I cannot escape the realisation that this is what we are racing towards.