Jeremy Corbyn is not the Antichrist. He is not planning to confiscate our savings to be spent on scarlet flags, feast on our children in the company of terrorists or to leave us huddled on a rock in the midst of the Atlantic, with only a stick of organic celery to defend what was once our proud nation.
But neither is he the Messiah. The achievement of his campaign in winning fifty-nine percent of the leadership ballot is incredibly impressive and inspirational. Like thousands, I am heartened by his victory and by the sense of hope, of compassion, justice and common sense which it represents. But winning the contest was the easy part.
Golden age myths are pervasive, persuasive and usually wrong. The one that underpins the confident optimism of many Corbyn supporters is as romantic and misleading as any other. It narrates that, pre-Blair, the Labour Party was a haven of left-wing consensus, a united and progressive community in which Jeremy Corbyn and those like him were mainstream and central.
This, as anyone who has dipped into Tony Benn’s diaries of the period will know, is emphatically not the case. It is true, as I have written before, that the window of acceptable policy has shifted sharply rightwards in the past thirty years. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown bear a heavy responsibility for completing the transformation of Labour into Tory-lite. But they did not do it alone, or from a standing start. Neither Corbyn nor Benn were any more popular with Neil Kinnock than Corbyn is with senior Labour figures today. Although some of the suggestions put forward by Corbyn now, such as public ownership of the railways, were once unremarkable party policy, the change has generally been brought about by historical events rather than ideological alteration. On issues of defence, foreign policy etc., Corbyn, like his mentor Benn, has always been viewed as a dangerous rebel.
There is a second myth, accompanying the Golden Age one, that local Labour constituency associations are full of proto-Corbynites, only awaiting Jeremy’s coronation to throw off their Blairite chains. As new, young, idealistic members flood into the party, these old stalwarts will totter forward, grateful tears streaming down their gnarled cheeks, and embrace their courageous liberators. Councillors, officials and local activists, who have spent decades of their lives doing mundane and tedious tasks to attain their positions in middle-of-the-road Labour, will happily stand aside for the newbies, many of whose previous political activities have been limited to liking a Facebook page or clicking on an online petition.
Let’s see, shall we?
Meanwhile there is a political party, active across the UK, for which Corbyn’s plans for economic stimulus, banking reform, opposition to Trident, extrication from American foreign policy excesses, common ownership of essential public services and a more redistributive tax system are not wild notions to be quixotically championed but established and detailed policy, set on a firm foundation of philosophical and political principle. This party actively welcomes new members and encourages them to become involved and influential at every level. It is growing fast, respected widely, and, in the House of Commons, its sole current MP has worked closely with Jeremy Corbyn, far more closely than any of his own party colleagues, on many vital issues and campaigns.
The future does not belong to one or two monoliths. There is space in our political system, especially in the regions and at European level, for a creative coalition of progressive parties and movements. Those people who have been inspired to join the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn’s example are doing a good thing. But they should not imagine that his victory is going to bring about an immediate or easy transformation of the party. It may never do so. They will have to put much of their time and energy, not into campaigning for Corbyn’s policies among the wider electorate, but into internal struggles with their new comrades. It will be a long, depressing and thankless business.
For some people, this is the kind of politics that they enjoy. I’m grateful, on behalf of all of us, that there are those ready to take on this task, and hopeful, for our shared future, that they succeed. Meanwhile, for those who don’t relish the internal as much as the external battles, who thrive on the camaraderie of colleagues and the positive energy of a common vision, who want to be part of an existing global movement that has firm roots in social and economic justice, environmental sustainability, non-violence and grassroots democracy, the Green Party offers a warm welcome.