by Rosie Brocklehurst
After a whole year of being accused of criminal behaviour with not one shred of evidence, the innocent newbies, would-be Labour joiners, are learning about the state of politics today in a way that will either put them off politics for life or put steel into their backbone.
Adrien Mostyn (not his real name), 28, a young film-maker who became interested in politics at the last General Election, believes the Labour Party he joined just over 5 months ago is out to get him. “Why do they hate the grass roots so much?” he asks me. We are talking in a café where I have arranged to get his views as a new member on the new rules that prevent him from voting in the leadership election.
Diagnosed late with autism – he was in his early 20s – Adrien has rarely lasted long in a job due to his inability to express feelings of enthusiasm or despair appropriately. He receives ESA at £73 per week, and has jumped from unpaid work experience to many low paid jobs over the years.
Last summer, Adrien was attracted to Liz Kendall’s campaign and paid £3 as a registered supporter. But he moved his allegiance to Corbyn when Kendall only got 4% of the vote. As he put it, “I realised I needed to do some serious political research.”
Adrien is a dogged researcher in other ways. He dug out some startling facts about breaches of election expenses by Conservative MPs for the Daily Mirror campaign, a talent the Labour Party might value at any other time. Adrien decided to join the Labour Party as a full member on January 21st, paying his £4 a month fee – which he can ill afford. Last week he was denied eligibility to vote for Corbyn as he fell foul of the NEC’s cut-off point of January 12th.
He then got a message earlier this week from Liz Kendall urging him to register to vote. When he fully understood that he had been disenfranchised by the Party’s NEC, Adrien immediately sank into a black depression, alleviated only by some new friendships he has made among people who are sensitive to his autism. None of his friends can afford to pay his £25 registration fee to vote for Corbyn. Moreover, NEC rules mean that lending or directly paying someone’s registration fee renders the registration invalid, preventing people from being able to vote in the leadership election.
The Parliamentary Labour Party likes to present itself as saving the Labour Party. But who for? Many grass roots members believe that the Party betrayed its values under Blair and Brown. They feel it was not fit for purpose in 2010 or in 2015. However, years of austerity have created a tipping point, and Brexit has let loose a Pandora’s Box of ‘furies’. There has been a late awakening to the reality of the vast disaffected underclass so long neglected by the political élite. Academics now whisper about Britain sharing aspects of the Weimar Republic in Germany from 1919 to 1933. There are some parallels, certainly in terms of the politics of discontent.
What the country needs now is a united Labour Party – one that fights austerity, racism and greed. But it was the PLP who abandoned ship, not Corbyn.
Of course, a lot of MPs love grass roots activism at election time when they need help with canvassing. Power has become increasingly centralised since Neil Kinnock became leader in late 1983. Consequently, due to the lack of engagement or perceived relevance to their lives, Labour Party membership dropped steadily to around 205,000 before the 2015 General Election. Membership has now risen to over half a million; only half that of Attlee’s period, but still climbing.
Given these astonishing figures, what is one to make of the deliberate implosion of the PLP when Jeremy Corbyn tried so hard to reach out to them? It is tempting to view the rebels of the PLP as a pack of lemmings who, by jumping off a cliff in choreographed formation, had hoped to suck Jeremy Corbyn into the downward draught. But lemmings are not known for fancy footwork or orchestrated pyrotechnics, so the analogy is a little off-kilter. Barbary pirates suits the PLP better. When, in July 2015, the bookies had Corbyn as the odds-on favourite, senior members of the Blairite faction had already planned to hang the putative leader from the yard-arm. It was never the case that he did not have the capacity or competence to be the captain of his crew. In a podcast of that month, the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman revealed the nascent plotters’ strategy to mutiny before Corbyn was even whistled aboard.
The same Spectator podcast featured John McTernan. Once safely isolated within a back room at Walworth Road as an assistant librarian, he has subsequently morphed into one of the most apoplectic of the Blairite attack dogs and let rip at the membership. “The grass roots don’t matter” he spluttered to the gentle interviewer. At Walworth Road, Labour’s HQ in the 80s, Peter Mandelson was often heard saying, “The Labour Party would be fine if only it didn’t have any members.” Perhaps McTernan overheard that, because he was soon out of the library, and a few years later was to be found distributing images of himself on the campaign trail, mobile in hand, seated behind Blair on a high speed train.
In the same Spectator interview, Hardman says that the plotters of July 2015 spoke of plans to purge Labour’s new HQ when Corbyn went. They told Hardman it would take two years to do (up to 2017) and they would need to eradicate ‘institutional memory’. Institutional memory is a good and necessary thing for the Labour historian of the future.
One can only imagine the kind of sordid imagination that can bring Labour Party apparatchiks and their bosses to speak of purges and erasure of historical experience to the political editor of a Conservative journal.
The crescendo of abuse is like the interference on an old analogue TV. In the end it is just a lot of wasted energy, crackling blurred lines that signify nothing worthwhile, giving everyone a headache, even the perpetrators. It is deeply unedifying, immature and calculatingly disingenuous.
“How can the plotters sleep at night with all the Black Ops they are executing?” This is a refrain to be heard amongst Corbyn’s supporters, who can’t help but admire the man and his policies. They tend to communicate by social media or face to face in Momentum meetings because no other source of news and features about Corbyn reflects what they are experiencing. They are switching off traditional media at a time when print media is in crisis.
The establishment has closed its ranks. LSE’s new media report reveals that 75% of all print media coverage for the first two months of Corbyn’s leadership was negative. BBC, ITV, Sky, and all the national newspapers have united against him. Actual analysis of broadcasting bias is yet to be done in depth, but a recent report from The Media Reform Coalition and Birkbeck, showed the BBC in particular has gone beyond the pale. Labour MPs’ support for regime change is long overdue, but it may be too late. Meanwhile, large numbers of mild, refined, intelligent, middle-aged and elderly people are joining with younger Corbyn supporters to give each other strength against the onslaught of false accusation – being called dogs, a mob, a rabble, and worse. They are posting shocked comments on Facebook about the hall-of-mirrors effect perpetrated by plotters and swallowed almost whole by a fourth estate that uses its massive power to bend and distort reality.
When asked in 1972, “What do you think about the impact of the French Revolution?” the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai allegedly replied, “It is too early to tell.” Apocryphal it may be, but it illustrates how important it is to consider the long view of history in the middle of a perfect storm. The history of the Labour Party did not end with Blair’s lurch to the right. Though still embedded in the party framework, it is not an irreversible position. Nevertheless, it will take time to change the Party. History takes time.
But the time has come. Corbyn’s supporters are waking up to their own and Labour’s history. They are reaching back to the principles that founded the Party. Events such as the MPs’ expenses scandal was a clarion call. There is deep anger at all the emoluments, the peerages, the formation of political dynasties, the mortgage switching and the self-voted pay rises, not to mention the directorships given to Labour leaders with some of the very investment banks that triggered the biggest financial crash in world history, and at a time when disabled people have been disgracefully attacked and welfare cuts are enthusiastically supported by some right wing Labour MPs. The Tories of course think this is how things should be.
Now the grass roots wants to take back the reins and is poised to do so. They want to build a Labour Party that is inclusive and fair under a principled leader they can trust. For them, that leader can only be Jeremy Corbyn.