The rules of politics are changing. Outsiders and populists in Europe and North America are busy tearing up the conventional wisdom of what is possible in mainstream politics. Voters are demanding authenticity and are defining themselves in opposition to the traditional parties of the centre-left and centre-right. It’s reflected in the surge of Trump and Sanders in the US, the rise of the NDP in Canada and a wave of anti-austerity and nationalist politics in Europe. The anti-establishment mood has been channelled in different ways but it’s clear that Labour – as with other European social democratic parties – has been dealt the bloodiest nose. Whilst much of the post-election commentary focused on Ed Miliband’s failure to win Middle England’s swing voters, the real story was the collapse of a coalition that has sustained Labour for generations.
The struggles of the Left couldn’t have come at a worse time. The post-crash economy is beginning to take shape and it doesn’t look like a Silicon Valley-esque land of opportunity. Since the financial crisis, wages have stagnated whilst zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment have ballooned. Young people are facing a future of low-paid, insecure work coupled with a crumbling and insufficient welfare state. You only need to have worked a couple of jobs in hospitality to realise that dodgy employment practices have become so widespread that they’re the new norm. The trends looks set to continue as rights at work are stripped back and automation begins to put service industry jobs under threat. Our new economy may be liberating for few with the right connections and capital, but for the rest of us it is a recipe for precarity. As observers in America have pointed out, innovative firms such as Uber and Lyft might be driving growth but simultaneously shift the risk and responsibility from companies to the individual.
Rather than permanently condemning the Left to the wilderness, these developments offer it an opportunity to redefine itself and its purpose. After the election, the prospects of a revival looked weak. The usual suspects from the last Labour government swamped op-ed pages calling for a return to the “centre-ground” – but what worked in the ’90s are now overly-simplistic social democratic solutions that would offer little more than tinkering around the edges. Labour shouldn’t settle for being the slightly nicer manager of a bleak future. Instead, it must sketch out an alternative that has public ownership, full employment and decent rights at work at its core. It must find the courage not just to defend trade unions, but to promote them and counter the toxic mythology around social security and immigration. It can only do so if it builds a movement and popularises a programme that can cut through the inevitable hostility. It may seem paradoxical, but the road back to power for Labour runs against the grain of British politics.
When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the Labour leadership contest, I must admit I didn’t think he was the person to do it. Nevertheless I downloaded the Twibbon and pestered MPs to get him on the ballot, but the sum of my hopes was that Corbyn would shift the debate away from the meaningless talk of ‘aspiration’ and grovelling towards big business. Two months later, I went to see him address the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow as the campaign’s frontrunner. It must have been the biggest Labour rally in Scotland for years. He had eclipsed all of my expectations and as soon as the ballot dropped I voted Corbyn as my first and only preference.
Jeremy Corbyn is a rarity – a candidate well placed to tap into the anti-establishment mood but also with a coherent and credible programme. He realises that authenticity is the currency of politics and communicates a radical vision that is as straight-forward as it is persuasive. Despite the caricatures, his age, beard and penchant for beige chic, Corbyn is a moderniser. His political economy based on public ownership, the expansion of social security and challenging the power of capital stands up to modern challenges and thinks seriously about how we use technological developments to tackle inequality and poverty. Contrary to the endless claims he is ‘unelectable’, polls are now repeatedly showing him as the most popular candidate with UKIP, SNP, Green and non-voters. He is, of course, not perfect and his leadership would come with unique risks and challenges, but he offers a massive opportunity for those who care about social justice. With Corbyn, Labour has the chance to rebuild its splintering coalition of voters. Labour can drag the national discourse to the left and become a mass movement that is rooted in workplaces and community centres.
If the polls are more accurate than they were in May, on the 12th September, Corbyn will be the next Leader of the Opposition. There will be a conveyer belt of very serious people solemnly declaring the end of the Labour Party, some will do so with glee. They simply haven’t grasped the speed at which politics and society is changing. Our generation needs a Corbyn-led Labour Party and I’m proud to have voted for him.