21.06.17 Originally published by the Guardian
My earliest political memory was watching my grandmother with narrow eyes and a heavy sigh tear Tony Blair’s first Labour manifesto into pieces while on the phone to party head office to cancel her membership, breaking generations of family tradition. I sensed her grief but was too young to understand. I asked why she was leaving Labour and she said it was because they were scrapping clause IV on nationalisation, which she explained as “a promise to put working people in charge of their own lives”.
My family is from Dorset, a blue county since the dawn of time, not that this stopped my mum and my auntie dropping Jeremy Corbyn flyers on doorsteps, or my teenage cousins blasting Liar Liar out of the car stereo down the high street. My grandmother would have been so proud, not just of us but of all the young people in this country who are standing up now for all the things that matter. And I don’t need this week’s Ipsos Mori poll to tell me that: I see it every day.
That Labour just won its biggest share of the popular vote since 2001 is certainly thanks to Corbyn’s courageous manifesto, which moved beyond the language of anti-austerity to connect people with a genuinely inspiring alternative vision for the country.
But policies aren’t enough. What built the confidence to vote for them was tens of thousands of people knocking on millions of doors: 1.2 million in key marginals. Marginal seats like Battersea and Sheffield Hallam, branded “unwinnable” by many in the party, were won this way. And they were won, despite all the obstacles, by students, impoverished, black and brown communities, demonised and young people left behind by the Tories.
Crowded around a single laptop in the kitchen on election night, it took us a while to process what we were looking at. As the minutes passed, cynicism gave way to awe. Not so much at the prospect of more Labour MPs in parliament – let’s face it, they’re a mixed bunch – but because after years of Tory austerity fear politics no one really dared believe so many millions would find the strength to vote for hope. Remembering my grandmother, I know this “new kind of politics” isn’t really so new at all; it has a long, strong history that a whole new generation is just starting to remember. So, the question is: what next?
Those people out knocking on your door aren’t foot soldiers acting out of automatic party loyalty. It’s a new generation, with expectations and opinions, and if the party wants to keep us, it’s going to have to listen to us. Simply put, it’s time for Labour to live its values and keep marching left because we know now these policies are far from unelectable.
Corbyn should also take this opportunity to challenge the direction of debates around free movement, immigration and inequality. We’ve not won yet, and the scapegoating of migrants for the broken wreckage of our welfare state is the Trojan horse that just brought the Tories back to power, and it must be stopped. Labour must put itself on the right side of history and make clear that it holds those with wealth and power responsible for poverty and powerlessness – no one else.
MPs still missing this point might consider instead that a strong stance on migrant-bashing will be a precondition for Labour’s alliance with the community organisers and young activists who have just proven themselves powerful enough to propel a marginalised backbencher to party leader.
Another precondition will be that they deliver on Corbyn’s most ambitious pledge: a new kind of politics. In practice, that means democratising the party, empowering members and making MPs more accountable. Momentum must also commit to this process if it’s to retain its activists and cultivate strong community and political leaders. It means creating a party culture that values more than votes and won’t spin like a weather vane with each electoral cycle. Instead, Labour must make itself an ally in building a movement for social justice that is deeply rooted in communities.
This will not be easy. While his staggering electoral success prompted lip service from Corbyn’s former critics, Labour remains deeply divided. Corbyn’s natural inclination will be to build bridges, but party unity is not more precious than the principles that define that party. I wouldn’t presume to know what most Labour MP’s principles are – it’s often difficult to tell – but it’s time for them to show us. A sincere commitment not just to Corbyn as leader but to the politics he represents should be a non-negotiable precondition for sitting on the Labour front bench.
The bulk of the party first laughed at Corbyn and then fell over themselves to boot him from the leadership and his supporters from the membership. Labour has been dragged – often kicking and screaming – back to its roots by a groundswell of ordinary people taking action. They stormed the stage with Corbyn not only because he has an unbroken record of representing us, both in protest and in parliament, but because he makes people feel heard.
When Corbyn calls for a “new kind of politics”, it speaks of a profoundly refreshing humility: a recognition that yes, democracy means our voices matter, be it in the country, in the community, in the party; that doors should be knocked, not just to win votes but because we actually value what the people on the other side of them have to say. It remains to be seen whether that’s a call the rest of Labour is ready to respond to. But whatever happens, the new kind of politics is already here.