The 1980s in which I grew up were dark days. The Conservative Party, having won the 1979 general election, dominated British politics, winning again in 1983, and beating Neil Kinnock’s Labour in both 1987 and 1992 before his party decided he was “unelectable.” Get used to that word. It gets thrown around with greater frequency nowadays.
1997 was the first British general election in which I could vote. With the Conservatives holding on to power for so long, this was the year where they finally lost their grip and the appetite for democratic socialism was so strong that Tony Blair became Prime Minister. Despite growing up in Doncaster, in a Labour heartland and a Labour household, this wasn’t a tradition I felt I could follow in order to keep our family loyal to the party.
With a strong majority and increasing indications that a reversal of Thatcherism were not a priority, “New” Labour failed to appeal to me. In 1997, because I smelled a rat, I actually voted Liberal Democrat.
I continued voting for the Lib Dems – as they also joined a million of us in the February 15th, 2003 march I took part in, against the attack on Iraq, and I was quite inspired by the late Charles Kennedy’s anti-war speech in Hyde Park. Of course, there were other Labour Party figures, like Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, who remained vocally opposed to such immoral actions. I felt like they remained loyal to their principles rather than to a party going in the wrong direction; they remained loyal to their principles rather than lying to themselves.
I even made a documentary venting my frustrations at Blair’s obsession with overseas invasions, immigration, and the surveillance state, and got a standing ovation for it at its worldwide premiere in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. I despised Tony Blair, and enjoyed some relief when Gordon Brown came in and at least demonstrated the decency to have his podium symbolically moved further away from that of George W. Bush, Jr.
Nonetheless, the political culture became one where neoliberalism had remained largely unchallenged rather than reversed, and where party leaders were required to be slick public relations experts and slippery, smarmy smooth-talkers who wanted foot soldiers as door-to-door salesmen to make sure people bought into illegal wars. After years in the wilderness, the Tories realised Labour were actually beating them at their own cynical game, and went back to the drawing board to get their own “Heir to Blair.”
In 2010, given the poor excuse for democracy in this country, there came the revelation that the Tories could actually return to power, and that was a scenario much more frightening than a Gordon Brown-led Labour government that still gave us the Minimum Wage, Human Rights Act, Sure Start children’s centres, and progressive taxation. So, for the first time, I supported Labour, but during the Blair/Brown years their New Labour project had let three million voters slip through their fingers, a hemorrhage they couldn’t stop, and they lost. This was depressing to me, and I resented New Labour for allowing Tories into power.
I was rooting for Doncaster North MP Ed Miliband to become the next Labour leader, and became a party member when he actually did, through a combination of support from fellow MPs, members, and unions – or, “union barons” as the right-wing media preferred to refer to them, ignoring the millions of workers who cast their votes. In addition, the leadership election took so long that the Tories established a new narrative ignoring the £1.5 trillion bank bailout and instead reasserting the lie of Labour “overspending” that became part of press presupposition. As Ed tried to oppose the resulting austerity agenda of small-state sell-offs to private interests, pro-privatisation “Blairites,” behind the argument that it was too late to do so, stopped him at every opportunity.
We tried anyway. I attended most meetings. I became an active campaigner. I flyposted leaflets until my hands literally bled. I regularly engaged with Labour councillors losing sleep over cuts from central government that left them with agonizing budget choices at Town Hall. Because of this, I also agreed to do some work for Labour in getting the Fair Deal for Sheffield campaign rolling out online to raise awareness about the disproportionate cuts to our city from Westminster. And while at times, bizarrely, finding myself sat laughing with people like Lord Glasman in Labour workshops, and groups like Progress and even the Fabians having an air of unreality about them, I kept going – as many of us did – to get Labour back into power.
In my old online column “What Ed Said,” I wrote at length about the media’s caricature of “Red” Ed and how he somewhat understandably softened his stance on austerity after attending the March 26th March for an Alternative and being bashed by protesters for not being radical enough, and lambasted by the press for attending the demonstration in the first place, juxtaposed with shots of a minority of “violent” protesters – all the while being subject to undermining by Blairites who felt he wasn’t cosying up to the corporate world enough. Despite this, he called out the bankers, the media monopolies, and even landlords, and promised to push the break pedal on austerity and shift course for the country. My fear was, if even this failed, Blairites would claim it was time to return towards the right.
Making an ill-advised quest to actively oppose Scottish independence while failing to reach out to working class communities that were instead courted by a UK Independence Party appealing to their darker nature, a Labour leader impossibly trying to be all things to all people was finished off by two forms of nationalism. In addition, Ed, who had worked with Benn and Brown, tried the tactic of trying to appeal to everyone else that remained – and, as is usually the case with such an approach – ended up pleasing few of them. The Blairites despised him; the socialist membership complained he wasn’t going far enough. Thus, there was no great movement to get him into power, and the Tories this time took a majority win.
Despite my own fellow Sheffield Central constituents increasing the majority enjoyed by our MP, Paul Blomfield, from 165 to 17,309, my partner Jane Watkinson having been used on pamphlets to urge voters to switch to reds from the Greens as she had, we remained “The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire” – what we felt was not what the country voted for.
And so another Labour leadership election began, this time to find a replacement for Ed. With no more Liberal Democrats to hide behind in Westminster, the Tories found themselves exposed for the con men they were, and a Prime Minister who had actually packed his bags ready to leave 10 Downing Street was so tired in his role as mouthpiece of the elites that his mask slipped with increasing regularity.
Of all the Labour leadership candidates, I was so uninspired by the prospect of an even bigger PR disaster than Ed that as a party member I no longer felt we had anything left to lose: I instead voted with my heart, and chose Jeremy Corbyn, a man who had done such things as oppose apartheid, support LGBT rights, refuse to pay the poll tax, and sport a beard long before any of these were considered cool.
Lo and behold, he won with the most historic, massive mandate in Labour history – a sign that members were sick and tired of polished PR men and instead wanted progressive policies and “straight-talking, honest” politics. It was a revelation; a realisation that politics could be different; that maybe, now that the “token” few socialists had a voice, it could resonate with working class communities disenchanted with career politicians fuelling an electoral machine, and prepared to be all things to all people as long as they got power. Now we had integrity.
From the very moment he became leader, Jeremy Corbyn faced an onslaught from establishment media and even those in his own party who had expected him to act as a paper candidate in the leadership race; a token “loony lefty” like Diane Abbott supposedly was before him in the previous leadership election. This was clearly never a part of the plan. This was a glitch in the Matrix. And heck, did the system ever remind us of the fact – over and over again, with headline after headline, newsflash after newsflash, and resignation after resignation from those who, truth be told, enjoyed Labour’s “broad church” branding as (in reality) a years-old excuse to control socialism and let the rampant capitalists in. “Broad church”? “My goodness, it was never meant literally!” they surely exclaimed. “Blair? Yes! Corbyn? No!” That’s how it works.
So I wrote to my MP, Paul Blomfield, and urged him to stick to the principles he expressed so strongly as Ed Miliband was mocked for not being “statesmanlike” and awkwardly eating a bacon sandwich while the media downplayed David Cameron eating a hot dog with a knife and fork. Like most party members and Corbyn, Blomfield is against the renewal of Trident, but engaged in an email exchange with me claiming Labour needed different leadership. I’ll at least give him the respect of not publishing the email exchange here on my blog, but suffice to say I was disappointed. I told him I felt I was being told by those in Westminster that, as a party member, my vote was meaningless, and that I was a peasant who didn’t know what was good for me; as though they were a party happy to take in nearly a thousand pounds of my money up to that point, and then tell me to shut the hell up.
Paul Blomfield then announced that he was backing former Pfizer lobbyist Owen Smith to replace Jeremy Corbyn, a man who not only inspired hundreds, even thousands, but accumulated more Twitter followers than Ed Miliband did in nearly five years as Labour leader.
I got up after three hours’ sleep to go to my Constituency Labour Party meeting to indicate, as others across the country had (overwhelmingly for Corbyn over Smith), who we collectively backed. Aside from the fact “delegates” had been selected as the chosen ones to vote while members like me were put at the back of the room, we heard speeches from Corbyn and Smith supporters for an hour, only to then decide not to even have a vote after all. Corbyn speeches were all about being engaged in politics; Smith speeches suggested Corbynistas are stuck on social media but never come to meetings. After wasting over an hour of our time, this might be why!
Nonetheless, I was offended by so many suggestions that – despite bleeding Labour red – as a Corbyn advocate, I wasn’t a campaigner, even though Smith supporters were reiterating that the general population, not party members, were important. It was such a miserable, pessimistic sentiment. After this exercise in futility, I went straight home for a coffee. My MP and several councillors didn’t seem keen to talk to me anyway. Sheffield’s ever-increasing city-centre conservative middle classes had nixed the whole idea of their CLP even choosing in the leadership election. But their MP still went ahead and endorsed Owen Smith anyway, regardless of this impasse of his constituents. He unilaterally decided he was still backing Owen Smith, regardless of what we wanted.
In a sign they’d left citizenship behind and become far too cosy with people in positions of power, many councillors I knew were suddenly opposing our leader, perhaps explaining that odd feeling I had experienced when first entering the party – almost as though I had got the handshake wrong, missed a secret meeting, or failed to get a memo. I began to question everything I’d taken for granted in the Labour party; everything I knew, or thought I knew.
Despite the countless times I’d defended them, some councillors began blanking me in the street. One MP’s former campaign manager even stopped following the Fair Deal for Sheffield campaign (that he’d spearheaded) on Twitter because it had included tweets favourable to Corbyn’s campaign. A top women’s football club owner did the same to me because he saw I was pro-Corbyn. For goodness sake, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, who had enjoyed my support and had followed me for years on Twitter, suddenly stopped doing so, then blocked me – the only thing I’d done differently was support his own leader. It was perverse. Many of us actually hadn’t voted for him to be Deputy Leader, but respected the democratic process. Unlike him.
Numerous high-end authors and academics, too, spoke out against Corbyn. Owen Jones, a supposed “left-wing” Oxbridge product now writing for the Guardian, was one of the more high-profile ones.
I just wasn’t in the club.
But I wasn’t the only one, as evidenced by the thousands in the social democratic Momentum campaign, the most exciting mass movement to happen in party politics since the birth of Labour itself, with a membership of 12,000. This too has been targeted. I approached a Momentum stall in, funnily enough, the Peace Gardens here in Sheffield as a man walked over, shouting at the stallholders, “You’re a party within a party! You’re abusive!” with no irony whatsoever, as those staffing the stall calmly asked, “Why don’t you come here so we can discuss it?” I have moved closer to Momentum as a result, as have many others, because of this kind of treatment. The card-carrying paid-up members have been treated like an inconvenience, and we want grassroots, democratic change – from the bottom up, not the top down. Loyalty was only valued one-way; it was never a symbiotic relationship. Any loyalty to members like myself was a lie.
Something has happened in the Labour party. Perhaps this is now the revealing of the ugliness that was always there, and I was a sucker for believing it wasn’t. When you’ve given a leader one of the biggest mandates ever, and politicos undermine, and then even try to reverse that, you know John Lennon was right when he sang “You think you’re so clever and classless and free, but you’re still f***ing peasants as far as I can see.”