Before the election was called I, like many other Labour supporters, was starting to lose faith in Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to be a good leader. I had voted for him in both leadership campaigns, and never lost commitment to the project he was trying to carry out – bringing Labour back to its traditional left-wing, socialist roots – but I was not convinced that in his role as Leader of the Opposition he was doing a good job overcoming the significant media attacks against him and holding the government to account. As Labour sucked up precious airtime choosing to squabble about whether or not he was effective in his role rather than attacking the government, and the Tories continued to set the “hard Brexit” agenda, I began to get disillusioned by Corbyn’s apparent refusal to fight back, or even address the important issues of the day. Week after week it seemed that the media and government were on one narrative, and Jeremy Corbyn was on a completely different one. I would look at what he’d been asking at PMQs and shake my head – why was he talking about nurses, housing, schools, police when what people really wanted to know was what he was going to do about Brexit, or about Donald Trump, or about the unelected Theresa May?
Sure, at the same time I couldn’t deny that he did seem to be actually achieving results, at least before the referendum. In October 2015, he got the government to cancel their Saudi Arabia prison contract which would have made the UK complicit in the torture and execution of pro-democracy protesters in the region. And then there was George Osborne’s U-turn on tax credits and police budget and housing and disability benefit cuts. And the fact that Corbyn’s Labour Party got the government to climb down on changing childhood poverty indicators, extending Sunday opening hours, early plans for forced academization and the expansion of grammar schools, the anti-trade union Trade Union Bill and their approach to child refugees from Syria. But after Brexit, bizarrely blamed for not fighting hard enough to win a referendum he didn’t call for and, arguably, didn’t personally believe in, Corbyn was still talking about nurses, housing, schools, and police while the media – and me – insisted he should be talking about second referendums, hard and soft Brexits, and Article 50.
Then came the snap election. On January 20th I’d written on my Facebook page “Think I’m finally tapping out on Corbyn” because I had decided his approach was not going to work at getting his ideas the momentum they needed. I had seen Bernie Sanders bring energy and vigour to similar ideas across the ocean and wondered who our Bernie Sanders would be here in the UK if it wasn’t going to be Corbyn. But when the election was called my thoughts about Jeremy as leader became moot. It was his ideas I believed in, despite my reservations about his personal style, and it would be that vision of Britain versus the Conservative vision. Not only would I vote for him, but I would get out there and campaign for him too! On April 18th I posted: “So I guess it’s time to see what Corbyn’s made of…” and between that date and June 8th I did! Not only did I personally go to see Corbyn speak twice – including his memorable speech in Birmingham where he demanded Theresa May scrap her “dementia tax” and forced her to make a manifesto u-turn – but I watched how his campaign and manifesto energized the country, speaking to a wealth of young citizens who had never voted before and appealing to voters like me, largely disillusioned by the main political parties (I’d voted Green in 2015), as well as a diverse range of ordinary people who cared deeply about the world they were living and raising children in.
And somewhere along the campaign it hit me: Corbyn had not been ignoring the important issues of the day or shirking his responsibilities in opposition since 2015 when he had spent his PMQs and media appearances talking about nurses, housing, schools, and police – these were the important issues. This was opposition.
Corbyn’s campaign demonstrated what he had known all along, which was that behind our concerns about Brexit were concerns about something far more fundamental: what does it mean to live life in 21st century Britain? For Remainers like me, they were questions about the sort of relationships we would have with our neighbours after asking for our divorce; about diversity, inclusiveness, openness, and solidarity. They were fears about what it would mean for the country once we had alienated our closest neighbours? What it might mean for the economy? What it might mean for diplomacy and peace? And for those who voted Leave, Brexit was about sovereignty and immigration (perhaps sprinkled with a little bit of racism and xenophobia here and there) but when you break their concerns about sovereignty and immigration down – even those tinged with some prejudice – what are they really concerns about? They are concerns about jobs. They are concerns about failing public services, overwhelmed by a growing population. Concerns about wages and opportunity. Concerns about security.
Corbyn had been standing at the dispatch box since 2015 addressing all of these concerns and holding our government to account – talking about nurses, housing, schools, and police – and when he published his manifesto promising a kinder and more inclusive kind of politics, which sought to properly fund schools, hospitals and police, which addressed issues of housing and jobs, which talked about dealing with our international neighbours with diplomacy and compassion, and promised to turn back the tide of rising inequality in our country – a manifesto seeking to make life better for the many, and not the few – it turned out the public no longer wanted to talk about Brexit – they wanted to talk about that. Because that was Brexit. Because that is what they were talking about all along, only no one except for Jeremy was really listening. Stood at that dispatch box, week after week, quietly but persistently talking about nurses, housing, schools, and police, and how we could make life for the 95% of this country as good as it currently is for the top 5%. Talking about the concerns that really mattered in the day-to-day life of ordinary people as they struggled to make ends meet, even if those concerns didn’t make for exciting or media-grabbing headlines.
Leadership is a curious thing. Throughout Corbyn’s time as leader, I have heard the phrase “he’s a nice guy, but he’s not a good leader”. I have even said it myself. But why can’t leaders be nice guys too? Why must leadership always equate to arrogance and bombasticism in British politics? Corbyn has been soft-spoken at times, but he likes to listen to others as much as he likes to hear his own voice. He has principles on which he doesn’t waver, but he knows where there is room to compromise to work together with opponents to reach a common goal. He is diplomatic and considered, instead of rude and reactive, and he has a clear guiding vision of social justice and human rights which drive him. There is no good reason that this model of leadership is not just as effective as any other; but sadly there is a perception that this more collaborative approach is somehow weaker because it is leadership by example rather than leadership by force. I think this perception is a mistake, and that people have underestimated Corbyn’s leadership simply because he is not the sort of leader they have been led by before. They mistake his deliberative pace as ineffectual, his ease with party insubordination as fragility, his refusal to follow news-cycle-narratives as being out of touch, and his choice not to engage in petty personality politics as timidity. But what this election has shown is that people are starting to see through the distortions of orthodox expectation and recognising that Corbyn is in fact fearlessly pursuing an agenda in the face of unremitting institutional hostility. While others have been wasting their energy navel-gazing about the quality of his leadership, Corbyn has simply been getting on with the job of leading. And slow and steady wins the race.
This is the bit where you remind me that he didn’t win the election. But when you consider the way he has been treated by both his own Party and the media since becoming leader, I think we can all agree his struggle uphill has been unnecessarily steep. It is easy when you are interested in politics to imagine that everyone is watching and hearing the same things as you, making informed and reasoned decisions – but we all know that many people who voted this week don’t really pay too much attention to politics. They know the basics of what they hear on the odd snippet of the news, see on the front-pages, or skimming the headlines on social media. And the message they’ve had about Jeremy Corbyn since day one is that even his own party don’t think he’s a very good leader. He’s a joke. He’s a fantasist. He’s unelectable.
For any of these people to think beyond that persistent and damaging narrative is a miracle, and it was a miracle not just limited to the politically naïve. Most people I know with a deep interest in politics believed the same thing too. It was the “educated” opinion: Corbyn was a well-meaning fool, just one disastrous election away from being tossed aside for more “sensible” centrist politics. Yet on June 8th, 40% of the voting public had conceded that if they stopped listening to the received wisdom of the lofty oracles in media or their “educated” friends, what Corbyn was actually saying, and what he had been saying since 2015 – about nurses, housing, schools, and police – seemed to make a lot of sense.
Corbyn lost the election, but won the support of 40% of the public. A public who had been given a chance to vote definitively for a “hard Brexit” and rejected it. Who had the chance to vote for a second referendum and alternative official opposition from the Liberal Democrats and rejected it. Instead, on June 8th, 40% of the voting UK population voted for the man who talked about nurses, housing, schools, and police. The man who, it turned out, had been an effective Leader of the Opposition all along.