As a Corbyn fan, second referendum remainer and a member of the metropolitan elite (whether real or imagined), I am bracing for the incoming tide of blame after the result last week. In the last couple of days I have felt painful and true sadness like never before. Before this gets washed away with the introspection to come, I want to remember and record what the last five years have felt like.
For me, Corbyn and his leadership represented a period of hope. That hope almost certainly died last Thursday, not that I haven’t spent significant time infuriated with Corbyn, the Labour Party or the country. What was and remains impressive about Corbyn’s politics is that it engaged a large group of people to the extent that they came out during this disastrous winter election campaign and knocked on doors and rang phones to try and bring about radical change in Britain. Granted, this didn’t bring about nearly enough votes in this election or even the last, maybe it barely made any difference in this election at all, but in the energising of Labour activism lies my hope for the next five years.
I voted for Corbyn in the 2015 leadership race. After the culmination of that year’s flat general election campaign it was clear there needed to be a change. At a hustings in Brighton, Corbyn caused excitement that no other candidate could match. After the debate, the crowds rushed over to chat to him, leaving Cooper, Burnham and Kendall with embarrassingly few people to talk to. The point (and what I remember) is that it was, quite simply, exciting to vote for someone with whom you agree. I had voted Labour in 2015 because we needed the Tories out, but I didn’t actually think £6,000 uni fees were any better than £9,000. After we had lost there didn’t seem any point in watering down what we really thought to make it more palatable. Why not vote for someone who says that university fees were always bad, if that’s what you truly believed? I had no idea if Corbyn could win an election but it felt like it was worth a try.
On the day Corbyn’s leadership was announced, my boyfriend and I gathered with about 100 other supporters on the edge of Hyde Park to hear the results announced over a sound system. It was the first political result I had celebrated. Many critics of the Corbyn project say that he represents a Bennite old guard. Older people recognised him as one of the lefty awkward squad. What this criticism failed to take into account is that people my age had only ever lived through a Labour politics dogged by constant and all pervasive compromise. What Corbyn was offering wasn’t a return to the past, but an agenda that had felt so impossible previously that when he stood on stage and said reducing the deficit was not a priority it felt brand new.
There have been plenty of disappointments in the last five years. I was disappointed by Brexit and then Labour’s reaction to it. I was disappointed by how they dealt with anti-semitism. I felt sick with disappointment on Thursday. Despite this, what has surprised and amazed me throughout is how many people have been mobilised by Corbyn’s radical politics. Just as people gravitated towards Corbyn after the 2015 hustings, people came out during what seemed to be an impossible election campaign in 2017. I remember turning up to canvassing events in what was then the marginal Hampstead and Kilburn and being turned away because there were too many of us and not enough houses to canvass. The local organiser advised people not to mention Corbyn on the doorstep because people didn’t like him, but those canvassers were there because of Corbyn. Ultimately Tulip Siddiq won the seat with such a hugely increased vote share that it was no longer a marginal. I have met so many people during canvassing and campaigning sessions over the last five years; it is joyful to know that there are so many out there who want to live in a radically fairer society and who care about other people. I didn’t know there were so many people who wanted that in 2015.
The politics of Corbynism, contrary to common criticism, weren’t built on fantasy. Since 2010 there has been a palpable feel of radical degeneration in the social fabric of Britain. Rising homelessness, the state of A&Es, Grenfell: these things laid bare the country’s direction. People felt them. Like plenty of others, I volunteered at a food bank and saw first hand how desperate things were. There was a steady stream of pregnant women, mothers with children, people with physical and mental illness, people who couldn’t physically climb the stairs to the food bank but who had been declared fit to work, so many single men in their fifties – some who had been homeless and rehoused in bedsits with only a microwaves and who couldn’t take the Fray Bentos pies home with them – and a man whose Job Centre-issued food bank voucher stated that his registered address was the bridge he was sleeping under.
There was a man who on his first visit to the food bank was so clearly on the edge of tears he couldn’t bring himself to come into the room to wait for his voucher to be called. He told me that his mother had died and she had always taken care of him, but now he was on his own. He came back regularly after his first visit.
Last summer I remember a man coming into the food bank, plonking himself in a chair and asking ‘what’s happening with Brexit then?’ We laughed at the absurdity that in his situation Brexit was what we – and everyone in the country – was talking about. It doesn’t seem so funny now.
These people didn’t seem political, they were just trying to survive. Volunteering at the food bank both confirmed my politics and my belief that a Corbyn government could and should win. I imagine many other Labour activists had similar experiences. Staring into the face of the social fabric ripping apart, how could you not support the party who were not only ready to tear up Universal Credit, but to fund a transformation of the services which could make people’s lives better?
The most depressing part of this election is that the damage done to the social fabric will not be fixed, nor will it be taped over. It is very likely that it with endure even more damage. There are so many vulnerable people out there who need help and, although I feel certain of almost nothing after Thursday, I am sure that need is only going to become more profound in the next five years. Many Labour activists are feeling completely lost now, but this is where we can make a difference. We live in a society crying out for support on a local level and, while the Labour Party looks to be sliding into a period of internal disagreements, the number of activists the Corbyn project mobilised can make a lasting change. People will need support with dealing with Universal Credit, with housing, with negotiating the immigration system, they will need support and protest to get through these next five years. We can’t stop the Tories wreaking whatever havoc they have planned at the moment, but we can stand in solidarity with our communities. The Labour Party was founded on the ideals of collective struggle and solidarity and it is what we need to get back to now – it is certainly what I will be hanging on to.