Tonight, along with about two thousand other people, I took the opportunity to see Jeremy Corbyn addressing a rally in Leeds. As it happened, the event was so popular that the hall reached capacity just as we were reaching the front of the queue. So JC came and stood on the steps of the venue and addressed the outside crowd before his speech in the auditorium.
A bit of context: I joined the Labour Party the day after the General Election last year. But so did several thousand other people, so I didn’t actually get my registration processed in time for the subsequent leadership election. Which I didn’t mind, as I honestly don’t know who I would have voted for. This time I will have a vote as a fully paid up member with an annual direct debit, but to be honest I feel slightly uncomfortable about my right to use it. I may have joined the party, but so far that’s it. I haven’t attended any local meetings, handed out leaflets, volunteered for a phone bank, anything. I feel that electing a party leader shouldn’t be a free-for-all for anyone who’s vaguely interested in Labour. Surely it’s for the people who work day in day out to keep the Labour party going – the activists, the local party organisers, trade unions, MPs – to take the decision regarding who is the best person to lead and direct their efforts. Someone like me, who basically just retweets and shares stuff – should my opinion really count as much as theirs?
Anyway, back to last night’s rally. I was right at the front of the queue when they closed the doors, so I was in a prime position when Corbyn came out to speak to the crowd.
He spoke for, I’m guessing, half to three quarters of an hour (could have been more, I wasn’t checking) about the need to tackle the social injustices which are getting worse under the current government. Tax dodging big businesses, workers rights, support for the NHS and opposing the academisation of schools were all mentioned. Owen Smith was not.
Corbyn’s not a slick public speaker like some MPs – it was a long speech to deliver from memory and I was close enough to hear the occasional (unimportant) mis-step. He has a very genuine warmth and sincerity, and he knew his audience well enough to make a few well-received jokes. Speaking to a crowd of the party faithful suits him well – he seemed more confident, more articulate, more inspiring than he appears in the House of Commons or when talking to journalists.
Unfortunately, I can’t remember a single policy proposal in his speech – apart from a vague mention of a National Investment bank. He’s very good at opposing things, and in the last 12 months Labour have put up a decent fight against changes to tax credits, and forced academisation. But this is the problem: I paid much less attention to politics back in the 1990s, but if you’d asked me what Tony Blair stood for prior to May 1997, I would have said “Education, education, education”. And that’s the challenge that Corbyn has got to overcome. It’s not about getting the agreement of thousands of die-hard socialists. He’s got to attract the attention of millions of voters, with a clear message about what he will do differently. That message hasn’t got out there yet. Until last night I thought that this was probably because the media don’t give him a fair – or any kind of – hearing. (He was 5 minutes away from the BBC Look North studio last night – where were their reporters?!) And yet, listening to him talk for nearly an hour, I came away thinking he was a lovely, sincere bloke – but I still don’t know what his policies would be as Prime Minister.
Before last night, I’d made up my mind that I wouldn’t vote for Corbyn, and I was unsure about Smith. I know Members of Parliament have a bad reputation, but I simply can’t accept that 172 Labour MP’s are all corrupt, power-crazed, backstabbers who are rebelling for their own selfish reasons. All of us, in any job, can tell when the person at the top in our organisation is underperforming. Yes, he’s faced animosity from the media and insubordination from his MPs. It takes a certain type of person (probably with a streak of ruthlessness) to take control of that situation and convince people that he’s in charge. I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn is that kind of person.
Unfortunately, Corbyn has such strong support from the grass roots, that Owen Smith’s challenge to him is deepening the divide between parliamentary and local Labour. If Smith wins – unlikely given the party voting system, and the strength of Corbyn’s support – then there will be outright rebellion from the Corbyn supporters at a local level, making it impossible to deliver a General Election campaign. And if Corbyn wins, I doubt he’ll be able to reconcile the disaffected Labour MP’s, given that he hasn’t been able to in the last year – again, making General Election victory even harder to achieve. Whatever the outcome of the leadership contest, it probably won’t lead to a Labour government in 2020, and it may see the party officially split in two.
So I’m convinced, after hearing Corbyn speak last night. I’m convinced he’s not the right person to lead the party. But I’m also convinced that a vote for Owen Smith will be a vote for further infighting, deepening the divide between the two factions. If you ask me to pick between those two factions, I can’t. I won’t. For me, Labour is a broad church. The challenge of reconciling the tensions between Guardian and Mirror readers, the competing needs of industry and environment, women and men, working people and unemployed people is what it’s all about. Being Labour means recognising that a complicated world requires complicated thinking, not the reductive ‘hard working families vs unemployed scrounger’ mantra of the Tories. So despite having a vote, I won’t use it. I’m not Momentum. I’m not Progress. I’m Labour. But will there be any Labour left after this?