Summer 2015. The Labour leadership election had begun. I bumped into one of the candidates at a small demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Clue: it wasn’t Liz Kendall. It was actually the most reluctant of the four candidates, who had been told it was his turn to hold the torch of the Socialist Campaign Group, and that he couldn’t say “No”. Jeremy Corbyn was suddenly airlifted out of his comfort zone. From backbench rebel, street activist and campaigner on local and global issues, and dedicated local MP supporting local projects and initiatives within his constituency, he was now a leadership candidate.
The bookmakers, usually far wiser than journalists or politicians at predicting the course of events, placed him on 200/1 odds. I looked at him and said jokingly “But what are you going to do if you win?” He laughed, but in his reaction I saw a glimmer of hope that he might come third instead of fourth. And I sensed from him that this would be a small step in the right direction for the beleaguered Left in the party where the hopes, dreams, and votes of ordinary people in the terrible Blair years had been squandered. But the brief Ed Miliband interregnum had marked a small shift to the Left. Then something remarkable happened.
Jeremy’s campaign took off. Outdoor rallies, indoor rallies, a new generation of young activists full of energy and zeal, endorsements from trade unions, and an incredible buzz of excitement. The bookies odds began to tumble, though I know at least one person who took a smart gamble when Jeremy was 100/1.
Jeremy’s advantage was his complete lack of egotism. He was completely at ease talking and listening to people of all backgrounds and generations, genuinely interested in people, and was used to addressing and enthusing large crowds. He was up against three candidates whose interactions with ordinary people rarely got beyond a carefully selected focus-group, and who looked and sounded wooden and insincere when they moved beyond their own small echo chambers.
I was not a labour member at that time but joined as a £3 supporter which meant I had a vote. I had been in Labour for around five years in the early/mid-1980s Harsh times under Thatcher’s class war but also exciting times of municipal socialist resistance from the left wing GLC under Livingstone’s (then) inspired leadership. Though, in four years in my local ward meetings – first in Newham, east London, then in Camden I never heard the word “socialism” mentioned. I heard the term “jumble sale” very often. When Thatcher closed the GLC down and Kinnock, elected on a fairly left wing ticket, was driving the party rightwards, I couldn’t see the reason to remain a member. I was active in many different grassroots campaigns for real social change and my membership of Labour seemed then to add nothing to this.
It was at that time that time I first encountered Jeremy personally. We were both platform speakers at a small anti-racist and anti-fascist rally in central London. The principles he holds to with such depth and humanity are as obvious now as they were right then.
We moved house in 1996, as a result of which Jeremy was our MP, and the following year I joined a political party, but it was not Labour. Blair had won a landslide, but with such a majority he had no reason to listen to the left at all. He treated them as simply an irritant. The day after Blair became leader I joined the Green Party, which seemed to be on a left trajectory. I was convinced that in this period any progressive pressure on a Blair-led Labour Party would come from outside of Labour. I stayed a member of the Greens for a few years but eventually lapsed feeling a mismatch between their progressive ideas and the lack of dynamism in my local branch.
Fast forward back to 2015 – but this time to 12 September – a huge march in support of refugees. As we gathered near Marble Arch putting up our banners, we were glued to our phones. And then a roar swept through the crowds as the results of the Labour leadership contest were declared: a decisive victory for Jeremy Corbyn, one which would have been even greater, but for the old guard whose chosen personnel still staffed the party’s inner bodies and managed to exclude around 4,000 potential voters – overwhelmingly supporters of Jeremy – from participating on the flimsiest of pretexts if any at all.
As soon as he had made his acceptance speech, and said his thank yous, he hurried off to join that rally for refugee rights, because the issue he cared about always came first before personal honours. His presence at that demonstration instantly wiped from our minds the obscenity that at the previous General Election the Labour Party was marketing coffee mugs with the slogan: “Controls on Immigration”.
So much has been written about the last five years, that you don’t need to hear yet one more analysis of that. We all know that in 2017, with a visionary and radical manifesto, he overcame the most vicious and cynical war by the establishment and their servile media to recruit huge numbers of new members and retrieve millions of Labour votes lost by Blair, as he deprived the Tories of their majority.
But the long wasted months of 2016 in which he was forced by the right wing opposition from the majority of Labour PLP to engage in another internal leadership contest, meant Labour was not as strong or united as it could have been when they entered that election.
The gains Labour made in 2017 gave his opponents both outside and within the party such a scare that they moved up a gear in their vicious psychological war of character assassination, and used every filthy means to further undermine him afterwards.
Jeremy was constantly portrayed by their media as weak, inept and hopeless. In the face of ugly personal abuse, including death threats, he and his family actually showed the most enormous reserves of inner strength and integrity. But he was bolstered and reinforced in his key principles whenever he was among grassroots Labour members, and ordinary people campaigning for their real needs and for social justice.
Ultimately the total propaganda war by the establishment, and the daily demonisation, proved too much to overcome in 2019. The compromises enforced on him over Brexit by some of those close to him pushing for a second referendum when the first hadn’t been implemented reduced his options for how he could campaign with integrity on that issue. He hoped the fair and practical solution he adopted, married to an even more radical manifesto would have a chance of squaring the circle on election day. It couldn’t. And however impressive and empowering the manifesto promises were, Labour’s internal machine failed in its messaging to communicate those in simple, clear, repeated slogans to match the crude simplicity of “Get Brexit Done”.
But Jeremy’s legacy as leader is so significant. The party is now firmly an anti-austerity party; it has recruited huge numbers of members – and is the largest left/social democratic party in Europe; its Shadow Cabinet had a majority of women for the first time in its history and now has its highest proportion of BAME MPs; it is leading the argument among mainstream parties on Climate Justice; it has shifted towards a foreign policy based on human rights; it stands unashamedly again on the side of trade unions… and much more.
Whatever the outcome of the leadership contest that will be announced tomorrow, any new leader will struggle to win the membership behind any quick reversal of those crucial gains.
I want to finish with a personal memory of collaboration with Jeremy on the issue in which we first encountered each other back in the 1980s: anti-fascism. In 2016 I was the overall convenor of Cable Street 80 – a march and two rallies to commemorate the anniversary of 4 October 1936 when London’s working class Jewish community, concentrated in the East End, allied with significant sections of the Irish community, with trade unionists and other communists, socialists and anti-fascists to repel an attempted invasion by thousands of uniformed Blackshirts of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
We offered speaking slots to 30 people across both rallies. Half of them spoke at Altab Ali Park – a green space named after the young Bengali victim of a racist murder in 1978. The other half spoke in St Georges Gardens,where we ended our march, just behind the building whose side wall hosts the magnificent Cable Street mural. The basement of that building houses the local Unite Community branch. We held many of our Cable Street 80 organising meetings there.
We had no doubt at all on the organising committee who we wanted as our closing speaker: Jeremy Corbyn. But at the time he was under the most ferocious and savage attack by those who defined themselves as leaders of the Jewish community, and guardians of its past, present and future. The Board of Deputies, who back in the 1930s had told Jews to stay indoors and not involve themselves with demonstrations on 4 October 1936, and had advised Jews in the 1970s to steer clear of the largest post war anti-fascist movement, the Anti-Nazi League on the basis that they might mix with pro-Palestinians, were joining with other right wingers to dishonestly and cynically try to cast Jeremy as a friend of antisemites.
The media loved this contrived war and we knew we had to ensure that Jeremy was able to reach the platform and give his speech unhindered by the media or anyone seeking to undermine the event. This was his first outdoor appearance after the second leadership contest. We made elaborate plans to whisk Jeremy from a cab into that basement as soon as he arrived, keep the media hounds at bay, and shepherd him to the platform from there. We did that. But he didn’t go straight to the platform, typically he spent time in the basement with the mainly young people who we had recruited as volunteer stewards, and he shared a cake with them that he had brought along. He knows that big political events depend on a team of ordinary people doing ordinary tasks and he always takes time to thank them.
Once on the platform he listened intently and patiently to the speeches, paying particular attention to that of Max Levitas, 101 years old then, who had been at the Battle of Cable Street. And when it came to his moment to speak and close the rally Jeremy gave the most powerful and moving speech, relating how he had heard about Cable Street first through his mother, who was present there in 1936. And in that speech, he not only gave the strongest condemnation of all types of racism, but held out the vision of the multicultural and equal society we must constantly seek to build and strengthen.
Though he is no longer the Labour leader, I know that in the years to come he will continue to be such an important part of that fight, while many of his detractors will have been forgotten. Salud! And thanks.
David Rosenberg re-joined the Labour Party in September 2015