Up till about ten days ago my interest in the Labour Party leadership elections mostly consisted of rolling my eyes and groaning when it was mentioned on the news. I'm not a party member, and didn't even vote for them in the general election. However I'm aware their spineless submission to the conservative agenda and post-Blair moral stagnation is one reason why bad things happen in Britain, and go increasingly unquestioned. They are in a position to make changes, and resist, but they don't. I generally liked Ed Miliband, but it was depressing to see him giving in to a pre-set agenda and failing to make the running against an unpopular government.
I was equally uninterested when I saw old-school Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn had gone onto the ballot, and only raised a sniff of curiosity when I saw the first prediction he might win. However, when all the polls started to say so, and the ghastly vampire Blair emerged from his coffin to threaten us, I realised we might have a potentially interesting situation. Also, some right-on lefty type people I follow on Twitter started tweeting about Corbyn as if he was The Saviour or something.
Anyway, Corbyn was in Bristol Thursday night so I went to see if the messiah had turned up. He hadn't, he was stuck on a train, which only proves my conviction that First Great Western is part of a larger conspiracy to keep the people down, oppress them and generally break their spirits. Anyway, the room was rammed, and the mood seemed pretty upbeat: even the assorted socialist newspaper sellers managed to avoid fighting. A man in a Mao cap gave out leaflets for the Communist Party that said 'Tories and Labour are just the same'. Next to me, a respectable middle-aged black lady took one of these, pointed at the headline, and said in a resigned sort of way, 'Well, it's true."
Corbyn turned up, and got a standing ovation just for arriving. I don't know if I have unreasonably high expectations of politicians but I stuck to my chair. Anyway, he gave a perfectly passable speech outlining how he had ended up on the ballot paper. He buttered up Bristol with a few Bristol-related Labour facts, then moved onto the horrors of Tory Britain: homelessness, welfare cuts, tuition fees, etc. He talked about the economic crisis, the bank bailouts and the subsequent cuts, and how all that was caused by the bankers and not hard-working nurses and teachers. So far, so standard. "The problem was not that we were too left-wing but that we weren't distinctive enough from the Tories" he said.
Corbyn then moved to questions, suggesting he took some about economic stuff, trade unions etc, then welfare, then international stuff last. The first person got up and asked a question about proportional representation. Second person about EU and Greece. Since these were the questions I'd have asked, I didn't bother putting my hand up. Third question: how can we detoxify the Labour party? Fourth question: Greece again - how would Corbyn defend the UK if we ended up in a similar situation? (At the time, I thought this was a daft question - later, I decided it was the most salient one asked all night, but more of that later.) Final question in this section: was he in favour of Universal Basic Income?
At this point in the evening I had a little revelation: the 300 people in the room were way ahead of Corbyn. Not in terms of left-wingness but in terms of what they were prepared to think about. Corbyn was talking about what had gone wrong: everyone had passed that point some time ago, and was looking for ways to put it right. It's some indication of the conservative slant of the media that someone who's portrayed as a dangerous radical on the fringes of acceptable politics can be left behind by 300 ordinary people.
Anyway, Jeremy answered some of the questions. He hedged his bets on PR, saying he didn't want to lose the geographical link. He said Greece leaving the Euro was inevitable, the debt would be written off eventually. He blamed the European Central Bank, and said we needed a EU for the people and the workers. He had a little rant about xenophobia and nationalism. Although I don't actually recall anyone asking the question, he said he'd renationalise the railways, which got massive cheer of the night.
More questions: arms sales to the middle east, getting young people engaged in politics. Wasn't Thatcher and neoliberalism the problem? Someone asked a rambling and incoherent question about an industrial dispute going on at Rolls Royce, who are a large Bristol employer. Last question: if he didn't make leader, would he defect to the Greens?
Corbyn seemed on home turf dealing with the arms sales stuff, something he has long had an interest in. He criticised Saudi Arabia, including its treatment of women, the only time he mentioned women's rights all night. He said young people were political, and that social media was key. He was kind to the incoherent man from Rolls Royce, and spoke to him with respect, which made me realise why everyone in his constituency likes him.
Unlike the other leadership candidates, Corbyn didn't seem to need some kind of mental check or aide-memoire to generate responses. I guess that's because he's standing on what he believes, rather than on what a focus group told him to think. That's a good thing, but is it enough? It's sad that meaning what you say is the highest we've come to hope for in a politician, and that someone even doing so can lead to an outbreak of mild hysteria amongst sane and intelligent people. To me, the important question is: is what he believes in, good enough?
Corbyn talked a good deal about the errors of the Iraq war, and our awful stand on human rights in the middle east. He talked about the BBC, and about Tony Benn, and about trade unions and Trident. He talked about the need for the Labour Party to have a period of thought about what it stands for. He said: "We've all shouted at the TV. It's better that we're here, talking to each other." He talked about the need for a movement not just a party. But I wasn't sure what he meant - he kept referring to the 'the Labour movement'. I couldn't agree more about having a real discussion instead of shouting at the TV. But I wasn't sure how he envisages this 'Movement'. Is it a thing led by the Labour Party and trade unions, or is it a wider, more inclusive thing?
And herein lie my doubts. I think Jeremy seemed like a nice bloke. He seemed reliable, sane, and thoughtful. I just don't know if that, right now, is what we need in a leader of the opposition. I don't know if it's enough.
Here's the questions Corbyn wouldn't answer: PR. The EU. Basic Incomes. Whether he'd work with the Greens. He doesn't like nationalism. Does that mean the SNP? In short, all the really pressing issues about how we deal with the democratic crisis that's happening in Britain and across Europe. Would he put together a one-off coalition to break the Tory stranglehold and bring in a new type of electoral system? I have no idea. Would he carry on in an unreformed EU (let's be honest, it won't reform), letting in cheap labour which chips away at the unionised, industrial jobs that he's so in favour of? I have no idea, either. He said he believed in "Economic and environmental justice." But when he talked about Saudi Arabia, he only mentioned selling them arms. He didn't mention them selling us petrol, which is how they get money to buy arms, which frankly they could purchase elsewhere.
To be fair, I do think Corbyn might try and protect some of the things that got built up in the last great wave of social-democratisation, after the second world war. He might have some decent ideas about investing in infrastructure and so on, but the fact is we're in a very difficult situation where a small sector of the economy has enormous power of the rest of it, and that sector is Big Finance. It's also the bits that that have done well out of a financialised economy: the landlords, rentiers, and assorted companies that got PFI contracts and so on.
And here's where I came back to the question somebody asked earlier on. What would he do to defend us if we found ourselves in a situation like Greece? At the time, I thought this was a daft question: we're not in the Euro, so we can't have the money turned off, like the ECB did to the Greeks. But later, I thought, what would happen if somebody did actually try and bring in radical changes in Britain? What if there was a Labour-SNP-Green coalition and it got elected, or was about to? I'm fairly sure all hell would break loose. Both the media and the City of London would do everything in their power to stop it. So I think this may have been the most important question asked. I don't have an answer to it. I suspect Corbyn hasn't either.
All in all, I felt that what Corbyn didn't answer was more telling than what he did. I think he seemed like a perfectly nice guy, a competent, confident, if not an especially charismatic speaker. But he ain't the messiah. Sorry.
Nonetheless, there were a bunch of startling things going on in that room. First, the staggering level of dissonance between what people were concerned about/prepared to consider, and what the media talk about. Second, the gap between what the audience wanted to talk about and what Jeremy Corbyn wanted to talk about was really quite big too. Thirdly, everyone there was raring to go, they just weren't quite sure where to go to it. If Jeremy had suggested we all marched down the Council House and turned it into the Paris Commune, I'm fairly sure everyone would have picked up their bags and followed. He didn't, obviously.
And here's the thing. Given that Corbyn is campaigning for the leadership of the Labour Party, you might expect that meeting to have been a leader looking for a movement. What it actually looked like, was a movement looking for a leader. I'm not convinced it's found it, yet.