Corbyn Won Because Hope Turned the Unthinkable Into Reality
Fatalism is dead and belief in change is back.
(Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images)
In the days just after this election was announced, a lot of people I know started doing something that, on the face of it, looked very strange: they decided to believe.
As the media thundered apocalyptically about 200-seat Tory majorities and the final destruction of the socialist project; as the Tories giddily prepared themselves for a massacre and half of the Labour party seemed to be egging them on; as everything looked utterly bleak and airless; as the feeling of being trapped on a rotting old prison ship grew, the water seeping in, every lurch carrying us down into the sunless desert at the bottom of the world, people decided that actually, Corbyn could do this. We would ignore the papers and the polls, we would have faith in the possibility that something good might actually happen, and if it meant retreating into a fanatical little bubble, then that was fine.
This wasn't a naïve hope; we weren't deluding ourselves. Everyone knew that the situation looked incredibly grim, that common sense and political inevitability were pointing in only one direction, and that rich and powerful people were doing everything they could to crush us utterly. It was, in a way, a kind of ironic hope – the hope of the already defeated, holding simultaneously the weary certainty of loss and the absolute insistence on victory. Few people genuinely dared to believe that Corbyn would actually come out on top, but the point was to say the unsayable, to refuse an ugly world and live for a few weeks as if anything were possible. It was an incantation. Corbyn is the absolute boy. He's never lost an election in his life. It was, in the end, a kind of magic: our thoughts and hopes and sheer mental will could turn something unthinkable into reality.
And it worked.
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Right from the beginning of his leadership, the Corbynite project was held by all the sensible and stolid political experts to be an impossibility. As the first opinion polls thudded down in late 2015, they sifted through the numbers and declared in the dead voice of reason that we had all made a terrible mistake. Labour was well behind where it was in 2010 after Miliband's leadership win; the only way it could avoid a catastrophic defeat in the next election would be through a surge unprecedented in recent British political history. Corbyn's strategy – winning back non-voters and energising young people with a positive programme and by offering them something tangible rather than branding and empty phrases – was universally derided. Everyone knew that young people simply didn't vote; everyone knew that once someone stopped engaging with electoral politics they were gone forever. The only way Labour could ever do well was by aping the Tories, offering a gimpy miniature version of all their callousness and idiocy to an essentially Tory public, drawing the bounds of political discourse closer and closer into a stifling little hole, without hope, without ideology, where truth and common sense would squelch about in misery.
Last night, we got a surge unprecedented in recent British political history. Last night, we saw huge numbers of young people voting for the first time, and voting for Labour. Last night, we saw innumerable masses who had given up on politics for decades coming back, because they had something to believe in.
The gleeful anti-Corbyn Cassandras were wrong – deafeningly, magnificently wrong – because they thought that politics was first of all about numbers, rather than people: a dead Newtonian science, the calculation of inert bodies. Something as bitter and determined and ironic as the last-minute hope of the believers had no way to enter their computations. The local party offices besieged every day by hundreds of people willing to knock on doors and hand out leaflets and do anything to help had no way of entering the model. Neither did the kindly mums making phone calls, or the huge crowds turning up for rallies, or the kids putting memes together on MS Paint. This was all just enthusiasm, a disease of the die-hard, an ephemeral wash that would break against the brute solidity of political fact. It wasn't real. And they weren't entirely wrong: it wasn't real; all that enthusiasm was just swirling potential, until the election was called and it poured through the sky to take on concrete form.
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The Tories ran a campaign that was not about people; it was about inevitability. Instead of offering anything, they issued a command to the electorate: this is how the polls and the numbers say that things are going to be, make it happen. Theresa May refused to debate, because what was the point? It'd only drag her down to the level of her doomed competitors. They didn't really try to win, because there was no need; the press would take care of it all and tell their readers exactly what to do. At a time when millions of people were desperate for a positive change, they ran on the promise of a lifeless eternity, in which every day would be just like the last – but with the nights longer, the grass yellowing, the sun dimming, because that's just the way things are. It was the biggest act of self-sabotage in British political history.
Jeremy Corbyn is not Prime Minister – not yet, at least. But the world has shown itself to have its own kind of irony. After weeks of screeching about coalitions of chaos and links to Irish terrorism, the Tories are now propping themselves up with the help of the DUP, a gang of noxious and fanatical homophobes, with links to murderous far-right paramilitaries. They're weaker than ever; a few by-elections could overturn their majority in months. And none of this would have been possible without Jeremy Corbyn.
Across Europe, traditional social-democratic parties are disappearing; under an Yvette Cooper or an Owen Smith, Labour would have triangulated itself into the abyss. The bloodless, hopeless, senseless centrists tried to perform a kind of magic of their own – for two long years, they insisted that Corbyn was unelectable, and they thought that saying it as frequently and bitterly as possible would turn it into fact. But they missed something. What they repeated were just nostrums, the weary recitation of how things are. What we've all learned from the election last night is that how things are is not the same as how they will always be. People can overturn every certainty imposed on us. The world is ours to change.