Unlike many London left friends, who’ve been better than me at going to demonstrations, I’ve never met Jeremy Corbyn. To my shame – and perhaps because my anxiety and depression stopped me travelling from Manchester to London for the anti-war demo in February 2003 – I’d never even heard of him before he ran for Labour leader two years ago.
I had met John McDonnell though – at a People’s Parliament event that he organised with (the old) Zero Books at the House of Commons in March 2014. McDonnell explained that he put on the sessions to get different voices into Parliament, where MPs might hear them. He held monthly panels on various subjects; while many were for workers and trade unionists, he often brought in writers and activists. This time, those writers were Mark Fisher, Rhian Jones and Alex Niven – all people I’d met in London, and considered friends, after spending two years moving through writing and journalistic circles until finding the one that excited me the most, centred around Zero (now Repeater) and Verso Books. (J. D. Taylor, whom I hadn’t encountered, was the final panellist.)
McDonnell was interested in their ideas: Mark’s analysis of ‘capitalist realism’, and the need to imagine a better future despite those who insisted that “there is no alternative” and that utopian thinking was pointless; Alex’s Folk Opposition’, about the histories and possibilities of popular oppositional culture, as bewildered commentators constantly asked “what happened to political music?”; and Rhian’s Clampdown, an interrogation of the class, gender and racial politics of Britpop, which still dominated the imaginations of nostalgic New Labour hacks, and of the stultifying, conservative ‘indie’ that followed.
All of those authors argued for wide-ranging changes in the relationship between politics and culture, and the ideological climate in which they operated. I’d reached a height of despair with parliamentary politics, and especially the way the right-wing press dictated its tone, even after the Leveson Inquiry. Under Ed Miliband, the New Labour project seemed completely hollowed out, and the Parliamentary Labour Party struck me (and many others) as dominated by soulless committee thinking and surrender to the terms that the Tories, the tabloids and their backers wanted to impose on British society. (Indeed, I’d been six feet from Miliband at the New Statesman’s centenary party in 2013, when I was blogging for the NS in a desperate and ultimately doomed attempt to bring a more leftfield political and cultural perspective to its website. I decided not to bother introducing myself.) I didn’t realise Labour still housed people like McDonnell in it: I assumed they’d all left, or been purged, during the Blair years, and not been enticed back by events like the TUC anti-austerity protest in March 2011, a well-attended but weirdly lifeless trudge to see Miliband, and possibly Billy Bragg – I can’t even remember.
I enjoyed the event, but left with the same sense of melancholia I often had after going to such talks. I‘d heard some interesting provocations, but many of our conclusions had a similar feel: we identified the problems, but phrases like “We need to find a way to change the discourse” on [say] asylum seekers, benefit claimants, or public sector cuts seldom masked our sense of impotence. Without a trade union movement or political party that felt like it could ever be a vehicle for change, we were spitting in the wind: some people were listening, but not enough, and very few with influence.
Later that year, at a panel organised by think tank CLASS at the Trade Union Conference, I talked about the ‘potential for art and culture’ – discussing how the value of art now seemed to be considered only in financial terms, with grants cut for anything that might not make money, without any thought for artistic merit or how ideas that initially reach just a handful of people can be transformative for that handful, and ultimately for everyone. With a General Election looming, a friend expressed fears that “Labour now is just wonks” – unrelatable technocrats that had turned countless people away from the party. I didn’t forget McDonnell, but as far as I could see, younger MPs almost exclusively thought the existing order needed just minor tweaks, with nothing more ambitious possible, and didn’t understand that, if there was no matter on which they would not yield, they did not compromise but capitulate.
I’d known nothing but New Labour as I approached middle age: I was 33 as the 2015 General Election was held. I’d never voted Labour. In 2010, living in Brighton Pavilion, I was delighted when my vote for Caroline Lucas helped towards an unprecedented Green Party victory but knew it would never go much beyond that one seat (and that the Greens had put little time into campaigning in more working-class areas, such as. Hollingdean). Although I liked my MP, Diane Abbott, I couldn’t get behind Labour as it was. Due to a clerical error in Hackney, it took two and a half hours to vote: the polling station sent me to Hackney Town Hall, where I joined a long queue of people, livid at feeling disenfranchised. I was more depressed than anxious or angry, and eventually, I put my cross against the Communist League – a futile protest against the post-Thatcher, post-Blair hegemony of austerity, authoritarianism and the demand for anyone on the left to accept the ‘lesser evil’ of ‘centrism’. (They got 102 votes.)
The whole thing felt desperate, but worse was to come. I finished an event at Close-Up Cinema, where we’d planned to watch the BBC’s election night coverage together. Then we saw the exit poll predict a Tory majority—something I’d predicted before campaigning began, but I’d wavered as the opinion polls suggested a hung parliament or narrow Labour win—and went home. I got back to find my flatmates in stunned silence, having been crying earlier, but I just felt numb. I wanted a Labour victory—five years of Tory cuts and an ever-more authoritarian culture had exhausted me and many friends—but couldn’t feel that Miliband’s failure to become Prime Minister was any real tragedy. The lowest moment was the response of Labour grandees who insisted their defeat came because Miliband moved the party too far to the left – despite losing all of Scotland to an anti-austerity movement. As James Butler said: the tragedy for most people was not the lack of a Labour government, but that politics just carried on like this.
Once Miliband resigned and Corbyn entered the leadership contest, I dared to wonder if Labour could be something different – more exciting, drawing on the dignity and solidarity of past trade union movements and socialist achievements whilst using new media to communicate a strong demand for a ‘new kind of politics’, in contrast to his three opponents’ carefully-honed nothings, designed more for television than Twitter, trapped in a perpetual present that did not even recall the optimism of Tony Blair’s 1997 campaign, but the resignation and exhaustion of Gordon Brown’s in 2010.
It was McDonnell’s presence that excited me most. In the decade since I’d begun in journalism, I’d felt alone, supported by little more than small groups of friends. I’d finally quit the New Statesman, burnt out and bitter about how my efforts to bring in a queer, trans and socialist perspective had panned out, but glad to have disassociated myself before their anti-Corbyn propaganda went into overdrive. The Guardian was large enough to sustain a more diverse range of opinions, but its editorial stance seemed vehemently opposed to turning Labour into a left-wing, member-based movement, not sensing (like we did) that it was not just New Labour’s ideology that was finished but also its methodology.
My exhaustion began to lift. Finally, I could invest energy into something bigger than myself – and draw from it. The awkward alliances between liberals, socialists and radicals during the coalition, when it felt difficult to be tribal about Labour or the Liberal Democrats, collapsed as Corbyn’s rise made the fault lines clearer, but I didn’t care. I felt like we were on the right side of history, with the ‘centrists’ wrong. Eventually, I thought, the wider world would agree – if only Corbyn and McDonnell could get a fair hearing.
The two years since Corbyn became leader have been rocky. I was not alone in my reservations about his handling of the EU referendum. I found many criticisms disingenuous, and had long stopped listening to his mainstream media detractors, but wasn’t sure if he grasped that one major issue was not the EU itself, but the consequences of a Leave vote for immigrants, people of colour and anyone else who did not fit the profile imposed by recrudescent English nationalism, with its militarism, monarchism, and imperialist nostalgia. Often, I was frustrated at how the energy and enthusiasm of Corbyn’s record-breaking leadership campaigns dissipated after his landslide victories. I felt that much of that could be blamed on collusion between the media and his rebel MPs, but not all, and wondered if I’d been delusional to place any faith in parliamentary politics, and the Labour Party in particular.
I thought about cancelling my Labour membership, but something stopped me. Initially, it was how much I hated Corbyn’s opponents: their smug, patronising crowing about how they were right about Corbyn being ‘unelectable’ – as if this was an objective fact, as if they were mere observers of British political discourse, rather than influential agents within it. The labelling of those who backed Corbyn’s ideas for the future of the Labour Party as Trotskykist infiltrators, brick-throwing homophobes, rabid anti-Semites and IRA advocates, the British equivalent of the Donald Trump-supporting ‘alt right’. (Watching them eat humble pie, particularly in the form of their own books, has been fun.) But it wasn’t just hatred that motivated me: I never lost that memory of McDonnell, or the sense he offered that politics could be more than what MPs say in parliament, and that political parties could draw inspiration not just from think tanks, but also from academic history and philosophy, art and music, literature and poetry. I remembered how Corbyn inspired me to watch a live broadcast from the House of Commons for the first time, on 6 July 2016, when he defied Labour backbench calls to ‘sit down and shut up’ to deliver his response to the Chilcot Inquiry on the Iraq war. I sat shaking throughout his speech, at the calm, controlled fury of his words, his refusal to talk around the imperial motivations and disastrous consequences of the invasion and occupation, and his sense of vindication that the millions worldwide who opposed the war had eventually been proved right.
So, from the moment when my friends and I at the no.w.here film lab saw the exit poll – far better than my prediction that Corbyn would ‘only’ lose by twenty or thirty seats – Thursday night felt like a vindication. Not just for our support for Corbyn, but for the ideas that those of us on the left have been exploring for the last decade, and all those talks where we tried to do some intellectual groundwork. Like many, today I’m thinking about Mark Fisher’s tragic death earlier this year, soon after Brexit and Donald Trump’s ascension, when it looked like the neoliberal orthodoxy would be toppled – by a descent into Fascism, with those of us who’d spent years planting seeds for a better future having to battle to save the institutions that had excluded, ridiculed, and fought us, with preservation of the status quo (which would then return to crushing us) seeming the best possible outcome.
I wonder what Mark would have made of this result. How Corbyn was derided as ‘unelectable’ by those clinging to old New Labour ways, before launching an astounding campaign that gave new purpose and restored Labour’s social-democratic principles; achieving the biggest opinion poll rise in living memory, which translated into the largest general election swing to Labour since 1945, which prevented a Tory majority in an election Theresa May called as she thought she could wipe out Labour, and any opposition from the left, forever.
I often think about his incredible enthusiasm for anything that might chip away at the dominant ideology, even if I didn’t always share it, or agree with the positions that resulted. I often think, too, about how many friendships I owe to him, via the blogging circle in which he was central, and his foundation of Zero and then Repeater Books, through which I met so many comrades – lots of whom, like me, were inspired to join Labour as Corbyn and McDonnell’s movement blossomed. If you look only at the numbers, then yes, we’ve lost– this time. But if you look at the wider picture, the possibilities that feel like they’ve opened up for anyone with dreams, a heart, a soul – then we’re winning. Today, I don’t feel anxious and I don’t feel depressed. I feel like we can stem the previously all-consuming rightward lurch in British culture; break the dominance of the likes of Lynton Crosby, Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch over our public discourse, and the stranglehold of self-proclaimed ‘Sensible’ Labour pundits over conversations about what left-wing politics can hope for; build the youthful energy of movements like #grime4corbyn into a reinvigorated counter-culture, far more exciting than the musically reactionary, politically retrograde carcass of Britpop. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like things can only get worse. I’m sure John McDonnell shares my optimism, and I like to think Mark would have as well.
Juliet Jacques is a writer, cultural critic and journalist. Her fiction has appeared in Five Dials, The London Magazine, 3:AM, Necessary Fiction and elsewhere. Her Transgender Journey series for the Guardian documented her gender reassignment between 2010-12 and was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011. Her journalism has featured in the New Statesman, Time Out, The New Inquiry, The London Review of Books and other publications. Her book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015.