X Close

Starmer needs Corbyn’s secret weapon The young don't chant the Labour leader's name

(Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)


October 7, 2023   6 mins

The barriers are going up for the Labour party conference. Not just to protect, of course, but to exclude. The National Executive Committee is considering a rule that would threaten party members with expulsion if they campaign for rival candidates — who may include, let’s remember, their former leader.

Jeremy Corbyn’s removal and non-personing has been meticulous. Incredible now how his name — “Corbyn to stand as an independent candidate”; “Corbyn considering running for Mayor of London” — comes at you from what feels like the past, even though he was party leader just three years ago. He is so faded from my consciousness, as indeed from the party, it’s like an acid flashback to a trip that started very promisingly, then went bad very quickly.

Those of us who voted for Corbyn in the 2015 Labour leadership election always liked his policies more than his personality: “irritable traffic warden”. But just remembering the energy of that first rush, after his hilarious elevation to leader, feels so weird and dislocating, the way quite a few things Before Covid now echo from a distant epoch. George Osborne editing the Evening Standard. Labour gaining 30 seats in a general election. Wait, did a political vacuum really open up, sucking in thousands and thousands of highly motivated young people, chanting “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” in a genuinely funny way to the “Seven Nation Army” riff? Was that really him on stage with Run The Jewels at Glastonbury? Was there a palpable sense that the Labour Party once again stood for nationalisation and a rebalancing of wealth from shareholders to citizens?

Yes, dear grandchildren, and I kind of miss whatever that was. “Corbynism” doesn’t seem quite right. I don’t miss Corbyn himself at all. He stood in a distinguished line of similarly totemic, charismaphobic Labour figures. Tony Benn was forever telling us politics was about “issues, not personalities” and he had a fervent following too, including me. Corbyn always seemed so peevish and impatient, stubborn and inflexible. And obviously nobody misses the shitty anti-Semitism, or the Corbitburo’s tetchy, flat-footed apology-via-denial. I don’t miss that chaotic bunker period before the 2019 election, when Labour HQ was panic-burping six new manifesto pledges a day — Milkshake Tax! Badger Amnesty! Municipal Wi-Fi!

Once upon a time I would have felt a surge of glee at the possible mischief of Don Quixotic having a tilt at the London mayoralty: why not, shake things up a bit. But we’ve all had quite enough of mischievous politics in the last four years or so, haven’t we? Particularly at the lying, contemptuous, wine o’clock, Christmas-jumper government level. If Corbyn did enter the race, it would be either tragic or hilarious, depending on which side of the culture war you’re on. Sadiq and Jeremy slugging it out to a pointless draw could seriously harm both of them and allow the Tory candidate in. And please, does London really deserve Call Me Susan, who says she’s political Marmite and who admires Liz Truss?

The contrast between Starmer and Corbyn is striking, considering their very different attitudes to floating voters. Starmer would, it seems, do anything to win the approval of Conservative voters, a section of society Corbyn clearly scorned. But just as the current leader is winning admirers from a wide political spectrum, so Corbyn gathered respect from the most unlikely places. We’ve recently discovered how fond Rory Stewart is, but I was astonished in 2015 to read a piece by Peter Hitchens in praise of the old git.

Hitchens had gone along to Great St Mary’s church in Cambridge, one of the stops on Corbyn’s never-ending public speaking tour, the absolute sweet spot in his comfort zone; he found “a shuffling queue of Soviet length”. The church, as with every venue on the tour, was massively oversubscribed. “I warmed to Mr Corbyn personally for two things,” Hitchens wrote. “One was the unaffected, barely conscious way he bent down to scratch the head of a dog belonging to someone in the crowd. The other was when he acknowledged the majesty of the setting, the beautiful heart of one of the loveliest places in England, at sunset.” Even his opponents seemed to recognise a decent bloke. Part of that respect was grounded in the idea that Corbyn stuck to his principles, whereas Starmer is demonstrably willing to bend to win.

I too went to one of those Corbyn On Tour gigs, priority seating reserved for party members. Lancaster’s massive Priory Church, stuffed to its ancient ribs with what looked like the city’s entire middle class. That was the first reality check: where were the horny-handed sons and daughters of actual labour who would power the revolution? I could understand how the Cambridge event might mobilise the bourgeoisie, but clearly the old Dumbledore magic was strong in the North West too. Corbyn emerged to the sort of reception reserved for national treasures, and then, oh God, he started his speech. Obviously, it was the same speech he was doing every night, instead of his actual job. It was increasingly acknowledged by supporters, even at the peak of his popularity, that he was shit at politics but great at preaching. I found him strangely underwhelming, a political curate sermonising from memory.

His words reverberated in the sacred air. He would make the case for a public good, explain the current situation and what should be done to improve matters, reaching an emotional peroration: “and that’s why…” One item on his setlist was music teaching in schools. “And that’s why every single pupil deserves the right to learn an instrument!” This blew the roof off, huge applause. A little later he was into his stride about how British manufacturing had been destroyed by global capitalism, how steelworkers had been sold out by successive governments, and he was dead right. “And that’s why we need to rebuild Britain’s steel industry!” I started clapping, along with two or three other egregious muppets. Our light, quickly-halted smattering carried the social shame of philistines applauding in the wrong place at a classical music concert. Lesson learned: clarinet lessons good, steel industry bad.

Nevertheless, on the morning of the 2017 general election we local volunteers had a spring in our step, leafleting in the pouring rain. The local Labour party HQ was buzzing with hope. Then later, the exhilaration of the exit polls, the narrowness of the defeat. Theresa May forced into a costly Confidence and Supply arrangement with the fun-loving DUP. That’s the point, in retrospect, when Corbyn should have said he’d taken the party as far-Left as he could, accepted that the game was up and that it was clear he was essentially a rebel and definitely not a leader, handed over to someone younger and ideally of a different sex. Angela Rayner would have been a good bet, except of course for her Blairite credentials — as a teenage mother she was an early and grateful recipient of support from her local Sure Start centre. Maybe anyone would have done; nobody, as it turned out, could have been any worse than he was at the job after 2017.

The morning of the 2019 Get Brexit Done election was the antithesis of 2017. Despair was in the air, the messaging supply lines were broken, Corbyn was mostly hiding. I was out leafleting again, but nobody seemed to have a grip on strategy or logistics. One householder remonstrated with us more in bafflement than in anger — we were delivering the third batch of identical leaflets in the space of two days. Corbyn and his team were reduced to the status of a Downfall meme.

And now everything’s set fair for an incoming Labour government. Conference will be a dress rehearsal, a victory parade in advance. And yes, I suppose once in power, Starmer can only become more radical, having already moonwalked several yards to the Right of One Nation Tories. He could not have differentiated himself more decisively from his predecessor, who wanted to do a soft-shoe shuffle in the opposite direction.

Now it’s Starmertime, and I’ll vote Labour, of course I will. I’ve voted Labour at every general election since 1974, my first, when we managed to heave nautical Tory Europhile Ted Heath overboard. Sixties legend Harold Wilson was reinstalled, but ill health caused him to be replaced by the bumbling Jim Callaghan, whose chief purpose in retrospect seems to have been as a music hall warm-up act for Margaret Thatcher. Our son was born in 1979; he would live in a Tory Britain until he was 18.

I can’t imagine not voting Labour. If I lived in a marginal and the only hope of hosing out a Tory was to vote Vichy Democrat, I’d hold my nose and do it. But our MP is brilliant, and has established a sound majority. Likewise, I can’t imagine not despairing of Labour. It’s too mad, or too managerial, or too boring, or far too keen to freeze out the interesting headbangers. It’s always felt slightly like being in an abusive relationship. The party can change. There are still good times. Everything will be better once they’re back in power.

Yet again this year I renewed my party membership, eventually. I say renewed, but nobody at local, regional or national level had answered any of the dozen or so emails I sent in response to the reminder, so by the time I got through to someone at Labour’s near-impenetrable centre of operations my membership had lapsed and I had to rejoin. Five years ago, an energetic young person would have rung me to ask if I was renewing but they seem to have drifted off. Starmer and his top table need to remember what powered the brief Corbyn reign: youth. It’s all very well looking at psephological forecasts and laughing about how the Tories are literally dying out. But where are the young people? They are not chanting Starmer’s name. They are not cheering his airless prose. I say this as an old man who would welcome upheaval. Still, head down, one foot in front of the other, let’s win the next one and prepare for disappointment. God, being Labour’s hard work.


Ian Martin is a writer and a producer known for The Thick of It, In The Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin. 

IanMartin

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

31 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
9 months ago

“The party can change”

Yeah, but the party *has* changed. Shame Labour has pretty much nothing to do with labour anymore. The number of Labour MPs from the 2019 cohort who previously had a working class job is, um, 7. The party you are handcuffed to, is no longer the party you think it is. It died sometime between 1997 and 2005, then started turning into a zombie around 2015, and is very clearly now eating the brains of anyone in it’s ambit. The same doesn’t apply to the Conservatives. The Conservative party has been a corpse since 1924. It’s just that Tories don’t mind.

AC Harper
AC Harper
9 months ago

There are lots of people who vote Labour as a vote against the Tories. Your vote, your choice.
But voting against something (or someone) means that you have valued a negative choice over a positive expectation – that’s bound to lead to disappointment when your heroes are shown to be inadequate in some way too.

Richard M
Richard M
9 months ago

Electorally speaking, under FPTP the youth vote isn’t very important. They are least likely to vote, those that do mostly already vote Labour, and typically they live in city or university constituencies which Labour is going to win anyway.

The outcome of the next election will depend far more on winning back Red Wall and provincial target seats directly from the Conservatives. With a substantial majority to overturn, Labour need to flip blue seats red, not rack up bigger majorities in constituencies they already win with youth friendly “radicalism”. Starmer understands this.

2017 is rapidly taking on a mythical status for Labour’s left wing. Their own Revolution Betrayed.

In reality the only real lesson from 2017 was for Theresa May: don’t call a general election when you have the political instincts of a rock, your party and the country are angry and exhausted by politics, you have no manifesto, and you hate campaigning. The electorate will take it as an insult, which they did.

That’s not to deny Corbyn did well, of course. He loves campaigning, enjoys telling people they deserve better, and, with the help of McDonnell’s more pragmatic instincts, found a position on Brexit which was vague enough to mean whatever anyone wanted it to mean.

The big mistake was that they mistook anger with Theresa May with endorsement of Corbyn. The trick of 2017 was never repeatable, which they found out 2 years later.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

Sherlock Holmes has got nothing on you, pal.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
9 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Waste of space as well as rude remark. Well, he is talking sense, which is quite a lot more than be said for some of the rants you get on here!

Robbie K
Robbie K
9 months ago

Even though I disagreed with everything that came out of his mouth Corbyn was a brilliant campaigner and had the air of revolution about him, and for that he garners respect.
Starmer, like Sunak are management consultants devoid of character, depth and ideology.
It’s said people vote on emotion, but I feel nothing for either of them, I simply cannot raise anything positive or negative, such is my disdain.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
9 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Leaders should be proven competent, skilled managers. Ideology has no place in the successful running of anything.

Robbie K
Robbie K
9 months ago

Perhaps for a private enterprise. Politics without ideology is what we have now – a wasteland of ideas and direction with logos such as ‘long-term decisions for a brighter future’ and Labour’s new one ‘Let’s get Britain’s future back.’

Chris Carter
Chris Carter
9 months ago

Ah the solipsism of the left.
Corbyn was a loser. A loser with terrible ideas whom the voters decisively and rightly rejected.
But he made the author feel good.

glyn harries
glyn harries
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Carter

The 2017 Corbyn Labour manifesto included
respecting the Brexit vote nationalising the railways as the Tories have been forced to doincrease spending on the NHS which would have prepared us for Covidrecruit 1000s more policean national investment fund for industryetc etc. It was a good manifesto

Richard M
Richard M
9 months ago

Another way to look at all this is that Starmer hasn’t drunk the Corbynista mythology Kool-Aid. And just as well for Labour that he hasn’t.

When Corbyn became leader, lots of people said he would be an electoral disaster for Labour. All the polls agreed.

Then came the Brexit referendum and Theresa May’s suicidal 2017 general election. In the chaos and confusion of that election Corbyn did a lot better than anyone expected. Followed by some modest gains in the 2018 local elections.

Aha! Said the Corbynistas. We were right all along, the country does secretly yearn for socialism. One more push and we’ll be in Downing Steet, comrades!

2017 became the lodestone for the Labour Left which “proved” they would win if only the despised media would give Jeremy a fair hearing.

Of course, this was nonsense. 2017 was a unicorn. An election nobody wanted, called by a PM who didn’t know what she was doing, leading a party tearing itself apart in public.

By 2019 the red mist had cleared and we all know what happened next. Corbyn led Labour to their lowest number of Westminster seats since 1935. Not to mention net loss of hundreds of local councillors over the 4 year cycle, which is normally where opposition parties do well. To cap it off, he also led Labour to their worst ever result in a national election in the European Parliament elections in 2019.

This is why Starmer has turned his back on Corbyn and Corbynism. Because viewed over the 4 year cycle Corbyn was exactly what we thought he was: an electoral liability responsible for some of the worst results in Labour’s history. For people who want Labour to win elections, that is the only lesson which matters from the period. Forget 2017. That was a meteor strike which came out of nowhere, not affirmation of Corbynism.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
9 months ago

Yes Corbyn captured and bottled something that Starmer has thrown away. I remember being awoken at about 1am by young herberts walking home from the pub singing “Oh, Jeh-rer-mee Cor-bin” and reflecting that maybe some sort of sleeping giant had finally been awoken. Corbyn’s “magic” message was founded in positivity. My sense now is that political motivation among young-uns is negatively rooted in pure distilled hatred of tories, rather than a vision of what could be a better world. Credit where it’s due; “Levelling up” was a genius pitch (and I fell for it) but it’s hard to imagine anybody in Starmer’s team coming up with a better catch phrase than “For the many, not the few”.

Richard M
Richard M
9 months ago

The problem with “For the many, not the few” is that people aspire to be part of the few, however they understand that term, even if they pretend otherwise.

2017 wasn’t an outburst of latent socialist solidarity. It was a combination of anger at Brexit, incompetence, and May’s high-handed refusal to engage in the election she called.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
9 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

It’s ok to be a member of The Few; there’s plenty of wealth to go round. It’s just that the differential has become too extreme. That’s pretty much where my “socialism” begins and ends.

Tim Molloy
Tim Molloy
9 months ago

“For the many, not the few” was nicked from Game of Thrones, said many times by the charismatic priest played by Jonathan Pryce.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
9 months ago

“…Even his opponents seemed to recognise a decent bloke…”

Yeah, a decent bloke, with a bit of an antisemitic streak. On occasions. All faults are bad of course, but some faults, it seems, are cuddlier and more forgivable than others.

Last edited 9 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Peter Kettle
Peter Kettle
9 months ago

Corbyn, senior fascistic Lefty, was a serious threat to this country. With the prospect of Labour allowing 16 year olds to vote we could face a Corbyn Party again. Don’t vote Starmer!

Tim Molloy
Tim Molloy
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Kettle

Relax. The idea of droves of sixteen-year-old children heading to the polling station is for the birds.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

Some of the young may stay at home but by and large it’s a given anti-Tory vote. There’s a smaller constituency of Millennials who might see the Lib Dems as a more moderate, more transparently pro-EU alternative, and then for the radical socialist youth there is always a protest vote to register with the Greens.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
9 months ago

“Those of us who voted for Corbyn . . .“ and I stopped reading right there.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
9 months ago

Whatever else was wrong with Corbyn at least he never tried to force the party to pretend that a woman has a pen*s

Simon Phillips
Simon Phillips
9 months ago
Reply to  Dr. G Marzanna

That wasn’t a thing when he was leader. The mind boggles at how he would have answered that question.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
9 months ago

A delegate opposed to the privatisation of the NHS was slow handclapped from the floor, before being dragged offstage by the hired help. There is no political reason to vote for either party unless you would vote for the other. I for one would not.

Rae Ade
Rae Ade
9 months ago

Great article.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
9 months ago

“Oh look a labour shill story. The comment section should be good.”
I always get a kick out of progressive hysteria about what the youth will cheer. My natural inclination was to stand apart from youth group think. Now I come by it from nature and experience.
I have to admit though I did cheer when Corbyn couldn’t manage to find a seat on a half empty train.
That said, you seem to be a little down on labour. Buck up, the international revolution is still pending. As soon as everyone decides they want less of everything for everyone and holiday camps with large fences it will be a go.

Last edited 9 months ago by Bret Larson
glyn harries
glyn harries
9 months ago

Excellent! We desperately need Labour in to dispel the Tory chaos but the Starmer offering is paltry.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
9 months ago

“God, being Labour’s hard work.”

1. That apostrophe in Labour’s, don’t look right.
2. If it’s hard work, don’t be Labour. You should look right.

Dulle Griet
Dulle Griet
9 months ago

Corbyn was sabotaged by right-wing members of the Labour Party, and the treachery they resorted to get rid of him was confirmed by the Forde report.
False accusations of anti-Semitism were used to purge Corbyn and his left-wing supporters – if you want to know what really happened, see “The Crisis“ and “The Purge” in “The Labour Files” documentaries series on YouTube, and if you get the chance, the film “Oh Jeremy Corbyn: The Big Lie.”
“The Big Lie” isn’t available via mainstream media, unlike the sort of ad hominem attacks and distortions that appear in this article. 

Aidan Trimble
Aidan Trimble
9 months ago
Reply to  Dulle Griet

Thank you for cheering me up. Your post did make me giggle.

Dulle Griet
Dulle Griet
2 months ago
Reply to  Aidan Trimble

To misquote Rousseau, “To giggle is not to answer.”

Simon Phillips
Simon Phillips
9 months ago
Reply to  Dulle Griet

For a brief second, I thought that post was serious. Fair play on a good joke.