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.