We should thank Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership for bringing Labour back to being a member-led party
Few have ever borne such personal vituperation with the resolve and dignity he has shown by keeping a laser focus on the importance of policy over personality. | PA Images
As Jeremy Corbyn steps down as leader of the Labour Party, it is right that we examine where our party is politically, intellectually and morally.
In 2015 I was tasked with chaperoning our new leader, Jeremy Corbyn around COP21 – the Climate Conference in Paris. It was a nightmare!
I had arranged meetings with everyone from the President of Mexico to the World Wildlife Fund and key environmental journalists. But as we criss-crossed the conference site, Jeremy would peel off every five yards in response to the shouts of a forest campaigner from East Timor -- an old colleague from a water charity in South Africa -- a comrade from human rights work in Chile. I stood by fretting as Jeremy embraced yet another old friend. There I learned how much they loved this man. How they put their trust in him. How nobody for Jeremy was too small to be noticed. Nobody for whom he could not squeeze out that extra minute. We made it to the president a little late, but Jeremy’s fluent Spanish charmed even President Calderon. Jeremy has a great strength. It is that he likes people, he cares for people. He makes time for them.
Now as he steps down as leader of the Labour party, it is right that we examine where our party is politically, intellectually and morally.
If political strength could be calculated in membership, then with over half a million we are the strongest in Europe; but with a sickening electoral defeat still heavy in the pit of our stomachs we know that membership does not necessarily translate into seats in parliament and political victory.
When the evil of antisemitism took hold in our midst, our morality failed us.
If intellectual strength could be calculated by the number of our policies the current government is now implementing, from bus services to regional investment in infrastructure and forcing back austerity then we have driven the intellectual argument in the UK and defeated the old right; but with the pain of Brexit that has divided our party and our country, it is clear that our intellectual response to the new populism was inadequate.
If the moral strength could be measured in terms of solidarity, then Labour action in every street in our country throughout this devastating pandemic is testament to the moral strength that is, and I trust always will be, at the core of our party. But we have shown little solidarity to each other over the past five years with attempted coups and splits. And when the evil of antisemitism took hold in our midst, our morality failed us.
One of the key changes Jeremy has been responsible for is reversing the balance in the Labour party between the parliamentary party and the membership. Of course, the technical change that facilitated that came under Ed Miliband, but in 2015 policy was still very much driven from the top down. Jeremy has changed that, so the policy priorities have become those of the membership itself. That is how anti-austerity came to be the driving theme of his years as leader.
That sense of “It doesn’t have to be this way”, percolated through to the public in 2017 and almost secured an extraordinary turnaround in the polls; but nearly is not good enough, and the understanding that austerity was a political choice faded in people’s minds as the In/Out choice of Brexit assumed ever greater importance in individual’s self-identity. Identity politics puts rights at the centre of our world. And it could be questioned why a man like Jeremy Corbyn who has devoted his entire life to human rights has not been able to ride that wave better. The answer lies in the struggle between individual rights and collective rights. Jeremy’s collectivism, his very socialism means that he is focused on what we all must do to secure a fair and equal society in which every individual can prosper. This is inimical to the individualist populism that demands its own rights at whatever the cost to the collective. But that is a philosophical discussion for another time.
This week it is right that the Labour party should thank Jeremy for his leadership which has attracted so many young people to politics. He understood their passionate anger over the climate crisis, and he created the policies of the Green Industrial Revolution to answer their call. Our party should thank Jeremy for his humility. Few have ever borne such personal vituperation with the resolve and dignity he has shown by keeping a laser focus on the importance of policy over personality. And we should thank our leader for giving the party back to itself - a member led party. That is a heavy burden to place on the membership. It is the burden of responsibility. Of realising that politics is not about virtuous positions but the creation of a better, but perhaps not perfect, world.
Barry Gardiner is the Labour MP for Brent North and shadow international trade secretary.