With Jeremy Corbyn, we had a leader who stood side-by-side with the oppressed
I knew he always stood up for what was right, not just for what was easy, writes Zarah Sultana MP. | PA Images
Jeremy’s leadership inspired hope of a better future in hundreds of thousands Labour members and millions of voters. That hope needs to be kept alive.
From the moment Jeremy Corbyn made it on the 2015 Labour leadership ballot I was excited.
I knew Jeremy’s politics well. I had seen him on countless demonstrations and in Parliament, giving a voice to the voiceless. I knew he always stood up for what was right, not just for what was easy.
Raised in a Labour household, I joined the party when I was 17, but the Iraq War, the racist Prevent programme, and New Labour ministers who refused to meet veiled Muslim women had tested that support.
But with Jeremy, I knew we had a leader who stood side-by-side with the oppressed. I had seen this with his engagement with Muslims, where he saw us as equals, not as a security risk. And against consensus that insisted on the necessity of austerity, I saw Jeremy stridently oppose it.
This was radical for my generation. We had come of age under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, a government that oversaw devastating cuts, rising rents and stagnating wages. I was in the first cohort to pay £9,000 tuition fees.
We had grown up being told life couldn’t be meaningfully better, that Britain couldn’t really be changed.
But Jeremy’s leadership challenged all that.
It promised a kinder, more caring country. A Britain where wealth and power were shared more equally. It was a vision of a country that didn’t wage wars abroad or scapegoat minorities at home.
And in spite of internal resistance and fierce external opposition, in 2017 we came within a whisker of winning. Had the campaign lasted a few more weeks, we probably would have won. Nonetheless, we secured our largest increase in vote share since 1945 and our first net gains in 20 years.
But as we approached the 2019 election, unprecedented press attacks and Brexit paralysis took their toll. We had no easy choices in that election and the result was truly devastating.
To understand why we lost by the margin we did, we have to account for the 2017 result. So blaming Jeremy or our left-wing policies doesn’t stack-up – the same were true in 2017.
And the main explanation is straightforward: The 2019 was a Brexit election and that’s what hurt us. As the electorate polarised around Leave-Remain, our electoral coalition split apart. While Jeremy had resisted the pressure, in the end many voters felt we betrayed the 2016 referendum. 52 of the 60 seats we lost voted Leave.
But the next election won’t be a Brexit election and that’s what we need to prepare for.
And Jeremy’s leadership has transformed the debate within the party. Whereas in 2015 the party pandered to Tory myths with “controls on immigrations” emblazoned on mugs, now we have returned to our values. Every leadership candidate agreed to 10 public ownership pledges, committing them to ending privatisation in rail, mail, water and more.
Now the party must contend with the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest crisis the country has faced in generations.
This is no time for an abandonment of principle.
A lack of investment in public services has increased our vulnerability to this crisis, with NHS staff going to the frontline without the proper protective equipment. That’s a scandal. The social security system has been gutted, meaning there’s no real safety net for people who are laid-off or get sick. It forces workers to choose between health and hardship, increasing the risk to us all. And the crisis has shown that opposition to an interventionist state was never really about practicality or affordability. It was always an absence of political will.
On all these issues, Jeremy’s socialist politics have been proved to be correct.
Jeremy’s leadership inspired hope of a better future in hundreds of thousands Labour members and millions of voters. That hope needs to be kept alive. When this crisis is over, we need to be ready to build a society defined not by greed and fear, but solidarity, compassion and equality.
Zarah Sultana is the Labour MP for Coventry South.