Oh, Jeremy Corbyn.
I have never been a gambling woman. The closest I have ever come was in 2015 during the Labour leadership election.
I was not a member of the Labour party, nor had I voted for them in that year’s general election — thanks, first-past-the-post system! — but as the increasingly politically-aware offspring of a generationally Labour family, I found myself researching the four candidates and their stances and trying to force myself to see the differences between them. Out of the four vaguely beige profiles, one did jump out at me — a backbencher I’d never heard of called Jeremy Corbyn.
Next to three rivals — well, two really, since Liz Kendall was described by the BBC as the ‘Blairite contender’ and so I immediately wrote her off — all promising very slight tweaks to an already disappointing system, here was a potential leader who opposed Trident, the Iraq war and tuition fees. Although I assumed he’d be knocked out of the race pretty swiftly, I found myself clutching at a glimmer of hope that I might soon be able to feel at home in the Labour party.
The next few weeks were as surprising as they were uplifting. People seemed to love Corbyn, and the fact that various interchangeable Labour figures — distinguishable seemingly only by which Lego figure they’d modelled their hair on — apparently hated him so much, well, it only made him a more appealing choice for leader. And yes, we heard rumours that Labour was being infiltrated by communists and Tories, desperate to elect Corbyn for various nefarious goals, but how many? Membership had soared; unless hundreds of thousands of ‘trots’ — a term I suddenly noticed previously-respectable figures throwing around — had suddenly come out of hiding, the only explanation was that Corbyn was genuinely inspiring people.
He certainly inspired me: for the first time, I found myself actually considering joining a political party. On the day of the deadline for voting, I decided to pay my £3 and vote. And, in a perfect illustration of the prevailing mood, I couldn’t: too many people were trying to do the same thing, and the website had crashed. In the end, it wasn’t even close.
Now, some history: I am the daughter of immigrants. I love languages. I love travel. I love the idea of breaking down borders between people and nations, and, frankly, I love cheap holidays and recognisable standards in the places I end up. The idea that one spit of land is intrinsically better than another is incomprehensible to me, and neither have I ever understood why a man in a suit in Westminster is better for me than one in Brussels. I have always been proud of living in the EU — I saw it as a mark that we lived in an open, peaceful, civilised place with high standards and high quality of life. I was, and will continue to be, a ‘hard Remainer’.
Having said this, I had no problem with Corbyn’s campaigning in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. I know I’m now writing this after the 2017 general election, in which we really saw how passionately he can campaign when he really believes in something, but at the time — and bearing in mind I was practically wearing a red rosette at this point — I couldn’t understand people’s annoyance at him. Yes, I’d seen the polls showing how many people didn’t know that Labour’s official position was Remain, but those didn’t make sense — Corbyn’s media appearances outnumbered even Alan Johnson’s, and he was the head of Labour Remain. I knew that Corbyn was, let’s say, a reluctant Remainer, but I was unfazed — staying in the EU was very important to me, but I never expected that everyone should be as enthusiastic about it as I was.
Even the now-infamous ‘7.5 out of 10’ comment I did not see as a problem. I watched it live: the scale went from ‘0: not bothered either way’, and in any case — who would have believed him if he had said 10? We are not a nation given to reckless enthusiasm, and Corbyn was already known to be a Eurosceptic. Under the circumstances, I actually thought it was a pretty good move: it showed that he did not think the EU perfect, but, overall, even he thought it was worth staying in.
No, the first time I thought something wasn’t right was on the night of the referendum, when I read that Corbyn had muttered something like “well the polls aren’t always right”.
And then he sacked his frontbenchers who didn’t support Brexit.
And then … the three-line whip.
The three-line whip was the turning point for me. Corbyn commanded his MPs to vote through an entirely unamended Brexit bill — a bill which amounted to little more than “let the (Tory) government do whatever it sees fit” — in what I could only see as a staggering act of hypocrisy. Here was a man who, in his 36-year political career, had famously defied the whip to vote with his conscience hundreds of times. Here he was, demanding that MPs not only vote against their wishes, but vote for free rein for Theresa May — who, make no mistake, had already shown herself to be little more than the petty gangster we know her to be, hell-bent on removing human rights from the darn foreigners as a warm-up for the natives. And here were his supporters, saying that I was in bed with the Tories for being horrified at this?
And there started the descent into the current situation. The general election campaign was, to my eyes, baffling. The Labour manifesto clearly touted Hard Brexit — “Freedom of movement will end”, it boasted, while also promising to somehow “prioritise jobs and living standards” and “[retain] the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union” — though no explanation was given as to how these mutually exclusive aims were going to be achieved. In essence, Labour was promising little more than the Tories, they just dressed it up in kinder language — but at the core of the manifesto was nothing more than an impossible wish list, a fundamental misunderstanding of the EU, and a worried immigrant with a ‘kick me’ sign on her back. And every day, I saw people deny this to me.
“Labour doesn’t want hard Brexit.”
“That’s not what they’re saying. They want to ensure access to markets and trade. That’s not hard Brexit.”
“They will be able to negotiate better terms than the Tories because they haven’t abused everyone before they start.”
I watched my Remainer friends line up to vote for Labour to soften the Brexit blow, and then when the hung parliament was announced, I watched Corbyn and his inner circle claim that support for their vision of Brexit: no single market membership, no customs union, more sackings of those who disagreed with him. He claimed that single market and customs union membership was impossible outside the EU, making him either a brazen liar or wilfully ignorant of the existence of, say, Norway. And then he went after immigrants.
Corbyn’s comments of the 23rd July that EU migrants were “imported wholesale” to drive down British wages seem to have horrified some — dare I say, those who have strong connections to immigrants themselves — and left others totally unaffected. For me, though, it was a clear signal that Corbyn was chasing those UKIP votes, and was willing to throw an easy target under the bus to get them. Regardless of how angrily I was told that this was a man who stood up for the rights of all people, all I saw was a politician describing a group of people, who had been made especially vulnerable since the referendum, as agency-free livestock, brought to the UK as part of a conspiracy to ruin British lives. Every red-faced UKIP voter who blamed one of my friends for taking a job that rightfully belonged to Barry down the pub would hear these words and feel vindicated. Every Daily Mail reader who had screamed at a teenager for daring to have an accent would feel that, yes, Labour was the party for them. That was not something I wanted to be a part of.
The fact of the matter is, I can not and will not follow a leader, or a party, in any direction they care to take me. Perhaps Corbyn is the best Labour has to offer — but that is a poor reflection on Labour, not a good one on Corbyn. There is no doubt in my mind that Brexit will leave the country poorer, and sadder, and it will hurt the vulnerable among us the most. As I see the thinkpieces and columns start to trickle out about how we must rally behind Corbyn even if we oppose Brexit, I find myself surer than ever: I will not vote purple just because it’s half red.