I campaigned for Corbyn — but he’s failed to change the conversation

Corbyn needed to challenge neoliberalism and propose a new post-Keynesian approach


This piece was written in response to an article published last week: What do Jeremy Corbyn’s critics mean by ‘good leadership’?

In May 2015 when I was still at university, I campaigned and voted for the Green Party in my constituency in Oxford.

This was the first general election in which I was eligible to vote and, while I had identified as a Labour supporter since the age of around 12, I was not only uninspired by our candidate, I was genuinely concerned about the message he was putting forward.

During a time of massive social and political upheaval which, to any sensible observer, seemed like the death throes of neoliberalism, the Tories had executed a masterful campaign of psychological warfare, repeating the message ‘you have to pay off your debt’ until it became the one certainty, the one form of stability, to many uncertain people living through highly unstable times.

Ed Miliband had no answer to this; he simply put forward slightly more progressive answers to the problems posed by the Tories. He never challenged their narrative, so he was never able to shift the conversation.

Despite not voting for Labour I, along with half the country, was still shocked when the Conservatives won the 2015 general election.

Having no love for Ed Miliband and much for Caroline Lucas, I still couldn’t believe that the people of this country had gone to the polls and chosen to maintain the status quo. Of course in the back of my mind I was aware that it was this kind of attitude which lay at the centre of Miliband’s failure.

It was at that point that I decided to join the Labour party – oddly enough before the candidates for the leadership contest had even been announced.

I decided that, regardless of its flaws, Labour was the only force strong enough to defeat the Conservatives. Yes it had lost touch, yes it was uninspiring and yes it lacked leadership, but I convinced myself that these were all problems that I could help to fix from the inside.

Fundamentally, I wasn’t ready to live in a society where there was no credible opposition to a party which has presided over some of the largest increases in inequality, homelessness and child poverty since the time of Dickens.

I prepared myself for a long battle and a lot of hard choices during the leadership contest. But then, along came Jeremy Corbyn – and I couldn’t quite believe my luck.

Here was a principled man, clearly not motivated by power or personal ambition, who had opposed austerity – and indeed the creeping advance of neoliberalism – for his entire life.

I didn’t agree with many of his personal beliefs, but that didn’t matter because ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, and on this he was on point. I went to rallies, I campaigned, I attended meetings, workshops, seminars, I convinced my friends to join and vote for Corbyn.

I did these things because I believed that this would be the moment when the economic consensus of the last 20 years would be decisively challenged – a consensus crafted in the bowels of Mont Pelerin which had eroded our democratic institutions and delivered a capitalism on steroids that wrecked the economy.

I believed that Corbyn had the power to challenge the hegemony of neoliberalism and propose a new post-Keynesian approach which would transform this country’s thinking about the economy just as much as Thatcher and Reagan had in the 1980s.

There was no shortage of economists ready to testify that the financialisation of the global economy had enriched a tiny swathe of elites at the expense of the people and businesses who drive economic growth. All they needed was a leader to unite them, and give ordinary people a framework through which to understand their ideas.

So when David Cameron sat across the dispatch box shouting ‘what the Honourable Gentleman doesn’t realise is that we have to pay off our debts’, Corbyn could have done something different.

He could have pointed out that the Labour Party does not disagree that maintaining the UK’s creditworthiness is important. It does, however, oppose David Cameron’s plans to do so by crippling the long term growth potential of the UK economy; it opposes the principle of starving your family to stabilise your finances.

But he did not do this. As the weeks wore on, and people’s negative views of Corbyn were slowly reinforced because he wasn’t out there changing them, and as more and more predictable mistakes were made, and as the Tories slowly disembowelled the welfare state, the sheen started to wear off Corbynism for me.

The events of the last week have truly made me lose faith. Not because of Europe. Not because of the ‘palace coup’.

Because he has so utterly and transparently failed to do the one thing I hoped he would do when he became Labour leader: he hasn’t managed to get people to talk about the issues that matter.

He hasn’t changed the conversation. He hasn’t even begun to change the narrative. And I’m not sure that I can forgive him for that.

I will vote for him again in another leadership election, purely because there are no other tenable candidates and I do not want my party to split in two. But I am deeply saddened that it has come to this point.

Yes, austerity has been truly discredited, but people no longer have access to a simple framework which allows them to make sense of the world.

I do not know what is going to happen over the next several years, but I do know one thing: the moment when the old is dead and the new is not yet born is a very dangerous time indeed.

Grace Blakely recently graduated from a degree in politics, philosophy and economics. She now works in Greater Manchester on the city-region’s devolution programme

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16 Responses to “I campaigned for Corbyn — but he’s failed to change the conversation”

  1. Tim Ward

    Who is challenging neoliberalism at the moment?

  2. Wills

    Corbyn is not an economist. Beyond his early foray into People’s QE, he acknowledges that. Both he and John McDonnell know Labour’s reputation is vulnerable on the economy and so the economic advisory group has been central to coming up with an approach that will not be instantly dismissed as “magic money tree”. We are (or were) still four years away from an election so a slow transition rather than a rabbit out of a hat transformation was chosen. I was frustrated too but I understand politics is the art of the possible. Now the case is altered, and we shall see.

  3. Sandy Ritchie

    Difficult yo change the conversation whilst watching yer back

  4. Martyn Wood-Bevan

    Has nobody been following the series of Economic lectures set up by John McDonnell which are precisely challenging Neo-Liberalism – Stieglitz, Varoufakis, Paul Mason, and many others have been framing an economic recovery based on investment and renewed public ownership, as in the “Entrepreneurial State” concept by Mariana Mazzucato. Only 9 months into his leadership – give him a chance…

  5. John Davies

    Given the time we have all waited for this, do you not think you being a little impatient? When a new manager/CEO takes over he takes his time. He analyses the situation, evaluates and only then changes if necessary. Jeremy Corbyn has been undermined by his PLP for the get go. The media, including the Guardian, declared war from the start and your expecting instant results. Despite everything he has shown a credible path to date, so don’t be so quick to criticize. Be supportive, he is our best change of changing the politics in our country for the benefit of all. Changing neoliberalism will take courage, commitment and nerve. It will not happen in a few months, that’s simply silly.

  6. Grace Blakeley

    To the above comments: I understand the ‘give him a bit more time’ point, and the economics lectures I attended were both timely and fascinating – but we don’t have a lot of time (we could be facing a new election by the end of the year) and economics lectures aren’t a very good way of reaching out to those who we would seek to mobilise.
    Fundamentally, though, the issue is that once people have made their mind up about someone, and their message, their opinions become all but impossible to change (see, e.g., Koppensteiner, M., Stephan, P. (2014). Voting for a personality: Do first impressions and self-evaluations affect voting decisions? Journal of Research in Personality). If we don’t use the momentum we have now around the referendum and the coup to start shouting our message on economics from the rooftops, not to mention doing a George Osborne and repeating it on every possible occasion, then we will have lost the credibility and trust of the public for good.
    Obviously Jeremy is the only candidate capable of challenging the neoliberal consensus, but that doesn’t mean that he will always get it right. It is very easy for groups, especially those that are the subject of frequent attacks, to shut down in the face of constructive critique – but this can only lead to factionalism and sclerosis. Why not use this time to discuss how we could improve, as well as patting each other on the back for fighting the good fight?

  7. Steve Mizzy

    McDonnell is shaping up to be a very good shadow chancellor and prospective chancellor. He’s grown into his role and is maturing into a fine economics spokesman.

    In contrast, Corbyn still speaks in easy slogans, has no media presence and constantly reacts to events, rather than setting out his own position with clarity and energy.

  8. Ben Kavanagh

    OK to have a rant. But please reconsider your negativity. Jeremy is a moral anchor whose authenticity and trustworthiness are impeccable. That’s really important, at least to me. The neoliberal Labour MPs are against him. The entire media establishment is against him. It will take time for some of those MPs to be deselected or to change their tune. It will take time for alternative media to take over, i.e. RT/Kaiser Report, Novara Media, etc are just the beginning. It will also take time to build out a Keynesian / state investment alternative economic vision that is thorough and defensible. If you have concrete suggestions about how the progressive wing of the Labour party can encourage the growth of alternative media (including LFF) or otherwise push out their message why not talk about that? What are the concrete failings and how can they be addressed? Also does LFF have a youtube channel? Why not?

  9. Robert Jones

    I think we can all join with you in being sad. And as I’ve said elsewhere, repeatedly, and at length (although you could be forgiven for not having noticed me at all) JC’s office is deeply dysfunctional and a huge problem, for him and for us.

    I’m also inclined to agree that his approach at the dispatch box, for all that its intention was to introduce a new kind of politics, hasn’t worked: it hasn’t worked because Parliament is not the ideal forum for this approach – the system doesn’t lend itself to it, and even if it did, none of the Labour MPs other than Corbyn seems to have signed up to it.

    I still suspect, however, that the problem may lie in your comment that you’ve lost “faith”: I am much (much – oh dear, much) older than you: I’ve long learned that you are deeply unwise to repose faith in any single human being. We’re not gods: we can’t live up to this level of personal commitment from those who may follow our ideas and path. Jeremy Corbyn is an ageing man, of about my age – he’s actually very slightly older than I am. He has never led, with all due respect to him, anything. He’s not an organizer; he’s not a PR man, a journalist, an academic. We can all agree on what he’s not.

    What he is, however, is the important thing – and what he is, is someone who brought hope that things could be changed. He may not be the most effective agent of that change, but then – he’s not going to be leader forever. In fact, I doubt that he’ll be leader – other things being equal of course – for the next five years whatever now happens. If you thought that he could be the sole means of bringing change to an organization dominated in Westminster by the children and inheritors of Blair, you were deceiving yourself. You have galloped, first hopefully then in disillusion, through a range of political leaders, from Lucas, to Milliband, to Corbyn, and have found them wanting. Well, join the club … I’ve been through Gaitskell, Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown, Milliband, and am still in the Corbyn era, though for how much longer who knows – they all, in their way, failed: if Enoch Powell was right about nothing else, he was entirely right when he observed that all political careers end in failure.

    I can you something else (I’m kind like that…); whoever you next repose your faith in will fail too. If you must have faith at all, and I’d counsel against it because thought and analysis and logic are usually much safer guides, have it in ideas, not individuals. You liked Corbyn’s ideas, and ideals. You share them. You may think he’s an old man with a fairly hopeless set of aides, and I should agree with you. But you are, I see, a PPE graduate – you should know by now what works in politics and what does not, and seizing upon an icon and worshipping it doesn’t work and never did: whereas a political programme, to which as a party member you can contribute yourself when you’ve decided not to treat politics as a fashion statement which you can don and discard depending on who is modelling the clobber with you, will work; in the end; if you abide by it and develop it.

  10. Robert Jones

    that should have read I can tell you something else – unfortunately being blind as a bat is another consequence of advancing years, as well as the accretion of experience and – well, one can hope – wisdom.

  11. Rob

    For me, Corbyn would make an ideal Home Secretary. But as mentioned, his leadership qualities are questionable, and his ability to form productive alliances even more so. Almost as questionable as his inability to score open goals, such as the Welfare Bill.
    The thing which would have saved Remain was a coherent, progressive cross-party alliance, singing from the same hymn sheet and presenting the facts.
    As leader of the biggest progressive party in europe, it was clearly Corbyn’s duty to form and lead such a coalition, rather than preaching to the converted or watering his grass roots. But true to form, he shrank from making vital alliances. And has to share a significant part of the blame for the Brexit votes in Labour heartlands. They were not convinced by his half-hearted appeals, and routine platitudes about ‘respect’.
    It was not Cameron’s job to reshape and unify a new Europe, it was Corbyn’s.
    When polled, an actual majority thought Corbyn was pro-Brexit, until far too late. And his own MP’s warned him the campaign was slipping in April. And now, finally, there are whispers of alliances.
    Too little, too late.

  12. Time for Change

    Grace.. I would look beyond the Pantomime that is PMQs and see that Jeremy Corbyn, as Leader of the Labour Party, is putting forward policies that are the very opposite of the neoliberalism that you and I so despise. From day one of becoming Leader, much of the PLP have tried to destroy Jeremy’s attempts at changing the Labour Party; Jeremy wants to change Labour from a thinly disguised copy of the Conservatives – to a Party of Socialist principles that encompass fairness and equality, and the chance to offer people a better life – away from the gloom of austerity, greed and selfishness that Conservatism represents. The treacherous and undemocratic MPs have tried their very best to topple Jeremy and his vision… but you should not give up so lightly. Jeremy has hung in their fighting for decades. The very least we can do now is to support him through this very difficult time – and not allow those neoliberals the chance to get back in and suffocate the Party for generations to come.

  13. Prem Sikka

    Not sure what else Corbyn could have done. He is being held back by the Blairites and their baggage of neoliberalism. What have Benn, Eagle, et al. advocated or are likely to advocate that is radical or even appropriate for these austere times. All these people were prominent during Miliband’s time and I don’t recall the party embracing anything radical. I think Eagle voted for war on Iraq, Syria, austerity, etc.

  14. Karen

    I agree, rarely can one person/leader change deeply embedded economic and political systems. Sometimes though there is more potential for this than at other times (think of Lenin in 1917!). It feels like this could be a juncture where people are unusually receptive to a ‘sense-making’ narrative that might both explain their experience and offer a possible way forward to redress the widespread anger and despair. This is what Nigel Farage has been able to do with the ‘left behind’. If Jeremy can’t do it now, he’ll never be able to do it. Whilst its not about the leader but about leadership – and Jeremy has benefited from this distinction more than anyone – leaders still matter. They get the air time and we are human beings – we identify with people not systems.

  15. Eric

    Most of the comments above take me back to the early 80’s. The excuses for non performance, the heroic assumptions, the baseless assertions…

    How sad, if predictable, that the Labour party has forgotten how to win elections.

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