On my morning commute today, I stopped to see the gathered press and crowd outside Boris Johnson’s house in Islington, who was greeted with some cheers and mostly shouts of ‘wanker’ on his quick dash to a waiting car that whisked him away for the first day of his possible ascendency to the premiership. Then, in a quintissentially British comedic moment, his car pulled up to the traffic lights at a cyclist-crowded intersection, who proceeded to shake their fists, berate and refuse to let him pass – only cleared away by police a few minutes later. Such a vitriolic reaction is expected in pro-Remain Islington – the home of the political establishment including Boris, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn – this would be far less likely outside London.
Remain ran a terrible campaign that failed to appeal to peoples’ real daily concerns, instead thinking that a combination of complex economic statistics that no one understood and were difficult to verify, would rationalise the people into voting Remain. By default, this favoured the Leave campaign, who appealed to everyday examples of perceived personal powerlessness such as alleged EU powers to regulate banana bunches and immigration changing the country while Boris and Nigel – disingenuously – offered us our independence back. This was a truly great failure of the political establishment from David Cameron to Jeremy Corbyn and many on the left to truly understand both the political and social divisions within the country.
This is a symbolic divide between London and other large, cosmopolitain cities and the regions – between geographically close locations such as Labour-voting Hackney and Islington and UKIP stronghold town of Clacton-On-Sea. London and regional Britain appear to be different countries with distinctive concerns, experiences and priorities. Brexit confirmed a perception of London as a centre of unaccountable, dysfunctional economic and political power who care little for those outside – an attitude we regularly prove with an open, tolerated contempt. Birmingham is widely known as a terrible place though few of us have actually been. The North is supposedly full of loutish white trash based on football riots and Oasis. Unless the Guardian has done a travel section article on these locations and their bespoke raw food tapas bars, we do little to engage or understand them.
This isn’t isolated to Britain but a worldwide problem among many liberals and leftists from large, cosmopolitain cities who cannot fathom the depth of different experiences and problems of areas outside their immediate confines. Brexit and anti-immigration, Nigel and Boris – these are symptoms of a wider economic and political malaise in which political and economic establishment are gaining too much unaccountable power and tend to be synonymous with the most powerful cities. Many in London, New York, Melbourne, Auckland, Paris, Berlin and others need to take a long, hard look at themselves. Are the ‘common people‘ who we claim to care about only valuable to us to the degree that they think, act, read, listen to the same music, read the same books and use the same analytical frameworks like us? If this is the case, then we are merely elitists who live in in a not dissimilar bubble to the Boris Johnsons and rich kids of Instagram who we criticise for being out of touch.
Predictably, we spent today in a state of defensiveness from insinuations that Brexiters are obese, uneducated, racist chavs, tacky nouveau riche and inbred aristocracy or threats to move to Scotland. Now should be a challenge to try and understand why people outside London might be angry. This transcends fears about immigration as a means for those who want their voices to be heard to be taken seriously. Conservatives worldwide are more successful at this because they are less judgemental of peoples personal tastes and attitudes and are better at finding ways to unite disparate groups under promises of employment, security and consumer freedom. Socialist saviours such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders don’t matter if they and we cannot reach beyond our comfort zones and conceive of people beyond their alleged racism, sexism and conservatism as human beings. Political and social change won’t happen with a narrative of ‘everything is shit and your beliefs are stupid’ but through real dialogue and attempts to systematically address our problems together.
Brexit Britons aren’t stupid and their lives are meaningful rather than afflictions to be overcome but as valuable as ours. Former US Presidential candidate Howard Dean once spoke of the need to address the needs of everyone, to great criticism at the time. “I’m going to go to the South and say to White guys who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag details…. ‘We want your vote too because your kids don’t have health insurance either.” If attitudes do not change, then Boris Johnson is going to be perpetually surrounded by Islington cyclist flash mobs during what could be a long tenure as Prime Minister.
No one could have predicted the likely outcome of the Labour leadership election: that a 66 year old backbench MP from Islington will defeat three opponents who were basically bred to be potential Labour leaders. In the scramble to make sense, two opposing schools of thought have emerged on the consequences of a Corbyn victory. Those who support Corbyn believe he will usher in a socialist Britain and cleanse Labour of the flesh-eating virus known as Blairism. Corbyn opponents argue that the sock-and-sandal-wearing pensioner will contribute to a Conservative dystopia where City traders will have the legal right to use the unemployed as piggy back taxis. However what if, between Owen Jones’s unflappable self-assurance and Tony Blair’s five yearly vanity bender reminding us how he won three consecutive elections, both sides are correct?
Corbyn supporters are right that his principled left-wing beliefs and authentic persona are more appealing to Labour supporters. Socialist ideology consistent since 1983. A beard and vegetarian diet before they were cool. When a photo of an exhausted Corbyn on a London Night Bus went viral, this symbolised the success of his campaign: an appeal to everyday, honest left-wing values. Call it London Night Bus Socialism. In comparison, Blairite centrism feels dispassionate and inauthentic and voters aren’t stupid or naïve for wanting more than what else is on offer – image wise. Preened, over-rehersed former special advisors whose carefully-crafted positions appear to lack solid answers for inequality, housing prices, and international conflict – issues exacerbated and/ or ignored under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendal appear more like examples of what would happen if Japanese robot hotel technology was applied to Westminster. Basic movement, repetition of fluffy but positive soundbites, and can complete basic tasks but lacking in capacity for human connection and expression of depth. Mandelson’s Mandydroids. Because Labour was founded as the political representative of working people, it is better served representing supporters rather than function as a career ladder for Oxbridge graduate special advisors to fulfil their childhood ambitions of becoming Prime Minister.
However, Corbyn’s opponents are correct that he is not an ideal leader. He has had no experience in cabinet and a well-founded reputation as a party rebel – hardly the case for an experienced or unifying leader. Even Tony Benn had cabinet experience. Because Labour is a big tent, Corbyn has to lead a party in which many MPs despise him. In his defence, Corbyn has expressed willingness to appoint Blairites to his shadow cabinet but it’s Kendall and Cooper who have publicly refused to serve on his team – which is like claiming to be the life of the party while huddled in the corner snidely gossiping about others with close friends. Corbyn’s leadership would also require him to make decisions and policy compromises that many supporters will dislike but can work if it maintains the core principles and anti-politician humbleness that has energised his campaign. Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London is a good example that this is possible for an old-school socialist. However, with the weight of political elites, corporate leadership, and octagenerian Australian-owned media conglomerate power who stand to lose from a Corbyn victory united against him, compromise might not be enough and would require leadership skills he might not have.
In a final push for votes, Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall would be wise not to only criticise Corbyn as an extremist or resort to dystopian threats, but to appeal more to the Night Bus Socialism that has been key to Corbyn’s success. Corbyn supporters enamoured with idealism for a new socialist Jerusalem where their saviour will throw out the moneylenders could have a better sense of the realities of politics and the sheer challenge. A Corbyn leadership would need to master juggling credibility, political nous, and core principles – a tough ask. If both sides can listen and learn from each others’ valid concerns, perhaps Labour can unite as a party that doesn’t ignore ‘political reality’ but isn’t afraid to promote bold, appealing, authentic policies regardless of who is leader.