“The large corporations pay no tax yet they expect to use our services.”
Standing on the stage of the Union Chapel, Jeremy Corbyn’s hands grasped the lectern and his soft, quiet voice spread out over the several hundred assembled faithful.
“This will end.”
The scene played out, for this correspondent, through a megaphone mounted on some hipster’s head, as it did for the hundreds who couldn’t get into the building, the Union Chapel in Islington, scene of Labour’s last stand.
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With 16 hours until the polls open, Jeremy Corbyn has come back to Islington for his and Labour’s campaign’s final hours. He will be criticised for this no doubt. There are few places more insider than Islington, a neighbourhood whose changing fortunes can be observed by its position on the Monopoly board; the “Angel”, its heart is on trash row, just above Whitechapel.
For hundreds of years a separate town, with its churches, and almshouses, its streets following Saxon cow tracks, by the 19th century it was middle class. By the middle-20th, its long terraces had become bedsits and boarding houses, its upper street, scruffy and dowdy, its narrow market alleys a little dangerous. But by the 1960s, something was happening. Jonathan Raban captured it in his 1974 book Soft City, an essential study of what has happened to cities and to us over the last half-century.
Raban, a young novelist, getting by on reviews and opinion “middles”, moved to Islington with his young family, because there was simply nowhere else they could afford. They were not the only ones of their kind to do so. Raban noted that the square to which he had moved was becoming a place for young families of a certain type. Their presence was having a rapid effect on the surroundings. A caff became a trattoria, a “tratt”, an Italian restaurant with check tablecloths and wax-mottled chianti bottles, a health food store opened, a bookshop. Someone turned the dying local cinema into what was not yet called an arthouse, the “Screen on the Green” (and what a ’70s name that is).
The locals bristled at first, but not much. Many were Irish immigrants themselves, hardly able to make a claim on the place. Raban’s insight was that the very identity of cities, their neighbourhoods was starting to bend, become more pliable, transformable, as were the people in it. Such “soft cities” are what we have thought of as the inner city for forty years, a culture, a way of life that relied on a certain ensemble of working class and bohemia/knowledge class, the latter set within the former, an enervating minority.
This is the era when traditional celebrations withered, church festivals and big funerals, wedding receptions spilling out from pubs, and new “festivals” sprang up. Routine now, part of neighbourhood branding, the idea of such a place being enlivened by a carnival was new then. Islington, dirt poor, with new pockets of boho prosperity appearing, became the red base of London, a place where Labour Left, Marxists and centrists fought it out, tried new things. By the ’80s, it was already on the turn, students, artists, etc, moving to Dalston further up the road. By the time I moved to Hackney in 1997, Islington was the home of the prime minister Tony Blair, and the most dynamic Tory public figure, Boris Johnson.
They lived among a place still poor, the ratty bars, egg-and-chips caffs — Alfredo’s a dingy art deco hang of blessed memory — and such people seemed no more than a layer on top of it all. No-one recognised the paradoxical process that would occur: that in pursuit of the meaning and authenticity, the sheer life that “soft cities” generated, the rich would wholly invade, and inevitably, petrify them. That can be exaggerated, but not by much. The streets of Islington are lined with nitro ice-cream stores, gastro pubs and so on, and the many poor public housing tenants still here have nowhere to publicly be. Jeremy Corbyn was coming back to an Islington of memory, a place where the British left made and remade itself over the ’70s to ’90s.
But hell, everyone came back with him. The crowd around the Union Chapel — a non-conformist church, its tower looming over the borough, pretty much Jeremy Corbyn in red brick — thousands of them, sprawling across the roads, every hipster, freak, old hack and many, many just plain folk turning out from the dull terraces, the ticky tack old housing. Women with yoga mats, lads from ad agencies in suits and black T-shirts, joshing, Trots everywhere — how lovely to hear that cry again, “coooopy of the soooocialist … buy the soooocialist”, anarchists in denim jackets and tatts. Man, this was a gathering of the tribe, a last hurrah for some.
I saw people I hadn’t seen in 20 years, from the late ’90s, the last of cool Britannia, the days of Hackney Police Watch, of Clinker, a scratch spoken-word, free-jazz club in basement where Throbbing Gristle used to play, a dude whose wife I’d tried and almost succeeded in stealing — he was a recovering junkie; both she and I, terrible people, decided we weren’t that terrible — now Maori-tattoed all over his face, skin-muscle shrink-wrapped back-to-the-bone. He strode along with a new girl, who was five in ’97; he laughed heartily; he had a Corbyn Labour sticker on; I don’t think he is the base for a 40%-plus majority.
Corbyn was in his element. YouTube footage from inside the chapel showed him speaking forcefully, and outside I’d heard it, that voice, quiet yet determined, coming out of a megaphone mounted on some wanker’s head. Nevertheless … But as later footage would show, the element was a little too much the element. Stone church, raw arches, Jeremy quoting Shelley “for the many not the few”. OK, OK, we are the grand tradition of the left. We can win Islington. Now what?
The question is piquant, because five hours earlier I’d been in Watford, listening to Corbyn speak to a crowd at the end of the High Street, and doing OK, but only OK. The speech was the same as it would be in Islington: for the many not the few, but in fact focused on the few, the poor and desperate, needful of attention but not a majority. It goes over, well, wellish, but not great. This is a stop on the last whistlestop tour, to get the vote out. Watford is the perpetual three-way, a seat that changes hands between Tory, Lib-Dem and Labour. Smart money is that the Lib-Dems are done, it’s a two-way contest, and that’s why Corbyn is here.
But ah, I wish he was here here. I wish he could see where he is. Watford is not a place with a Union Chapel, a place where people quote Shelley. It’s not a place where the woof and weft, the texture of England, has much play. It’s a market town that became a feeder suburb of London. It’s famous because Elton John bought its failing football team decades ago, the first of the celeb football turnovers. Its high street is the same as all UK high streets: a vibrant centre wrecked by pedestrianisation, puke-coloured tiles, charity stores and chain store pubs, the old Arndale centre pulled down to build Watford New … but for all that, a place. Municipal Britain, full of local workers and commuters, people not fussed about their history, about injustice, fussed about cooking or a takeaway, about which box set to watch, about the train tomorrow. If you want to understand the mind of Britain now, read The Girl On The Train, — that’s it, that’s it exactly.
The crowd at the end of Watford High Street are enthusiastic, wanting to love Corbyn, but he’s not giving them — except for the young — all that much. Corbyn, ah Corbyn. He will never understand a place like Watford High Street, with its eight mobile phone shops, its three gadget shops, its characterless chain pubs, full to bursting. There are hundreds at the rally; there are thousands in the street who do not hugely care. What is it to them, these issues: the lives of the inner-urban poor, the fact that millions rely on food banks, and so on? Some of these people will fall into poverty. Not many. Once you’re in, you’re in, and you move from job to job. Corbyn’s message remains depression-era, as if everyone was about to join the soup-kitchen line. He knows that’s not the case, I suspect, but he cant help himself. The Union-fucking-Chapel. Of course he’d choose that. He’s the last Methodist, the preacher man.
But the people of Watford don’t want preachers. They want to come home and play Xbox, go for a drink at All Bar One. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s hard to organise those folks. Doubly hard, if you can’t acknowledge that their greatest fear is that they may not be able to afford Xbox. What Corbyn Labour hasn’t been able to adjust itself to, is averageness, municipality. Like a lot of the left (*clears throat* NSW Greens, harrumph), it wants a scarcity-era unified working-class to underwrite its vision of humanity, as some thrusting Promethean heroic historic upsurge. They’re gone, and in their place is a class that feels liberated from ancient authority — including know-it-all lefties, hoping a social class will underwrite their vision — offered all this great stuff, wages are being squeezed a lot, but the main thing is these damn foreigners and these damn immigrants.
That’s where Corbyn and all around him stop short. They just can’t get the broad middle of British life, can’t tap into, not scarcity, but shittiness, things just being not good enough. For all that Corbyn has stepped up to to the mark — and everyone on the Left should honour how much this serious and modest man has taken on the bullshit that is involved in being a party leader these days — he and those around him simply cannot adjust themselves to the full challenge of modernity: that a lot of the most basic problems of life have been solved, but everyone feels crappy and angry and cheated all the time. Especially in the UK where such sentiments have taken over from Morris Dancing as the national expression of character.
Like it or not, 20 years of Thatcherism gave this country a certain character and it has very little to do with black and white newsreels or the frikkin spirit of ’45. It is an insouciant, iconoclastic view of life as eternal present, as gleefully destructive, in its way, as the Chinese cultural revolution, a war against the several olds, a people who just want the NHS to work, and the console to be ever present, and who can gainsay that?
But Labour has not yet found the woman or man who can speak to that. They may, but it is not Corbyn, middle-class kid, hesitant and kind — son, I would guess, of kind and hesitant people. There’s a Brit children’s story series that was a huge success post-war but has never translated elsewhere, The Borrowers, about a micro-family who live in the cracks of someone else’s house, and nip out to steal and repurpose things, a needle, a thimble, a handkerchief. The books worked because that’s how many Brits feel — that they’re borrowers, people marginal to some grand design. That’s how it’s done. In the UK you live in the margins of the lives of the aristocracy, and they grant you life. Post-war social democracy was one chance to break free, and Thatcherism was the illusion of breaking free. But still whatever happens, the … ah man I’ve lost my thread. I really have.
But what one can say is that Corbyn Labour for all its achievements, it would never crack majority support with, 1) the person Corbyn is, and 2) the policies they have. In the past weeks, Labour left minister Chris Mullin’s cracking thriller A Very British Coup has been doing the rounds again. It deserves it. It’s the story of steelworker Harry Perkins, who becomes PM, avoids Thatcherism by taking a loan from Moscow’s Narodny Bank to recapitalise the UK, and gets shellacked by the establishment for daring to challenge them … Corbyn is no Harry Perkins, which is a shame.
We need someone working-class, and for that class, but nationalist and unafraid to be so. What the left needs, to succeed, is for a contingent of it — which includes people close to Corbyn, including Corbyn himself — to throw off its pallid, undifferentiated internationalism, its ridiculous and unknowing commitment to the abstract values of human rights, and commit to the people closest to it. That may currently be organised around the nation-state, but it won’t always be. For the moment it is, so the nation is what must be committed to.
Imagine if a Labour leader, in the wake of two terrorist atrocities, which are connected to both the right’s adventures abroad, and its cuts to policing at home, could have slated Theresa May as a failure, who couldn’t keep Britons safe. Such a leader wouldn’t have to bring immigration into it — indeed they could attack these bullshit attacks on immigrants for attacks made by native citizens — but they would have to love the country. They’d have to exude it. And they couldn’t do so by any commitment to abstract values. It would have to be to what’s on offer in High Street Watford, the pint of Stella, and the Premier League on the pub TV, the One Show on BBC One, and “Tubthumping” on the digital jukebox. They’d have to know what it is before 10 spin doctors arranged it for them, and they’d have to pledge to defend it from all enemies — including the Tories, a party in a client relation to global business.
Will this loss upcoming, teach the crowd in Islington that they must listen to the crowd in Watford, because that is where Britain lives. Not likely. Me, I can appreciate Jezzer ending his campaign in a nonconformist hall, quoting from Shelley. But in doing so he simply proves again the durability of the Nairn-Anderson thesis: that the most conservative institution in the UK is the British Labour Party, that Thatcher was the real radical, that neoliberalism is as nihilist, and liberating, as Bolshevism, and that if you’re going to win power in 2017 you have to speak to Thatcher’s children, which is Britain.
I don’t know what splits the Tories have ahead of them, but I think there will have to be a huge one on the left, between those who will ground their political morality in a polis, a civitas and a community, and those who will pursue the moral vanity of open-ended abstract rights, such as satisfy the values of their knowledge-culture social class. In this, those of us who are communal leftists may have to build from small bases, and turn against people we know and respect, but in the end you’re going to have to choose, whether you serve the people, the excluded and the other, or you serve the universalistic knowledge class, which is the new ruling class. You are going to have to choose now, because Corbyn’s campaign was the last hurrah of trying to be both, and anyone who sticks to that after this, well, I have some pamphlets from the Henry George League, which may be of interest.
Left the rally before the end. Went back home through Hackney, the old stomping ground. Whole areas demolished, others, same place boarded up as had been 20 years ago, 20 years before that. Weeds bigger than doors. Nothing goes ahead evenly, and progress is not always that. Corbyn’s campaign is either the end of something, or a mere prelude to a more radical period, or both. The man is a hero, but this election is just a step along the way, and we are all still outside the chapel, listening to history happen through a crackling speaker.