When Jeremy Corbyn stumbled into the spotlight as the new opposition leader, he appeared hesitant, blinking like a startled librarian mole emerging from musty underground archives. His tweed jacket prompted as much public scrutiny as his political beliefs, and commentators assumed ‘the left’ – in a new position of mainstream relevance – would offer no more than dusty placards and dated slogans. But this narrative has unravelled of late.
To indulge the analogy, if Jeremy Corbyn was a subterranean librarian mole, he’d be able to keep the roof from caving in while administrative staff moles fling soil at him and invite hostile badgers to carry out a series of ambushes. He would issue more than 300,000 new library cards, despite journalist weasels churning a hateful daily newsletter out of the photocopying machine and vandalising the public notice board with juvenile slurs against him.
In reality, Corbyn’s appearance has benefited to some extent from being accidentally on-trend. David Cameron jeered that he should ‘put on a proper suit’, but suits have been in decline as fast as the popularity of beards has risen. Even companies like J P Morgan have instigated casual dress for their staff in an effort to keep up with the times and attract the best candidates.
As for the many thousands who have joined the Labour Party in support of Corbyn, we don’t really know whether they like their suits to be polyester, herringbone or non-existent, although we caught a glimpse of them at The World Transformed gathering in Liverpool this autumn. The festival, organised by Momentum members, ran alongside the Labour conference and it didn’t fit the bill of a stereotypical lefty event; it felt vibrant and up-lifting.
I attended a session titled ‘Making the left sexy’. As the programme explained: ‘The left is stigmatised in mainstream culture, reduced to something unattractive. This mistrust has impacted public consciousness, leading to major image issues. In order to create a social movement that is capable of transformative change, we need to communicate in ways that entice and appeal to people.’
In the room it became clear that we didn’t all share the same experience of the movement. Twenty-year-olds said they struggle to feel at home in meetings or events where they find themselves the youngest person by decades, while older folk said it’s just as tough walking into a room full of student activists.
Nor did we have the same ideas for creating appealing spaces. Suggestions ranged from starting a red rose gardening club in Newham to disagreements about class as a social signifier. Talking about ‘security’ instead of ‘class’ might be something everyone can relate to without feeling awkward, but either way the ensuing debate demonstrated that cultural divisions don’t map tidily onto economic ones.
Accepting that there’s a lot of room for improvement, we shared a keenness to create open and welcoming spaces for discussing politics without being pushy or creating cliques and sub-cultures. In a move away from default activities, such as standing on street corners handing out leaflets to harassed shoppers – who, in that moment probably don’t need the latest runthrough on the military-industrial complex – we explored more meaningful engagement, like ‘deep canvassing’ or setting up tea stalls to give passers-by a more comfortable chance to stop and chat. Deep canvassing, in contrast to the rapid, systematic style of modern canvassing, involves taking time to talk to people on a more personal level, with questions that lead the audience to realise for themselves the point that you’re trying to get across.
Overall, it was reassuring to find that we weren’t a homogenous group in terms of our experience of the left. The trope of aggressive ‘political correctness’ was virtually absent here and instead there was a desire to show empathy and compassion for people we don’t agree with, particularly in the wake of Brexit.
The caricature left-wing activist may be real enough, but only makes up a fraction of a much broader radical ferment that really doesn’t fit the stereotype. Our celebration of difference is the ideological cornerstone of a diverse movement that could yet ‘make the left sexy’.
A growing sense of confidence was summed up by Liz Ashley from Cheltenham, who said: ‘We’ve been on the losing side for a long time, and in the past I’ve been apologetic about being a socialist. But now that Corbyn’s won a second time, I bet my friends in the pub are going to start saying they supported him all along. When I go out walking my dog I’ll stop and chat to people, and let them see that I’ve moved my Labour badge up from below my lapel.’
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