In “Britain’s Midsummer Fever Dream” [Aug. 14/21], John Harris draws a very imperfect picture for Nation readers of what is happening in the United Kingdom. His claim that “the way [Jeremy] Corbyn went from zero to hero in a matter of weeks looks like further proof of how politics flips around in the topsy-turvy reality in which we find ourselves” ignores the years of grassroots campaigning that made Corbyn a real challenger for prime minister, on a genuine program of social reform.
Corbyn and his supporters built a grassroots machine by winning the leadership of the Labour Party not once but twice: He was elected Labour’s leader in 2015 and then reelected when the attempts by “moderate” Labour MPs to unseat him were rebuffed by the grassroots a year later. In these leadership campaigns, Corbyn’s supporters recruited hundreds of thousands of new members to the Labour Party and built a campaign machine that mixed traditional methods—rallies and massive outdoor meetings—with imaginative digital campaigning, all promoting solid socialist policies like raising the minimum wage and building more public housing.
In the election, this same campaign strategy was able to take away Prime Minister Theresa May’s majority, despite a vicious, smear-filled personal campaign against Corbyn. Mass canvassing by a newly enthused membership and the production of free web films outclassed the Conservative campaign, which was based around paid-for “negative” Facebook advertising and a virulently right-wing press. It’s a simple lesson: If you want to try to change things, you need to campaign from the bottom up.
But Harris thinks it’s just an unpredictable set of “pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning,’” because he joined in these attacks on Corbyn. This March, just two months before the election, Harris published a column attacking Corbyn under the headline “Can anyone rescue Labour from this deep irrelevance?,” in which he accused Corbyn’s Labour of being a “pantomime” and asserted that it was “blindingly obvious” Corbyn should resign.
There are no guarantees in this world, but there is a real possibility that a Corbyn-led Labour Party could win the next general election by building on this campaigning with the kind of social-reform politics we haven’t seen for decades. Harris is having trouble predicting the future, but Corbyn’s supporters are trying to change it.
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John Harris Replies
The fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is backed by thousands of activists and a formidable campaign machine is beyond doubt. That he and his allies held their nerve is to their credit. But that doesn’t detract from two things that the euphoria of this summer has rather smoothed over: the frequent fragility of Labour’s position over the last two years, and the sense of a political project that acquired its strength suddenly and unexpectedly.
There were indeed “years of grassroots campaigning” by the Labour left, but once it had taken command of the party, it was met at first with large-scale public indifference. For a long time, Labour was unable to push its poll rating beyond 30 percent. It lost hundreds of seats on local British councils, and Corbyn’s personal ratings were dire: There was indeed a deep danger of political irrelevance, and even many of his most passionate supporters began to suspect that his time was running out.
When it came to election night, one of his closest advisers recalled that “there was a tremendous moment of elation when the exit poll was announced because it became apparent that the campaign had achieved the most stunning turnaround in public opinion in seven weeks.” The operative word there is “stunning”: Clearly, Corbyn and his people were as surprised as everyone else.
Three months on, the movement that Corbyn catalyzed has every right to rejoice in its advances, but the conversation now has to turn to the millions of voters it somehow has to take with it, and to the uncertainty of the wider political environment. In that context, it is not the job of writers and thinkers on the left to predict the future, but rather to ask awkward questions and portray difficult realities. Although Corbyn has answered an urgent need for political hope and an alternative to the free-market failures of the last 40 years, winning power in such uncertain times—let alone governing—will be a massive challenge. Success will require all the things that Solomon Hughes outlines, but also a couple that he perhaps overlooks: candor and critical
frome, somerset, u.k.
City vs. Country
I live in rural Wisconsin because I love the land, water, and clean air, as do the farmers, fishers, hunters, and environmentalists who call this place home. Yet the state and federal government fail to provide money in ways that benefit rural people, a failing that helped a faux populist take the state. Sarah Jones compassionately articulates this urban/rural divide in her article “In La Follette Territory” [Aug. 14/21]. In the same issue, Rebecca Clarren [“Left Behind”] decries the underfunded public schools for primarily Native and disadvantaged students. Although she’s writing about Oregon, the same critique applies to Wisconsin.
While defunding K–12 public education and giving taxpayer money to for-profit schools, Governor Scott Walker broke the unions, took more than $300 million out of the University of Wisconsin system, and put a similar amount into building another sports arena in Milwaukee—more money going to urban populations. Add in the frac-sand mining in western Wisconsin that farmers blame (correctly) for polluting our water, air, and land. We also suffer from severe and persistent flooding that gets little or no remedy. Now Walker wants Foxconn to build a plant near Milwaukee that taxpayers would have to support with millions of dollars. All of these issues resonate with rural voters: We want excellent schools, decently paid teachers, clean air, clean water, well-maintained recreation land, work that keeps the land healthy, jobs that support local families, and fair pay for local workers to fix our roads and bridges.
There is a strong progressive movement in Wisconsin, including the largest farmer-owned collective of organic producers in the United States, many local food co-ops, alternative schools, and a vibrant arts scene. But many Wisconsinites did not vote—not out of apathy, but out of a shared disgust with our rural neighbors over the corporatist agenda that is fouling the earth. We all want respect and fair play.