I was twenty-one years old, and had recently graduated from university. I hadn’t given politics too much serious thought before the General Election of that year, but had gradually become more and more interested in the months leading up to the vote. After all, Russell Brand was urgently imploring his fans to vote Labour, and anything good enough for the godfather of The Trews (True News, Brand’s YouTube channel) was good enough for me.
Obviously all of this was in vain from Ed Miliband’s point of view, as David Cameron prevailed, but I was unperturbed. In the YouTube age it doesn’t take too much effort on the part of young political enthusiasts to learn a bit about the heroes and villains of parliaments gone by. Subsequently I progressed from The Trews onto clips of Tony Benn piping up from the backbenches in the 1980s and 90s, and as with Brand I liked Benn’s cynicism of the West and capitalism coupled with his anti-war/pro-peace message.
And then there was Jeremy Corbyn, saying all the same things that Benn had decades before, in the four-way leadership contest that followed Miliband’s resignation. It was so clear to me at that point that there was something really special about him, and the fact that he looked and sounded so very different from the other three candidates was certainly part of that. Sure, I wasn’t particularly interested in the finer details of his ideas about economics or his opinions on various terrorist groups, but neither, I sensed, were thousands of others like me.
This is what I think is most interesting about Corbyn’s rise during that summer. Hundreds of thousands of people got hooked on the fact he was nothing like the kind of politicians we had grown used to, coupled with his frequent Bennite musings on the world which seemed quite profound. On the day he was elected I felt a surge of overwhelming positivity, and I remember thinking that the way he held himself at his PMQs debut – a perplexed, but happy grandad – was rather lovely, and again, in such marked contrast to those who’d gone before.
I literally could not understand those on the left who had reservations. What was there not to like? Why was John McTernan being so mean? I think I put it down to resentment on the part of ‘embittered Blairites’, as a rejuvenated Ken Livingstone kept on calling anyone on the Labour side who expressed concerns. The media were terribly unfair on him too – so what if he referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as his ‘friends’! It was clearly part of a considered Middle-East peacemaking strategy.
He maintained his pro-peace credentials in the December 2015 vote on bombing ISIS in Syria, and I was appalled at how many warmongers – because this is exactly how they appeared to me – there were on the Labour benches, eager to defy him. I think I felt even more supportive of him at times like those. How could it be that the one guy who was so clearly all about peace, and opposed to all forms of war, was losing arguments like this? (Answer – probably something to do with those pesky Blairites again…)
In 2016 there was a suggestion that there were antisemites in the Labour Party who felt emboldened by Jeremy’s rise. I couldn’t accept there was any truth in this. After all, Corbyn was an anti-racist, just like he was anti-war. He told everyone who would listen, and I sure as hell believed him. As with the debate over bombing Syria, the nuances of left-wing antisemitism were of no interest to me. Those criticising Jeremy had either fallen for the despicable smears against him, or worse were intentionally slandering him in an attempt to bring him down.
It was only after the Brexit vote that I experienced my first doubt. As he floundered in interviews on June 24th 2016, he could not help but give the impression of a man who knew and cared little about the EU, and in all honesty, that is how he had come across throughout the campaign. That vote had become a proxy for a strange kind of cultural war which meant a lot to people like me on the liberal side, and so Jeremy’s obvious uninterest really hurt. And then, like a boulder which slowly picks up pace as it rolls downhill, more and more of the criticisms I had previously heard levelled at the Labour leader and dismissed, became of interest to me.
Corbyn at a Labour In campaign event in 2016 – Corbyn’s apparently half-hearted commitment to the Remain cause angered many within the Labour Party
I read Nick Cohen’s ‘What’s Left?’, an assessment of the most appalling left-wing individuals and ideas (from a leftist’s perspective), and listened much more carefully when pundits from across the political spectrum were critical. The experience was very much one of my critical faculties becoming engaged, slowly but surely, where they previously hadn’t been. Jeremy was not saying anything different himself, but I was seeing and hearing him very differently from before.
The doddering grandad was no longer endearing to me – instead I saw constant indecision in a man who understandably (based on his life experience) did not know the first thing about leading a mainstream political party. Where I had previously been totally convinced that he was more strongly opposed to racism than anyone else in political life, the way he responds now to issues like the question of the anti-Semitic mural is seriously troubling to me. The history of left-wing antisemitism, which I went away and read and thought about, is not something he wants to seriously grapple with at all. (Whether this is because he genuinely can’t see it, as some have suggested, or instead that the anti-Semitic leftwingers are some of his closest allies who he subsequently cannot bring himself to condemn, is not totally clear.)
And then there was last week, when he opposed Theresa May’s decision to bomb suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria. His rhetoric was exactly the same as it had been in 2015, but I no longer saw him as a lone champion for peace in a room full of warmongers. When backbench Labour MPs stood up to openly criticise Corbyn’s stance, I understood why they were so incensed. His conspiratorial anti-western worldview runs so deep, that he has a record going back decades of opposing interventions (in Kosovo, for example) which halted programs of ethnic cleansing. If I had been told about Kosovo, and Blair’s 1999 intervention, in 2015, I know that I would have refused to engage with the facts and see the truth. The story of Corbyn’s opposition to the intervention – and much worse that of him openly supporting a John Pilger article that essentially denied the genocide took place – would no doubt have been a cruel smear, put about by his wicked political opponents.
I write this mainly because as I watch and listen to Jeremy Corbyn at times like these, I feel guilty. Guilty that as a horribly naive graduate, I was so very sure – and I was certain, I remember the certainty – that voting for Corbyn in 2015 was the right thing to do. I am scathing of Trump supporters who aren’t interested at all in the truth, and only in standing by their man and winning at all costs, but back then I don’t think I was any better.
It is an odd experience to rewatch or reread something, and to perceive all the ignorance and flaws in one’s initial reaction to the clip or article in question, but I do that think the internet can be very helpful in this sense for those developing their political opinions in the twenty-first century. I can, for example, go back and watch Russell Brand’s musings which once galvanized me, and I am able to see what it was about his nonsense that I had found so appealing, and I would say the same about Jeremy Corbyn. Subsequently it is possible to become more discerning and to anticipate common features in the armories of campaigners like Brand and Corbyn, such as their oversimplification of hugely complex issues, which are not at all conducive to helping wide-eyed young people develop into rational and responsible grownups.
As for Jeremy Corbyn himself, it dawned on me last week as one after another Labour MP rose to tacitly criticise the leadership’s lacklustre, and perhaps even disingenuous response to the rise of antisemitism within the party, that he is just not the man I once thought he was. Three years ago I was convinced that he was a brave, principled man who would change British politics for the better, and there were many who felt the same. Turns out he isn’t either of those things and I am sure that I am not the only one whose mind has changed.