Corbyn’s message resonates with downwardly mobile middle class
London Letter: ‘Policies that aim to transform society can win’
Labour Party supporters listen to a speech by Labour MP Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, in Notting Hill Gate in the build-up to the local council elections in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in west London. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty
Across London and in other English cities and towns on Thursday, activists from all political parties were making calls, sending texts and knocking on doors to encourage supporters to vote in the local elections. Labour’s canvassers seemed to be everywhere, many of them members of Momentum, the 40,000-strong organisation set up in 2015 to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Demonised in the media and denounced by centrist Labour MPs as entryists who would destroy the party, Momentum’s innovative and remarkably successful campaigning in last year’s election won almost universal respect.
“Everybody is always asking what the trick of Momentum is,” its founder Jon Lansman said over breakfast in Westminster this week. “Last week, one European party wanted to know what the trick was as if it was possible to do it without changing the politics. I am afraid you can’t.”
At 60, Lansman has been active on the left of the Labour Party for most of his life, supporting Tony Benn’s bid for the deputy leadership in the early 1980s and later working for Michael Meacher. Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson put Labour’s parliamentary left in a “sealed tomb” where it remained until Corbyn broke out of it in his startling leadership victory in 2015.
“For the young Corbyn’s ideas were new, it was like a breath of fresh air. They realised that austerity is a choice and not a necessity,” Lansman says.
“The enthusiasm has taken people to amazing places, to places where we had never won before. Our hundreds of thousands of new members talk to people over their garden fences and to people in their workplaces. Hope is a great energiser.”
Lansman says he is in the fortunate position of having no personal ambition, although he sought a parliamentary seat during the 1990s, abandoning his bid when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died, leaving him to raise their young children alone.
“When things like that happen, your perspective on life changes.”
The first two years of Corbyn’s leadership were marked by a sustained campaign against him by centrist Labour MPs, culminating in the resignation of most of his front bench and an unsuccessful leadership challenge from Owen Smith. Last year’s election saw Labour confounding the polls and the expectations even of Corbyn’s inner circle to increase its vote share and rob Theresa May of her parliamentary majority.
Corbyn and his allies now control all the party’s major decision-making bodies, and Lansman believes the argument about Labour’s future direction has been settled and the threat of a centrist breakaway is overstated.
“There is no political space for a centrist party. The result of the last election was that we are back to a two-party system in England and Wales. There is now a clear choice between two very different parties, Labour and the Tories. Policies that aim to transform society can win,” he says.
“But look at failure of social democratic parties across Europe – the Third Way doesn’t do well anymore. We have to go from a low-skilled, low-paid economy to high-skilled, high-paid one. The middle classes feel that their children will do worse than them. For a long time, people paraded the market as if the market solves all the problems of society but the market didn’t deliver for people in Europe and North America. ”
Lansman believes one reason Corbyn’s message has resonated so widely in Britain is that the middle classes are now feeling the impact of austerity as they watch their children leave university laden with debt but with scant prospect of earning a decent wage. As more middle-class people are caught in a trap of low wages and unaffordable housing, they are experiencing downward social mobility.
“Voting patterns by social classes are shifting. We see now people with two or three degrees who are paid little more than the minimum wage,” he says. “My era was dominated by upward social mobility. But in the UK we have got to the end of that period. That has caused colossal insecurity.”
Corbyn’s personal poll ratings have fallen sharply in recent months as he has faced criticism for his inadequate response to anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. Some of Corbyn’s supporters initially dismissed the reports of prejudice and abuse experienced by Jewish Labour party members as attempts to undermine the leader but Lansman was among the first to call for decisive action.
“I am Jewish and I have experienced anti-Semitism, including from Labour Party members on my own Facebook feed,” he says.
“I don’t think you can stop prejudice completely. We have courses to make people aware of prejudice. It needs to be the same with anti-Semitism.”