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Hear Me Out: Corbyn Can Win Over Middle England

13/08/2015 09:51 BST | Updated 12/08/2016 10:59 BST

The deadline for Labour's leadership voter registration ended yesterday in a surge of last minute applications that momentarily crashed their website. This surge is widely acknowledged to have emerged from the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran leftwinger, who has ignited Labour's dormant grassroots with his authentic brand of democratic socialism.

This hasn't played well with the Blairite higher order, and they're certainly not shy about it. Senior Labour shadow cabinet figures Liz Kendell, Tristan Hunt, Chuka Umunna, Chris Lesley and Vernon Coaker have publically stated they would not serve under Corbyn. Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, has suggested that the PLP would oust Corbyn on day one of his reign. And Tony Blair himself, with an air of condescending omniscience, has prophesied annihilation for the party should Corbyn prosper.

The reason for this disquiet? Ed Miliband's defeat in May, they argue, points unequivocally to a centrist agenda.

It is true that Ed Miliband failed spectacularly to win over middle England. It is also the case that New Labour, under Tony Blair, won English majorities in 1997, 2001, and 2005. Yet a close look at what's currently unravelling in middle England should make the Blairites pause for contemplation. Here, the consequences of centrist policies, broadly labelled as neoliberal, point to a very different remedy that may well vindicate Labour's grassroots movement. Take Wellingborough, my hometown.

Wellingborough

In 1987, the year I was born, my family moved to Wellingborough, a market town on the western perimeter of Northampton. Quintessentially middle England, it is a place where the peripheries roll longingly into the countryside, with the boundary lines drawn by fluorescent rape seed.

It was a 'buoyant' town, my father recalls; a place where Victorian terraces and workhouse cottages accommodated the families of electronics salesmen, mechanics, builders, and junior engineers for British Layland at the giant Irthlingborough foundry. Secure jobs, with prospects, and a vibrant local economy, housing hundreds of independent businesses offering everything from microwave repairs to dress alterations.

Journey to the present day and Wellingborough has the feel of a town whose day has come and gone. Like a ship in stormy waters, Wellingborough manages to stay afloat while the brutal waves of capitalism pound all around it. The independent businesses have all but vanished, the shopping mall has passed through all phases of retail life, and the town centre is shrinking irreversibly, propped up only by conglomerate fast food chains, pound shops, and bookmakers.

These economic changes have been gradual, to be sure, creeping up on Wellingborough like the grim reaper. Slowly but surely, though, the gaping wounds inflicted by capitalism are yielding ever more brutal and arrogant effects. Wellingborough now has 20% fewer higher and intermediate managerial, administrative, or professional households than the UK average. In their place are low-wage, insecure jobs, providing labour primarily to the manufacturing, distribution, and service sectors.

With this socioeconomic shift comes diminished aggregate demand, and so the cycle of deterioration entrenches and sustains itself. As we have seen, retail has been dying off in Wellingborough alongside the middle class that once supported it. But more worryingly, parts of the town are now in the top 10% of the most deprived areas in the UK, and child poverty stands at an alarming 21%.

My father, for the record, no longer refers to our town as 'buoyant'.

You might think that, by now, the good people of Wellingborough would have had enough of the market forces that are slowly grinding their town into the dust. But no, Wellingborough has done what many forgotten towns in middle England have done; turned decidedly rightwards. In the election of 2015, UKIP and the Conservative party garnered over 70% of the popular vote in Wellingborough, with the hard right Eurosceptic, Peter Bone, carrying the town for the Tories.

Labour's Impotence

Into this cacophony of derangement enter the Labour party. The very idea that Labour are content to cede political ground to the Tories, and acquiesce in the ubiquity of the market, is such an egregious denial of political reality that I have to pinch myself every time I hear it. By rights, Wellingborough's people should be coming in their droves to the democratic socialism of Clement Atlee and Aneurin Bevan - as they did enthusiastically in the 40's and 50's.

But Labour refuse to give them that option. There is no spokesperson for those on the losing end of capitalism here. No one from Labour articulates a compelling critique of neoliberalism, which is wreaking havoc in communities like Wellingborough. On the macroeconomic issues hurting the working poor Labour is silent - so these people pluck for the party that they believe at least speaks to their aspirations, if not their current circumstances.

There is a lesson for Labour in the Wellingborough story and it isn't that they, too, can win over middle England with centrist policies. It is, instead, a damning indictment of their decision to reinvent themselves as the other pro-business party. Here we have a movement tip-toeing around popular discourse saturated by neoliberal propaganda. They would be a little less punitive on welfare, a little less blasé on tax avoidance, and a little less union bashing than the Tories. A rousing platform to invigorate the millions of disenfranchised voters this is not.

And yet, not unpredictably, this strategy only reinforced the Tory caricature. It provided fertile soil for the Tory myth of Labour's profligacy to become orthodoxy. And this is where, to my mind, the Blairites have it wrong. For as long as the Labour party continue to fight for the ever right-moving centre, they will be exactly where the Tories want them. This is a safe place for the Conservatives because they know they can succeed from the right, provided the centre keeps moving that way - it is firmly their territory.

How do Labour Solve a Problem like Wellingborough?

So ignore the usual clowns on the right, serious Tories fear a Corbyn opposition. Not because they think he can win - they don't - but because he will force the terms of the political discussion to the left, further to the left, and further to the left. The pseudomoral attacks on Government overspending, immigrants, the unions, or 'scroungers', will generate far less traction under a Corbyn opposition. For he is not afraid to call them out for the social restructuring that they really are.

No longer will people hear a whisper, a whimper, from the left. Corbyn will reinvigorate populist ideas of redistribution, public ownership, free education, and state investment. A socially democratic prescription for the neoliberal epidemic that has struck Wellingborough, and many towns like it.

The Blairites must remember that the remnants of left-wing reforms laid out in the 40's and 50's - still overwhelmingly popular today - did not spring out of a backlash to a corporate largesse that went too far. They were the fruits of movement politics, fighting, agitating, educating, and relentless organising. But above all they hinged on an egalitarian ethic among citizens convicted by erudite politicians, such as Atlee and Beven, who deeply believed in social reform.

It doesn't have to be like this. Labour do not need to chase down the Tories who, in the chase, gleefully pull the political centre rightwards. Many people in places like Wellingborough are desperate for a break from the 'no alternative' neoliberal agenda - they just haven't been told why yet. Corbyn is the only man willing to give them that reason.