‘21 Poems: 21 Reasons For Choosing Jeremy Corbyn’: Why I Put It Together
by Kevin Higgins
A long-time friend and, for his sins, former member of the Yorkshire Regional Executive of the Labour Party came to visit for a few days in early May. He arrived the evening of Wednesday, May 6th, having voted by postal ballot for his local Labour candidate in the UK General Election which of course took place the following day. Our plan was that we would, at the appointed hour – together with my immensely tolerant wife Susan and our altogether less tolerant cat – gather around David Dimbleby, eat and drink to excess, and watch the predicted hung parliament unfold.
The eating and drinking did take place; my friend, who now lives in Portsmouth, is a great supporter of the French economy and can always be relied upon to turn up with a car-load of the finer wines and some pretty excellent cheeses. But from the publication of the exit poll it was clear the parliament would not be all that hung. As the night hammered on, and Labour failed to win places like Warwickshire North, and Nuneaton – and even lost a couple of seats to the Tories – it was clear by bedtime (about 4am) that the Conservatives were going to win their first overall majority since 1992, a night I also remember well; the main difference being that back in 1992, in the North London tower block where I watched that Tory victory, the alcohol was of an altogether inferior variety.
A couple of days later, my friend looked morosely up from his iPhone with a face that said he had seen something terrible. He had: Tony Blair had a column in the following day’s Observer in which he would talk about how “the road to the mountain top was always through the centre ground.” I replied that I would rather make love to John Prescott than read said article, and then put out a Tweet to that effect. In response, Danny Morrison, the writer and former Sinn Féin spokesperson, replied: “You should write a poem about that!” Over the next few days, I did exactly that. The resulting satirical poem, which did indeed include a spot of vigorous lovemaking with Lord Prescott, was picked up by a variety of blogs, then The Morning Star, and the Irish Times.
The day after the election Ed Miliband, who I mostly kind of liked, though his anti-immigration mug was a disgrace, stood down with immediate effect as Labour leader. At that point, if someone had told me Jeremy Corbyn might be the next leader of the British Labour Party, I would have nodded along with anything they said and as soon as I got a chance phoned the local psychiatric hospital to ask them to please send someone to remove the sad deluded lunatic. Even when Corbyn scraped over the line with just enough nominations to make it onto the ballot paper, I was indifferent. He hadn’t a hope. I thought his candidacy would likely be of such insignificance that it would make no difference at all to anything. As for the idea that a big defeat might further marginalise the Labour left; it was impossible for me to imagine them being marginalised any more than had been the case since about 1992.
As Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign exploded throughout an otherwise decidedly damp July, it became clear that I had left two factors out of my back of the envelope political calculations. First, not everyone is a politically jaded as I have become. I first heard the word ‘socialism’ in 1981, in a news item about Tony Benn’s 1981 deputy leadership challenge to Denis Healey. I joined the Irish Labour Party, inspired mostly by Tony Benn’s campaign. In the late 1980s and early 90s, I lived in London – having also been born there in 1967 – and was a member of the Labour Party in Edmonton before being (ahem) told to leave by the National Constitutional Committee on September 12th, 1991. From the time of Neil Kinnock’s bombastic, thuggish and falsifying anti-Liverpool City Council speech at the 1985 Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth and early this July, the British Labour Party has gone through a period a period of reaction so black it made the Labour left of old look out of place and threatened with extinction as Roundheads in Restoration England. It is clear now that the political ice age that began with Kinnock and accelerated with Blair is over. However much people like John Mann MP and Peter Mandelson may foam about their respective jibs, it will never be 1994 again. Even if we wanted to, the world that brought about Tony Blair isn’t there for anyone to go back to. Cynicism is as easy as slipping on a pair of well-worn boxer shorts; hope is scary. What if it all goes wrong again? Well, it’s the choice between the risk of life and the absolute security of death, and so no choice at all really.
I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with Jeremy Corbyn on everything, in particular in relation to issues such as war and peace. The Iraq War has been a disaster, yes, and a big part of that disaster, as it particularly affects the British Labour Party, has been the fact the Blair government clearly lied about the reasons for the war. However, if I had been an MP in the summer of 2013 I’d likely have voted in favour of military action against the Assad regime. To me, the catastrophe that is now daily befalling the people of Syria looks very much like what happens when the world lets a dictator – “the human tooth brush”, as Christopher Hitchens once called Assad – do his worst with absolutely no consequences. There are many on the left who will say that they are all for military action against someone like Assad; it’s just they are not in favour of anyone big enough to do it actually doing it, and prefer to leave it to some mythical workers militia. Such issues are about solidarity rather than about working out how one can pose as the best possible anti-imperialist. To put it another way, if I thought Jeremy Corbyn was just a more tastefully presented version of George Galloway, I wouldn’t be voting for him. But despite the desperate attempts of journalists such as Nick Cohen to present Corbyn as Galloway without the bowl of milk and the red onesie, I don’t buy it. The recent prominence of the monstrosity that is George Galloway is a symptom precisely of the Left’s marginalisation. This most surprisingly resurrection of the Left in the British Labour Party is something that all but the most mildewed reactionaries in the Party will happily embrace. For so long the Party was dead to real political debate; now it is once again alive.
The other major miscalculation I made when I wrote off Jeremy Corbyn’s chances back in June was this: I am forty-eight years old, own a house (with no mortgage on it) and with my wife running a pretty successful small business. I understand, intellectually, that a policy of permanent austerity for most, combined with occasional handout socialism for the banks, is not just unnecessary but also a bit insane. But our economic circumstances are not those of the vast majority of those younger people who this summer have joined the British Labour Party in their tens of thousands to support Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for the leadership. These young people will take the lead now, tomorrow truly must belong to them. The likes of me should be happy to do our bit in support of them. I have re-joined the British Labour Party as an overseas member and voted for Jeremy Corbyn for leader, Tom Watson as deputy and for Jon Lansman and Katy Clark for the Conference Arrangements Committee.
When I put out the call asking people to send me poems for 21 Poems: 21 Reasons for Choosing Jeremy Corbyn, I was similarly just doing my bit. I had already written a few satirical poems about the campaign, including personal tributes to both Andy Burnham and John Mann (god rest him). 21 Poems: 21 Reasons for Choosing Jeremy Corbyn was another way of talking about the campaign with people I am in contact with, and it surely beats exchanging crabby tweets with the rapidly melting Blairites or one of Jeremy Corbyn’s windiest critics, the ongoing journalistic tragedy that is David Aaronovitch, formerly of the Communist Party of Great Britain, currently busy giving a bit of intellectual finesse to Rupert Murdoch’s Times.
21 Poems: 21 Reasons for Choosing Jeremy Corbyn is now online. Poems by Penelope Shuttle, Merryn Williams, Jacqueline Smith, Owen Gallagher, Neil Fulwood, Mark Cassidy, Pete Mullineaux, Helen Harrison, John Throne, Angela Carr, Charles Bane Jr., Mike Jenkins, Jo Waterworth, Colin Dardis, Dave Lordan, Ruth Aylett, Jack Grady, Maurice Devitt and Nick Rush.
About the Author:
Kevin Higgins is an Irish poet.