As we ushered in 2017, I thought I was a staunch Tory. But on June the 8th, I found myself planting a cross next to the Labour candidate’s name. Just how did this happen?
The answer is simple, really. Take a good hard look at this Conservative government and you would be mad not to wince and cringe at least a little. Prime Minister May’s coughing fits and gaffs through her recent conference speech were, to me, just the full stop at the end of a long list of bad moves and embarrassments by our nation’s leader. What I realised over the course of the general election campaign was that this habit of bungling and half-baked ideas is not just a problem with Theresa May, but something wrong with the DNA of the Tory Party itself.
My political coming of age was the 2015 general election. It was the first vote I ever cast, and the first time I had ever given proper thought to what my real political beliefs might be. I was brought up in a family that was working class but not impoverished, and in schools that were state comprehensive but not failing. Anyone would have thought that this would be the perfect climate in which to breed a “Labour voter by default” – the kind of young lad who might never spend his nights reading Marx or studying the Attlee years, but who would still faithfully vote red when the time came. Instead, though, I felt inclined to buck the trend. As an 18-year-old sixth former, I never felt like I could buy into the Milifandom, and promises of “slightly higher taxes” and “freezing energy bills” did little to enthuse me. By contrast, David Cameron looked like a not perfect, but reasonable leader. And the free market idealism of the young neo-Thatcherites that now dominate Tory youth wings struck me as if it were a new radicalism. Like most young people, I wanted to see change in society, and it felt like one day the Conservative Party – however contradictory it may seem – could deliver it for me.
And then came Jeremy Corbyn. Sixty-something, white-haired, bearded, wearing loosely fitted brown jackets all the way to the House of Commons. The nation watched him walk his way to Labour Party leadership victory like he was granted it by birth right. It wasn’t long before we saw him sauntering from rally to rally, constituency to constituency, whispering sweet nothings about “railway renationalisation” and “solving inequality”. “Hah hah!”, I scoffed. I told my friends “if this man ever becomes Prime Minister, I’m leaving the country”. I felt like I had long since found my niche in the seemingly green pastures of Young Conservatism. But Old Jeremy had come to rain on my parade, and I spent many an evening shaking my head at mates in the pub who told me after a couple pints that Corbyn was “the only politician they could trust”.
“Going from South London to a Russell Group university, the culture shock hit me like a brick”
How could they ever think this way, I wondered? Why couldn’t everyone see what I saw? But it is easy to dismiss rival ideas as rubbish if you never really listen to them. What became apparent for me as the years went by was that, for all the talk about the left-wing hiding in “safe spaces” and “bubbles”, the Tory half of the camp was looking an awful lot more like an echo chamber than Labour was. Right-wing journalists and politicians have spent years pointing fingers at the left for supposedly spending too much time reading the Communist Manifesto and not enough time speaking to the working classes in factories and council estates. But what about the ideological right who spend their days waxing lyrical about Thatcher and Hayek, while never once considering the real-world issues spoken about in pubs and over the dinner table? The reality is that the former group at least have some answers, while the latter seem content to put their fingers in their ears and cry “the free market knows best!” I never lost faith in my belief in individual rights and personal freedom – the things that attracted me to the Tories in the first place – but I completely lost faith in the idea that Conservatism, with its high-mindedness, could protect these things. Today’s Conservative Party is able to simultaneously extoll the virtues of unrestrained capitalism in one breath, while insisting on the need for greater state intervention in our private lives in the next. The result is an ideology that turns a blind eye to areas where the state can do good, such as in welfare and education, while also attempting to force the tentacles of government into things it has no business in, such as our families, or the policing of the internet.
It was under this context that I felt I had to leave. Going from South London to a Russell Group university, the culture shock hit me like a brick. Statistics show that the disparity between the number of state school students and the number of private school students attending our nation’s best universities is growing, with the gap most recently rising to 43%. And it certainly shows. Seeing this divide from both sides helped me to understand how the people who worry about inequality in Britain really do have a point. Issues of class and wealth disparity have become more prominent than ever. And as I was beginning to realise, it is simply no good for the government to sit back and leave this situation as some kind of class warfare free-for-all. This is one of those areas where the state CAN do good, by investing in state comprehensives, by confronting the private and grammar schools about what they’re doing for disadvantaged kids, and by tackling the roots of the cycle of poverty head on. There was a good sense of what Labour was going to do, but I had to ask the question, “just what is the Conservative Party’s answer to all this?”
The answer was the Tory Manifesto of 2017. This torrid tome, cooked up in the minds of Theresa May’s allegedly genius advisors, looked like an empty vessel. On inequality the Tories wanted to talk the talk, but not walk the walk. Theresa May spoke big about the plights of the “white working classes”, but where were the reforms, and perhaps most importantly the cash, necessary to raise people out of poverty? Furthermore, on issues of civil liberties, which are also close to my heart, they looked set to trample upon them in the pursuit of some blind sense of national security and puritanism. Every Tory MP unfortunate enough to grace our screens could only parrot party lines about supposed strength and stability. But with every passing day and every lost percentage of the Conservative lead, Theresa May looked more and more pathetic.
“The British people are fed up with inequality, fed up with failing public services…”
And so perhaps I had to concede that the Corbynites were right when they said, during the 2015 campaign, that what really mattered wasn’t how left or right-wing the Labour Party was, but instead how clearly its policies could be differentiated from those of the Tories. The gulf between Conservatism and Labourism in the most recent election looked massive. On one side we had vague paternalism and a narrow focus on Brexit, with seemingly little thought given to issues like wealth disparity, taxation, housing and healthcare. And on the other side we had a Labour manifesto that promised concrete and tangible things. I had never believed before that railway nationalisation was a good thing, but it’s hard not to think it’s worth at least a try when one sees the shambles that is Southern Rail. I had never argued for higher taxation on the wealthy either, but in a context of the gradual erosion of the working class and the rise once more of a rich and privately educated elite, upping the amount that those privileged few pay to the rest of us seemed fair. In the end, Corbynism did exactly what it said on the tin. It was never about, as the Tory think tanks argued, some thankless pursuit of ideological ultra-socialism. Corbyn’s Labour, in 2017 at least, has been about change. They pointed out the failings of the Conservative government, offered us an alternative, and millions of us thought we should bloody well take it.
After all, “change” is what every great political movement both in this country and others has been about. “Progress” has been used as a buzzword by both the left and right alike. What those still clinging to the rafts of the sinking Tory Party fail to understand is that Corbyn in 2017 is not much different to Tony Blair in 1997, to Barack Obama in 2008, or even to David Cameron in 2010. All of these leaders came at times of mass dissent and disappointment among the public regarding the direction of the nation. All of these leaders set themselves apart from the government of the day in both policy and style, and all of these leaders, eventually, won – with the crucial help of those of us willing to defect from the other side.
My belief is that Corbyn’s own victory will come in the not-too-distant future. The British people are fed up with inequality, fed up with failing public services, and fed up with the status quo. Even the Brexit vote of 2016 was, to anyone who really listened, an expression of the radical intent of the common man and woman. Who out there can genuinely say that the 52% who voted Leave in 2016 were inspired in any great way by, for instance, Daniel Hannan’s claims to an esoteric economic libertarianism? The day may soon approach when those same masses, waking up day after day in a Britain where the poor get poorer and and the rich get richer, wake up and sigh. “Sod it”, they will say, “I’m with Jeremy then!” That’s what I said some months ago, and I’ve never regretted the vote I cast on June 8th 2017.