From Jeremy and Corbyn, Chapter Ten
The next morning Corbyn was at the kitchen table reading a letter when Jeremy entered in his pyjamas. He was still carrying the night’s fog with him as he sat opposite his friend, his grey hair reaching skyward in an alarming tuft.
‘I didn’t hear you come in last night,’ said Corbyn, peering above his glasses. ‘You must have been home late… a good meeting in Liverpool?’
‘Quite late, the night bus seemed to take an age,’ said Jeremy, reaching for Corbyn’s toast. ‘Very good meeting though – quite incredible, really. There must have been at least a thousand. The comrades thought perhaps even one-and-a-half.’
‘Yes, Liverpool has always been keen…,’ said Corbyn, returning to his letter. ‘The pro-European group have been in touch.’
‘Kinnock’s group?’ said Jeremy, helping himself to Corbyn’s coffee. He looked around. ‘Where’s El Gato?’
‘I think he’s out seeing one of his queens.’
‘It was really something in Liverpool, old boy. I mean the enthusiasm that was there. I put forward the full programme and, I tell you, people responded. There’s no need for you to worry about that.’
‘Very good…’ said Corbyn. ‘I don’t know whether Kinnock’s with them. I’m sure he’s knocking about somewhere in the background. They’re asking us to state clearly where we stand on the ref…’
He paused and looked up at Jeremy.
‘What do you mean: “The full programme”?’
‘Do they really need to ask? They should know where we stand on the EU, particularly after what’s happened in Greece,’ said Jeremy, crunching Corbyn’s toast.
‘What do you mean by “The Full Programme”?’ said Corbyn more sternly, removing his reading glasses and putting down the letter. ‘What exactly did you say last night?’
‘Oh, you know; what we stand for, how we’re going to get it – that kind of thing. I tell you…’ he paused and licked the butter from his fingers, ‘you’ve no need to worry. By their reaction I would judge they’re more than on board. I finished by saying that we’ll kick the Blairite rats out and bring back Clause Four.’
Corbyn crushed the letter in his fist.
‘You said what?!’
‘Well, come on old man, we’ve got to say it straight. We both know that if Labour is ever going to stand up for our class it needs to be serious.’
‘No one is going to take us seriously if we start harping on about bringing back Clause Four! I hope the press doesn’t get hold of this – they’ll make a laughing stock out of us.’
‘Well the people of Liverpool seemed to like it – isn’t that what counts? It was an interesting little experiment. You’re always saying we need to tone down our message, not stir things up. But last night showed that there’s quite a number who are receptive. You just have to engage them. And even though you said I shouldn’t, I asked people to raise their hand if they supported the NHS and every hand in the room went up.’
‘A thousand hard-lefts in Liverpool would do. But it’s hardly representative of the wider population. People aren’t used to these ideas. Half the room probably didn’t even know what had been said, and just stuck their hand up for fear of looking foolish.’
Jeremy furrowed his brow.
‘Even if you’re right, even if people are unfamiliar with socialist ideas, then isn’t our job as socialists to familiarise them such ideas, rather than assume they can’t understand them? Just like on this European question that our friends have written to us about. I’m sure that letter expresses the feelings of a number of people, but we can’t just go any way the wind blows. We’ve got to stick to our principles: there’s nothing progressive about the EU – it’s just a capitalist club.’
‘You might be right. But if we say that we’re against the EU we’ll lose the support of a great deal of the MPs.’
‘Have you forgotten that this contest is one-member-one-vote? There isn’t an MP’s bloc anymore. They’d have liked to have kept it, but they had to give it up if they wanted to get rid of the trade union bloc.’
‘But the MPs still wield influence. What they say can have a decisive impact on what the membership thinks.’
‘Maybe so, but our job must be to tell the truth, old boy. What if we were to win this blasted contest? If that were to happen, how could we turn around and say: “Actually, we were against the EU all along?” It’d be dishonest.’
‘Look, Jeremy,’ said Corbyn, smoothing out the crumpled letter. ‘If we don’t come out in favour of the European Union, then we place ourselves in the camp of those UKIP bigots. The PLP hates them more than the Tories! And so do young people. The papers are saying that much of our support is coming from the youth – who are very pro-EU. If we oppose it, we’ll ruin all the good… narrative, which we’ve developed on many important issues. After all, you’re always saying: “He who has the youth has the future.”’
‘Yes, but not by pandering to them… young people more than anyone can tell when you’re being disingenuous.’
‘Well, then we’ll never win. Don’t you see that this is politics? If we want to change the EU, if we want to make a difference on any number of things, we’ve got to win first. You need to practical. We won’t get anything done if we don’t win power.’
‘If you win the leadership whilst hiding the fact that you’re against the EU, then you’ll tie your hands going into the referendum. Besides, I thought this was meant to be about getting the message across? If we’re not able to convince everyone, then so be it. Far better to be in a minority and on the right side of history, than support the EU for short-term gain. It would be contradicting your so-called narrative. Need I remind you that the EU is very much in favour of austerity? If we oppose it and lose, we lay down a marker for the future.’
‘But people don’t think of the EU as pro-austerity. They don’t think of what’s going on in others countries. I mean, how can we align ourselves with the likes of those racists in UKIP? They’re against the free movement of labour!’
‘UKIP are abhorrent, of course, but are you saying they’re any different to the Tories? Are they fundamentally any different to a Prime Minister who says we should stop sea rescues because it only encourages more immigrants to “swarm” their way into Europe? If you’re so much in movement of the free movement of people, why don’t you tell it to the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean?
‘Look, you’re right,’ Jeremy continued, ‘we need to distinguish ourselves from UKIP. They’re a bunch of horrible racists. But to do that by saying that the EU is not a racist institution is as deluded as those liberals who think capitalism can have a human face. The EU does not support free movement. It controls movement, allowing some to move freely within its borders, while letting others drown at sea rather than permit them enter.’
‘But opposing the EU isn’t going to solve that problem. If we leave the EU it will mean throwing up even more borders. What about all the legislation protecting workers’ rights?’
‘Didn’t Indian independence from the British empire throw up more borders? Would you have opposed that in the name of ‘free movement’? Look, I’m not saying we should just say: “No to the EU.” We should argue that the EU is a big business club that has no interest in workers’ rights. If they quote workers’ rights, you quote back what the EU has done to the people of Greece: destruction of the minimum wage; destruction of collective bargaining rights; twenty-five percent unemployed; the Greek parliament controlled from Brussels. We can’t talk about the EU protecting British workers while it’s happily crushing the Greek workers. We should say: “No to the EU, Yes to a socialist Europe.”’
‘But people would never understand that. If we support leaving Europe we would lose support not only from liberal-minded people, we would endanger jobs. Half our exports go to Europe, you know. And you’d endanger EU nationals working in Britain. I’m sorry but this is more of your abstract, pie-in-the-sky talk.’
‘Things change my friend, and so do people. Once upon a time people thought slavery was natural, and that to think otherwise was “pie-in-the-sky”. That’s why we campaign: to make our point, not paralyze ourselves with fear that it can’t be done, or that it won’t be popular.
‘Personally, I think you should throw that letter in the bin, and we should both use what little time we have left in this contest to speak out against the EU; speak out against the racists who oppose it, speak out against the racists who support it. Obviously that will mean supporting a ‘Leave’ position in the referendum. But we will make the case for it on a socialist basis, distinguishing ourselves from the right wing – just as we should have done in Scotland – by saying we stand for international socialism. Of course, we would have to make a big point about defending all workers, not just EU nationals.’
Corbyn stared at the crumpled piece of paper. Jeremy took his empty plate to the bin and scraped away the crumbs, placed it in the sink, and left the kitchen.
‘Let’s talk about this again later,’ Corbyn called out. He folded the letter and slipped it in his pocket.
From Jeremy and Corbyn, Chapter Ten