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Friday, 2 October 2015

Reflections on the Revolution in the Labour Party

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn flanked by young supporters [source: BBC]

‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.’

William Wordsworth was right. Of all Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, it will be the many young activists who would have felt the greatest sense of euphoria, and of new possibilities, following his against-the-odds landslide victory in the Labour leadership election. Wordsworth was describing his elation on hearing about the radical, unforeseen Revolution in Paris in July 1789; he was surely right to highlight the particular role of the younger generation in creating unstoppable tidal waves of public opinion. In this summer’s leadership contest in the British Labour Party, new members and supporters signed up enthusiastically in order to vote for Corbyn, despite the urgent assurances of senior members of the party that his policies made him ‘unelectable’. The other candidates were seen as safer choices: more mainstream, experienced and familiar faces. But for the young in particular, familiarity breeds contempt. They opted instead for Corbyn; pure, decent, seemingly untainted by power or political ambition, and completely untested. In so doing, they overturned assumptions that had prevailed in the party for at least three decades, baffling political experts, and propelling the re-energised party towards a future that appears both exciting and uncertain. Does History give us any clues about the likely trajectory of this newly radicalised and optimistic Labour Party?

In Paris in 1789, it was the young who led the charge in overturning the unappealing and ineffective absolutism of Louis XVI. Standing on a table in the fashionable Café du Foy before a volatile crowd of young activists, Camille Desmoulins (aged 29) urged them to ‘take up arms and adopt cockades by which we may know each other’. Within days, patrols of armed citizens had taken control of the streets, the Bastille had fallen. Desmoulins’ ‘cockade’ evolved into the new ‘Tricolore’ flag, a powerful symbol of the new and energetic young nation that had emerged from the shadows of the sterile, geriatric ‘Ancien Regime’.

Camille Desmoulins, Musée Carnavalet.jpg
Camille Desmoulins

In the US Protest movement of the 1960s, being young was similarly a badge of wisdom and honour. The musician Bob Dylan was branded the ‘spokesman of his generation’ whilst still only 21. In songs such as The Times They Are A Changin’ and Masters of War, Dylan castigated the older generation as cynical, obstructive and morally bankrupt. His protest songs about racial prejudice and the Vietnam War encouraged young people to actively resist injustice and challenge hypocrisy. Student activism played a crucial role in the overturning of segregation laws in the south, which fuelled a more radical demand for full equality between blacks and whites, an unthinkable goal for the previous generation of black leaders. In 1966, Stokely Carmichael, the new, 25-year old Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), began his campaign for ‘black power’. A radical call for black independence from white society and culture, the Black Power movement gave rise to new fashions, artistic movements and political campaigns that have been embraced by subsequent generations of young Americans, black and white.

So far, so good for the young radicals in the Labour Party. But here comes the cold water. By rejecting compromise and caution, Jeremy Corbyn has been carried to an unprecedented triumph. But history shows that the same ideological purity quickly becomes a divisive force. In December 1966, SNCC voted to expel all white members from the organisation. It became riven by internal disputes over aims and strategy and by the early 1970s had virtually ceased to exist. In Revolutionary France, the discord was even more explosive. Having presided over the execution of the king and the systematic murder of many royalists, the leaders turned on each other. Desmoulins was sent to his trial and execution on the orders of his old school friend, Robespierre, who himself went to the guillotine a few months later. Such a dramatic conclusion does not seem likely in the Labour Party, but it may prove difficult to reconcile Jeremy Corbyn's forceful and resolute adherence to ‘true Labour values’ with the need to communicate with a broader, more diverse and altogether less interested electorate in the months ahead.

In some ways, the circumstances of modern politics make this even more challenging. Unlike previous generations, Corbyn’s supporters communicate with each other primarily on social media.  Commentators have observed that, by ‘liking’ friends and posts that broadly reflect their own preferences, political activists create an ‘echo chamber’ in which they are insulated from the sound of dissenting voices. But this can also heighten the extent to which the passion of the participants is disconnected from a wider audience, who are busy posting about football, DIY, cookery programmes and cute pets. Twenty-first century radicalism appears to be more self-contained than that of the French Revolutionaries and civil rights activists, which emerged from deeply-rooted social and political grievances. Having seized power, Corbyn and his supporters will now have to start again, introducing their ideas to a largely middle-aged and middle-class audience who have historically preferred compromise and caution over optimism. I would be surprised if the early momentum and euphoria of the Labour Party’s new ‘dawn’ endures the many setbacks, challenges and uncertainties of the months ahead.

However, perhaps my assumptions are as outdated as those of the French aristocracy on the eve of the Revolution. Young Corbynites now have the opportunity to prove that their doubters are simply on the wrong side of History.


  1. Brilliant article ..one thing though ...many oldies including me aged 70yrs who were young in the sixties , still carry the same beliefs as Corben( and we are NOT extremists) so his support is a mix of young and old. DOT

  2. Dear Dot, totally agree. Post above not intended to suggest that Corbyn supporters are extremists, but simply that they are calling for a totally different way of doing politics. The involvement of so many young people was crucial in overturning people's expectations and creating a sense of optimism that major change was possible, and desirable.

    However I finished with a challenge to young and old activists alike: could they reach out beyond their comfort zone and entice people who are not as devoted to their cause? My assumption at the time was that the excitement within the movement would make this more difficult - it's so much nicer in the comfort zone after all! Nothing I have seen in last ten months has changed my view.