All Corbynistas now? Labour leader’s doubters won over by election success
Cabinet member tweeted last summer that 'Corbyn experiment has crashed and burned'
16 June, 2017 — By Richard Osley
Council leader Georgia Gould celebrates with MPs Keir Starmer and Tulip Siddiq
LABOUR members who once doubted leader Jeremy Corbyn are now looking to unite behind his leadership after the party delivered strong general election results, including giant majorities in both of Camden’s constituencies.
With Tulip Siddiq winning the supposedly neck-and-neck battle in Hampstead and Kilburn by more than 15,000 votes and Keir Starmer almost doubling his majority in Holborn and St Pancras, several one-time critics of Mr Corbyn said it was time to give him credit. He was given a standing ovation by Labour MPs in the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon after the party’s election gains helped strip Theresa May of her parliamentary majority. Several councillors admitted he had changed their opinion of him.
The turnaround in mood comes less than a year after 20 Camden councillors took the active step of demanding Mr Corbyn step down in an open letter, with a clutch of his fiercest critics tackling him in public view across social media. During an ill-fated leadership challenge last summer, Labour big hitters, including the then council leader Sarah Hayward, Dame Jane Roberts, ex-MP Frank Dobson and Mr Starmer, who now says he can picture Mr Corbyn as prime minister, urged local members to support rival Owen Smith.
Perhaps in a clue as to what was to come, members ignored those pleas and instead backed Mr Corbyn to stay on. Ms Siddiq, who benefited from hundreds of young recruits joining her campaign in what was meant to be a hard-to-call marginal seat, also supported Mr Smith then, but had not agreed with others that Mr Corbyn was to blame for the result of the European referendum, which led to dismay across Camden, where around 75 per cent of people who took part voted Remain.
She said: “The Labour Party is at its best when it is both united and determined. The mood at Monday’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party was infectious and will set the tone for the vital months and years ahead. The energy of the leadership was matched by our wonderful new Members of Parliament. There is a real belief that, whatever has happened over the past two years, the general election results can act as a springboard to greater things.”
Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in the Union Chapel on the eve of the election
Back at the Town Hall, new council leader Georgia Gould urged Labour members to see the polls results as a triumph. She was among signatories to the letter calling for Mr Corbyn to step down but said this week: “That was my view after a disappointing result on an issue I care about [EU membership], but since Jeremy won the leadership I have put all my energy into campaigning for Labour to win the election under his leadership.”
Cllr Gould added: “Jeremy Corbyn ran a fantastic campaign and connected with people who had never engaged with politics before. He put forward a manifesto with widespread appeal across generations. “It was brilliant to see so many young people making their voices heard and it opens up an exciting new era for British politics. A Tory government propped up by the DUP, who stand for all the values that Camden rejects, cannot and should not last. I join with Jeremy Corbyn in saying we are ready for another election to end this coalition of chaos.”
Labour had been taunted by rivals that voters would find Mr Corbyn an electoral turn-off and that seats with slender margins, like the one then held by Ms Siddiq by just 1,138 votes, would fall. Conservative councillor Gio Spinella, the party’s local chairman, said in an open letter that Ms Siddiq’s initial nomination of Mr Corbyn would be of greater help to the Tories than anything his party could do.
The caution led to Ms Siddiq running a campaign based on her personal standing, with plenty of references to her own whip-breaking rebellions in Parliament on issues such as HS2 and, most significantly, voting against the triggering of Article 50, the mechanism for divorcing the EU. In one interview, she explicitly said that Mr Corbyn had no chance of victory.
The New Journal reporting on differences of opinion at last summer’s leadership election
Momentum, the campaign group set up to support Mr Corbyn’s left-wing transformation of the party, at times staged activities independently of the official local campaign schedule. They marched up Kilburn High Road carrying placards detailing policies not apparently reported by the mainstream media channels. Some Labour organisers now say Mr Corbyn had become an asset to them by the end of the campaign. There are varying levels of how much credit should be invested in the leader’s performance, with some members reminding those most euphoric about the results that the party is still not in government. But a consensus has grown that Mr Corbyn will not now face a new leadership challenge, like the one that was apparently being prepared in the event of a heavy loss of seats.
Those who are not praising Mr Corbyn directly or retain some lingering doubts have still celebrated the effect the party’s election manifesto had on the voting public. It promised to build a million new homes, including 100,000 social homes a year, scrap tuition fees, hire 10,000 new police officers, reverse cuts to school funding and ban zero-hours contracts in the workplace. The party said it would pay for this investment by raising a corporation tax and a “Robin Hood” charge on financial transactions.
Camden finance chief Councillor Theo Blackwell, another past critic, has joined the calls for unity. “Jeremy found it during the campaign, and the manifesto was great. Let’s also remember Tories’ Daily Mail-version of Brexit was going to destroy this country and make us a nastier, poorer place. A lot of people voted for us against that awful vision of the future. This still could happen,” he said. “Labour is a broad church between social democrats like me and socialists, and unity is everything now to stop hard Brexit, not party squabbles from either wing.”
The party is now gearing up for another potential general election and next year’s council elections, where it is looking to build on its majority in the Town Hall chamber. Some are predicting an even bigger lead once the borough goes to the polls again. Backbench councillor Thomas Gardiner, one of Mr Corbyn’s supporters, said: “I think the left has always said that the party should reflect all views within the party. Unity behind Jeremy would be a positive thing. It’s welcome that people are seeing what a good leader he can be.”
From ‘one man band’ to leader who inspired young voters
IN the wake of the European referendum result and amid the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, several critics in Camden’s strong Labour group made their dismay clear on social media.
Cabinet members, including Pat Callaghan, Jonathan Simpson, Phil Jones and Richard Olszewski, were among the 20 councillors who signed a letter demanding Mr Corbyn step down at the start of last summer. Mr Olszewski tweeted at the time: “The Corbyn experiment has crashed and burned”, while Cantelowes councillor Danny Beales added: “MPs, MEPs, many cllrs and council leaders, increasing number of CLPs and the general public say Corbyn should go. Who is he serving?”
Highgate councillor Sally Gimson described leadership rival Owen Smith as a “winner” and Mr Corbyn as a “one-man band”, while regeneration chief Councillor Phil Jones said: “I’m afraid that Jeremy Corbyn is the best thing to happen to the Tories since… ever.”
Cllr Jones this week: “I said that based on my assessment of the situation at the time and I did vote for Owen Smith. Jeremy did better than I expected. “I think we have a lot of work still to do but he would have been criticised if he had lost lots of seats, so should get credit if he does well. At the end of the day we are all Labour and will be pulling together as what we’ve ended up with, a Tory and DUP coalition, is the worst thing possible.” He added: “On election day – it sounds like a cliché – but we had people going around beeping their horns in support and young people getting involved. Younger people are getting engaged and Corbyn played a part in it. Owen Smith is now in the shadow cabinet so that’s a sign of the unity.”
Cllr Gimson said she could now see Labour winning the next election, adding: “We are united now behind Jeremy. He clearly connected with people, and so did the manifesto. “What was interesting was the other parties were squeezed and Corbyn was forming a coalition against Theresa May and the Conservatives. You don’t always see that when you are so close to it but during the campaign, people got to see him like they haven’t before, because the BBC was forced to give him more of a chance. There were videos of him being shared across the internet and his message was a message of hope for people.”
She added: “Going around, people are genuinely worried about the future. There are families worried about how they are going to pay bills, public sector workers who can’t afford to live in the city. People were worried about cuts to their schools, to their public services. They were not willing to give Theresa May a blank cheque on austerity and they came together around Corbyn and Labour’s positive campaign.”