Report from the Fringes

Ox stall

Campaign stall in central Oxford

by Orlando Lazar

in the OLR blog series on the Corbyn Campaign

I’m speaking from the periphery of the campaign – the odd afternoon of leafleting, a couple of evenings on the phones. The centre, where the organising takes place, seems to be populated by those die-hard Labour left-wingers, people whose frustrations and efforts over the years have been vindicated (for now) in the real possibility that their party could be transformed in just a few weeks. It’s their victory, if they pull it off.

People like me supplement them here on the periphery. I’m a student who voted Labour at the last two elections because I wanted to stop the Tories, and that same sort of negative reaction drove me to become a Labour member in order to stop Liz Kendall becoming leader. That was before Jeremy Corbyn joined the race. Like many people I know, my political consciousness was shaped in the student movement of 2010 – more focused on occupations and marches than select committees and local councils. As such, a fair amount of the criticism of starry-eyed young supporters is aimed at me. So what is it like to participate in a campaign for the leader of a party whose prominent members have called me and my friends morons?

We are infiltrators, not from any particular party but from a different mindset. We are (so it goes) more naturally suited to pressure-groups or protests, to single-issue campaigns and picket lines, than to the serious business of choosing the leader of a parliamentary party which we have criticised relentlessly from the outside. We don’t really ‘do’ parliamentary politics. We don’t really ‘do’ internal party elections. So we’d better not ‘do’ the election of Jeremy Corbyn.

But why should it be a surprise that those involved in protest movements have a keen grasp of the benefits of a loud and powerful oppositional voice? After all, we have experience of what it’s like to have the loudest voices united against you. When all the sensible chaps on the front benches agree with all the sensible chaps in the comment sections, it is easy to dismiss challenges to that consensus as challenges to political common sense. But we all know that common sense is fickle. It’s moveable, and it’s moving fast in a direction where the political flashpoints of the day become whether we should cut this benefit or that one, just how ‘flexible’ young workers can be expected to be, just how much more than half your income you should expect to go on rent, and so on. The sensible Left will sit on one side of those fences, the sensible Right will sit on the other, and everybody outside those poles will be cast aside as youthful idealists or pointless, fringe radicals.

Corbyn camp Ox

Fringe radicals: Oxford Corbyn campaigners

That students and young people should want to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in order to widen this quickly shrinking mainstream of political opinion is not surprising, even if we’re not placing our faith in parliamentary politics any time soon. That mainstream has been shrinking for our entire politically-aware lives, and it’s now too small to fit some of society’s most vulnerable people. What’s surprising is how many other people seem to agree. The number of people who will stop to talk to me on the busiest road in Oxford, on the hottest day in weeks, is surprising. The number of people who will cheerfully talk about renationalisation when I call them in the middle of their dinner is surprising (incidentally, I seem to be incapable of calling people who aren’t audibly eating their dinner).

In the face of uniform hostility from Labour grandees and the mainstream media, it’s surprising that so many people seem not to have received the ‘Anyone But Corbyn’ message, the message that the next election (and the next, and the next) will be fought over twiddling the dials of the status quo. My experiences are only a tiny snapshot of a much larger picture, so it’s important to remember that they can’t be taken as representative of that picture. The polls might be wrong. The people I’ve talked to might be outliers. But as someone who knows what it’s like to campaign against public opinion – try convincing economics students not to cross a picket – this certainly feels different.

Orlando Lazar is a DPhil student in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University.

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