If there’s any post-election article that Democrats ought to be reading, it’s this Guardian piece. And I don’t recommend the Guardian, which at the best of times falls somewhere between Stalinism and Greta Thunberg, and has been churning out a plethora of Sad Corbyn pieces.
But this one actually goes to the sort of place that Labour and Corbyn’s Momentum expected to win with their hard red politics. And tries to understand why the same old working class that lefties celebrate in song,, “The people’s flag is brightest red” and all that, dumped Labour.
You can intellectualise the collapse of Labour’s vote in its north-east heartlands, but it is still a surreal spectacle up close. How had it happened? I had spent the previous evening at Fishburn Working Men’s Club, a mile down the road from Tony Blair’s old constituency home, asking that question.
Downstairs, in the party room, there is a battle-worn miners’ banner in a glass case bearing the stern face of Keir Hardie; it is brought out each year to head the Durham miners’ parade. On the walls of the main bar, there are paintings of the former Fishburn colliery which once employed nearly every family in this village and, in pride of place, above the red leather seating, a solemn tableau of the “pits closed by the Tories”, row upon row of lost mines, each with its symbolic badge of arms.
Underneath this memorial, on Friday night, regulars at the club for 40 and 50 years explained to me, one after the other, how for the first time in their lives they had voted Conservative at this election.
Any Momentum diehard who doubts the truth of that sentiment up here should come and talk to the Fishburn regulars. Arthur Hudspeth is playing the fruit machine in the social club. He recently celebrated his 91st birthday. He went down the pit at 14 in 1942 and worked in mines until his retirement at 65. The only two years he missed were for his national service: “first battalion of the Durhams” he tells me, looking me in the eye. He has voted Labour without fail in every election since Attlee’s victory in 1945, but not this time. He is ashamed to say he didn’t vote at all, but winces at the mention of Corbyn’s name and shakes his head. Why? “Rubbish. He’s not my kind of man. Not strong enough. He doesn’t understand us here.”
To start to unpack what Hudspeth means, you need to look in the dominoes room of the Fishburn Club. The symbolic decoration here is provided by the plaques and banners not of mines but of local regiments. It is this strand of the collective memory to which Corbyn, as Labour leader, appears to have had nothing to say.
Talking to regulars the same allegations surface again and again. That Corbyn consorted with the IRA, that he is soft on terrorists. That he has remained silent on prosecuting veterans over the Bloody Sunday killings. The leader’s shifting agnosticism on Brexit, in this context, is portrayed as yet another failure of patriotism, just as symbolic as his unforgivable reluctance to sing God save the Queen at a Battle of Britain remembrance service.
Were people not persuaded at all by the pledges on the NHS, the promise of nationalisations?
“You are talking about the north-east of England. It is not just based on a strong unionised workforce, but also the armed services. There is hardly a family around here who has not had a son or a brother or a father serve. A man like Corbyn, with his history, they could not vote for him.”
The working class doesn’t like traitors.
Took quite a while for the folks in the Guardian to figure that out. And this should serve as a serious warning for Democrats in America. Especially as they prepare to go in with Bernie Sanders, America’s Corbyn.
They won with Obama. But that sort of thing is a matter of tone and image. There were ways to take a man of Corbyn’s politics and make them palatable. The problem comes when the old Left lets its freak flag fly and runs somebody like Bernie or Warren. Radicals who don’t disguise what they are.
That’s what happened with Corbyn.
A New Britain candidate with the same basic views might have prevailed, barring Brexit perhaps. But Corbyn was what he was. And there was no disguising it.
The working class will vote for radicals if they’re good at working a room. But the old working class won’t vote for obvious traitors and irritating radicals who can’t relate to anyone outside a university campus.