Maybe it’s the curse of great writers that they don’t get to choose which of their works carry forward and define them for future generations. It’s easy to imagine, for example, a world one hundred years hence where the Harry Potter books are still loved, by children and adults alike, as timeless classics, but the biting and heartbreaking social commentary of The Casual Vacancy is forgotten.
In the present day George Orwell has come to mean 1984 and Animal Farm, but, for me at least, his most important work is The Road to Wigan Pier, his story of the industrial North in the inter-war years. It’s important because it is a relief map of social improvement since then. It may be heading towards the edge of being within living memory, but the conditions that Orwell describes are of a Britain alien to our own.
For the conservative (small ‘c’) at the time there was no need for this social change – the poor were poor, but coal flowed, ships were built, heavy industry rolled on. How many people have stood against that to achieve what we have now; universal suffrage, health care, provision for those out of or unable to work, care for the elderly, housing standards, education? For certain some names feature more prominently in the history books, but they were carried to their place there by a human tide of those who marched, voted, campaigned, gave speeches, wrote pamphlets, volunteered, stood for parliament, demanded better. Without them, their unknown faces standing in a crowd that stretches back across 80 years, we’d not know the names Bevan or Attlee, Wilson or Benn.
I bring this up because this evening this meme was retweeted into my timeline:
What annoyed me about it was not its support for Corbyn – I, and everybody else, sees a dozen such things every day – but its use of Neil Kinnock’s words at the end. The critical point is that when Kinnock spoke those words he was talking of the need for Labour, not the need for Neil Kinnock.
I don’t object to anything in the Corbyn meme, other than the suggestion that without Corbyn it’s impossible. Labour always has been, and must remain, a movement. It shouldn’t be defined by its leader, nor reliant on one person. Labour isn’t about being Corbynite, or Blairite, or anything else-ite. It should be about looking at the society Orwell described and saying, “That was shit! We need to keep moving away from that.”
It’s not an easy path; yes, the poor need to be released from austerity, but that has to be done with a coherent economic plan. Yes we want a fairer society, but we also have to realise that “the rich” aren’t a money tree that we can harvest at will. We may want to stay in Europe, but we can’t do that by simply telling those concerned about losing their jobs to immigrants that they’re racist. We may even want to scrap Trident, but there has to be a comprehensive defence strategy to replace it.
Opposing Corbyn, as I mainly do these days, the most common question I’ve been asked is, “OK, who would be better?” While it’s tempting to glibly reply “anybody” the truth is that I don’t know, but I feel it’s a job bigger than any one person. It needs a leader who can lead, supported by MPs who trust them and are trusted by them, it needs people who can create innovative policy, it needs people who can shape the party through persuasion, through compromise, through vision and through a genuine desire to see it continue as en effective force for good in society. It’s not a one-man-band, and those who would make it so belittle it.
Maybe, to survive, Labour needs to think less about who leads it and, instead, where it is heading.
Without that the future…well, over to you, Mr Orwell…