Jeremy Corbyn was a Labour leader like no other: he and shadow chancellor John McDonnell put the interests of the working class first.
Their programme was to re-establish the welfare state, while learning from the mistakes of the Attlee government, assert the necessity of common ownership of the utilities, society’s infrastructure and strategic industries, and re-establish the right of all workers to bargain collectively through their unions.
The Green New Deal embodied these principles, not only to deal with the threat of climate change but to regenerate neglected regions through public investment in sustainable industries with secure, well paid jobs. The programme was popular, particularly with the young. Unlike other social democrat parties that had swung to the right, Labour’s membership more than doubled and it became the biggest political party in Europe.
In 2017, Corbyn and McDonnell came within a whisker of being in government. This would have meant cutting back the power of capital. Far from continued expansion and finding new ways of exploiting working people, public services and utilities, like health, energy, water and transport, would no longer be sources of profit for private companies. And that might be only the beginning. A Labour government could be the threat of a good example.
Corporate power and its political allies, including the right-wing of the Labour Party, launched a campaign to destroy Corbyn and the possibilities he represented. We could see the attacks coming but failed to deal with them.
Corbyn, a man of peace, was branded a friend of terrorists, a life-long anti-racist he was called an antisemite. He was said to be either too weak or too controlling, too old, wanting a return to the Seventies, or an unrealistic dreamer. His supporters were made out to be fanatics by the likes of the Daily Mail. The liberal press and the broadcasters joined in, from a respectful distance of course. Throughout this, the mainly young supporters stayed loyal, and they saw that Corbyn represented the only viable future for them.
But many mistakes were made. Labour’s Brexit position was confusing and weak, stemming from a failure to analyse the EU as a free-market institution to promote business interests. Labour MPs were allowed to insult and humiliate Corbyn, when there should have been a clear call for open selection of candidates at every election. If the BBC wanted someone to attack Corbyn, no need to ask a Tory, get in a Labour backbencher instead.
We see now that the leadership should have been much tougher in dealing with those determined to destroy it. When the history is written, those who led the vilification of Corbyn will rightly be excoriated.
The frustration among members grew as their strength was not mobilised. Early on it was said that to transform society, we must transform the Labour party. That never happened. If it had, I believe we could have fought back and won.
There are big questions for those who now see a failing economic system blocking not only social justice but our very survival. In these circumstances, can a left social democrat party ever get elected? Can Labour learn these lessons? The current health crisis is re-affirming our mutual dependence and sense of community. Can Labour harness this for political change, or do we slip back into being the Tory second XI, allowed to win an election when people need a different face, but only on the condition that all stays the same? Step forward Blair mark two.
Let’s send out a thunderous shout of NO! What counts, in the end, is the need for all people to live lives of peace, security and dignity. A party of labour must be an advocate for that, and its programme must be truly radical to deliver those fundamental rights. The loss of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell is a major setback, but the struggle continues. It always will. Because it has to.
Ken Loach is a filmmaker and director