By Siddy Shivdasani
I have voted Labour my entire adult life and I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.
But despite describing my mixed race self as “politically black”, I only joined the party for the first time in 2017.
Rewind to March 1990, aged 17, I was working as a projectionist at The Ritzy cinema in Brixton, south London, when a demo against Thatcher’s loathed “poll tax” drew a crowd of thousands across the road, outside Lambeth Town Hall.
The so-called “Community Charge” rate was due to be announced that evening on an electronic board but the protest descended into a riot, albeit mild by Brixton standards. Aggressive police officers found themselves outflanked, outnumbered and cut off at one point as missiles rained down on them.
A reporter from The Sun rang up the cinema to ask what was going on but I put the phone down on him. Ironically, I’ve spent the majority of my career as a sub-editor on the Murdoch Empire red-top paper, despite left-wing leanings and a firm anti-racism stance. Most outside the media would be surprised how many journalists are privately odds with their own outlets’ editorial lines.
But I wasn’t private about it and do feel like I made a difference, although it’s impossible — nor necessary — to quantify.
Largely because I’d been working abroad for many months before the 1997 General Election, when Labour finally got back into power after 18 years in the political wilderness, I didn’t know much about Tony Blair when he became Prime Minister.
But watching on TV back in my native Brixton while I was taking a break from Lebanon, I have to admit I shed a few tears as he and wife Cherie greeted flag-waving crowds outside Downing Street. It felt like the beginning of something good.
Remember Cool Britannia?
It goes without saying that Blair missed an obviously massive opportunity to help pull the working classes out of poverty. But it turns out he was just another Murdoch puppet and his legacy will always be the Iraq War, which will haunt the world for decades.
It will surely haunt him to the grave if he has even an ounce of humility in his body.
His successor, Gordon Brown, seemed like a genuinely centrist compromise but he lost the 2010 General Election on the basis of a comment about an anti-immigration OAP being a “bigot”, not realising he was still mic’d up. The truth is that even he was too left-wing for the right-wing media powerhouses and their corporate allies.
Committed socialist Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election in 2015 amid bleating from the right-wing press about the party’s retreat into its “hard-left” default position as the eternal, divided, weak Opposition. But he defied expectations for the first time by directly or indirectly boosting party membership by around 325,000 from around 190,000 during his first year as leader.
The following year, I gladly took voluntary redundancy from The Sun and was inspired to join Labour by Corbyn’s brilliant performance in the 2017 General Election. He had begun the campaign 20 points behind in the polls but despite being of pensioner age, he had a magnetic appeal for young voters.
As a footnote, a Tory party worker was said to have vomited at their HQ when the exit poll came in. Oh, how I laughed.
The Left was back.
Unfortunately, Corbyn fell just short of enough seats to form a government but he did win a staggering 40 per cent of the vote. It was the largest share increase by a Labour leader since Clement Attlee in 1945.
But the subplot was a civil war that had been raging behind party closed doors between Blairites and supporters of Corbyn since he was elected leader. It has been said that his own centre-right MPs sabotaged his 2017 General Election campaign because they preferred a Tory government to a socialist one.
Labour is meant to be for the workers: the clue is in the name.
The 2017 betrayal by certain MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was harsh on Corbyn but worse was to come. The cooked-up antisemitism row that engulfed him in the lead up to last year’s General Election was bogus, just a stick to beat him with by the right-wing media.
Since when did they care about antisemitism? But I do think Corbyn let the issue get away from him and his bid to appease his critics on that subject in the lead up to the 2019 General Election was always doomed.
It’s not like I think he’s perfect.
Yet I believe he provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have a government truly acting in the best interests of the wider population. It’s of no comfort to me that Corbyn was right — with the benefit of hindsight — to prioritise the ailing NHS in his 2019 General Election manifesto considering what’s unfolded with the coronavirus crisis.
By way of contrast to his predecessor, since Sir Keir Starmer was elected as Labour leader in April of this year, membership plummeted by around 250 a day between then and early November from 552,835 to 495,961 — a loss of 56,874.
I voted for left-wing Rebecca Long-Bailey in the contest and was one of the first to leave the party when crypto-Tory Starmer got in. The exodus was despite Corbyn allies, including his former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, urging members to stay.
Many weeks after I left, I received a phone call from Labour HQ with an activist wanting to know why I had binned my membership card. I said that, ultimately, I could not be a member of a party led by a self-proclaimed Zionist. In fairness, she agreed with everything I had to say but tried to flag up some decent policies the new leadership has in the pipeline.
Before the pandemic, we were told by the Tories that there “was no magic money tree” but they seem to have found one as the Covid-19 crisis deepened. That adds weight to Corbyn’s claim that his manifesto was realistically costed, something he struggled to convey effectively.
But I wonder what the result would be if a General Election was held tomorrow and he was still Labour leader.
Meanwhile, Starmer has proved hopeless on so many levels, presumably trying to woo what he believes to be a majority of the electorate, one that wants ‘Tory Lite’. His ineffectiveness means it’s actually been left to Black, 22-year-old Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford to shame the Government into feeding Britain’s sickeningly high number of poverty-stricken children.
Starmer is Blairite to the bone who looks like he’s mid-shit every time his face reddens and he furrows his brow to speak. By way of contrast — and while suspended from the PLP by the new leader for a supposedly antisemitic statement — Corbyn has been a beacon of dignity. He has plenty of fight left in him despite nearing the grand old age of 72.
His Project for Peace and Justice is due to be launched on January 17. The body will focus on areas including environmentalism, international peace cooperation, poverty, social inequality and corporation power.
That’s the kind of organisation I want to join.