In defence of socialism


ONE cold night back in January I traipsed across to Castle Bromwich  to cover a meeting for my blog.
Word had spread on Facebook that a member of the local police team would be speaking to parish councillors and over 100 residents, furious about a sharp rise in crime, seized the chance to get answers.
One by one locals stood up to challenge officers. One particularly harrowing story came from an 18-year-old girl who had been alone in the house one tea-time when two masked men tried to break down the front door.
A call-handler, based on the other side of the city following a restructure, had inexplicably stood down an emergency response and it was later suggested to the family that the thugs in balaclavas may have "got the wrong house."
The inspector sent to face the crowd, to his credit, was incredibly candid. He painted a picture of a force brought to its knees by spending cuts. Thousands of officers had gone, teams had been redeployed and the latest chaos followed the most recent in a series of reorganisations.
The anger in that room was palpable. People ground their teeth, muttered darkly about people from Shard End or, in the case of one local, proudly announced they had taken to keeping a baseball bat behind the door. But when I walked home 90 minutes later it struck me that the audience in true blue Castle Brom had missed the point. It wasn't the officers to blame for the massively depleted police force, it was the politicians who had ordered the cuts.
The Conservative Party has endured because it has a ruthless survival instinct, possibly only surpassed by Doctor Who's Cybermen. They adapt new strategies, they evolve, they stagger on a century after they should have been shut down for good... But robotic slogans and a ruthless media mainframe will only get you so far. The real reason the Tories have lasted this long is because they always manage to shift the blame elsewhere.
Take the NHS - which everyone knows is in crisis; waiting times are rising, staff levels are falling and hospitals are screaming out for more money. In RPG terms the life bar's flashing red and we're hearing beeping sounds. Despite this, what we've seen in the past seven years is a government blaming hospitals' handling of budgets, people living longer - how dare they - and health tourism (even though migrants are more likely to be staffing hospital wards than taking up beds). Not once have our elected leaders admitted that their policy of austerity - which to me always sounded like a particularly shit brand of Lynx - might be to blame.
Our schools meanwhile are having to write begging letters to parents to help pay teachers' wages; when I visited my old primary last month, the headteacher, an affable, talkative man, went suddenly quiet for a moment when he confessed he would have to lose two staff members this summer. Proof again that a lot of numbers scribbled on paper somewhere in Whitehall have a human cost.
The steady running down in public services is justified by the fact that as a country we simply don't have the cash. Unless of course it's to cut the tax for top earners or big business. Or bomb people, obviously, there's always money for missiles...
There were those who always thought Labour should fight this election on the same basic premise, maybe just looking a bit sadder about it. For many years now the common view has been that the economy, not society, is the beating heart of a nation. No party, experts say, can fight and win a campaign saying they're prepared to raise taxes, that the rich should pay more, or that the system is simply unfair. No, more than that, that the system needs to change.
As someone who has sat on the left of the Labour Party for my entire adult life I never honestly expected to get a chance to vote for this vision. For all the party's proud traditions it had, in truth, been too timid for too long. It wanted social justice but was too shy to say so. It allow too much of what the Tories had done - shackling trade unions, privatisation, trusting to bankers in London - to go on unopposed.
I know this because I've got a sister effectively on minimum wage who has to take calls from her boss at gone 10pm. I've got a grandmother who is bed-bound, blind and dying from dementia, but deemed well enough to fund her own social care. I've sat in trade union meetings where some 60 journos were facing the boot and found that, actually, we couldn't do anything to stop it.
Some have said that it was these concessions which enabled Labour to win. But by 2015 it had got to the point when the party's own MPs were scrabbling to disown a 50p top of rate of tax and being whipped through the lobby to support another raft of welfare cuts. The party had no compunctions about changing its image, but it had lost belief it could change the country.
Against this backdrop, Jeremy Corbyn - a lifelong backbencher - was elected the leader against all the odds. It's fair to say that if you'd told me aged 20 that a close friend of Tony Benn's would become Leader of Opposition I'd have laughed you out of town. One of Tony Blair's mates, for sure. But Tony Benn's... You may as well have told me that a sulky looking Scot would become the world's No 1 tennis player or that one day I'd get to interview the singer with the cheek bones who I'd fancied for the best part of a decade.
Now to be clear, Corbyn's not perfect - no politician is. But when I trekked to Brum two summers ago to hear him speak [and I had to settle for hearing because the rally was too crowded to get a seat] I came away with an impression of a measured, pleasant man. More important to the members, here was an MP who believed - really believed - in the party's founding principles. And he was not afraid to say so.
It has been a difficult few years for the left generally and Labour specifically. If you were old and supported Corbyn you were stuck in the 1970s, if you were young and supported Corbyn you were a naive fool. But contrary to what the national media thinks, my politics weren't shaped by sitting discussing Das Kapital with the "liberal elite", they came from seven years working in journalism and the appalling inequality I saw. I thought the status quo was wrong and it was time we did something about it and I'll never be made to feel ashamed of that.
When Theresa May called her snap election every prediction was that she would ease to a landslide majority. A modern-day Margaret Thatcher, super-charged by Brexit, would surely crush an ageing leftie who spent his spare time growing marrows and thought it was appropriate to keep pens in his top pocket [the bastard].
The Tories clearly believed the hype and yet the campaign they have fought has been nothing short of disastrous. A manifesto which seemed to take aim at everything from animals and people with Alzheimer's to schoolkids - not to mention May's decision to dodge a debate - have done massive damage to their reputation.
But if the Conservatives have been punished for their taking voters for fools and victory for granted, Labour deserves credit for a passionate and energetic campaign. Time and again in recent weeks the party has defied the critics. Admittedly expectations were so low that Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell could have costed the policies with chocolate coins and people would have said "well, at least it's costed". Except The Sun obviously, who would have accused McDonnell of having stolen the said currency from children's Christmas stockings and selling the surplus to Gerry Adams.
Joking apart, it's actually been a buoyant few weeks. From Maxine Peake's flat vowels in Labour's first political broadcast to May's flat out evil stare every time a voter asks her a difficult question. An anti-austerity ska song has entered the charts and George Osborne has left the political stage.
Then there's the Labour manifesto - so good they published it twice. The document has offered the clearest choice to voters for 30-odd years. No longer do arguments about parties being "all the same" or a case of simply swapping red for blue hold true. Better still, the platform has revealed that far from being politically toxic, socialist ideas are in fact very popular with the public. Polls had suggested this for years, but with apparently nothing to lose Labour has finally tested the theory. Tellingly, the Tories have often taken the attack line that the Corbyn programme is unaffordable rather than trying to argue it is distasteful per se.
Trident is maybe the only issue where Labour hasn't been able to set the agenda, although even that could perhaps be remedied by repeat viewings of the film War Games in key marginals. After all, if an Amstrad-era computer can realise the folly of mutually assured destruction, then it may be within the wit of that angry man on Question Time with debatable facial hair.
As for Corbyn himself, he must take credit for energising a sizeable number of young voters and attracting hundreds of thousands to the party - now the biggest in the Western world. While there's bound to be a few less than pleasant characters in the mix, the suggestion that the half a million he had recruited were just a bunch of hard-line Marxists was as insulting as it was ridiculous. I know the London media has some funny ideas about life beyond Watford, but the idea that a standing army of Bolsheviks has been roaming the English countryside since 1986 ready and waiting to light the fires of revolution - or at least raise Capital Gains Tax - is frankly laughable.
Moreover, Corbyn's appearances on the stump and in interviews have, at least in part, dispelled the notion that he's somehow a terrorist-sympathising crank. True, the Daily Mail might still be spitting bile about the IRA and Venezuelan-style economics, but I wonder if it has really cut through? Tellingly you never heard Carlos the Jackal confess to taking pictures of drain covers.
But before we get carried away by the thought of the greatest political upset of modern times, I would stress that the most likely result remains that Conservatives will win on Thursday. Undoubtedly the gap has closed, but there are so many unknown factors - if the young will turn-out, if the vote share is going up in the right seats, if the terrorism attacks won't push a few people back to the Tories. If everything goes against Labour then even the treble-digit majority isn't entirely off the table.
I don't want to end what I hope is a positive post with some doom-laden plea for damage limitation. But the fact is that whichever polling company is right - if any of them - every vote matters. Every seat the Tories take will raise May's standing. Every one Labour loses will undermine Corbyn's good performance and the groundwork it could lay for the future.
History, as everyone knows, is written by the winners [or at least the papers who backed them]. If the Conservatives win big then they'll try to brush over the fact that far from "strong and stable" they've looked panicked and confused for much of the campaign. Those Corbyn critics who have come to find a grudging respect for the man's conviction and admitted that actually some of his ideas make sense will snap back to their old positions. "Of course he lost. He was always going to lose."
If that happens, the hard-fought gains will count for very little. The politics of soundbites may never again rule supreme in the social media age - when it's easy for a YouTube savvy 16-year-old to set your catchphrases to rap music - but May's cynical electioneering will still  be largely vindicated by the media. Dodging ordinary people and refusing to defend your record will be seen as the way it's done.
Similarly, the idea that notions such as nationalisation, which are mainstream in large parts of Europe, are either dangerous or economic suicide will return with a vengeance. Whoever follows Corbyn will return to the game of focus-grouping policies which may play well in a handful of marginal seats in southern England.
And the biggest losers will of course be the people, many of whom will have themselves voted Tory. I'm lucky in that I'm in full-time work, with a roof over my head and hopefully in good health (being a hypochondriac, "hopefully" is as good as it gets.) But for the elderly and the sick and the schoolkids, those who rent, or who want to buy, for those in dead-end jobs or run-down estates. For the nurses and teachers and police officers, those with mortgages or student debts or both. For all the foxes of these islands. For them and many more - for every one of us who will have to watch it happen - it will be a brutal five years ahead. So do us a favour...Vote Labour.