Pundits often attribute the Islington MP's success to the fall of New Labour. But many of Corbyn's young fans grew up under the coalition governmentby Julia Blunck / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
The disappointment of Clegg’s liberalism helped fuel the Corbyn surge. Photo: PA/Prospect composite It hasn’t been a good year for Nick Clegg. In an interview recently, he confessed that even his own nephews and nieces did not vote for his party, instead preferring Jeremy Corbyn’s vision for the country. Clegg claimed that they either didn’t know about Corbyn’s position on Brexit, or they simply shrugged it off, with the assumption that things would work themselves out. Even the young people in his own family, it seems, had been tricked by Corbyn’s siren song. Kicking a man while he’s down is uncharitable and cheap—but it’s not hard to see how Clegg’s comments reveal his ignorance of the impact he himself had on politics. When Clegg first appeared on TV, dazzling the nation during the 2010 election debates, he was easy to love and easier to vote for. His voters were not expecting an overhaul of capitalism: after a historically damaging recession and the instigation of wars that they saw as unnecessary, they simply wanted a kinder system that worked for them. Were they hardline socialists with a long list of literature and ideals? Obviously not. Many of them probably saw themselves as being in the center of politics. They were, mostly, not very radical and not very angry; just frustrated that they had been given nothing when every other generation had something: home ownership, better income, a free education. A lot has been said about the failures of Blairism paving the way for Corbyn. The majority of young people in 2010, though, had grown up thinking of Blair and Brown as establishment figures, not voices of hope. For them, it was Nick Clegg’s disappointing liberalism that was the let-down, and therefore the force that radicalized them. Clegg had framed himself as an outsider—an alternative to both Brown’s decaying figure and Cameron’s pre-packaged, glistening inauthenticity. Young people trusted him, not least on tuition fees. Instead, after the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with the Tories, they got harsh austerity, and no assurance that they would have better lives than their parents. If you watched this unfold in 2010, why wouldn’t you consider centrism rotten, and capitalism a fundamentally bereft system? If you spent your adolescence under the coalition, watching beloved Nick Clegg spout apologies for why he turned his back on you and saddled you with more debt than ever, why wouldn’t you be angry now? The main condition for capitalism to perpetuate itself is for people to believe that better conditions are still within their reach. If people lack that faith, then they will listen to the system’s critics—no matter how unfashionably they are dressed. Friends and foes alike seem to agree that Corbyn’s main virtue is his consistency. While we shouldn’t fall into the trap of pretending Corbyn has never triangulated or compromised— this is a man who entered politics to criticize what he saw as exaggerated spending in police force, and ultimately gained momentum by, among other things, promising to raise their numbers—it seems evident that he has always said what Clegg’s voters had come to realize: those at the top had rigged the system against them. As long as an “insider” was in power they would get nothing, and their living conditions would worsen. While this reading is perhaps unfair to Ed Miliband—a man more radical he was allowed to be, by his party or himself—the truth is that image matters in politics. For those bitterly disappointed, or flat out of hope in mainstream politics, only Corbyn could appear trustworthy enough. Yet when Corbyn became a real possibility as Labour leader, people scoffed at the idea. A lot of the derision was based on a perceived historical echo. Commentators saw Michael Foot, the reboot: a man with good intentions, and policies that were fundamentally coming from a good place, but who had no appeal with the center ground where political actions are made. People who believed in him, meanwhile, were treated as either trot entryists—or just idealists, particularly young ones, with no sense for politics. It is true that are many problems with Corbynism, one of which—its ambilavalence on Brexit—Nick Clegg so kindly pointed out. However, what commentators failed to realize is that, under their feet, a great flow of radicalism was happening, caused by the aftershocks of the financial crisis and years of austerity. That isn’t to say Corbyn always looked like the safe bet and everybody else ignored him because they were high on liberalism. There was no other way to read evidence in the months preceding the election other than devastation for Labour. But Corbyn’s politics tapped into something that someone with a degree but no job knew, and someone who spent days analysing the minutia of PMQs like a football commentator missed. The center of politics had shifted. The right and even some sections of the centre-left groan about Corbyn’s appeal to voters “bribes.” That might be: but understood on those terms, every policy is a “bribe” to a segment of the population. That self-interest is no better or worse than the legitimate concerns of the white working class, than the middle classes’ neurosis about fiscal irresponsibility, or the fear of cuts to the welfare system: it’s just been more derided because until recently it didn’t carry any political weight; they would either feel disappointed and disengage or swallow the bitter pill. For all the talk of radicalism, what Corbyn voters really long for is the same as what every other demographic wants when they vote: someone who won’t take them for granted. Agreeing with Nick, it turns out, was liberalism’s missed opportunity to convince young people the system could work.