Once upon a time, not so long ago, it was perfectly respectable to call oneself a socialist. It was a badge that one might wear with pride alongside the likes of Albert Einstein, George Orwell and Bertrand Russell. Nowadays, for reasons we’ll come to in a moment, to call oneself a socialist is to risk being perceived as some sort of cartoon amalgam of Arthur Scargill, Wolfie Smith, Derek Hatton, and Rik from The Young Ones. I have a neighbour who thinks it hilarious to tell people as a matter of routine that I am a fan of Joseph Stalin. Happily, I know that you’re not that stupid, so here goes.
I am a socialist. By that I mean that I believe in the socialism of Bevan and Beveridge, the socialism that gave us nationalised utilities, the NHS and the welfare state. Over the past couple of decades, since Labour was colonised by the right, politicians and media commentators of every mainstream party affiliation have done a very good job of turning ‘socialism’ into a dirty word, a conveniently misunderstood word, more often than not a meaningless knee-jerk buzzword, synonymous with ‘communism’ in the minds of people who have no real idea what either of those terms mean. It’s been a long time since any mainstream politician has dared to describe themselves with the s-word.
Granted, there was a brief period in the early noughties when Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats appeared to be repositioning themselves to present a credible left-wing alternative to the Blair government, but how long ago that seems now. Otherwise, the concerted demonisation of left-wing politics has continued unabated. By the time of the 2015 general election campaign, we had reached the stage at which a TV audience and, more damningly, various high-profile Tories, were happy to applaud a politically illiterate pop singer for describing Ed Miliband as ‘a fucking Communist’. Never mind that Ed Miliband, like Tony Blair before him, is a politician demonstrably more right-wing than Harold Macmillan; the idea that parties might drift this way or that is far too complicated for this sort of idiot rhetoric, and anyway it doesn’t fit the tribal narrative.
For twenty years or more, the political and media establishments have worked jolly hard to promulgate the notion that socialism is foolish, naive, hopelessly idealistic, and – best of all – dead. Socialists have become accustomed to being patted on the head and told that one day we’ll understand, one day we’ll grow out of it. As anyone will know who heard Tony Blair’s imperious intervention on the Labour leadership contest last week, or has ever had the misfortune to watch the likes of Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo pleasuring each other on BBC One’s macabre Thursday night Tory harlequinade This Week, there are many on the right who have become so accustomed to dishing out this condescending treatment that they appear to have quite lost sight of the fact that the left are not actually a bunch of amusing children. Turns out that some of them are really quite clever. It’s not that they’re wrong about everything, Mr Blair. It’s just that they happen not to agree with you about everything. Amazing, I know, but there it is.
Which is where Jeremy Corbyn comes in. I don’t happen to believe that Mr Corbyn is the answer to all the world’s problems. I disagree with him on many points. I’ll be surprised if he is able to win a general election. But I don’t think that any of that is tremendously relevant right now. What has been fascinating over the last week has been to watch the gradual realisation among politicians and pundits alike that there are an awful lot of socialists out there who’d really like to have someone they can vote for. That dawning awareness has become obvious in the remarkable savagery of the attacks launched on Corbyn by panicking grandees and careerists on every side, ranging from the inevitable ‘hard-left’ and ‘Communist’ nonsense to ad hominem abuse based on Corbyn’s age and appearance (both of which, as his popularity increases, appear to be counting in his favour: apparently there are plenty of folk out there who would rather take an experienced, principled politician over a young firebrand or a media-savvy marketing executive. Who knew?).
Yes, I’m a socialist. And I’m proud of that. Whatever one’s reservations about Jeremy Corbyn – and I have mine – I hope it’s understandable that those of us who have spent the last couple of decades being patronised and unrepresented by mainstream politics are perhaps finding all of this just a teensy bit exhilarating.