idealism and pragmatism

I will put my cards on the table. I have supported Jeremy Corbyn from the moment that he expressed his intention to stand for the Labour party leadership. I listened with bated breath in the half hour leading up to close of nominations to find out whether he had secured the magic number – and exhaled with relief as he scraped onto the ballot papers.

I have been waiting for a politician such as he for decades. My interest in politics was ignited as a teenager by a desire for equality of opportunity, a fierce sense of the injustice of the world that I lived in, both globally and domestically. I was already more than aware of the way in which some of my friends had been thrown onto the scrapheap of life by failing their eleven plus. (My primary headteacher father was always careful to say that nobody passed nor failed the eleven plus; you were merely selected to the school that best fitted your needs. Even his own children were not fooled.) One of my friends went to the secondary modern and expressed her desire to become a PE teacher. She was put in her place and told that you only got qualifications to become a teacher if you went to the grammar school. (She defied predictions, left school at 15, joined the army, and became a PE instructor there, and subsequently in a big  comprehensive school. She was unusual.) Amongst the ‘elite’ at a small rural girls grammar school I quickly discovered that the majority of my  friends expected to leave after their O levels and marry boys they had met at the Young Farmers or Young Conservatives groups. (I was never aware of a Young Labour group in deepest rural Suffolk). When I later applied to read medicine the massively skewed playing field upon which I was playing became apparent. Top tier of applicants were the pupils of the elite public schools, followed by the smaller independent schools. The top grammar schools in the country came next, and schools such as my own (that had never sent a pupil to medical school) were almost bottom of the pile.

Alongside the academic injustice I lived with financial injustice. My father was a professional man, a primary school headteacher, my mother a part time nurse with the local GP, yet for the majority of my secondary schooling I received free school meals. This sent me a message at an early age about how much public sector workers were valued – a message that has been strongly reinforced by seeing my own primary school teacher daughter working up to 12 hour days for a salary of under £25k.

When I was still at school (I think just before entering the sixth form) I heard Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and Tony Benn speak at an outdoor schools event. The talk was focused on apartheid in South Africa – something that of course I knew about but had not heard spoken about with such passion before. The passion with which both men spoke, not only about apartheid but also about inequality in general, made a lifelong impression on me. Here were two people who spoke from the heart with a depth of conviction and integrity that made a real impact. Now of course nobody is perfect; both these men were in fact deeply flawed human beings. Their flawed humanity is precisely why their message was so powerful.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Jeremy Corbyn is a flawed human being. I am sure that some of his proposed policies are impractical; I expect that when the media have dug deeply they will find some skeletons in his cupboard. I really don’t care. We are all flawed, we all have skeletons. I want a politician who has firmly held ideals, principles for living. I want someone who can fire up enthusiasm in potential voters, who can confront them with the inequality of our society, make them want to do something about it. If the right wing can produce someone with opposing ideals and provoke a real debate then great. The established Labour politicians are scared of Corbyn’s idealism. They are scared that many young people, and many older people like myself have been reinvigorated by his presence, his willingness to stand up and be counted. We witnessed the vote on the Tory welfare bill – a bill of such cruelty that it will shorten lives (average age of a person homeless at time of death is 47) and throw many people onto the scrapheap. Yes, there were sweeteners, such as the minimum wage, but these did not offset the appalling consequences of the proposed welfare cuts. Of the four leadership candidates only Jeremy Corbyn voted against the bill. The others abstained. There have been measured explanations about why they took this course of action, reassurances that they will vote against the bill at the 3rd reading…. I’m afraid this cuts no ice for me, nor I suspect for the thousands supporting Corbyn. How can I explain to Andy Burnham that I feel deeply betrayed by a man who was once health secretary? Where is his integrity, his idealism?

Unless pragmatic politics is embedded on a rock of unshakeable idealism it is worthless. The Labour party is founded on two abiding principles; eradication of inequality and eradication of poverty. The second is consequent on the first. These ideals must underpin all policy making, including economic policy. Voters who are fired up by genuine idealism will make sacrifices for those ideals. Apathy arises from a politics of pure pragmatism that ultimately leaves every person caring only about themselves.

I celebrate Corbyn’s campaign and I hope that he is elected. Even if he is not I think that the response to his campaign must make whoever is elected reevaluate current Labour party position. We need to stimulate more Corbyns to come forward, preferably from young voters, not an anti Corbyn campaign to silence him. It is not his election that will consign the Labour party to the wilderness for decades but rather a continuation of the status quo of pragmatic politics.

Long live idealism!

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