“Jeremy Corbyn and the extraordinary power of ordinariness “
Jeremy Corbyn is still the UK’s opposition leader, says former staffer Phil Bevin, under the subtitle ‘Jeremy Corbyn and the extraordinary power of ordinariness’:
Jeremy Corbyn is still the “leader” of opposition politics in the UK. As Skwawkbox has reported before, his influence and popularity has endured through six years of establishment smear campaign and has remained strong since he stood down as the official Leader of the Opposition in 2019. Sir Keir Starmer would surely love to know how he’s done it. Unfortunately for Sir Keir, Corbyn’s ongoing influence is driven by something that can’t be faked.
The power of ordinariness.
I think the Ordinary Left campaign, which Skwawkbox has supported, is important and has personal resonance for me. I’m pretty ordinary. I have benefitted from a good education, but like most ordinary people I had to work to pay for my studies.
From 2011 I spent five years employed in a council library service, where I saw the effects of austerity first-hand on both the lives of people who used the service and the service itself. It was a rewarding job and I worked with a fantastic team of dedicated people but it got ever more challenging. As the council introduced ever more rounds of “efficiency savings” (cuts), it became an increasing struggle as we were continuously forced to do “more for less” by top management that didn’t always grasp the impact of cuts on the service for ordinary people such as delays in repairing photocopying machines, the loss of well-known staff and their familiar faces, accumulating daily frustrations that were exacerbated by a service mired in a permanent staffing restructure, with talented people constantly leaving to find job security elsewhere.
Empathy and humility
Why am I telling this story? Because I think Ordinary Left is right to say that it is essential for more politicians, particularly those claiming to be socialists, to have an experience-driven understanding of just how bad things are for the majority of people in the real world outside parliament.
That said, while demographic representation is important to get more ordinary people into positions of power, empathy and humility are just as important. You can be from a working-class background – a son of a tool-maker for instance – and still be comfortable kicking down the ladder you used to climb to the top. It is the drive to be accepted by the establishment for personal advancement at the expense of others that breaks working class solidarity and perpetuates inequality.
By the same logic, it is also possible for a politician who comes from a relatively well-off middle-class upbringing to be ordinary if they are able to understand, respect and learn from the experiences of people from backgrounds different to their own. For a politician to be identifiably one of the “many” of course requires a certain amount of empathy and humility that most MPs sadly lack. As author and former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein pointed out recently, when he compared Corbyn to Mandela, “empathy” and “humility” are characteristics Corbyn has in spades.
Anyone who has been lucky enough to join Corbyn when he’s either on a visit or out and about in his Islington North constituency, as I have, will have been struck by how, as Feinstein put it, Corbyn “honestly feels and shows respect for every human being he comes into contact with.” For Corbyn, this isn’t just a pose, which is why he doesn’t look awkward when photographed among ordinary people: he is one. He certainly doesn’t place himself above others, as this popular quote makes clear:
“You should never be so high and mighty you can’t listen to somebody else and learn something from them. Leadership is as much about using the ear as using the mouth.”
In LOTO staff meetings, Corbyn would stress that we must never forget that we were there to fight for ordinary people, not our own careers. Uniting people in the interests of common goals was another popular theme. Unusually for a politician, like his principals, his words in private match his public statements.
Corbyn’s down-to-earth modesty explains his leadership style. Corbyn is not a divisive leader; on the contrary, he is a natural unifier who tries to bring as many people and skills onto his side of the argument as possible. And this is an approach he continues to pursue. For instance, Corbyn used his Peace and Justice Event on 17 July to facilitate an international discussion about the arms trade, building a shared understanding and consensus on the issue between people from different nations. He also continues to use his platform to support and highlight the good work being undertaken by community projects run by ordinary people across the country.
Like no other politician, his interests link together local, national and international issues, demonstrating that the people of this world are all interconnected; to wrong another is to harm yourself. And he appeals to ordinary people like me because he actually cares enough to listen what we have to say. This is why he still draws massive crowds, as we saw at yesterday’s amazing UCU strike rally.
True leadership is bringing together people from a variety of backgrounds to overcome their differences in the pursuit of a common cause. Corbyn does this naturally, without having to try. When we put the false reputation propagated by the mainstream media and Labour PLP members aside, it’s clear that Jeremy Corbyn is the quintessential big-tent politician and it is his modesty and ‘everydayness’ that draws people in.
But he would also fit right in doing an ordinary job. It’s easy picture him working in a council-run library, welcoming people in and suggesting books that they may find interesting – this is in fact something he did regularly in LOTO and has been known to do even in the Commons chamber.
It’s an appeal that MPs jealous of his popularity will never understand: how could they, when, for many, their jealousy is motivated by their own off-putting sense of self regard and entitlement. Jeremy Corbyn is an extraordinary politician – but only because, unlike most MPs, he has no pretensions of grandeur and is in fact a very ordinary, modest and decent human being.
This is why, whether he means to or not, he continues to be the leader of the UK left and will play a huge role in the future of this country. Why else would the establishment be so afraid of him? Our ordinariness is one thing that unites most of us and this gives us power. I think Jeremy Corbyn knows this.
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