Everything Jeremy Corbyn taught me about being a liberal

I grew up in Yate and Somerset, and my first job was in Kingston – so having lived in Tory facing seats it was a big change to really cut my political teeth in Islington where there has not been any Conservatives for a long time.

And where else to study Labour up close and personal than Islington. I did 12 years as a councillor and twice as a general election candidate against Jeremy. Political campaigns in Central London are tough. Activists in all parties work hard, Labour had great resources and tied us up in one standards board complaint after another – because they could.

So from the age of 23 I learnt very clearly why I was not a socialist. And it goes beyond a few old soundbite ideas around nationalisation of rail. It is about what socialism means for the empowerment of individuals and community.

Let me first of all state however, that I always get on well with Jeremy. He would share in a giggle with me as I used to joke with him that the large pile of ballot papers were really mine (although I did reduce his majority from 19,000 to 7,000 in 2005). He supported me and Terry all the way on the creation of the credit union, and last May he sat and chatted with me about Club Soda. He did not get that it did not need to be funded by the state. He never gloated as we lost our last seat.

But I also learnt a lot about why I was a Liberal. Here are just some of the highlights …

  • State ownership is not always best. Labour in islington was proof of that. I want things to be better and sometimes letting go of hard held beliefs is the bravest thing you can do. I will never quite forgive Jeremy Corbyn for campaigning so hard against the stock transfer of the Andover Estate, a big social housing development built on slums of the past. It would have been rebuilt under new housing association ownership. Instead a whole generation of kids ended up living in the same sub-standard accommodation. It was partly in the mess it was in because the Labour-run council had run housing so badly for so long. Jeremy failed to hold his own council to account for nearly 20 years. But that was ok because it still belonged to the state!
  • In a retrial of Joe Orton that Greg Foxsmith staged in Islington Library I was shocked that in 2012 he would have got a stiffer sentence than in 1962. Labour had brought in so many new ways to criminalise its population that our justice system was more punitive and more unfair than ever before. Labour wants to control society with rules and punishment, and never through understanding what drives anti-social behaviour and how we can fix that. In islington we fought with Labour all the time over civil liberties.
  • We don’t hold BME communities a hostage to the past. We don’t write leaflets that threaten that no-one else could possibly care. We don’t treat BME communities or anyone as a homogenous group that needs protecting. We are a community of fellow individuals that need to be empowered, and I never want to treat any community or individual as a long-term victim as socialists do.
  • A big state makes communities lazy. And whether you are in islington North or South, the answer from the middle classes is the same. We care about poor people but we want the state to deal with the problem. Pay our money and ignore what is going on around us. Who wants to be part of a state that is complicit in ignoring the communities around us. Not me.

I know that when I look at the opening line of our constitution that this is the Britain I am striving for. You have to ask yourself could Jeremy ever sign up to build and safeguard “a fair, free and open society, in which we
seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” – ha ha!

Don’t be fooled by being able to put a tick next to a few of Jeremy’s policies. You are a Liberal so that should be no surprise. What you need to be wary of are the theory and motivations that drive them – the final picture won’t look like the idea in your head – after all how can it be. It would implemented by a government built on an unfair voting system, and staffing where unions would have greater control than the users of the service. Already that vision of a nationalised rail service begins to look very different to my ideal.

I thank Jeremy for allowing those of us who think politics should be about fighting for beliefs and not always saying the ‘right’ thing. But I will take that opportunity and fight for gutsy liberalism – because the state does not have the answer, the status quo is not good enough and I will never know what is best.

* Laura Willoughby MBE is a Lib Dem member in Islington

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  • Nick Collins 15th Sep '15 - 3:04pm

    I make that eight articles reacting to Jeremy Corbyn’s election. Enough , already.

  • Sir Norfolk Passmore 15th Sep '15 - 3:18pm

    Laura – excellent, sensible article.

    Nick – Corbyn’s election is a political earthquake which will shape the British political landscape long after the man himself is off the scene (which could well be sooner rather than later but we’ll see). It’s not surprising it’s causing interest, frankly.

  • I agree with Laura.

    It’s interesting to see the perspective of someone who has experience of the reality of Labour as a political opponent and not as a source of tactical votes.

  • I think the reason there’s so many articles is because it wasn’t supposed to be. For decades we’ve been told the Left is dead and that if Labour removed block voting power from its unioinpaymasters@ then New Labour would complete the job started in 1994 and politics would be framed by the economic right forever, But it turns out exactly the opposite happened suggesting that the real militant tendency in Labour was actually Tony Blair and his heirs like Jeremy Hunt

  • Phil Beesley 15th Sep '15 - 3:48pm

    OP: “Already that vision of a nationalised rail service begins to look very different to my ideal.”

    Orwell wrote about it in “Homage to Catalonia”. The idealism of an anarchist/independent/liberal socialist state in Spain evaporated. The waiters and ticket inspectors who once earnestly said “comrade” learned to say “sir” again before the war was ended.

    As the Hacked Off campaigners failed to understand, it is insufficient to remove power from one group and deliver power to another group (eg Media Standards Trust). You have to be a bit of a Trot, which is unfortunate for liberals. You have to spend a lot of time as a liberal reducing the ability to exploit power. Then you have to do it again. Until nobody is exploiting.

    I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn understands iteration.

  • John Tilley 15th Sep '15 - 3:49pm

    Well done,, Laura.

    What a good article, explaining in rational Liberal Democrat terms why we oppose Jeremy Corbyn.

    As you wrote —
    “…I know that when I look at the opening line of our constitution that this is the Britain I am striving for. You have to ask yourself could Jeremy ever sign up to build and safeguard “a fair, free and open society, in which we
    seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

  • Agree with Nick Collins – must be coming to the end of the track.

    Laura says, that vision of a nationalised rail service begins to look very different to my ideal.” Sorry Laura but what we have now looks very different to my ideal.

    1. Last year the privatised railway companies paid £ 200 million to shareholders after receiving £ 4 billion in government subsidies.

    2. A lot of it’s already nationalised (by Germany, France and Holland)

    3. The current subsidy of £4 billion is at least twice as big as at the time of privatisation in the 1990s.

    3. The state had to pick up GNER after they walked away from the franchise….. East Coast then became the star performer and actually returning profit to the Government. As a regular user I can say staff morale and service was transformed and the staff had real pride again..

    4.The bits not currently owned by foreign nationalised railways – East Coast and West Coast are now owned by Sir Richard Branson and Sir Brian Souter – so much for competition.

    Branson companies are ultimately based in the British Virgin Islands – an offshore tax haven. – including Virgin Care which recently got a £ 500 million contract following the Lansley Bill. Virgin Care borrows money solely from a holding company and says it will repay that loan, which will be corporation tax-deductible, when a profit starts to be recorded.

    Souter is the biggest single donor to the SNP and is not loved by the LGBT community in Scotland after his campaign on Section 28.

    It’s more of a tangled old spider’s web than a railway system.

  • Great article, Laura. Spot on

  • Nick Collins 15th Sep '15 - 4:25pm

    ‘@ Sir Norfolk,

    Of couse it’s interesting.( I wish I could say the same for the articles on this site). But have you guys nothing else to talk about?

  • Paul in Wokingham 15th Sep '15 - 4:44pm

    Laura – great comments. Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to the ALMO (a structure that the *Labour* government made a precondition of releasing the funds for redevelopment) always struck me as Corbyn urging the residents to live in squalor for the sake of his socialist sensibilities. It will be interesting to see how perceptions of him evolve in the coming months.

  • Simon Drage 15th Sep '15 - 5:01pm

    I think this is the best piece I have seen from a Lib Dem about the election of Jeremy Corbyn.

  • Laura – an excellent article that neatly sums up some of the crucial aspects of why being a Lib Dem is different from the solutions of Jeremy Corbyn.

    David Raw – whilst I don’t want to get too sidetracked by the issue of nationalised railways as that was just one aspect of this post, I wanted to pick up on your point 4. The East Coast Main Line is faster with better trains and with very high passenger numbers that makes it very atypical of the rest of the network. On top of that, although publicly-owned East Coast may have been better than what came immediately before, it’s also the case that until shortly before its demise the privately owned GNER also had high standards and was also a well run and respected company that many people were also proud to work for.

  • Sir Norfolk Passmore 15th Sep '15 - 5:25pm

    Nick – I don’t want to be overly defensive of the way this site is curated and tend to agree the quality threshold for articles seems not to be that high (this is an exception – excellent stuff). But, honestly, Corbyn isn’t just “interesting”. However it pans out from here, it’s a political earthquake of the sort we’ve not seen for many, many years.

  • “State ownership is not always best.”

    What’s that got to do with being a Liberal? I think you’ll find that practically everybody in the country believes that, just as everybody in the country also believes that state ownership is not always worst. Maybe even Jeremy Corbyn believes both those things, though I don’t know.

    I seem to recall that the Lib Dems spent many years criticising Labour for not wishing to reverse any of the rail privatisation…

    “In a retrial of Joe Orton that Greg Foxsmith staged in Islington Library I was shocked that in 2012 he would have got a stiffer sentence than in 1962.”

    Am I to infer from this that you believe vandalising library books should not be a crime?

  • Thanks Laura (and TCO). Here in Eccleshill, Bradford I sometimes forget that for some Labour are a source of tactical voting! The local Labour people that we gained a seat council seat from in May would be totally baffled by your generous, liberal approach! We didn’t gloat…

  • Paul in Wokingham 15th Sep '15 - 5:42pm

    @Stuart – Orton was sent to prison for “vandalising” those books. Are you saying that prison is the appropriate punishment for this offence?

  • Interesting piece but given what is now happening with housing associations changing their purpose and returning public funds, Jezza might have been right on social housing. I dont find anything liberal about housing associations.

  • Richard Ingram 15th Sep '15 - 6:28pm

    great article spot on

  • David Warren 15th Sep '15 - 6:35pm

    Excellent article.

  • Excellent article Laura, and timely.
    Oddly, ever since my ULS days I have found tories much easier to talk to and with. The trots at college were udually vile (though it was the early 80s so the SDP and miners’ strike might have made them worse). My local Labour cllr turns her back when she sees me as a liberal traitor .. ironically, since am closer to her politically than to the tories.
    Thr people who come here are political beasts, of course we are fascinated by Labour’s choice – for this week, anyway!

  • David Evershed 15th Sep '15 - 7:46pm

    A welcome article from someone with direct local experience of Corbyn from an opponents standpoint.

    It deserves a wider circulation.

  • Enjoyed the article.

  • Sadie Smith 15th Sep '15 - 8:27pm

    Excellent article.
    I was on Sandwell Council, so know Tom Watson a bit.
    The combination is not inspiring.

  • Laura is right. It is easy to tick boxes.

    A privately run enterprise takes profits out of the business while a state run enterprise re-invests the profits in the business. I believed this for half my life. It seemed like a no-brainer.

    Reality does not support this. As I got older and wiser I realised that the state is better at wasting money and poorer at delivering. I then thought it should not be this way, but it is.

    The concept of bringing activities into public ownership makes sense superficially, but experience shows that it fails. However, replacing a public monopoly with a private monopoly without competition is not a good idea either.

    Simple head on solutions like taking activities into public ownership are not the answer. More clever and subtle answers are required. Profits related to satisfying public requirements on costs and performance would seem to be a basis for a better deal. The bland Corbyn solutions are sadly misguided because life is not that simple.

  • Zack Polanski 15th Sep '15 - 9:43pm

    Really insightful piece Laura, thank you.

  • George Kendall 15th Sep '15 - 10:51pm

    @John Marriott
    Good post.

    As I think I’ve said elsewhere, my problem with a lot of Labour activists is that they are driven by hatred for the rich rather than concern for those in poverty. But that’s only true of the worst of them.

    There are others in the Labour party who are wonderful people. And, although I think what has happened with Corbyn’s election is a tragedy for the country, a silver lining is that perhaps a few of these might join us.

  • An excellent article, thank you.

  • Excellent article. Political facts, rather than political romance.

  • Geoffrey payne 16th Sep '15 - 5:51am

    Overall I think the article is very good. However when I visit Islington Lib Dems – and it is always a pleasure – they are an overwhelming white party. Which is similar to the party as a whole. I suspect we should be learning from Labour issue how they are much better at recruiting ethnic minorities than we are with more MPs and now a candidate for mayor of London.

  • John Tilley 16th Sep '15 - 7:39am

    Whilst I do not disagree with anything that Laura has said about the general approach of The Labour Party and BME communities and individuals, Geoffrey Payne has a point too. Why is the Liberal Democrat party so “white” in so many London Boroughs where the skin colour of the majority or a very large minority of voters is black or brown? I do not know what the ethnic breakdown is for Isington North and as one of those places with very obvious areas of gentrification the population may be much more “white” than it used to be.

    I would ask LDV readers who have grown up in and still live and work in places where they seldom see a face that is not white to imagine what it is like to have grown up in places in the UK where we have the benefit of generations of much more interesting and varied ethnic communities and individuals. Then ask yourself why Geoffrey Payne’s point is evidently true even in our party in just such London Boroughs.

    Jeremy Corbyn has been elected as an MP eight times in successon with 26,659 votes in 2015 .
    He was supported by the votes of over 60% of the voters in his constituency. An increase of 5.8% in his support from the 2010 general election.
    I think Laura came nearer to dislodging him than anyone over the last three decades, she came second with 30% of the vote in 2005.
    A week is a longtime in politics and for Liberal Democrats the ten years since 2005 has been an ice age.
    Our 2015 candidate in Laura’s old constituency came fourth with just 8%. That is not a criticism of our candidate this time (he did much better than some of our folks in far more promising territory). It is an indication that Jeremy Corbyn and The Labour Party in Islington North must have been doing something better than we have been doing in the last ten years. You do not get 60% of the popular vote without doing something that the local voters like.

  • @Geoffrey Payne “However when I visit Islington Lib Dems – and it is always a pleasure – they are an overwhelming white party. Which is similar to the party as a whole. I suspect we should be learning from Labour issue how they are much better at recruiting ethnic minorities than we are with more MPs and now a candidate for mayor of London.”

    I find this observation somewhat uncomfortable, because the corollary of this is that if we were to have a significant number of BME members in a predominantly white seat, they would be over-represented (if we base our membership solely on having to “look like” other people who live nearby) and we would actively be looking to recruit more white members.

    If people like what we have to say, they will join the party. If they don’t, they won’t.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Sep '15 - 12:26pm

    John Marriott

    This might make some of you feel a little squeamish, but, generally, I have found it easier to talk to and work with Conservative Councillors than I ever have with most Labour members. It may be where I live (Lincolnshire) and it may be just me;

    No, in terms of policies I’d generally be closer to Labour than Conservative, but I’ve tended to find it easier to get on with Conservatives as people than Labour people. Labour really do have this idea that politics must be us v. them, and resent there being anything else. I’ve also found that Conservatives tend to be more accepting of being defeated by us than Labour. In general I’ve found that Conservatives just accept it as one of those things, whereas Labour are bad losers and will generally throw around accusations that it was all due to “dirty tricks” or whatever – they’ll never admit they lost because people didn’t like them.

  • nvelope2003 16th Sep '15 - 4:44pm

    David Raw: The private rail companies did not receive £4 billion in taxpayer subsidies. That was the amount received by the public sector Network Rail for track and signalling improvements required by the Government, such as double tracking lines singled by BR, installing flyovers at places like Norton Bridge to allow trains to cross at junctions without delaying other trains, improved signalling etc . The revenue from fares and charges almost matched the operating costs of the railways and 3 routes covered all their operating costs and allocated charges. It would not be wise to tamper with this system at present by going back to British Rail. Whatever a nationalised system was called it would have to be more or less the same as BR.

  • @Paul in Wokingham
    “Orton was sent to prison for ‘vandalising’ those books. Are you saying that prison is the appropriate punishment for this offence?”

    Depends entirely on the case. Are you suggesting that prison is never the appropriate punishment for theft and criminal damage? Orton stole and damaged many books worth thousands of pounds in today’s money over a period of years.

    It’s a bit baffling that the OP has brought up the Orton case here, because it certainly wasn’t New Labour who criminalised theft and vandalism. She says we should concentrate on “understanding what drives anti-social behaviour and how we can fix that”. In Orton’s case, he claimed (as quoted in John Lahr’s excellent book “Prick Up Your Ears”) that he started stealing and damaging books because he was enraged by what he considered the “rubbishy” quality of most of the books at the library. So I guess the OP’s solution to people wanting to damage library books is to find out what books they think the library should stock and make sure they’re on the shelves.

  • @John Marriott
    “if the Corbyn administration does drive many more centralist Labour members away, trying to find common ground with them will be dependent on their acceptance of the need for reciprocity.”

    I’m probably the kind of centralist Labour supporter (though not member) you’re thinking about. I’m not thrilled by Corbyn and am utterly horrified by McDonnell. However, when I read LDV, I see plenty of Lib Dems I could easily find common ground with (people like Caron, Paul, George, Mary) but then I look at people like Joe and Simon and I’d just as readily support the Tories or UKIP. If LDV is anything to go by, the Lib Dems are every bit as ideologically split as Labour is, so I’m not sure why so many of them expect Labour to fragment but there is no talk of the Lib Dems doing the same.

    It’s nice to dream of a party consisting solely of sensible progressives, but I don’t see that happening, tribalism is too ingrained.

  • John Tilley wrote:

    “You do not get 60% of the popular vote without doing something that the local voters like.”

    Like wearing a red rosette?

    In October 1974, Michael O’Halloran got 57.9% of the vote in Islington North. Yet Michael O’Halloran was notorious for being one of the worst constituency MPs anywhere ever.

  • John Tilley 17th Sep '15 - 4:06pm

    Sesenco 16th Sep ’15 – 10:46pm
    “….Like wearing a red rosette?”

    Sesenco, you make a very reasonable point.

    A point that I have often made over the years.   You are absolutely right.   🙂

  • Alan Hughes 21st Sep '15 - 3:17pm

    Thank you for a well written piece which has given me food for thought. I have always seem myself as a liberal but one without a home and accepting temporary shelter on the left. However, the recent posts have suggested that liberalism might be able to be revived to a credible force again in British politics.

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