Thoughts on Corbyn and What We Can Learn

It was widely predicted to be the end of Labour party’s relevance. It was thought to be an annihilation for Jeremy Corbyn. It was believed that it was a no-contest for the status quo. But what happened was extraordinary. Against all odds, Corbyn led Labour to a surprising, if not shocking, snap election result that saw Theresa May’s Conservative party lost their majority. The result doesn’t only surprise the opposing party, even members of his own party, some were staunchly trying to undermine his leadership, are in awe with what Corbyn has achieved.

I’ve been following Corbyn politics ever since he won the Labour leadership contest against the more “moderate” opponents. My Anglophilia aside, I was really intrigued by how he re-energised the Labour party - which long has been accused of losing their own socialist identity - and try to draw some lessons which could be compared to the realpolitik in Indonesia. It’s not an apple-to-apple comparison of course, but like what one of my political lectures used to say, there’s only one apple.

During a coffee session with one of the most famous political consultants in the country a few years ago, I was told that the politics of ideology has been dead for years. In the current climate of modern politics, the closer one entity to the centre, the bigger the chance that entity to gain electoral trust and hitherto power. As a firm believer of ideological politics (something that some of my contemporaries think as nothing more than romanticism), I begged to differ in silence. His reasoning was logical though, stating the fact since the Cold War ended, nobody who aligned themselves closer to the edge than to the centre won the election. Indonesia included.

The conversation happened long the Trumps and the Le Pens of this world rose to concrete prominence and shocked the political establishment everywhere. I suspect we will have a different dialogue if we have a chance for a similar conversation right now. As the global phenomenon takes no exception in democratic countries, I think we have seen enough evidence that the case of ideological and identity politics is not alien to our own political environment at the moment.

UK Labour party was thought to be winning the 2015 UK election and sending Ed Milliband to Downing Street, only for them to be defeated heavily. There was some opinion saying that the electorates thought that Labour’s manifesto and plan were too leftist and eventually got scared. But some others said that Labour lost the 2015 election because they weren’t much different from the Tory and the voters ought to go with the latter who had proven to provide stability.

Of all the two resounding voices, eventually the latter who thought Labour should vacate the centre and move to the left prevailed which resulted in Corbyn winning the leadership. Corbyn, deemed as too radical and unelectable, was met with opposition and mutiny from his own MPs who thought he would bring nothing but a disaster for Labour in the election.

What really struck me about Corbyn was his approach. Yes, I admit that some of his ideas are quite edgy and unorthodox. But nothing radical about his approach. He’s calm and verbally tender. He refused to engage in personal attack. His detractors said that he’s uncharismatic and boring. He failed to look appealing and engaging. In the world of harsh tone and sharp words, he opted for a soft manner. 

While for some people this was seen as sign of weakness, this is actually what made me really intrigued by Corbyn. The progressive, leftist people have long been seen as a bunch of rowdy and angry people who always go for offensive in any opportunity, and I believe this happens everywhere. There’s nothing offensive about the way Corbyn speak and I also admit sometimes it’s bordering boring. But as times went by, I began to realise that one of the reasons why he sounded and looked unspectacular was because he always talked about ideas and programs. Actionable definitive moves. There’s no catchy soundbytes or meme-worthy putdowns. Only an array of ideas for the benefit of the people, and yes, sometimes they could be boring.

A few days ago I sat down with a friend to talk about a few progressive ideas. Social inclusion and equality have always been my interests. While we dont have much disagreement in values and ideology, I questioned the approach and method that have been used all these times to promote progressive ideas. I, for one, am not a big fan of putting more emphasize on labels instead of the actual ideas. I dont see the necessity to totemize symbols and icons. What really matters is the idea. The values. I couldnt care less about the packaging. And yes, I also dont understand why we always sound angry which spans a distance between us and, not only our foes, but also our potential friends and allies who actually share the concerns but got turned off by unsymphatetic approach.

Of course Corbyn only managed to silent his doubters and critics after a tangible outcome that washed away the notion that his ideas are unappealing. But the fact that he stuck to his belief and values in times of thunderstorm and came out victorious is an encouraging sign to stick with our values and listen to what the people actually need rather than needless media (and social media) acrobat.

In a wider landscape, I also wonder whether shifting away from the centre is a feasible counter-measure for the rising right-wing populism. I’m not talking about answering radicalism with radicalism, but isn’t the time up for spineless centrist rhetorics? To my understanding, you cant extinguish economy-fuelled flames by offering them banners and Twitter avatars. We have to listen to what people need and if the base of the concerns are related to basic daily needs, then the only logical solution is to fulfill those needs. I’m not oversimplifying the problem here, but I really think we have to climb down from our high horses and engage with the people.

That’s what Corbyn did and what separates him from some of his more-polished colleagues who were accused of being detached from the constituents. That’s what Bernie Sanders did in the US and rattled the Democrat party establishment before he lost to Hillary Clinton. That’s what the Podemos party did in Spain when they came third in the general election just 3 years after being founded.

And that’s exactly what the right-wing populists have been doing all around the world. Yes, they’re despicable and I loathe them as much as you do, but they’re actually listening to the people before wrapping them in their own blankets, be it racially or religiously infused. They understand that what matters the most to the people is food, jobs, and security. When the population’s needs have not been met, it’s not that difficult to stir them according to your agenda. We have seen it happening everywhere including in Jakarta.

I know that some people have mixed feelings about Pancasila for the fear of hollow glorification and trauma from the past decades. But I believe we actually have a solid foundation to cling on and build our social plans and movements on. I believe in them all. I believe in unity and social justice. I believe in equal opportunities. This is what our Pancasila is all about. It’s not about symbolism and god-awful social media avatars. It’s about real actions and it starts with listening to the people.

I wish this is not a mere pipe-dream for me to think that hope is not all lost for we, the people, are many and those, who try to exploit and divide us, are few.