Last night Jeremy Corbyn gathered with thousands of supporters on Parliament Square to protest against the government’s failure to guarantee the rights of EU migrants in the UK. Upon hearing the chants of ‘Say it loud, say it clear – all EU migrants welcome here!’ Theresa May performed a sensational U-turn. Britain now has an open doors policy to anyone with a pulse and a dream.
Or so might have been the case, had Jeremy Corbyn bothered to turn up to his own rally. Instead, a motley rabble of speakers from such august institutions as Stop the War, the Socialist Workers Party, and the National Union of Students, preached to an assembled crowd of a couple of hundred people in the murky gloom of Westminster. When it was announced that Corbyn would be unable to attend, there were no exclamations of disappointment, just a groaning sense that the inevitable had happened.
There’s a new saying in America these days that ‘protest is the new brunch’. The anti-Trump folk in Brooklyn and Silver Lake are in that first stage of political evolution, where direct action seems so appealing. Back in the summer of 2015, it’s fair to say that Corbynism was ‘the new brunch’. Students and young professionals, who had never been involved in political campaigns before, were happily phone-banking and door-knocking for the Gandalf of the Left. It had the same social, Instagram-friendly feel to it as the current bout of protest in the US. People desperately wanted to broadcast that they too were doing their part.
Two years on, and the mood has changed in Britain. Those people whose first political engagement was joining the Labour party in 2015 have now experienced what a proper election campaign looks like – the 2016 London mayoral race – and how bitter defeat, in referenda and by-elections, feels. They are no longer wide-eyed; instead, they have been won over by the necessity of parliamentary democracy. There are only so many times you can ask the question ‘Are you voting Labour?’ and hear the answer ‘Not while Corbyn is leader’ before you start to consider whether he’s the right man for the job.
When Jeremy Corbyn announces he’s appearing at a rally for the rights of EU migrants on the same day that the Brexit Bill goes through Parliament and Nicola Sturgeon fires the starting gun on IndyRef2, questions start to be asked. More so when he doesn’t even show up. Vainglorious, almost Trumpian demonstrations from the Left now seem contrived.
Donald Trump wouldn’t be able to look Mike Pence in the eye if as few people attended his rallies as were present last night in Parliament Square. There will be some MPs on the so-called ‘hard Left’ who will have been frustrated to see such an impotent protest on such an important evening. But the fact of the matter is this: Corbynistas didn’t turn out last night – and neither did Corbyn. There were few placards or banners with overt displays of support for the Labour party, and far more were branded with the SWP logo. As the crowd chanted against any form of control on immigration, stray Labour party members must have wondered how to sell that to the electorate.
An increasing number of Corbyn’s support base would prefer a version of Jeremy that was more focused on parliamentary opposition. But with the influential Momentum group apparently still committed to squatting in Westminster and throwing their lot in with rape apologists and anti-Semites, it’s hard to see where the pressure to change direction will come from. What’s becoming increasingly clear, though, is that Corbynism has gone from being a fashionable political movement to something altogether more unpalatable.