We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
Many people, I suspect, know the last stanza of The Hollow Men far more than the first. “This is the way the world ends” it goes, “This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.” I found myself re-reading the poem today, ‘inspired’ by the Labour leadership contest. It was that last stanza, one of the best known and most quote pieces of poetry in recent times, I suspect, that made me think of it. No-one wants to go out with a whimper rather than a bang – least of all those interested in politics. And yet that seems to be what the ‘sensible’, ‘serious’ and ‘grown-up’ people seem to be suggesting for the Labour Party.
When I look at the contest, when I listen to the candidates, I don’t see anyone who I can realistically imagine winning a general election. The portrayals of Liz Kendall as a Tory are cruel and unfair in many ways, but they do hit at the heart of her approach – she seems to be saying that the Tories have won the big arguments, so we need to accept that and move on. Cooper and Burnham are bland and unconvincing – George Eaton’s description of them as ‘centrist blancmange‘ seems hideously and horribly apt. None of them get close to inspiring anything – it seems impossible most of the time to imagine them even inspiring themselves. That brought me back to the first stanza of The Hollow Men. Cooper, Burnham and Kendall seem very much to be hollow men and women, whispering together in dry voices, as quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass. Labour Party meetings under their leadership might as well be rats scrabbling about over broken glass in dry cellars.
That’s where Corbyn comes in. His appeal is not hollow, it’s not dry, and he’s not whispering. His is the sort of voice that’s used to shouting in village halls, chanting on protest marches, even reading poetry at festivals. And that, though he has pretty much no chance at all of winning a general election, makes him appealing. The Labour Party, if it’s going to be led by as uninspiring leadership as Cooper, Burnham and Kendall have shown in the contest so far, is dying – and to many supporters, if they’re going to die, they’re not going to go down without a shout. If the Labour world is going to end, let it end with a bang, not a whimper.
The thing is, no-one has to be a member of a political party. No-one has to be an activist. No-one has to give their time, energy and more to a cause – so if you want your political party to have members and activists, you need to inspire them – and boring, ‘centrist’ policies are very difficult to make inspiring. For Labour activists, this may even be more true than for other parties – though it would be a classical mistake for Labour supporters to imagine they’re the only ones with vision, passion and dreams – and when Labour loses that sense of inspiration, it loses those activists. The catastrophe in Scotland was in part driven by this – activists stopped being active, members let their memberships lapse, while the SNP gained both members and activists in droves, and their ‘ground game’ was key to their success. If Labour wants to recover – in Scotland as well as in England and Wales – it needs to find that inspiration. The fact that the new Labour leadership election is one-member-one-vote, though seen by some as a weakness in that it allows activists ‘disproportionate’ power, should be seen as a strength, as it should require leadership candidates to inspire those members…
…and that, right now, is why Corbyn is succeeding and the others are failing. They seem to have forgotten what activists do, what inspires them – why they became activists in the first place. The latest move, to abstain over the Welfare Bill, shows this all too well. It may be ‘sensible’. It may be ‘grown-up’. It may be ‘good politics’ in the parliamentary sense. What it isn’t, however, is inspiring. It looks far more like a whimper than a bang.
Those campaigning against Corbyn may well be right – indeed, I suspect they are – that he can’t win a general election, and that electing him as leader could spell the end of the Labour Party. Unless, however, one of the others raises their game – in an inspiring way – that may not matter. They need to show something to Labour Party members, something that makes them say ‘yes’, not give dry, insincere applause. They need to reach out with something to the activists, because Corbyn has offered them something better than they do. It may be the end, but there’s a vestige of hope there too.
And even if it is the end, Corbyn offers a better end to the Labour Party than they do. He offers a bang, not a whimper. No-one wants a whimper.