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Jeremy Corbyn’s idea of democracy

From a conventional perspective Jeremy Corbyn is not a typical leader. He doesn’t get on with his parliamentary party, who have tried to get rid of him as leader. He ignores many of the conventions of political leadership but showed greater empathy with the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire than the Prime Minister and many politicians. 

He went to Glastonbury, spoke from the stage and had the audience chanting his name. His party did not win the election, falling short of the Conservatives by 64 seats but still asserts that he will be Prime Minister in six months’ time. What is he about?

His Labour Party manifesto offers some clues. Predictably he wanted to increase taxes on the wealthiest and on companies. He proposed paying everyone a £10 an hour ‘living wage’ regardless of whether one is working or not. He wanted to nationalise the railways, energy and water supply companies. Repeal of legislation on strikes, including secondary strikes, was another aim. He planned to make higher education free and reintroduce student maintenance grants. He vehemently opposes nuclear weapons and would not use them if he were Prime Minister. He is a republican but abolishing the monarchy is not an immediate priority. He supports the unification of Ireland and had open sympathies with Sinn Fein/IRA.

So how is all this to be achieved if he is at odds with many of his MPs and is nowhere near winning an election? His answer would probably be that democracy is not about winning elections and votes in Parliament. In a lucid column in the Times this week Daniel Finkelstein suggested an explanation that I had suspected for most of the last two years and Corbyn confirmed at Glastonbury.  He said “politics is actually about everyday life. It’s all about us, what we dream. What we want and what we want for everybody else.”

He believes politics is about the control ordinary people have over their own lives, hence his anger at what the Grenfell Tower fire did to its residents. The Conservative Chelsea and Kensington Council and a succession of Tory Housing Ministers had let them down and were even guilty of their murder as his ally John McDonnell expressed it.

He wants to repeal legislation on strikes to enable working people to control their industries. He backs John McDonnell’s call for a million people on the streets to force the Conservatives out of office. He sees them as exercising power in the interests of capitalism, not the people. “It’s not our job to reform capitalism, it’s to overthrow it”, he says. So he rejects Blairites and centrists in his parliamentary party because they aim to work with capitalism. Working with his allies in Momentum, Corbyn’s aim is to trigger a non-violent revolution that marginalises Parliament and empowers ordinary people to exercise real power and control over their lives.

How do we respond to that as Christians? In his own way Jesus was a revolutionary. His word for the rich young man was ‘sell your possessions and give to the poor’, (Mt 19:210) and his parable of sheep and goats (Matthew 25) illustrate that, as does his “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). Justice for the poor and powerless is a Christian ideal. However the problem some will see with Corbyn’s revolution is that it only embraces those who support his policies and excludes those who contribute the capital that creates jobs for lots of ordinary people.

There is certainly a case for a more participative form of democracy that gives ordinary people a greater say in how government and society operate and affects their lives. More genuine devolution and possibly the introduction of proportional representation, initially in local government, are possible steps towards that but they will only work if those ordinary people chose to engage in active citizenship.  That will surely include many who radically reject Corbyn’s socialism, including a majority of his parliamentary party.

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