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It was the summer of 2015. Glorious August sunshine smiled upon the graveyard of my local church-turned-arts-centre-turned-politics-hub. We were queuing to see Andy Burnham, parliamentary party favourite for Labour’s new leader, speak about his vision for resurrecting Labour from its humiliating election defeat. I was fresh from my first year of International Relations at the LSE and full of political energy. If waking up on the 7th May and suffering the smug jibes of my Conservative friends had taught me anything, it was that Labour needed a fresh approach, a leader who was really going to connect with people and who could throw off the decidedly mixed Blair legacy. To me, that meant…anyone who wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn.
Growing up in a lefty-liberal household, I was raised to care about social mobility, equal opportunities, and the environment. My parents were alternately Liberal Democrat and Green voters, seeing Labour as a lost bet in our historically Conservative constituency. But being young and in education, I was slightly more left-wing than my parents, and a Labour party member from the day I turned 18. Still, this didn’t mean I was that left-wing. Between his rumoured support for reopening the mines, and his penchant for Lenin-esque Breton caps, Jeremy Corbyn seemed a large leftward step beyond my political comfort zone. Not even my close friends, who joined the Labour party at the same time as me and who were Corbyn fans, could persuade me otherwise.
Hence I found myself at Colchester Arts Centre on a sunny summer’s eve. But Andy Burnham disappointed me. Whilst his talk of unity was appealing (and a thinly-veiled jab at controversial Corbyn), he seemed…well…bland. I was really put-off when he dodged a question I posed to him about secondary schools and mental health. He claimed that state-funded comprehensive schooling was the balm for all ills, but having been state-schooled myself, I knew this was exactly the wrong response – a political soundbite based on absolutely no research into the mental health crisis in, yes really, comprehensive schools.
So I went back to the drawing board. Days later, The Guardian released an editorial endorsing Yvette Cooper. One of the BBC’s most powerful women of 2013, a Kennedy scholar at Harvard, and the first woman Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Cooper was The Guardian’s favourite leadership candidate – and therefore my own. As mentioned, I grew up in a lefty-liberal household and my parents, like good lefty-liberals, read The Guardian. What The Guardian decreed, I therefore obeyed; I felt like this gave me the right balance of radical and sensible, a progressive-but-realistic approach to politics. Yvette Cooper, with her radical-progressive support for universal childcare, yet sensible-realistic MSc in Economics from LSE, felt like a suitably balanced candidate.
When Corbyn won the leadership election with a landslide mandate, I was shocked. How could my fellow Labour voters abandon “good sense” and “economic consensus”? How could they sacrifice electability for principle? How could they abandon us to another Thatcherite decade of privatisation and austerity? My disappointment wasn’t helped by the reports that rolled in of resignations and Mean Girls-esque blacklists of “hostile” MPs. As late as April 2017, I found myself wishing Corbyn would stand aside so that Labour would have a chance at securing Number 10.
Here comes the point where I eat a massive slice of humble pie. As the election campaigning has progressed, I’ve come to realise more than a few unsavoury things about my political views. The so-called “sensible” ideas that made Corbyn seem a little “loony lefty” were essentially conservative ideas: economic orthodoxy, international relations Realism, and a good old dose of prejudice. I allowed biased media coverage and the self-fulfilling prophecy of “unelectability” discourses to cloud my judgement. I let myself fall into the trap of supporting a system that blatantly does not work for the many, just because it’s all I’ve ever known. And, frankly, because as a white woman at a Russell Group university, this system could work for me. The ugly dark side of my lefty-liberalism, I’ve come to realise, is that whilst compassion for the less fortunate is always valued, success is valued more; my ability to succeed in this system thus ultimately prejudiced me against ideas and people who might want to change it. My privileges, I’m ashamed to say it, almost got the best of me.
I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to re-evaluate. Studying feminist theory and economics, especially intersectional feminist theory, has opened my eyes a lot more to things I honestly wasn’t seeing, like the fact that my lefty-liberal upbringing might be as much a set of blinkers as a more conservative background. It got me thinking about my family, and about my father’s background. Born in a council house and raised essentially by a single mother (who was forced to move her family into her own mother’s house in Jaywick, of all unholy places), my dad had a tough upbringing. If it wasn’t for the NHS, who took his three Es at A-level and opened up a free pathway to a career as a nurse, there’s every chance he could’ve led a completely different life – one far away from the relative comfort that I’ve known growing up.
It also got me thinking about my recovery. Without the NHS, which fully funds eating disorders treatment in specialist clinics, I can undoubtedly say that I would not be here today. In the US, a month of residential treatment costs $30,000 on average; since medical insurance often doesn’t cover long-term treatment, and eating disorders by their nature require long-term treatment, this can leave people without the medical attention and psychological support they need. There was no way my family could’ve paid private fees, which in the UK can cost around £700 a day for inpatient treatment, with outpatient counselling priced between £100-£200 per session. Thanks to the NHS, I am blessed to have been able to access excellent, highly-specialised treatment for three vital years at no monetary cost – treatment that has led me to live a full life.
I was saddened to hear from the professionals who treated me that due to the latest round of Conservative austerity measures, the specialised NHS centre which provided me treatment as a sixteen year old has been forced to close, its staff relocated to other counties. Knowing just how many people are affected by eating disorders, and how much of a postcode lottery it’s becoming to receive treatment, this has really opened my eyes to the brutality of these public sector cuts. I recently met Jeremy Hunt at a parliamentary event for Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and whilst he talked the talk about the Conservative government channelling more funding into treatment, 30% of sufferers are still not receiving the urgent help they need. This is one small reality of a much, much bigger picture in which mental and physical health services are being maligned for, essentially, ideological reasons.
And it’s not just health services that are suffering. It’s comprehensive education, which for all its flaws socially and emotionally enabled me to get to a Russell Group university without a single day of private tutoring. It’s social housing and disability allowance and the police forces. The enormous cost of maintaining a system designed to get those “cornflakes” to the top, as opposed to tackling inequalities too huge to be merely “natural”, has been criticised even by the IMF.
It is all of this that has led me to reconsider my views on Jeremy Corbyn. If the system is not working for the many, why not try to change it? If “economic orthodoxy” is increasing suffering, and international relations “Realism” is promoting a dangerous obsession with killing millions of innocent people, then surely what counts as “sensible” and “rational” needs to be re-thought? I will not continue to let fear of change, or dislike for a particular style of cap, prejudice me against a credible candidate for the premiership. If Corbyn’s voting record reveals anything at all, it’s that this is a man who is consistently pro-woman, pro-student, pro-LGBT, and anti-senseless violence. He’s inspiring young people to vote, with 60% expressing “absolute certainty” that they will vote this year. And most importantly, he actually seems to give a damn, expressing empathy where Theresa May comes off as patronising and cold (see that “money tree” clip).
So after an uncertain start, I’ll be casting my ballot for Corbyn and for Labour this Thursday. You may have different priorities and I respect that. Whatever you decide, make sure you get yourself clued up on the facts first. Happy voting and I’ll see you on the other side of this tumultuous General Election!