Fellowship is more important than leadership

A new leader of the Labour Party has been elected today. As expected, it is Sir Keir Starmer. I didn’t vote for him, nor for any of the leadership candidates. All the candidates showed appallingly poor political judgment on an issue I happen to know something about, but mainly I couldn’t get interested in the contest at all.

After December’s election defeat, it seemed clear to me that the Labour Party had managed to stifle its own last, best hope of becoming a place where the kind of political action and understanding we need could be developed.

Starmer’s victory is being served up to us as a return to ‘sensible’ politics, with ‘grown-ups’ in charge. But it is precisely this tradition which has fed and watered the idea of the all-important leader for so many decades. Not wishing to be left out of the current trend for being shown to have been right all along, this is what I wrote in 2015, when Corbyn gained enough nominations to stand in the leadership election:

“British political culture is obsessed with leadership. Leaders are required to be visionary, charismatic, good looking, inspiring, firm but fair, correct in all things and (most crucially of all) victorious. If they miss the bar on any of these aspects, they must resign.

The fact that the Labour Party’s response to losing the election was to immediately start a process of electing a new leader is just the latest manifestation of this obsession.

Jeremy Corbyn is not leadership material. He is not charismatic, firm but fair, correct in all things or victorious. I will leave the question of his looks to people more qualified than I to comment. He is an inspiring speaker, who articulates a vision, shared by many people, of a world that is more just, more peaceful and more sustainable than the one we are living in now.

He is the kind of MP most people would love to have – the kind we are also blessed with here in Brighton Pavilion – a hard working, principled advocate and representative. A kind of anti-leader.”

I was frankly astonished to read this ridiculous piece by Ian Dunt this morning, bemoaning the Corbyn movement as an example of unthinking hero-worship. But as I said, this whole thing feels like a sideshow.

Back in the real (end of the) world, people are busy bringing each other food, organising street by street, providing equipment for health workers, and sharing whatever they have with those who have nothing.

None of these people waited to be told what to do by Keir Starmer, Boris Johnson or any other ‘leader’. When it comes right down to it, we all know that the people around us are what keeps us alive, not the people who think they are above us.

The health of all of us depends on the health of each of us

We have been violently reminded that we are part of an ecosystem. We should not forget it.

This perceptive piece by Jane Clare Jones draws out some of the linked lessons of the current moment: value care, accept vulnerability and abandon attempts to erect borders between us.

As she points out:

In our isolation, what becomes suddenly and starkly visible is all the life-sustaining labour that usually goes unnoticed and undervalued, much of which involves material exchange and transportation. Food distribution. Stacking shelves. Water and gas supply. Delivering post. Sewerage and rubbish collection. All the material ins and outs across the thresholds of our homes and the borders of our bodies – the mucous membranes that mark, now more than ever, our vulnerability, but keep us all alive. It’s been said, and will be said again, that we must learn our lessons here. The invisible work we hold in such low esteem is, literally, vital, and we should value it as such. The virus could enter us from animals only because we’re also animals. And like all animals, we’re materially dependent – on water, air, nutrients and the Earth.

We can’t leave people sleeping rough, or jammed together in hostels, in the middle of a pandemic. Why did we ever think we could?

We can’t expect people to follow public health advice if that leaves them without the necessities of life. So everyone must be guaranteed a basic income.

We can’t pretend that Europe’s wealth protects us from diseases, when faced with a disease spread around the world by the very same global travel and commerce that made Europe rich. Whoever grows the food you eat, whoever picks it, whoever cooks your takeaway, cleans your hospital ward or delivers your parcel is intimately connected to you. Nationality is meaningless. Making different rules for people with or without residence rights is not only cruel, it’s positively dangerous.

It won’t all be over by Christmas

Right now, we are all comforting ourselves with talk of ‘when this is over’ and ‘when things go back to normal’.

But I think we are all also haunted by the knowledge that this is not something that can be fixed quickly. Nobody knows exactly how we are going to get through this, or if that is even possible.

We do know that ‘normal’ is not something we can go back to, even if we wanted to. ‘Normal’, don’t forget, was living in a house that’s already on fire.

We now see what an emergency response looks like. We need something on at least this scale for the climate emergency.

Under pressure from below, benefit rates have increased, self-employed people have been offered some kind of safety net, and workers have had their incomes underwritten by the government.

Our local council – with extensive input from the voluntary sector and local community groups – has established a network of food hubs and a central contact point for people who need help. Public buildings are being used to pack up food parcels and repurposed as hospitals. Homeless people are being accommodated in hotels.

As the ad hoc community response becomes institutionalised, the danger of borders being recreated is very present. Support must be available to everyone, with no questions asked about immigration status or local connection.

In the meantime, those of us who are lucky enough to still have money coming in will need to continue to share with those who remain locked out.

People who call themselves leaders should take note – this crisis is making it very clear to everyone what is essential and what is not.