Much of William Morris’s life in the 1880s was an experience of and meditation on political leadership. With the formation of the Socialist League in December 1884, he was thrust into a much more prominent role in the British socialist movement than he had ever initially envisaged. Looking back on his most vigorous activist years in November 1890, he wrote: ‘When I first joined the movement, I hoped that some working-man leader, or rather leaders, would turn up, who would push aside all middle-class help, and become great historical figures’. And News from Nowhere, in its account of ‘How the Change Came’, vividly imagines how such leaders might emerge in a revolutionary situation: ‘now that the times called for immediate action, came forward the men capable of setting it on foot … though, as aforesaid, the abler men were not then the recognised leaders’.
Whether Jeremy Corbyn will turn out to be a ‘great historical figure’, I do not know; but he certainly achieved something remarkable in his Labour leadership campaign of last summer, re-energising anti-austerity politics in this country among the young, reawakening old social-democratic traditions within the Party itself that we thought had been buried forever by the Blairite capitulation to neo-liberalism. Ever since, the right-wing elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party have waged a determined and unscrupulous campaign against his leadership, culminating in the attempted coup which has triggered the latest contest. So it now behoves all on the Left to defend Corbyn and the idea of a new politics that he represents to the best of their ability. I’ve been slow off the mark in this, I realise, fettered I suppose by residual local Green Party loyalties, but, having been impressed by a Lancaster Momentum meeting the other night, I shall now apply to join the Labour Party and, if accepted, will get stuck in. Labourite social-democracy may not be socialism in the full Morris sense, but it is certainly the best challenge to the neo-liberal consensus that we have going at the moment.