Surreal and baffling. And yet, at the same time, curiously familiar.
It was, like so many discussions lately, about Jeremy Corbyn and his prospects of being elected leader of the Labour Party. And the consensus view – as seems normal – was that this was something that ought not to happen.
Now I can think of a couple of good reasons why people might not want Corbyn to become the party’s leader. One might be because you’re Jeremy Corbyn and know a poisoned chalice when you see one.
The other might be because you’re a Tory at heart and don’t agree with his socialist desire to make the world fairer. That would seem to apply to a majority of Labour MPs, including the other three leadership candidates.
But it appears not to apply to most members of the party. And it didn’t seem to apply to the three journos I was earwigging on – all of them Labour supporters.
Their chat want roughly like this:
“If Corbyn gets to be leader it’ll be a disaster.”
“Mind you, he’s a nice guy.”
“Much better than the other candidates.”
“Down to earth sort of bloke.”
“Really gets through to ordinary people.”
“Oh, yes. Not like those professional politicians who’ve never really done anything else.”
“Exactly. But his policies…”
“Oh, yes. His policies…”
“When you look at them, they all make sense. Just what people want, really.”
“Oh, yes. Renationalising the railways would be very popular.”
“Protecting the NHS from further privatisation. Everyone loves the NHS.”
“Getting rid of university tuition fees. That’d be popular. And the right thing to do.”
“Taking on the bankers. Ending austerity. Higher taxes for top earners. People would love that.”
“They would. Pity he’s unelectable.”
“Yes. If he gets to be leader it’ll be a disaster.”
And this is the point at which you want to break up the discussion and shake these people by the shoulders. “Why?” you want to scream at them. “Why, if his policies are so good and he’s such a nice guy and people like him, is he unelectable?”
And the only answer I can come up with to that one is: “Because everybody keeps being told he is.” And what people keep being told, they tend to believe. So Corbyn’s unelectability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But what if those people are wrong? What if the massive surge in Labour membership and support since Corbyn stood up to be counted actually means something?
What if we’re finally reaching that tipping point in British politics that has looked imminent ever since the financial crash of 2008 and the appearance of the Occupy movement?
What if the British electorate is actually ready for a dose of straightforwardness and decency? For putting ordinary people’s interests ahead of those of big business?
I don’t envy Corbyn the task he will face if – maybe that should be “when” – he becomes Labour leader. He will have massive support within the party at grassroots level. But he will be painfully short of friends in Parliament. And that will make his job at Westminster extremely difficult.
One of the friends he will have is the Labour veteran Michael Meacher, who would have been a superb candidate himself if he’d been a bit younger. Well, a lot younger. Meacher’s 75 now, but he still has one of the sharpest brains in the Commons. And he put his finger right on the spot when explaining why so many Labour MPs want “anyone but Corbyn” to get the leader’s job next month.
It’s because so many of them came in after the “Blairite coup” that captured Labour in the 1990s. And, like Blair himself, they give nothing but lip service to true Labour values. Quite often not even that.
Blair thinks Corbyn would lead Labour over a cliff. Well, maybe he would.
But if it’s just so-called New Labour that crashes over the edge, leaving real Labour marching on, that would be a good thing all round.
If I’m right about that tipping point it might turn out to be a very good thing indeed.
Remember, only 24 per cent of the electorate actually voted Tory in May – but that was still enough to beat a Labour Party that was just a second Tory party in a thin disguise.
It’ll be interesting to see which way people vote if they have a real choice.
Look what happened in Scotland. The anti-austerity message didn’t prove to be such a turn-off there, did it?
OK, England isn’t Scotland – and Jeremy Corbyn isn’t Nicola Sturgeon.
But frankly, if the only way to save Labour is for it to remain a poor man’s Tory party (but which doesn’t care for the poor man) – well, what’s the point?