Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, and (following a vote of no confidence and a leadership challenge) re-elected to the same post in September 2016. In February this year, many of those who had re-elected him expressed disappointment at his effectively unconditional support for Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s invocation of the Article 50 process to leave the European Union; perhaps to placate them, Corbyn subsequently called for a demonstration in support of those who would suffer the most from EU withdrawal, but then failed to turn up. Part of the public rationale for Corbyn’s three-line whip on the Brexit vote was that if the party opposed it, then that might lead to a loss of support in predominantly working class constituencies in the North and the Midlands that had voted Leave by large margins: constituencies such as Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central, where the party nevertheless went on to lose vote share in by-elections later the same month. But despite all this — despite Brexit, which Labour Party members and voters had overwhelmingly voted against, and despite what was arguably the worst by-election performance for an opposition party since the late 19th century (see O’Hara 2017) — Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party are still for the most part Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party, and they’re not going anywhere — and neither, therefore, is the man himself. Asked whether Corbyn’s continued leadership of the party was a good thing, the answer from sidelined Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, was pragmatic: ‘It doesn’t matter; that is the situation’ (interviewed in Walker 2017). This impasse will not endure forever: Prime Minister Theresa May has called for an early General Election, and Corbyn (who has been asking for one since December last year) has given his support. But in the six weeks that we have left until the Labour Party is overwhelmingly (and perhaps irreparably) crushed, it may perhaps be worth reflecting on how it got into this appalling mess.
2 The commonplaces of Corbynism
One has to start somewhere, so I’d like to start with a quote amalgamated (note the ellipses) from three comments that a single individual made on a mutual friend’s Facebook post on 27 February 2017. Between his posting of the second and third comments, I commented that the Labour Party is not primarily a socialist party but has ‘always had room for socialists — provided that they can reconcile themselves to electoral reality’ (see Hodgson 2016 for full discussion of this point). This comment of mine is referenced in the third of his:
a centrist-Labour would now be what was once considered right wing. Corbyn is hardly hard left, but mainstream politics has lurched so far to the right it’s normalised the right doctrine and neoliberalism. As Raymond Williams scarily predicted, the values and ideas are of neoliberal capitalism are so normalised it appears to be the only way, the way it’s ‘always been’.
If the only viable choice is a right leaning Labour party, or an extreme right Tory party, dictated mostly by the right wing and corporate owned media, then really democracy and decency are already lost.
‘Electoral reality’ is exactly what Raymond Williams warns about. This is the way it is, there’s no room for change. Corbyn represents a genuine difference. If the choice is between Extreme Tory and Tory-Lite, then what is even the point? Corbyn has repeatedly been on the right side of history, and his policies have genuine popular appeal and yet it’s increasingly clear the media control what people see and hear.
There’s nothing special about the above, but that’s the point: the most striking thing about it is its sheer predictability. Although not all attempt to understand contemporary politics by reference to the work of Marxist literary critics who died three decades ago, uncounted ‘Corbynites’ say more-or-less the same thing on a daily basis, both on social media and off it. For example, the day after the above Facebook comments were made, the aforementioned Morning Star bluntly asserted that ‘[p]eople understand Jeremy’s message to be true’ in an editorial published under the headline ‘The only political leader offering radical change’ (Morning Star 2017), and an article published later the same week in Socialist Worker — the official newspaper of the aforementioned SWP — argued that ‘Corbyn’s “hard left” policies seemed normal inside the Labour party when he first became an MP in 1983’ but ‘[n]ow they are regarded as very left wing’, and, as a result, ‘[m]ost of the media have waged a vicious campaign to undermine Corbyn’ (Sewell 2017).
Like those articles (and indeed the social media posts and the Paul Mason interview statements examined in the previous section), the Facebook comments above are assemblages of what rhetoricians call topoi or ‘commonplaces’: ideas or themes that are — within a particular culture — frequently revisited and rarely challenged. Some social psychologists call these ‘discursive’ or ‘interpretative repertoires’, but it doesn’t really matter what term we use. Within particular groups, people adopt the same ways of speaking, which imply the same ways of thinking (Billig 1996). The following are clearly recognisable as the kinds of things that Corbynites say:
- Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are what the public really wants;
- Jeremy Corbyn only seems to be ‘hard left’ because the Labour Party has moved to the right, leaving him behind;
- Without Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party would be virtually indistinguishable from the Conservative Party and there would be no point voting for it;
- Jeremy Corbyn is different from other politicians;
- Jeremy Corbyn brings change that powerful forces seek to prevent;
- Jeremy Corbyn has always been ‘on the right side of history’;
- If members of the public think they don’t want Jeremy Corbyn, that’s only because of the malign influence of the media.
The only thing missing from the above list is the assertion that Jeremy Corbyn is actually very popular with the British public. If you haven’t heard such lines before, then you haven’t yet met the people who joined the Labour Party in order to get Corbyn into the leader’s office and keep him there — the people for whom Corbyn’s leadership is the only good thing about the Labour Party — the people for whom supporting Corbyn is the very point of being in the Labour Party.
Taken literally, these ideas are a mixed bag. There is never any clarity as to what Corbyn’s ‘difference’ from other politicians consists in, nor as to why it should be considered a good thing. The nature of the ‘change’ he is said to bring is similarly nebulous. The grand-sounding claim about ‘the right side of history’ only means that he voted against the invasion of Iraq. And while some of Corbyn’s policy positions are potentially popular with voters, those are positions that are shared across the Parliamentary Labour Party, including by centrist MPs (see Francis 2017). As for the idea that Corbyn originally represented the mainstream of the Labour Party, that is true only in the limited sense that his entrance into Parliament was via the disastrous 1983 election, which the party fought on a manifesto that was largely the handiwork of one of its most left-wing MPs. And Corbyn is not, of course, popular: polls of voting intention are currently giving the Conservative Party a lead of as much as 21% over the Labour Party, while two-way polls asking whether respondents would prefer Jeremy Corbyn or Conservative leader Theresa May as Prime Minister put May ahead by as much as 36%, with even ‘don’t know’ getting more love than Corbyn.
But the power of commonplaces arises from repetition, not from rational consideration in relation to empirical evidence. Indeed, their very point is that they are never subjected to critique, serving instead as accepted starting points for trains of thought that never threaten to call them into question. For Corbyn’s supporters, a good argument is an argument both founded upon and re-affirming Corbynite commonplaces, while a deceptive or mistaken or otherwise Blairite argument is an argument that does not.
3 The culture of the Left
One of the most interesting aspects of these commonplaces is their ability to circulate between groups that might otherwise appear to have fairly fundamental disagreements, including supporters and opponents of Britain’s membership of the European Union, as well as both Stalinists and Trotskyists. This is because they have their roots in the culture of the 21st century British Left — which is shared across multiple left wing groups and left-identified individuals unaffiliated with any specific group — rather than in any particular political analysis — which is the sort of thing that socialists and Communists will feud over until the end of time (hence the virtually microscopic size of all British parties to the left of Labour). Here, for example, is an editorial published nearly two years before the above social media comments in Solidarity, the official newspaper of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty or AWL, a Trotskyist organisation formerly known as Socialist Organiser, membership of which is proscribed for Labour Party members:
The huge support for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader is a reminder that what seems like an overwhelmingly dominant right-wing ‘consensus’ in bourgeois politics can be limited and unstable.
It shows that large numbers of people, including working class and young people, still want a politics that is different to, and to the left of, the consensus of neo-liberalism
(AWL 2015, 5)
We can read this and the more recent quotations we have already seen almost as a single text. Left politics, identified with Corbyn, are positioned as ‘different to’, ‘offering radical change’ from, or ‘represent[ing] a genuine difference’ with regard to a ‘normalised’ or ‘consensus’ position described as ‘neoliberal’ or ‘bourgeois’ and identified not only with the Conservative Party (‘Extreme Tory’) but also with all Labour MPs not overtly affiliated with their party’s left wing (‘Tory-Lite’). This politics is not really ‘hard left’; rather, it is ‘popular’, ‘underst[ood]… to be true’ by ‘people’, and supported by ‘large numbers of… working class and young people’, such that any apparent lack of enthusiasm from the general public must be explained, whether explicitly or otherwise, by conspiracy theories — for example, involving ‘a vicious campaign’ waged by ‘the media’, which has ‘control [over] what people see and hear.’ The latter is particularly important because it functions as an alibi for the failure of the rest. For example, while I was writing this, a message was posted to a popular Labour Party Facebook group using a reference to Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing consent (1988) to support the argument that it is not the Labour leadership but the media that need to change: ‘Labour politics is fine’, the poster concluded, and if ‘a political party that clearly represents the interests of the vast majority of the population cannot obtain the commensurate backing’, this can only be explained through media bias. A fine way to insulate oneself from other people’s opinions while justifying one’s own opinion on the basis of their supposed interests! To accept this line of reasoning is to accept then the Labour Party will never again win elections because it cannot change the media, but to assert that its future defeats won’t matter, because they won’t be the party leader’s fault. If indeed one regards elections in which the general public participates as in any way important – which many enthusiasts of ‘party democracy’ apparently don’t.
Such thinking goes all the way to the top of the current party, with Corbyn’s closest parliamentary ally, John McDonnell, informing two journalists at the Guardian — a newspaper that was intensely critical of Blair (especially over the war in Iraq) and that publishes numerous pro-Corbyn commentators — that because their employer ‘became part of the New Labour [i.e. Blairite] establishment… you feel dispossessed because your people are no longer in power’ and therefore collude in the media’s attempt ‘to destroy a socialist who is trying to transfer power from the establishment to the people’ (quoted in Asthana and Stewart 2017, emphasis added). Corbynite commonplaces all the way.
4 ‘Working class politics’
But what is ‘the establishment’ and who are ‘the people’? In practice, the former simply means whoever held positions of influence in the Labour Party before Corbyn’s election as its leader, and the latter simply means the Bennite faction of the Labour Party and its allies in various left wing organisations, some of whose members are banned from joining Labour.
On the subject of organisations proscribed for Labour members, I turn now to an editorial published just after Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader in The Socialist, the official newspaper of the Socialist Party or SP: another Trotskyist organisation that formerly practised entryism under the name of Militant but subsequently shifted to competing against the Labour Party in local and parliamentary elections, latterly in partnership with the SWP as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition or TUSC (from which the SWP has recently withdrawn). The editorial, which also writes of ‘huge enthusiasm for Corbyn’s pro-worker platform’ (Socialist Party 2016, 3), argues as follows:
The battle against Labour’s right is not simply a battle between two wings of a party. Behind them are the class interests of the different participants. The right ultimately represents the capitalist elite, which was delighted with the Blairite transformation of Labour into a party that could be relied on to act on their behalf, and is fighting to turn the wheel of history back to that situation.
(Socialist Party 2016, 3)
It’s worth thinking about this carefully. Its scope is the Labour Party itself (from which ex-members of Militant are banned), and its concern is with whether the party shall remain in the state to which it was transformed by Blairite Labour MPs for the benefit of the ‘capitalist elite’ or shall be re-transformed by Bennite Labour MPs for the benefit of… well, who, exactly? The idea appears to be that Corbyn’s leadership will deprive the ‘capitalist elite’ of the tool that the Labour Party supposedly became under Blair. The Labour Party does not have to win elections for that goal to be achieved. Indeed, it could simply vanish – or fragment into micro-parties indistinguishable from the rest of the British far left.
The image of heroic struggle within the Labour Party is given graphic form in a drawing on the cover of the issue of Solidarity from which I quoted previously, which shows workers (standing on the left, of course!) cheering Corbyn on while senior Labour Party figures (including Blair himself with a badge that reads ‘Tony Tory’) and obese, drunken journalists (standing or sprawling on the right) hysterically condemn him as an ‘extremist’ or a ‘disaster’. The drawing is captioned ‘The Socialist who stood in a Labour leadership election’, and accompanying front page headlines are ‘Back Corbyn’s campaign’ and ‘Fight for working class politics’, while the article quoted above carried the slightly different headline, ‘Back Corbyn, fight for working-class politics!’ From Corbyn’s mouth come vague, policy-free statements of rejection: ‘I don’t agree with austerity’ and ‘I oppose attacks on the working class and the poor!’
This is, I would suggest, the sum total of the Corbynite project: the installation at the head of the Labour Party of a ‘socialist’, i.e. a person upon whom Marxist-Leninists can pin hopes, and who makes statements aligning him- or herself against right wing policies (such as ‘austerity’) and with ‘the working class’ and ‘the poor’. What do actual ‘working class’ or ‘poor’ people think of this? They certainly aren’t very keen to vote for it (see Bertram 2017 for analysis).
In contrast to all the above, and without claiming that it typifies the views of any particular group, I offer the following report of a working class person’s discourse on Corbyn, simply to remind my readers of what the Labour Party might look like to those who turn to left-of-centre politics in hope of what George Orwell characterised as ‘better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about’ as opposed to the revolutionary’s ‘vague threat of future violence’ (1986 , pp. 163-4):
My Mum, brought up working class in a railway worker’s house, got a phone call today from the Labour Party about her direct debit being cancelled.
She gave them both barrels about how Corbyn was a traitor to the working class by dooming Labour to opposition and bringing about a further decade of Tory government. She said that she would not give another penny to the party until Corbyn had gone. She told the person on the phone that the best government she had ever known was the Blair government and that Gordon Brown saved the world only for this Jeremy Corbyn ‘tosser’ to put it all at risk.
I would like to apologise to the poor bugger who made that phone call as well giving a big shout out to my Mum.
Unheard of talk! Blair’s government the best that a ‘working class’ person had ever known? Perhaps the National Minimum Wage and the Sure Start Centres and the extra billions for education and the National Health Service counted for something after all. And Corbyn a ‘traitor to the working class’? The latter accusation is more typically levelled at Labour Party centrists such as Blair and Brown — the ‘Tory-Lite’ leaders who (we are frequently informed) took the votes of working class people for granted while selling out their interests for the sake of ‘neoliberal capitalism’.
Although Trotskyists, Stalinists, and Bennites alike tend to present Corbyn as the champion of ‘working class politics’, it should be recognised that his programme has very little to offer working class people in the here-and-now. Even in the fantasy scenario of a Corbyn-led government, the hoped-for benefits to the working class would still be indirect: rather than implementing policies to the direct material benefit of actual working class people (one thinks again of the National Minimum Wage), a hypothetical Prime Minister Corbyn would — according to the AWL — implement policies to facilitate the working class’s fulfilment of the destiny assigned to it by classical Marxist theory, i.e. the overthrow of the capitalist order and the institution of social ownership of the means of production and exchange, which an elected government could not achieve even ‘if it wanted to’ (AWL 2015, 5). In the real world and at the present moment, in which the proletariat does not yet acknowledge its revolutionary future role, actually existing working class people are of interest only insofar as representations of them can be conscripted in support of arguments over who will lead the Labour Party.
Meanwhile, those same actually existing working class people re-pay the compliment by taking little or no interest in the Labour Party. Though Trotskyists claimed that ‘[t]he surge into the Labour Party in support of Corbyn [was] made up of hundreds of thousands of working class and impoverished middle class people, who want[ed] to see a party that st[ood] in their interests’ (Socialist Party 2016, 3), a survey carried out before the 2015 General Election and again in December of the same year found that, at both points in time (i.e. both before and after the increase in party membership driven by Corbyn’s leadership campaign), over 75% of Labour members lived in households headed by someone in an ‘ABC1’ occupation, i.e. that less than one in four would ordinarily be classified as working class (Bale, Poletti, and Webb 2015). A leaked internal report prepared for Labour’s National Executive Committee the following year found that ‘[t]hose who are under-represented’ in the party membership ‘tend to be either young singles/families who rent properties on a short-term basis and require financial assistance or those who live in rural communities’, while ‘high-status city dwellers living in central locations and pursuing careers with high rewards are highly over-represented’ (quoted in Syal 2016). In socio-economic if not in cultural and political terms, the new membership was indistinguishable from the old membership. The fight to transform Labour from a party seeking to achieve limited although concrete reforms through engagement in the work of local and national government into a social movement more interested in exercising ‘the power to speak, to influence, to demonstrate, to demand’ is therefore probably best understood as a form of middle class identity politics (the identity in question being ‘left’).
The immediate beneficiaries of Corbynism are not working class people per se, but members of ‘left’ political organisations or factions either (a) seeking power within the Labour Party, or (b) directly competing with it in their efforts to win votes in elections and/or to recruit members. Some of those people are working class, but most are not. The Morning Star responded to last summer’s challenge to Corbyn’s leadership with an editorial headlined ‘Justice must be won for the working class’, in which it argued that ‘[t]he cumulative anger and frustration that’s been building in working-class communities across these lands over the last few decades has found an outlet’ in support for Corbyn and opposition to his detractors in the Parliamentary Labour Party (Morning Star 2016). Given the historically low vote share of candidates for Corbyn’s Labour Party in the strongly working class constituencies of Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central last month, such assertions can no longer be taken literally (if, indeed, they ever could). Keeping Corbyn as Labour leader wins no justice for the working class; it only consolidates power within the Bennite faction of the Labour Party and provides members of Trotskyist and Stalinist organisations such as the SWP and CPB with a path to greater influence within the Labour Party and greater esteem within the wider Left. The anger and frustration that really troubles the Morning Star is that felt within the revolutionary socialist sects that take themselves to be the guardians of the best interests of the working class of Marxist theory and feel aggrieved that the UK’s largest left-of-centre party is not run by the most left-of-centre people in the UK.
5 They, Daniel Blake: the great spoken-on-behalf-of
One of the defining moments of Corbynism was the release of I, Daniel Blake (Loach 2016): a critically-acclaimed BBC Films movie about a tragic working class welfare claimant. It was directed by Ken Loach, a long-term friend of Jeremy Corbyn and the creator of an hour-long promo video in support of the latter’s re-election as party leader. I, Daniel Blake had such an impact on Corbyn’s followers that many of them renamed themselves ‘Daniel Blake’ on Twitter in perhaps the quintessential statement of socialist fandom. ‘We are all Daniel Blake’ was another popular slogan, and — coincidentally — the headline of an article that appeared in the same issue of The Socialist as the editorial quoted above. Following the unprecedented drop in Labour’s vote share in the Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central by-elections last month, Loach wrote in defence of Corbyn’s leadership in a Guardian article (an article, that is, in that same Guardian that John McDonnell subsequently attacked for its supposed anti-Corbyn bias) saturated in Corbynite commonplaces.
The article begins with Loach’s recollections of his own visits to Stoke-on-Trent and Whitehaven (the centre of the Copeland district), promoting I, Daniel Blake with Labour Club screenings organised by activists from Momentum, the privately-owned pro-Corbyn organisation briefly discussed above. Having pointedly criticised Labour activists outside Momentum by commending the behaviour of the Momentum activists in question as ‘a model of how Labour activists should work’ and recalled audience complaints of ‘[t]he failure of Labour governments… and, importantly, Labour councillors’, Loach cut to the chase:
Now let’s ask the real questions. What are the big problems people face? What is the Labour leadership’s analysis and programme? Why is Labour apparently unpopular? Who is responsible for the party’s divisions?
The problems are well rehearsed but rarely related to the leadership question. A vulnerable working class that knows job insecurity, low wages, bogus ‘self-employment’, poverty for many including those in work, whole regions left to rot: these are the consequences of both Tory and New Labour’s free market economics. … The central fact is blindingly obvious: the Blair, Brown and Peter Mandelson years were central to this degeneration. That is why Labour members voted for Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn and his small group fight the Tories in front and deal with the silent mutiny behind them. Yet the MPs, unrepresentative of the members, are doing immense damage. How come the media don’t put them in the dock? It is they and their backers in the party bureaucracy who have been rejected.
It was their Labour party, not Corbyn’s, that lost Scotland, lost two elections and has seen Labour’s vote shrink inexorably. … If Corbyn can be removed, it will be business as usual, with scant difference between Labour and the Tories. If it is to transform society, the party itself must be transformed.
As we see from the above, the priority for Loach — who in 2013 founded the rival Left Unity party and in 2015 campaigned for it against Labour — is the transformation of the Labour Party (yes, that again), which — on his account as much as on that of the Trotskyists and other Corbynites quoted in previous sections of this essay — must (naturally) precede any significant external politics. What is at stake is not the day-to-day work of parliamentary opposition to the Conservative government, nor the short- to medium-term ambition to replace that government with a Labour government that would implement specific policies for the benefit of actual working class people (say, a higher minimum wage and an improved public health service), nor the still less glamorous equivalents in local and regional government, but the eternal — and fundamentally aesthetic — imperative for ‘difference between Labour and the Tories’, i.e. for Labour to be led by the kind of person for whom a socialism fan would like to vote. Exactly as in the examples quoted in the previous sections, there is a historic struggle in progress, with, on one side, Corbyn and his followers, and on the other, a coalition between the Conservative Party, past Labour leaders and cabinet ministers, and ‘[Labour] MPs, unrepresentative of the members’: because the job of Labour MPs is to represent whoever currently constitutes the majority of the (now very middle class) Labour membership, rather than the ordinary voters whose representatives in parliament they officially are. But this inversion of democracy is no problem at all, because, under Corbyn’s leadership, the party is not unpopular, but only ‘apparently unpopular’, its true popularity presumably concealed in the voting booth and revealed only at screenings of I, Daniel Blake.
Loach’s essential argument is that the sufferings of working class people require Labour MPs and bureaucrats to submit — and submit enthusiastically, for the quiet resignation with which they accepted the result of the September 2016 leadership election is here condemned as ‘silent mutiny’ — to Corbyn and his circle, who will rule over the party in the name of the working class — that is, of them, Daniel Blake.
6 Selling a piece of St Jeremy: ‘I don’t actually care.’ ‘You do!’ ‘But I don’t.’
An example of such an attempted enlistment can be found in John Harris’s short video documentary about the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election (Harris and Domokos 2017). The film is well worth watching as a whole, but the part to which I would like to draw attention is the interaction, from 08.11 to 09.41, between a Labour Party activist and a potential voter. I have transcribed the interaction below, where PV is the potential voter and LPA is the Labour Party Activist:
PV: What you go- what you gonna do for the community and that?
LPA: What do you think needs to be done for the community?
PV: Pff. I dunno. Like, some better shit, init, like, you know what I mean? Like, build fucking, like, I dunno, like, more youth centres, stop closing shit down.
PV: Like, help people that are vulnerable and that. Put people in better housing.
PV: You know what I mean? Stop sending people to jail for stupid shit.
PV: You know what I mean, like?
LPA: Are there any people that you think represent your views, do you feel like the Labour Party represents the, the —
LPA: Why not?
PV: ’Coz they’re all full of shit, man, they’re all like upper class people that’ve, you know what I mean? There’s no —
PV: No people who’ve actually lived it in there, is there?
LPA: Is that something you would vote for? If people were talking about, like, opening more youth centres, and, uhm, making fairer like justice system and things like that?
LPA: Because that is what, uhm, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, stands for at the moment.
PV: But everyone says that, everyone makes, like, promises and that but shit don’t get done, does it?
LPA: One thing I’d say about Jeremy Corbyn is that he’s quite different from politicians that’ve come before – like, do you know that none of the Labour Party want him, basically, like, to be the leader?
PV: No-one wants him ’coz he’s a dick.
PV: You know what I mean, like?
LPA: Why do you think that?
PV: Well, he was saying stuff like, ah, he doesn’t wanna use our c-, our Trident missiles and all of that shit
PV: ’Coz if someone come over here and started blowing us up, like, what are you gonna do, pour ’em a cup of tea and be like, ‘Yeah, crack on.’
LPA: But do you not know that Trident costs, like, six hundred billion pounds, so if we didn’t have Trident, all the things that you’ve just said — youth centres, better justice system —
PV: Yeah but the thing is, I don’t actually care, like.
LPA: You do!
PV: But I don’t.
LPA: You do!
I shan’t dwell on the fact that the estimated cost of Trident renewal is not £600 billion but £17.5 to £23.4 billion according to the Ministry of Defence, which supports it, and £100 billion according to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which opposes it (Fraser 2015). It’s easy to make a mistake in the heat of the moment.
It is more helpful to focus on the radical disjunction between the priorities of the activist and the Stoke resident to whom she is speaking. The latter expresses concern for the local community and with things that affect his life directly: local issues such as housing, youth centres, and institutions that have closed down, as well with what he regards as unjustifiably high rates of incarceration among community members. But instead of talking about what the Labour Party has done for Stoke-on-Trent, or for people like this potential voter, or about what the previous Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central achieved, or about the merits of Gareth Snell, the Labour candidate for whom the activist is nominally canvassing, and about what Snell might yet do to improve this specific Stoke resident’s life, what does the activist choose to talk about? Why, the leader of the Labour Party, of course! Moreover, she talks about him by commending him for his difference from other politicians and she evidences this difference by stating that other Labour Party politicians do not want him to be their leader. To an individual not steeped in Corbynite commonplaces, it must have seemed a funny sort of praise for a leader — and a still funnier sort of reason to vote for one of the people he will lead. Among Corbynites, the truly great thing about the Labour Party still appears to be that its MPs are led by someone they don’t want to be led by. But in the world of ordinary people, that is not really a hot sell.
Neither is opposition to the renewal of the Trident nuclear programme, which many British people believe to be necessary to their own safety and that of their families. And, given that — in conversation with a potential voter focused on local issues — this particular activist can only argue for the benefits of such opposition through appeals to the attractions of entirely hypothetical policies — Corbyn has never proposed investing money saved from Trident in youth centres, there’s no connection between Trident non-renewal and justice system reforms (which Corbyn has not in fact proposed), and, in any case, the Labour Party voted to renew Trident despite Corbyn’s opposition, so this is all rather beside the point — it is hardly surprising to hear that the potential voter in question doesn’t care about what he’s hearing. The activist doesn’t seem to believe that he doesn’t care, but I do. Why should he care about the virtues of her grey-bearded, white-faced saint? All that has nothing to do with him.
At the end of the day, the activist speaks as she does because she’s there for Corbyn’s sake, and the potential voter to whom she speaks responds as he does because he’s not there for Corbyn’s sake but because it is his home and he lives there. His concerns relate to the conditions of his day-to-day existence; hers, to the internal power struggles of the Labour Party. To a member of the Labour Party, it may matter greatly whether the latter has a representative of the self-described Left for a figurehead, but what can that matter to anybody else? Indeed, this particular non-member expresses frustration with Labour for being full of what he calls ‘upper class people’ who have never ‘actually lived it’ — which, give or take a quibble over the meaning of ‘upper class’ (which in Britain traditionally refers to members of the hereditary aristocracy, such as Tony Benn, rather than to the merely well-connected and well-heeled), is an accurate description of the wealthy, metropolitan, privately-educated career politician that Corbyn empirically is.
The fight to defend Corbyn’s position as Labour leader may be carried out in this man’s name as a presumable member of the working class, but that doesn’t mean he has a dog in it.
7 The beating heart of Corbynism
During the Cold War era, the Communist Parties of North Korea, China, the Soviet Bloc, and elsewhere gained what legitimacy they had as rulers of their respective territories from their claim to represent the workers — but as everyone but the Stalinists now admits, they only ever represented their own interests as the elite of a now-discredited political system. Corbynism makes the same false claim, but its ambitions are smaller: rather than aiming to govern a state, it aims only to govern a political party. And while it can’t win an election in which the general public participates, it can probably still count on winning multiple internal leadership elections, because the only people who can vote in those are the kinds of people willing to join a party led by Jeremy Corbyn. I have made no pretence of trying to persuade such people in this essay; if a three-line whip in favour of the Tory Brexit bill and the loss of a safe Labour seat to a Tory candidate are insufficient to dislodge St Jeremy from the special place that he holds in their hearts, then nothing I can say will make a difference. There are enough socialism fans in the UK to vote Corbyn into the Labour Leader’s office, but not enough to vote him into number 10, Downing St, and they’re rotten useless at persuading anybody else that voting for Labour candidates might be a good idea, so this — to be perfectly frank — is where we’re stuck (at least until 8 June).
Corbynism is a paranoid and inward-looking politics, obsessively focused on the relationships between and within the groups that make up the self-identified Left. It has little interest in — and still less to offer — the outside world. While Corbyn alienates most members of the public, enamoured socialism fans regurgitate a stock of commonplace platitudes to anyone who will listen, reassuring themselves that the leader of ‘their’ party is a politician wonderfully unlike all others, and that they are right to support him, and that anything that others might suppose to have gone wrong must have been somebody else’s fault (if indeed it was wrong at all). That’s what they’ve been doing ever since he got onto the leadership ballot, and it’s what they’ll still be doing on 9 June, no matter how many talented and hard-working Labour MPs are reconciling themselves to the end of their political careers.
Because that’s just how socialism fans like it. If it wasn’t, they’d shut up and go home.
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