Corbyn's detractors need to realise that his supporters aren't cultish—he's just a popular politicianby Julia Blunck / November 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
Labour was taken over by a cult of personality. A grasp so firm on the party that the cult has rewritten its history; reset it to a sort of year zero, relegating all history before it to non-existence. So rigid is the control and adherence to their line that they have rewritten party statutes to better fit their philosophy. So driven and obsessive with the image of their leader is their creed that the front cover of the party’s manifesto is a large picture of his face.
If the last item comes as a surprise, then maybe you were thinking of a different cult. The one mentioned above is, of course, the “cult” of New Labour and Tony Blair. Comparing Corbyn and Blair is a tiring game because the tendency is to ascribe to one all faults and to the other all value. But on this occasion, a comparison is useful. The truth is that not Corbyn’s Labour, nor Blair’s, nor even Margaret Thatcher’s Tory party—another example of a party changing itself to better fit its leader—were taken over by a shadowy cabal of evil masterminds. What happened was simply that thing that drives politics: their leaders won the argument.
The term “personality cult” is thrown around Corbyn and his supporters with some frequency. It follows them in with the smallest of things, like singing “Happy Birthday” to Diane Abbott or having his picture on the party’s Christmas card. This is easy to explain to some extent; when Corbyn was made leader in the most unlikely of circumstances, he seemed out of step with the general public and propped by a small segment of people with a very narrow agenda, willing to ignore the toxic image of their leader.
This narrative made sense to a point, but the election has changed it fundamentally. Corbyn now controls a party polling at about 40 per cent; Corbynites can say with earned smugness that they know what the public want better than their critics.
It is true that the intensity of some Corbynite adoration for their leader can occasionally seem off-putting and aggressive, especially to those on the outside. There is undoubtedly something aggressive about the language and behavior of certain admirers on social media.
Ironically, considering the majority of Labour voters are women, this is often tainted by a masculine streak. Combined with a certainty that Corbyn is the true Labour, the one that has come to save the nation from Red Toryism, it can make for a rather alienating experience for the non-initiated.
Yet it would be a mistake to say that it is only Corbynism that possesses these traits. Abuse on social media doesn’t come from any particular set of leftist beliefs; it comes from the anonymity of social media, with disregard for the political spectrum. Neither is believing yourself the “real” Labour a Corbynite trait. In fact, it’s a Labour one. Anyone who has spent time with the Labour right knows they will go on about how their achievements are the backbone of the Labour party, the ones who enact what the left merely whines about from the sidelines.
As Corbyn’s backers point to the party’s surprising surge in the general election, so his detractors stress that he is still personally polling behind Theresa May. On both wings of the party, some believe the other wing to be merely entryism (from the Tories or from Trotskyites), here to soil the actually Labour tradition. Like hereditary diseases, Labour left and right share that same neurosis.
Neither is correct, of course. There is no definitive Labour party leader more than there is a definitive Doctor Who incarnation; though some are fan favorites and others less so, all of them are part of one single institution and shared history.
So if none of those things are intrinsic to it, why then is Corbyn-fondness a personality cult? What makes Corbyn’s use of image so different from PR savvy Justin Trudeau or other politicians? Maybe part of the answer is that after all this time, people still don’t take Corbyn’s voters very seriously. There is a lot of effort put into understanding the thoughts and ideas of Brexit voters or the people who backed Thatcherism in the 1980s, but that same generosity is rarely offered to those who were taken by Corbyn.
It’s easy to believe that they are simple-minded children conned by a hard left charlatan; it’s hard to acknowledge that there are deep reasons for young people, non-voters, and socially liberal Remain voters to back Labour. It would demand unraveling old narratives and prejudices about certain segments of the population, and to then listen to their demands just as we would listen to the demands of others.
Corbyn isn’t the messiah, he’s simply popular. The warmth and affection people so many feel for him is not a product of brainwashing or ignorance; it comes from the same place that affection for other politicians does, and to brand this as “a cult” reveals more about the people writing than about his believers.
This doesn’t mean Corbyn will remain so forever: a wrong photo op, a bad interview, a misstep on campaign are all things that could make him yet again very unpopular, and there is still work to be done to convince more of the electorate that he is the best choice for Prime Minister.
However, if Corbynism is to be defeated, internally or externally, it needs to be understood, not condescended to. Until the media and oppositions learn this truth, Corbyn grows more absolute.