In the increasingly ill-tempered Labour leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents are using the word “cult” more and more to describe his support. And it’s not difficult to see why; on social media in particular some of his supporters adopt a tone of personal adulation that would make Kim Jong-Un blush. Facts – such as the fact that Labour has trailed the Tories in the opinion polls throughout Corbyn’s leadership, or that Corbyn called for Article 50 to be triggered immediately following the EU referendum result – are explained away or simply, in the face of the evidence, denied. A nadir was possibly reached when a Corbyn supporter at a rally in Bristol told the BBC that every story had its white-bearded hero, like Gandalf or Dumbledore, and Jeremy was theirs. Leaving aside the question of whether Middle Earth or Hogwarts were appropriate models of democratic socialist governance, this clearly isn’t a mature political statement based on analysis or reason.
But it’s far from just being Corbyn. During the 2015 General Election campaign, I was part of Labour’s campaign in Brighton Pavilion, and saw something very similar: not only did Green supporters and campaigners insist that Labour had no “right” to stand against Caroline Lucas, but voters in well-heeled parts of the constituency justified their support for Caroline Lucas on grounds of personality – including the person who said that she wanted Lucas elected even if that let the Tories in “because I love her”; the person who was voting for her because “she’s such a nice person”, or, most of all “because she has done so much for Brighton”, at the same time that her Party was forming perhaps the most unpopular administration in the history of Brighton and Hove City council. When the Guardian uncovered a student in Brighton who had a shrine to Lucas in her bedroom, I don’t think any of us in the Labour campaign were in the least surprised. Neither am I remotely surprised that social media photos of meetings supporting the Left’s recent coup in the Brighton and Hove Labour party appear to be full of people who were active Lucas supporters.
Why the cultism?
One very obvious answer is that it represents a loss of faith in the conventional democratic process; a belief, however dressed up in democratic language, that political change is better effected by a charismatic individual than through the messy politics of managing institutions and structures. But the problem is that the real world is messy, and is managed through institutions and structures and processes; and that political decisions often involve trade-offs between competing priorities. The collapse of faith in democratic institutions around the world is well chronicled, but cultism around Corbyn, Lucas – and, during the referendum campaign, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – is a sign of how far what one might call the liberal politics of social democracy have been devalued. It’s all of a piece with the contempt for experts that was voiced during the EU referendum campaign. And ultimately history tells us that political cults in office (not that Corbyn has the remotest chance of achieving that) do not end well. Those who believe in rational politics have a lot of work to do.
But, also, it’s possible to see the cultism of a politics of entitlement – a politics that is not about changing the world, or delivering in office, but about making the participant feel good about themselves. It’s at heart a deeply consumerist – even (to the extent the term means anything) a neoliberal – approach to politics; cheerleading a brand rather than creating an open rational dialogue, and using the methods of puffery and advertising. And again, the contempt for expertise is part of this – it’s a politics of self-indulgence, and none the less so for its rootedness in an often superficially well-educated and professional, well-heeled part of the population. The problem with consumerist politics, of course, is that unlike a dodgy quinoa salad, you can’t take a government – or a referendum verdict – back to Waitrose for a refund; something that people are beginning to learn the hard way after the EU vote. It’s always someone else who picks up the political tab for populism gone bad.
Ultimately, this kind of politics – combined with the undoubted influence of a resurgent hard-left that is finding its way back into the Labour Party, small in numbers but organised and effective – is simply no challenge to entrenched structures and institutions. British politics, post-2007 crash and post-Brexit vote, is in a very fluid state and, to the extent that the polls are right, people are trusting the Tories to deal with the chaos that they have themselves wrought. And it’s not party activists, or members, but sceptical people sitting on their sofas in marginal constituencies that we have to win over; and they’re just not interested in helping well-heeled activists feel good about themselves.