Political cults and democratic deficits

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.




5 thoughts on “Political cults and democratic deficits

  1. Please! I feel insulted by your remarks. Just because you have a different view than myself there is no need to throw insults. I am not a cult follower, I do however have a brain and can think for myself thank you very much. I am not a starry eyed follower, I am however a retired 65 year old accounts administrator who worked for a multi national company for 40 years dealing with over half a million pounds per month. I fully support Jeremy & his policies & feel he hasn’t been given a fair chance by the dissenting PLP or the NEC. Instead of resigning they could have worked with him to improve his persona if indeed that is what they dislike or could it be his policies if it is the latter then I feel we are well shut of the right wing element of the party.
    I know a lot of Corbyn supporters both friends & acquaintances who would be dismayed to be called cult followers as they are all well over 50. As for your statement that Corbyn cannot win over those sat on their couches!! Please tell me why & how Labour have increased their membership to 500,000 + it is obvious to anyone with a brain that he is engaging with the voters and not just labour and ex labour voters as I for one have never voted Labour or Tory in the very many elections I have participated in I have always been a life long Liberal then Liberal Democrat, many of the people I know are not natural labour supporters yet are drawn towards Jeremy Corbyn’s New Politics..
    So please do not insult my intelligence.

  2. This article is written by a mad person. How DARE you cal people who desire a truly democratic society members of a cult. Like the lady commenting above I am 65. I am a retired teacher who has seen first hand what neo-liberal economics has done to the vulnerable in society. I would support whoever had broken through from the establishment and spoken from the heart like J Corbyn. He is far from perfect as a leader but I feel I can trust him. Who else is there we can trust? Certainly not JC’s tribute group: Owen Smith.

    • I assume that when you were a teacher you taught children not to use descriptions of mental illness as perjorative terms.

      However, I did not describe all Corbyn supporters as cultists. But there is without doubt a strong element of personality cult in his following, and I believe this is dangerous. Moreover, whatever the failings of the Blair/Brown governments, I am sure you would have seen in your professional role the effect of Labour initiatives like Sure Start and, if you were in Wales, Flying Start, which were only delivered because Labour was in Government. I do not want Labour to be an ideologically pure party that condemns the vulnerable to a generation of Tory government.

  3. Thanks for the thought provoking article! I think that although Jeremy Corbyn’s support can be seen as cultish (especially with groups like momentum), there is a larger issue with the Labour Party in that the leadership battle seems to be a lose-lose situation. Corbyn has the political experience but lacks the electability in a general election whilst Smith seems to be a random MP after his own political gain rather than a uniting voice in the labour party. Either way, Labour need a new wave of stronger leaders than what has been left after the end of the Blair government.

  4. There is a cultish element amongst some of Corbyn’s more one eyed supporters. Some do seem to think their man walks on water and is some sort of Messiah. Their refusal to accept his errors, or to acknowledge his very obvious shortcomings is not healthy. It’s Corbyn or nothing seems to be a bit of a theme amongst a number of his supporters.
    Uncritical support is generally not desirable. Jeremy has undoubted virtues, but he is a flawed politician unlikely to win broad approval amongst the electorate.

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