There are two problems with the Labour Movement right now. The first is that it no longer exists. The second is its child, or zombified corpse: the Corbyn Cult.
First and foremost, this is not an attack on Corbyn the man or, for that matter, Corbyn the leader. Whatever you make of his record as Labour leader, I don’t care for it. I’d actually like to look at him in the context of the history of the Labour Party, the Labour Movement, and British Socialism in general.
Corbyn is a blast from the past, refreshingly so to many. He is not Michael Foot (publically, at least), nor is he a Tony Benn (administratively, at least). But he is a die-hard, principled, honest-to-god 1980s socialist.
The 1980s socialist is the end point of British socialism as an identifiable, mainstream thing. After that it was subsumed into New Labour and later blended into various exciting progressive and revisionist brands. Corbyn skips straight over that entire metamorphosis and as a result is associated with none of the bad that drove that process (the unmistakeable centralisation of power and the utter dominance of middle-class intellectualism in the Labour party). Of course nor can he take credit for the good of it either (making big strides for fighting inequality that persisted until the Recession through a bold project of recapturing electoral viability). He and a smattering of other old-school lefties, the most prominent examples aside from Corbyn being John McDonnell and Dennis Skinner, are the last clear products of the Labour Movement.
The Labour Movement predates the Labour Party itself. It is the product of the push for workers’ rights via trade unionism that resulted from the Industrial Revolution. To be technical it is distinct from the intellectual heritage that actually came from William Beveridge and middle-class social democrats that produced the welfare state and the distinctive architecture of postwar Britain, but intimately bound with it. It is also distinct from the flavour of internationalist pacifism that arose between the 60s and the 80s, yet also bound with it. By the 80s the Labour Movement was an irrelevance, having peaked in the 70s and now being heavily beaten into submission both legislatively and in the popular consciousness. Taken together, however, these three key ideological strands came together to produce the British cultural vision of what a ‘socialist’ should look like, stand for and talk about: the exact arguments, the exact aesthetics, the exact key issues. They became a subconscious norm or, indeed, a dogma – never enforced but keenly aspired to.
Because Blair’s New Labour project was so explicitly a divergence from socialism, a policy hybridisation with neoliberalism as opposed to an ideological evolution from socialism, that’s where the image froze. For some twenty-five years the concept of socialism stalled entirely. The image solidified, ossified. In the UK, the ‘socialist’ could be reduced to a caricature like many others. Long hair, guitar and ganja gives you a hippie – like Neil from the Young Ones. Blithe, funky and looks obsessed produces The Simpsons’ Disco Stu. Scruffy clothes, maybe a few badges, protesting something about workers’ rights or standing with a publically obscure cause related to overseas – there’s your socialist.
Jeremy Corbyn slips into that category incredibly neatly.
So when he stood for leadership, and when he opened his mouth, he was promised popularity. Young people who had come of age knowing that they’re expected as youth to fervently take up a cause and to Care saw Corbyn, and heard Corbyn, and leapt at him. Middle-aged socialists who had spent so long waiting for someone prominent within Labour to say phrases and arguments so familiar from their old campus days embraced the similarity. Combined with a brand new and very open voting system, Corbyn was swept into power, and ten months later we stand here today.
The problem is, Corbyn’s rise has not signified an unpausing of the evolution of socialism, although John McDonnell is making admirable attempts at doing so. Although a lot of this, in all credit to the man, is due to his extreme limitations when he’s in the face of a hostile opposition made up of people who can do politics – with a big P and a small p – exceptionally well. Subsequently outmanoeuvred, Corbyn has not had the chance to shape an extensive policy platform, and has been reduced to a reactionary stance of responding to the media’s and the Conservatives’ agenda without being able to shape it much himself. Or, according to some critics, doing much to shape it himself.
That is not the debate I want to pursue. The big problem right now is the fact that we now have a Corbyn Cult.
The Corbyn Cult is far from the creepiest cult going, and in many ways it is a playful and cutely loving cult driven primarily by young people. In Corbyn they find someone who, beyond having a pleasantly grandfatherly, soft-spoken approach (which I can vouch for having heard him speak privately after an election rally), is also filled with moral certainty and an agenda they believe to be clear. A lot of the personality-based adoration is similar to the response to Ed Miliband, particularly after his resignation. This is ultimately acceptable since it is joshing, jocular and fun, and ultimately we’d rather have that than any kind of Trump-like devotion.
The main problem of the Corbyn Cult is that it is stifling and uncreative. Contrasted with Bernie Sanders, who made his young supporters engage with an ideology for a first time and has fired imaginations as a result, Jeremy Corbyn’s fulfilment of socialist stereotypes and the loyalty derived from that leaves people unimaginative in the next steps to take. They simply go through the rehearsed motions – rallies, protests, a politics of broad campaigning as opposed to a politics of focused lobbying. Moreover, Momentum does not encourage creativity in interpretation of socialist principles either, and continues to focus on meetings, emails and petitions to support Jeremy Corbyn rather than unlocking, activating and unleashing the collective wills and potentials of many thousands of members. The Corbyn Cult fixates on the image of what socialism last was as opposed to what it can be.
People rightly respect Corbyn for being an outsider and bringing a fresh and principled direction to modern politics. This is not enough on its own for effective action in making Britain a fairer place but, all else being equal, it is useful to have a reminder of what pure socialist principles unmuddied by compromise and vote-seeking amount to. But by monopolising the idea of what socialism should be and by allowing this image of an orthodoxy of socialism to go unchallenged amongst members, it suffocates many potential courses for action.
If this were a real movement, it would be about unleashing creativity and new interpretations of how to challenge austerity, and earnestly nurturing leadership and organisational talent amongst its members. It would see a speech by Jeremy Corbyn as a chance to compare people’s own actions on the street, doorstep and council chamber against the overall morals and goals of the movement and to ensure constant cooperative alignment. Most importantly it would be facing outwards, earnestly seeking to convince and engage those who really need it.
But instead the Corbyn Cult is about listening closely to and applauding an old idea of what socialism should be based on unchanged principles and old solutions that the modern world has left behind. It’s about listening to Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches simply because they affirm your views, rather than guiding your actions. It’s about a feeling of solidarity amongst those of you already switched-on to politics and validating your own socialist identity, rather than bringing others on board.
If you want leaders, solutions, energy, innovation – don’t look to a political outsider from a past generation. Don’t let old ideas of what socialism should be limit your actions. You are all political outsiders, as a whole generation. Interpret the Labour Movement, the Labour Party, and socialism in your own way to inspire your actions – and to build the new ideology, and the new world, that we need.