The Cult of Corbynism?

A few thoughts from the heretical left….by Paul Salveson

There’s no question that the election (and subsequent re-election) of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party has transformed left politics in Britain, and particularly here in England. Many on the left couldn’t quite believe their luck. After years, if not decades, of being on the margins of politics they were now centre-stage with a leader whose socialist credentials (Palestine, Ireland, anti-capitalist) were impeccable. He promised a ‘new, kinder style of politics’. So why is it that I feel totally alienated from Labour, and in effect politically homeless?

Maybe it’s just me. But something is wrong, seriously wrong. What really worries me is that Labour under Corbyn is becoming, or has already become, a cult. Having been brought up in one of the world’s longest-surviving cults, viz. the Roman Catholic Church, then doing time in far left groups and the Communist Party, I’ve a well-honed nose for these things.

What makes a cult?

Heretics getting their just desserts

People will have different interpretations. Oxford dictionaries define it simply as “ a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or objects”. I suppose that’s a start but let’s take it a bit further. In general, cults have a strong ideology which is not open to debate. They demand unswerving loyalty. One of the worst things you could be called in the old Communist Party was a ‘revisionist’ – an insult shared by the various Trotskyist groups. And of course veneration of a hero figure – Marx, Lenin, Trotsky or Mao – was very much part of the package. For ‘revisionist’ read ‘heretic’ in the medieval days of Catholicism. And we know what happened to them. Revisionists in Stalinist Russia didn’t fare much better. Their end was quicker, with a bullet in the neck.

Perhaps more subtly, in the various far left groups of the 70s and 80s who owed allegiance to Trotsky, the strength or otherwise of an argument would be clinched by reverential quotes from ‘God’ – Trotsky, or maybe Lenin. If you were part of the group, or party, it wasn’t acceptable to say “well, maybe Leon was wrong on this occasion”, still less to question the authority of the ultimate deity, Marx. It has to be said he found this hero worship exasperating and once sighed that “all I can say is, I’m not a Marxist”.

So far, so uncontroversial. Is Corbynism a cult? In many ways I’d say it is, and becoming more so in the wake of the resignations of the ‘slimy seven’ or however you care to malign them. I ‘feel their pain’, having left the Labour Party during Miliband’s tenure as leader, mainly because of the rotten state of Labour on my own council, Kirklees, but also out of frustration with Labour’s lack of interest in democratic reform – devolution, fair voting and the like. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. People whom you thought were friends would blank you in the street – you become ‘unpersoned’. This seldom takes the shape of actually being confronted face to face; it’s more subtle. I went on to commit the ultimate sin of standing against Labour, for the ‘Yorkshire First’ (now ‘Yorkshire Party’) group and polling a few hundred votes which didn’t make the overall outcome any different than a win for the Tory. But it didn’t go down terribly well with the comrades. But one thing cults need is ‘heretics’ to help re-inforce their sense of rightness.

If I unpicked my own experience a Labour councillor, it’s possible to discern some of the emerging signs of a cult then, a few years back. Some elements had always been there, going way back. Labour, more than any other mainstream party, hates its opponents. Hence badges at conference saying “I’ll never kiss a Tory”. Behind the joke there’s an element of seriousness. Many Labour Party members couldn’t conceive of liking anyone who doesn’t share their political views and membership. It genuinely believes that Tories are evil people. Bevan’s comment about the Tories being “worse than vermin” is a case in point. This may seem a trivial point but it has political consequences. Many Labour activists would rather let in a Tory government than sully their principles by going into coalition. Whoever it’s with – be it Liberal Democrats, SNP or Green – they are all agents of the devil and must be shunned. I made myself profoundly unpopular for working with, and getting along with, Tories and Liberal Democrats. Even the Greens, political pussycats that they are, were regarded by many Kirklees Labour councilors with a hatred bordering on the insane.

Hence Labour’s disdain for voting reform. Labour has colluded for decades in perpetuating our grossly unfair and undemocratic voting system. Its opposition to proportional representation is deep-rooted, despite the efforts of the Labour Campaign for Voting Reform. It’s also highly centralist, distrusting moves towards regional devolution and statist to its core. Whilst it isn’t a widely publicised facet of today’s politics, there is great animosity within the Labour leadership towards the Labour mayors such as Burnham and Rotheram.

Why? Because they pose a threat of an alternative focus of power. And this is what it is all about. Labour wants to win power, on its own, with no help from anyone else thanks very much. Perhaps on one level that’s fair enough, and all political parties would like much the same. Except that most would accept that sometimes compromise is inevitable. It’s true that the Tories are probably more opposed to PR than even Labour, though I’d say they are willing to go into coalition if they have to, like with the Lib Dems whom they completely out-maneuvered in government anyway.

Yet the days of Labour commanding an overall majority in the House of Commons seem a thing of the past. Labour has lost its base in Scotland to the SNP and there’s little sign of that changing. Perhaps Plaid Cymru will overtake it in Wales. Labour lags behind at the polls generally, staying neck and neck with the Tories when they should be racing ahead. Why? Despite the surge in membership (which now seems to be receding) there remains a sense that ‘the many’ don’t trust Corbyn, seeing him as not ‘prime minister’ material. I’d say they are right.

Which brings us back to the original question – has Labour become a cult of Corbyn? I’d say it has. Despite Jeremy’s complete lack of political ideas (as opposed to slogans and outline policies) he has emerged, willingly or not, as a cult figure . It’s interesting that most ‘left-wing’ cult figures, ranging from Lenin and Stalin to Mao and Kim-il-Jung bolstered their cult status by a very rigid ideology. In the case of Corbyn there isn’t much to differentiate it from classic Bennism, which was always a bit short on theory. The sacred cows are ‘nationalisation’ e.g. for the railways, (forgetting that most of rail is government owned and controlled anyway) and other utilities, which may be more justified. The opportunities to promote a more radical decentralised form of socialism through extending co-operatives and mutuals is pushed aside in favour of centralised state ownership. By and large, its policies are about ‘quantitative’ reform rather than anything too radical. More money to be spent on this, that and t’other. The current democratic deficit in the UK is taken as given and not up for significant change.

So the political touchstones of the Corbyn cult are 1940s-style re-nationalisation, more state control, more money spent on ‘good things’ like the NHS (who could argue with that?) and vague assertions of governing ‘for the many, not the few’. The looming disaster of Brexit is seen, by some Cobynites, as an opportunity to break free from the neo-liberal clutches of the EU, regardless of the economic damage that will be wreaked on ‘the many’ along the way. Honda, Nissan, Dyson – and all the other companies doing their own ‘Brexit’? Good riddance, they’d have been nationalised anyway.

To be a successful cult you need a ‘leader figure’ (obviously Jeremeeee) with an inner cabal who can control things. This may include controlling the leader himself. The influence of existing or former Unite politicos who’ve served their time in the far left and CP is certainly very strong. That cascades down to a small core group of MPs who have got the plum front-bench jobs, making up for what they lack in talent by ambition, perhaps with the exception of McDonnell.

And at the other end of the phenomenon, a good cult needs a large and unswervingly loyal rank and file. Many socialists have allowed themselves to be swept into being ‘cultists’, impervious to the slightest whiff of criticism or challenge. Anyone who dares to doubt the complete perfection of Corbyn is a traitor, ‘Blairite’ or worse. Just have a look at the insults being thrown at the ‘slimy seven’ now and you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, if you’re a proper cultist, you need to make sure that your fellow cult members stay on the straight and narrow. Even the slightest indication of doubt or uncertainty is a slippery slope which could lead to heresy or revisionism. Peer pressure is one of the strongest features of the cult, and the key to its maintaining a grip. Step out of line and you can’t play with us any more.

Will it change? Maybe before too long, perhaps after a crushing general election defeat, some Labour supporters will wake up and start to re-think their politics. But equally, defeat can be justified by ‘traitors’ like the seven (and others that will probably follow). Part of Labour culture, stretching back through the twentieth century, has always leant towards tribalism, centralism, statism and sectarianism. Until now, there have always been people, on both left and right wings of the Party, who could moderate that, reflecting the alternative tradition in Labour – epitomized by the old ILP – of democracy, decentralisation, co-operation and tolerance.

There is political space in England for a radical party of the centre-left. Increasingly, that party isn’t Labour, even though there are thousands of decent, principled people in its ranks who continue to do a great job as community activists and local councillors. A centrist party of the sort espoused by Chuka Umuna doesn’t inspire me either, but let’s see what emerges. A radical re-alignment, particularly in England,  that can bring in Liberal Democrats, Greens and disaffected Labour (and maybe even some Tories) is desperately needed. It could include some of the new regionalist groups like the Yorkshire Party. It’s both unlikely and probably undesirable that these different traditions (each with their own merits) merge into a single body, but what could happen is that there is a single platform at a general election, with politicians from various backgrounds agreeing, for the time being at least, to come together on a programme that is pro-Europe, committed to voting reform and devolution, and to the ending of austerity.

This seems to be sort of what Compass is calling for now, though its continuing faith in Labour as the main element of a progressive coalition seems like wishful thinking. But let’s hope I’m wrong; I often am.

February 19th 2019