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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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What happens to Labour if Jeremy Corbyn wins again?

How the leader and his opponents are already preparing for the post-contest battles to come.

On 24 September, at a special conference in Liverpool, Jeremy Corybn will be re-elected as the leader of the Labour Party. This, at least, is the outcome that MPs anticipate. The party’s leadership contest has more than five weeks to run but few believe Corbyn’s soft-left challenger, Owen Smith, will prevail. “Corbyn’s going to win and he could win at least as well as he did last time,” a former shadow cabinet minister said. Among constituency parties around Britain, the Labour leader won 285 nominations (nearly twice as many as he did in 2015). Smith had 53.

One recent afternoon in Milton Keynes, some of those helping to ensure Corbyn’s victory gathered to hear him speak. From the top of a fire engine, the Labour leader addressed a crowd of 1,500 outside the town’s railway station. The truck, provided by the Fire Brigades Union, is a permanent presence at Corbyn’s rallies. “All over the country, we’re getting a big turnout of people,” he told the crowd. “Some are party members [Labour is now the largest political organisation in western Europe]. Some are party supporters. Some come because they’re interested in politics for the first time, because they recognise that since a year ago, we are no longer the me-tooism of politics . . . A year ago, I’m sad to say that in parliament, the official Labour position was to abstain on the Welfare Reform Bill and the £12bn that was going to take from the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. No more is that the position. We want to defend and support those who are the most vulnerable in our society.”

Corbyn, jacketless and wearing a blue shirt, spoke for 35 minutes without notes. His audience listened raptly, frequently interrupting his rhetorical fusillades with cheers. “People were embarrassed to say they’re socialists before. They’re not now,” Gail Gallagher, a social worker, told me. The last Labour leader, Ed Miliband, “wasn’t up to it”, she said. “Too lightweight,” her husband, Neil, added.

Similar sentiments were expressed by John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”. Of Owen Smith, who is running on a platform to the left of Miliband’s, he said: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Some of those present were hardened activists, distributing revolutionary news-sheets for the likes of Labour Party Marxists and Counterfire. But many were relative newcomers to Labour, inspired to join by Corbyn’s unashamed moralism.

When the leader told the crowd that he wouldn’t read out all ten of his campaign pledges because “you don’t want to be here ’til sunset” some cried out, “We do!” (This prompted derisive social media comparisons with the followers in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “Speak to us, Master! Speak to us!”) Corbyn later proudly tweeted that the rally was “the largest ever political meeting in the town’s history”, 49 years on from its foundation.

The host constituency (Milton Keynes North) is held by the Conservatives with a majority of 9,753 votes. In his stump speech, Corbyn alluded to this. “This leadership campaign is about leadership of the party, yes, but it’s also about our campaigning abilities, to offer people something different, something alternative – a society that cares for all, not nourishes the wealth of a few. That’s why we’re going to gain seats here in Milton Keynes at the general election.” To win power, he emphasised in his closing words, “you have to offer something very, very different”.

***

Labour MPs agree that Corbyn is doing that. But the consequence, they fear, is electoral apocalypse. Corbyn’s personal poll ratings are the lowest of any opposition leader in history. “If Jeremy Corbyn wins [the leadership election], I think we face meltdown,” the Ilford South MP, Mike Gapes, told me. “I can’t see any circumstances in which he can win a general election. We could go down to 150 MPs or even less [Labour has 230]. That’s without the boundary changes. If there isn’t an early general election and Corbyn is still there in 2020, we’ll get wiped out.”

At a meeting of Corbyn’s own constituency party, Islington North, on 10 August, his former policy director Neale Coleman, who is now supporting Owen Smith, warned that “with Jeremy as leader, we would be ­defeated to the same level as in 1931” – when the party won just 52 seats.

It was such dystopian visions, and anguish over the EU referendum defeat, that led 172 Labour MPs to support a no confidence motion in Corbyn and 65 shadow ministers to resign. Few believe that the schism in Labour can be repaired. If Corbyn is re-elected, most MPs will continue to refuse to serve on the front bench, leaving him incapable of forming a full team. “We’ve crossed the Rubicon: there’s no going back,” Wes Streeting, one of the 2015 intake, told me. “This is irreparable while Jeremy remains leader.”

Such judgements lead some commentators to argue that a split is both inevitable and desirable. Conditions now, they say, are far worse than those faced by Labour MPs in the 1980s (when 28 joined the breakaway Social Democratic Party). The left today controls the leadership and not just the constituencies; it retains the support of most of the trade unions; a “one member, one vote” system has replaced the electoral college, to which the deputy leader, Tom Watson, wishes to return. Rather than persist with the unhappiest marriage in politics, Labour MPs and left activists – so the argument runs – should go their separate ways.

Advocates of a new centre-left party cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, the Brexit-opposed “48 per cent” and a pool of willing donors. But it is not an option that Corbyn’s opponents intend to pursue. Labour's tribalists have no intention of leaving their party. The more tactically minded see little potential for a new grouping to flourish. A crowded electoral marketplace, the resilience of the Labour brand, the rebels' own divisions and Theresa May's economic interventionism all limit the space to occupy. 

Others fear a lack of “big beasts” to lead a breakaway. “It would need a very strong, credible leader to lead people through such an incredibly radical moment,” Peter Kyle, the MP for Hove and Portslade, said. “The SDP had Roy Jenkins, it had Shirley Williams: very big, towering political figures with intellect and experience in government. That’s the kind of thing that you’d be looking for if you were going to take one of the radical options.”

He added: “There’s a lot of talk about whether the party will split. What it feels like to me is that the party has already split. It’s like one of those chasms you see in the Arctic. It starts very small at the top, a dusting of snow covers it; but underneath is this enormous gap, and when somebody steps on it you fall through. The little dusting of snow at the top, which is holding it together, is Tom Watson and Iain McNicol [Labour’s general secretary]. But underneath them is this yawning gap that any time could rupture. I think that has already happened. The question is whether we can put it back together again, or whether it will just snap.”

***

 

If Corbyn is re-elected, another struggle for supremacy will begin. His allies want to replace both Watson, who was elected deputy leader last year, and McNicol, who has been general secretary since 2011. The former, who is from the party’s old right, outraged Corbynites when on 9 August he warned of “Trotsky entryists” who were “twisting young arms”. “I voted for Tom Watson!” Gail Gallagher said angrily, in Milton Keynes. “What a snake.”

Corbyn’s allies accuse McNicol of aiding the attempt by members of the National Executive Committee to prevent his automatic inclusion on the ballot and of tacitly supporting Smith’s campaign. The leader’s team alleges that Smith had early access to members’ email addresses and was given advance sight of the questions for the first hustings in Cardiff on 4 August. They are further aggrieved by McNicol’s successful court appeal against the inclusion in the contest of 130,000 people registered as Labour members since January.

After much discussion of the party’s “woman problem” following Angela Eagle’s failed leadership bid and the selection of an all-male roster of mayoral candidates, allies of Corbyn joke that replacing McNicol with a woman would “kill two birds with one stone”. Jennie Formby, an NEC member and former political director of the Unite mega-union (who has a child with Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary), is touted as a possible successor (Unite sources emphasise that she is not interested in the post).

Control of the party bureaucracy is regarded as essential to completion of Corbyn’s internal revolution. The leader’s office has long believed that Labour staffers are working to rule, at best, and plotting sedition at worst. But Corbyn’s opponents say that he lacks the support required to remove the general secretary. The GMB union, which endorsed Smith and of which McNicol is a former political officer, is among the reputed majority on the NEC for Owen Smith. But a Corbyn source warned: “McNicol has pissed off a lot of [trade union] general secretaries. The GMB alone won’t be enough to save him.”

As the party’s elected deputy leader, Watson cannot be removed without a challenge initiated by at least 50 MPs or MEPs – a threshold that cannot be achieved. But Corbyn’s allies float potential rule changes such as term limits or the introduction of an additional female deputy. In this way, Watson can be undermined. “If MPs like Jess Phillips and Caroline Flint want to propose that, the leadership will be behind them,” a source said.

The trade unions and Corbyn supporters in Momentum, the activist group launched after his leadership victory last year, are pushing for a remodelling closer to home. They speak of having “bailed out” the leader’s office after a succession of unforced errors over the past 11 months. The TSSA transport and travel union and the Communication Workers Union, which provide much of the campaign’s organisation and give it financial heft, are likely to demand additional personnel in Corbyn’s office. Sam Tarry, the TSSA’s national political officer, is tipped to make a full-time move to the leader’s spin operation to assist his communications director, Seumas Milne (the Guardian journalist whom even his opponents now regard as unsackable).

The overarching question remains how Corbyn operates with a parliamentary party that has declared no confidence in him. Watson has proposed the return of shadow cabinet elections, which were abolished by Ed Miliband in 2011. This would enable MPs to choose as many as 20 of their own number, to whom Corbyn would assign portfolios. “That would be one way for him of peacemaking,” a former shadow cabinet minister said. “If that were the case, I’d be prepared to put myself forward.”

However, a Corbyn source dismissed the idea. “It’s not going to happen,” he said: “they don’t have the numbers to get it through conference.” He added that the election of a representative for the Parliamentary Labour Party was a possibility.

He went on: “Jeremy is one of the most concessionary politicians around. He’d be very open to the idea of bringing people back, sitting down, listening to where things went wrong and where the input would be from the other side – seeing where there can be mutual ground.”

Corbyn’s team does not hesitate to warn that antagonistic MPs are putting themselves at risk of deselection by members. “The power’s there, we can’t stop it. We cannot say, ‘You cannot use the powers at your local CLP [Constituency Labour Party],’” a source said. “There’s no lever in the leader’s office for deselections. The issue is that there’s lot of party members who are very annoyed at their MPs for going against them, and now they find they have a voice that they never normally had.”

***

In Milton Keynes, the student activist John McGeechan rebuked Owen Smith for comparing Corbyn to an ­employer who tells staff to “work harder or I’m going to sack you all”. What the challenger didn’t understand, he said, “is that Corbyn’s not their employer: we are”. The debate that defined Labour’s struggles in the 1980s – whether MPs or activists should hold the whip hand – has been resurrected.

Although mandatory reselection was abolished by Neil Kinnock in 1990, MPs can be ousted if they lose the “trigger ballots” held automatically before a general election (from which open selections result). During a recent visit to Brighton, Corbyn said that he would not “interfere” in attempts to remove the local MP Peter Kyle. “What goes on in CLPs is part of a democratic process,” he stated.

“I think a lot of other people were shocked. I wasn’t shocked or surprised,” Kyle said. “What Jeremy does is, he stands passively by while bad things happen. When Ruth Smeeth [a Labour MP] was attacked at the launch of the anti-Semitism report [by Shami Chakrabarti] he sat quietly by and didn’t even open his mouth.”

Kyle added: “When Diane Abbott attacked Jo Cox for writing an article with [the former Conservative cabinet minister] Andrew Mitchell about international development, Jeremy Corbyn did not say a single word when he was asked at the PLP meeting whether his front bench should be attacking new-intake MPs. He didn’t even speak . . .

“Part of the responsibility of a leader is to proactively stop bad things from happening. For me, what Jeremy said when he was down in Brighton is part of the pattern I’ve seen from the start.”

MPs warn that a wave of deselections could lead to the formation of a breakaway parliamentary faction, as long advocated by the former Harold Wilson aide Joe Haines. "If people have got no seat and they know they're not going to be in the next parliament they've got nothing to lose," one said. Frank Field told me last year that any MP deselected should trigger an immediate by-election and stand as an “independent Labour” candidate.

Corbyn allies hope to achieve rule changes such as mandatory reselection and a reduced leadership nomination threshold (from 15 per cent of MPs/MEPs to 5 per cent) by 2017-18. The “full democratisation” of the party, as they describe it, would guarantee the presence of left-wing candidates in future contests. Corbynism would endure even if Jeremy Corbyn did not.

In private, Labour MPs are increasingly critical of Owen Smith’s campaign. The former shadow work and pensions secretary, who entered parliament in 2010, was chosen as a “clean skin”, untainted by the Blair years and the Iraq War. But the Welshman, who has worked as a lobbyist for Pfizer, has struggled to reconcile his past positions, such as support for private-sector involvement in the National Health Service, with his left-wing, Corbyn-style policy platform: railway renationalisation, a ban on zero-hour contracts, a full “living wage” and a wealth tax on the top 1 per cent of earners.

“The view was that you needed to do a soft-left candidacy to see if that would work,” a former shadow cabinet minister said. “But Smith’s message appears to be: ‘I’m the same as him but I’m more competent ; I look better in a suit.’ Or it’s a warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters.”

***

In a Morning Star article in 2003, Corbyn suggested that there should be “an annual election for leader”. His wish may now be granted as his opponents mount repeated challenges to his leadership.

“Moderates need to understand that it’s only through the registered supporters route that they’re going to be able to win back the party,” a former shadow cabinet minister said. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up . . . The strategic problem with Owen’s candidacy is that it talks to the existing bubble. You can win 40-45 per cent with that, but you can only really win if you can bring in new people. Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Some point to the primaries in which the French president, François Hollande (backed by 1.6 million supporters), and the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi (1.9 million), won against more left-wing opponents as models to emulate. Another mentioned the United States: “Obama would never have won in 2008 with the existing Democratic membership and support base – it was owned by the Clintons. You’ve got to change it.”

Rebels say that another leadership challenge could be triggered early next year, in advance of a potential general election. But others believe that they should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

A senior MP argued that the PLP should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it”. The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”.

Corbyn, some MPs fear, could even survive defeat in an early general election. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Jeremy will go easily,” Kyle said. “These people do not believe Jeremy is capable of making any mistake and the people we’re talking about here, in the last thirty to forty years, have never admitted to any mistake of any kind. If we lose a general election that the Jeremy Corbyn Facts website [set up by Corbyn’s team] has already written the script for what would come. They would blame it on the 172 [MPs]. They would blame it on the conspiratorial coup attempt . . .”

Both sides in Labour’s struggle cite history in their favour. Corbyn’s opponents highlight his record of rebellion against every leader since 1983. His supporters assert that it was New Labour and its legacy that led to the election defeats of 2010 and 2015. Both are now torn between those who advocate confrontation – further leadership challenges and deselections – and those who plead for co-operation.

“All MPs are going to have to accept that no one has a monopoly on grievance,” Clive Lewis, the shadow defence secretary and a Corbyn ally, told me. For his own constituents in Norwich, Lewis said, Labour’s imbroglio was like “a Dallas plot on speed”.

“They can’t keep up and they’ve lost interest,” he said. “It’s not even about electability: it’s about simply being relevant. We’re becoming an irrelevancy to people; we’re becoming a joke.”

There is one point on which Jeremy Corbyn and his most recalcitrant opponents converge: voters do not like divided parties. The risk for both – and, indeed, the future of the Labour Party – is that they will soon discover just how much.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge