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A year with Obama

The journey from college kid to presidential candidate was short. Yet it is the audacity of that cho

It was early October 2007 in Iowa, the drying stalks still stood in cornfields grown more precious in the age of ethanol, and far away, in the moneyed precincts of both coasts, Barack Obama's top donors were anxious. Despite having raised heaps of cash, he was trailing Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in the national polls with only three months to go before Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus. For the worriers, it was getting late. But for Iowa voters, it was early enough that many barely knew what to make of this biracial rookie senator and still muffed his exotic name. In Waterloo, it had been "Hi, Senator Barack." Now, here at the Buchanan County fairgrounds in Independence, it was "Hi, Obama," from a nervous Geri Punteney as she rose in the front row to ask her question.

But it wasn't a question, really. "I have a brother who's dying of cancer," she said, and as soon as it was out she had broken into sobs, and then apologies for her sobs, and more sobs. Obama stepped forward, as if knowing what was expected of him and yet slightly embarrassed by it. He took her hand with some consoling mumbles. Punteney, 50, collected herself enough to tell the rest: her 48-year-old brother was working as a truck driver despite having cancer, so as not to lose his insurance. She herself had stopped working at a riverboat casino to care for her mother, and so was forgoing needed dental surgery. "I don't think it's fair that my brother has to work when he's dying of cancer just to keep his insurance," she said.

And here Obama parted from his two main rivals in the race, Clinton and John Edwards, and from the only Democrat elected president in the past 30 years, Bill Clinton, and from the whole tradition of politics that had prevailed in his party for the past few decades as it tried to maintain its historic bond with the common man. He did not get angry. He did not wrap Punteney in a hug. Instead, he stood still and said in a level voice, "First of all, we're all praying for you." He then told her that he had lost his mother to cancer in her early fifties. And only then looking up at the crowd, he segued into a policy conclusion that was startling for its cool rationalism. Punteney's and her brother's plight, he said, was a sign of the problem in tying health insurance to work without real alternatives. It was wrong that the US was the only developed nation not to guarantee health coverage for its citizens, even as it spent more per person on health care than anyone else. "We don't spend it wisely and we don't spend it fairly," he said.

Moments later, Obama decided to bring up two minor campaign squalls. The day before, an Iowa television reporter had asked him why he was not wearing a flag pin on his lapel, and Obama had answered that he had worn a pin after September 11 2001 but stopped when the pins "became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security". Incipient outrage was already spreading online, and Obama wanted to revisit it - to drive the point further. "After a while, you start noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic," he said. "My attitude is, I'm [less] concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel [than] what's in your heart." He moved to another internet favourite, his suggestion to some Iowa farmers a few months earlier that they consider growing speciality vegetables, such as rocket (Americans know it as "arugula"), instead of only subsidised crops such as corn and soybeans. "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" he had said, which had brought derisive reminders from the press that Iowa had no branches of that organic grocery chain. In Independence, Obama went back at it. He repeated his suggestion on speciality crops and mocked the response to his earlier comment. "They said, 'Oh, Obama's talking about arugula in Iowa. People in Iowa don't know what arugula is.'" He paused, and the scorn rose as he continued. "People in Iowa know what arugula is. They may not eat it but they know what it is."

I don’t know where he’s come from, but he speaks on a whole other level, and he transcends the politics of today . . . We’ve been waiting for a guy like this

A year to the 2008 election, on the first of my many tours covering Obama on the trail, it was all here. There was the inability, or reluctance, to capitalise fully on the woes of working-class Americans beaten down by deindustrialisation, globalisation and Republican governance – a characteristic that would become all the more consequential as the economy crumbled over the next year, providing a giant opening for the Democrats that Obama would not deign to exploit to its utmost until Wall Street’s collapse last month, when a surge of voter discontent swept him along

almost in spite of himself. And there was the conviction that flaps over trinkets and leafy vegetables had debased politics, and that voters would agree if he made the case – a conviction that would be challenged as those very two symbols took leading roles in the cultural resistance to him that would be capped by John McCain’s selection for his running mate of a conservative Alaska governor whose every feature seemed designed for contrast with Obama.

Together, these early clues pointed to an extraordinary fact about the 2008 election, nearly as extraordinary as the racial breakthrough it represented: Barack Obama was running not on a record of past achievement or on a concrete programme for the future, but instead on the simple promise of thoughtfulness - the notion that the leadership of the country should be entrusted not on the basis of résumé and platform, but on the prospect of applying to the nation's problems one man's singularly well-tempered intelligence.

Many of Obama's own supporters would miss this, would grow upset later as he moved from a perceived position on the left to the centre on several issues - voting for compromise legislation to permit federal wiretapping, for instance, or speaking out in favour of a Supreme Court decision that strongly endorsed the right to bear arms. Obama is betraying his politics, came the charge from the left. What does he really stand for? From the other side came: he's offering nothing new, it's all warmed-over liberalism. Overlooked was that his politics appeared a matter less of weighing left and right than of judging smart and less-smart, with nods to fairness and common sense tossed in the mix - a matter of hashing things out, hearing out the other side, seeing what worked. He found tiresome many of the usual ideological tussles, wanted to save the fight for the biggest issues - health care, taxes, global warming. His best, most invigorated moments on the trail would come when he was summoning his audience to step back and think, and showing he believed them capable of that, urging them to demand an end to the petty skirmishes distracting from the greater cause. And his true self-betrayals would come in concessions not to conservatism, but to point-scoring or glibness, in his truisms about energy independence, education reform and trade policy, or in his habit of misquoting rivals.

So, the candidate of hope was at bottom hoping that aptitude could trump experience, though his campaign would never put it that way. Instead, it gamely inflated his qualifications. His three years as a community organiser in Chicago were made out to have been a bounty of hard-won successes for the “families devastated when the steel mills closed down”, when his own memoir had defined that episode precisely by its instructive futility. The results of his eight years in the state legislature (concluded only four years prior!) were exaggerated to the point of casting the creation of a health-care task force as an important step on the way to universal coverage. His work in the US Senate on the noble but innocuous subject of nuclear non-proliferation was used as evidence of his ability to work across the aisle. And the campaign would make much of his policy plans, though on most counts, his proposals differed from Clinton’s only in the small print. This was something Obama himself once acknowledged with candour to a roomful of voters in Iowa City, saying that all the Democratic candidates were going to “set up [health-care] plans you can buy into it if you’re poor – if you can’t afford it we’re going to subsidise it, we’re going to emphasise prevention, blah blah blah” – the last three words amounting to as offhand an indictment of campaign plank-peddling as I had ever observed on the trail.

No, as much as Obama claimed that "this is not about me", of course it was. Not about what he had done or what his website said he would do, but about the man and the qualities he appeared to possess - eloquence, self-possession, charisma, decency, lucidity, sobriety, discipline, judiciousness, empathy, wit, verve, acumen, suppleness, equipoise, confidence, style. (Not to mention his grandfather's strong chin and an enviable cigarette-burnished baritone.) In a word, talent. Which meant that Obama was testing one of the deepest schisms in the country's character, the Jeffersonian conundrum. The same Founding Father who saw as America's unique strength its capacity to produce leaders of modest origins but profligate gifts had also set in motion the forces that, two centuries on, would work to undermine such men and women.

In 1813 Jefferson wrote to John Adams to declare that "there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents . . . The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society . . . May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?" As if anticipating the Bushes and Clintons, Jefferson had set against his natural aristocrat the nepotism of the "pseudo aristoi", a "traditionary reverence for certain families, which has rendered the offices of the government nearly hereditary in those families".

But it was Jefferson, too, who in his debates with Alexander Hamilton - first treasury secretary, Anglophile and advocate of a strong central government - had exalted the yeoman farmer and the honest earth he tilled, setting his inherent goodness against the corrupted hordes of the metropolis, which Jefferson slapped with the same epithet wielded to effect today: European. "Our governments will remain vir tuous for many centuries, as long as they are chiefly agricultural," he wrote to James Madison in 1787. "When [Americans] get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe."

For two centuries, this rural bias had manifested itself mainly in the woefully unrepresentative US Senate (where Wyoming has the same two votes as New York, despite having one-fortieth its population) and in campaign imagery (Lincoln's log cabin, Teddy Roosevelt's years in Dakota Territory). It would take Nixon and his heirs to distil Jeffersonian egalitarianism to its most potent form, a hardy sour mash of righteous resentment against "elites" that flourished to the point where a savant like Bill Clinton had to lard his brilliance with McDonald's photo ops, while George W Bush, a product of Andover and Yale, settled on a West Texas ranch and found little political cost in mangling his mother tongue like so much cleared brush. A country that demanded only the best - best digital camera, best heart surgeon, best college - had developed ambivalence about undisguised excellence in its highest office.

“I never heard of Obama. I don’t know where he came from. My boyfriend said he gave a speech at the last convention, but I don’t remember that”

This was the asterisk in the American meritocracy that Obama was attempting to erase. And if America was divided, this was the great cleavage confronting him as the self-anointed unifier. To those inclined to recognise potential in the qualities he represented even in the absence of hard evidence of its having been realised, here was a leader unlike any the country had seen for quite a while. These voters thought they grasped at some level what the world was coming to, that it demanded effervescence over solidity, knowledge over dogma, nuance over vehemence, and that it no longer distributed rewards according to years of attendance at the company holiday party. It was the world of the Google boys setting up shop in their Silicon Valley garage, high-school basketball stars going straight to pro, and wars begun by men of deep experience but rigid minds. Many saw this, and were either themselves prospering on these new terms or, if not, had accepted them as the new reality and had decided that the kid with the big skills and short résumé was the one for the moment. "It's a miracle that [Obama's] come aboard. I don't know where he's come from, but it's communication on a whole other level, and it transcends the politics of today," Doug Summers, a screenwriter in Santa Fe, said to me. "It's old versus new. We've been waiting for a guy like this. Like I told my kids: this guy's going to change your lives."

Many others looked at this same new world and were flummoxed by it. To them, it was a betrayal of what they held dear - that time served counted for something, as did work that involved something other than talking or writing or computing. If the winnings were now being given out on the basis of talent and not rank, then why was it that kids of a certain class were riding the escalator faster than ever? For these voters, Obama offered ultimate proof that this new so-called meritocracy of the number-crunchers and keyboard-tappers was bankrupt. That this man who had "done nothing" should be considered for the most powerful office in the world on the basis of certain personal qualities was a bad joke, an affront and, yes, possibly a conspiracy. "I never heard of Obama. I don't know where he came from," said Kathy Zarzycki, a nurse and Clinton supporter in Ohio's industrial Mahoning Valley, a Democratic stronghold where Obama has struggled. "My boyfriend said he gave a speech at the last convention, but I don't remember that."

On these terms would the lines be drawn. The divisions became quickly evident, so much so that one could have taken US census data and predicted most primary outcomes to within a few points. (Clinton's late rally was more than anything a matter of the schedule; the Rust Belt and Appalachian states where she was strong fell later in the order.) There were some exceptions. Geri Punteney, not an obvious demographic match for Obama, told me that day at the fairgrounds that his measured response to her plea had won her over. "You don't have to get outraged," she said. "He seems more down to earth, more mellow." The question was whether the millions of other Geri Punteneys, those who had not seen the thoughtfulness gambit up close, would feel the same way.

The basic biography is by now familiar to most. Barack Hussein Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii to an 18-year-old white woman with middle-class Kansas roots and a 25-year-old Kenyan exchange student who married her but left two years later to attend Harvard. Moved with his mother, an idealistic anthropologist, to Indonesia between the ages of six and ten to live with her new husband. Returned to Hawaii to be raised primarily by his grandparents. College in Los Angeles and New York, then the organising stint in Chicago, law school at Harvard, and a return to Chicago, where he ran for state senate in 1996. Eight years in the legislature wrapped around a failed run for the US House, then the race for US Senate, blessed by luck when two different opponents were felled by tawdry divorce scandals, and capped by The Big Speech at John Kerry’s 2004 convention in Boston, which got all the speculation started.

Missing from the standard chronology is how, or when, it happened - how a late adolescent adrift in a mild pot habit, misguided fantasies of basketball greatness and steadily accreting racial confusion grew, within a decade, into the outstanding law student many of his classmates predicted would be the first black president. In his own narrative of self-discovery - written at the age of 33 - Obama pinpoints a few key moments: an anti-apartheid speech at his Los Angeles college, where he realised the power of his voice; a turn towards scholarly self-discipline in his next few years at Columbia; his exposure to urban deprivation in Chicago. Underlying it all, he postulates, was the desire to live up to the expectations of, and fill the void left by, the brilliant, flawed and vanished African father.

What matters most, though, is not so much when the light of ambition went on – Obama’s own

account is as reliable as any self-mythology – but that Obama realised that it had, and decided to follow it even at the risk of appearing highly presumptuous. Try as his campaign might to mask it, he knew full well the audaciousness of his bet on talent. It was why he was going for it this time around, despite the calls to wait his turn. If he was to run on potential, it would do no good to dull the package with more years on Senate subcommittees. In 2008, he could still run his race from a skyscraper in Chicago, that great heartland city he’d made his home; any later, he’d be running out of DC, where stardom, like the city’s building heights, was levelled by custom. The timing was ideal in other ways, too. If ever the country would be ready for a hyperarticulate candidate running on a platform of pragmatism and reconciliation, it was at the end of the Bush years. Even more opportune was the presence of Hillary Clinton. What better way for a candidate whose biggest weakness was his inexperience than to prove his worth in the act of campaigning – by slaying a giant?

What matters most is not so much when the light of ambition went on, but that Obama realised that it had, and decided to follow it

In August 2007, Obama visited with some Democrats in New Hampshire, the first primary state. Carol Moore, a former state representative, told him she was tired of losing her heart to cerebral, liberal insurgents like Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey senator and New York Knicks player who ran against Al Gore in 2000, only to see them crushed by the Democratic machine. She had decided never to fall for one again, but still she wanted to know from Obama why he would be any different. How could she know he would be able to see it home? "Once I win the primaries, no one's going to doubt my credentials or my toughness," he said, as she relayed it to me. "If I beat Hillary, no one's going to doubt my electability and my qualifications - or my strength."

But Clinton would be most valuable of all as a foil, so well did she offset Obama's "new politics" mantra. There was the war in Iraq, which Obama had opposed, not because it was wrong but because it was "dumb" and "rash". Obama's anti-Clinton critique extended further. His speeches were riddled with put-downs no less effective for leaving her name unsaid, as he called for a politics that "wasn't based on spin and PR" or "triangulating and poll-driven positions". He said he was not running "because of some long-held ambition", and turned every barb from Clinton into a teasing new take on the failures of the "old politics", infuriating her camp.

And Clinton played to form. She seemed to have it both ways in a debate answer on immigration. Her campaign dredged up writings from Obama's Indonesian kindergarten purporting to show that he, too, had nursed presidential dreams. And, one snowy December day at a law office in New Hampshire, one of her top advisers there, a lawyer married to the state's former governor, responded to my questions about Obama's rising poll numbers by expressing his deep concern that, if Obama were to win the nomination, Republicans would inevitably bring up his admitted cocaine use as a young man, and might ask whether he had ever been a drug dealer, because, after all, they would argue, who really knew the extent of it?

In Iowa, where Obama had spent by far the most time, the equation tipped his way. In New Hampshire, where the Clintons' roots ran deeper, she shocked us all, winning by three points just a week after her campaign was caught trying to make its crowds appear larger than they were. Here, Obama's bet on raising the level of discussion had failed. In a debate three days before the vote, he found himself in an awkward position. The moderator had asked Clinton about her low likeability ratings, and her charming response had included praise for Obama. He had to say something, and his rejoinder - "You're likeable enough, Hillary" - made for the most charged and grown-up moment between the two of them all campaign. Saying any more would have been phoney, given her recent attacks on him, yet for all that he still felt some affection for her, and expressed it in the dry tone of a 1940s leading man. She got this, and accepted it with an equally wry and genuine smile. But the adult irony did not translate on screen, the line became enshrined as smug condescension, and, combined with her welling up on camera two days later, it helped rally New Hampshire women to her in big numbers on primary day.

We would get much else wrong. In South Carolina, we would unfairly blame Hillary’s wipeout on Bill’s blundering, when in fact his one big stumble came after most of the votes were cast, when he compared Obama’s victory to the 1984 and 1988 South Carolina wins by Jesse Jackson, the demonstrative civil rights leader who shares little with Obama but the colour of his skin. Obama’s rout was instead the result of the shift of the African-American vote after Iowa – which offered proof “they” would vote for him – a shift that was sealed by his transformation on the South Carolina stump into a master of Southern black vernacular. We would also be slow to recognise that Obama had put himself in position to win the nomination by holding his own on Super Tuesday, the early February day on which 22 states voted. And as it dawned on us, we tried to explain it away, to pretend that this gathering upset was about things other than his talents and the electorate’s gradual reckoning with them. Doing so would have required acknowledging his abilities to an extent that the press felt uncomfortable doing, spooked as it was by Clinton’s (and later John McCain’s) charges of favouritism.

So we focused instead on Obama's record-breaking fundraising, his cohesive brain trust, his stellar ground organisation, his decision to rack up delegates in states with caucuses, where voters expressed their preference in public and where liberal Democrats dominated. All these things were true, but by emphasising them we skirted the obvious, that Obama had been in a position to win those caucuses, starting with Iowa, only because many Democrats had fallen for him in a way they never would for Hillary. Because he had it and she did not - the promise of a true break from the past and the ability to walk two or three times a day into an arena of thousands and pull them in and lift them up with barely a shout, so modulated and assured was his 45-minute, off-the-cuff stump speech. There was, it turned out, a difference between being able to inspire and to rally, which is why Clinton would fall short even as her pitch grew more insistent. The sheer relentlessness could do nothing for the hint of joylessness her campaign had laboured under from the start.

We tried our best to ignore this. In April, many of us gathered in Butte, Montana, a once-thriving silver and copper town that now stands, half-abandoned yet stately and surreal, on a bluff beside a huge abandoned mining pit. There, Obama and Clinton addressed Montana Democrats in a rare joint appearance. He, delivering the norm, and somewhat perfunctorily, held the hall rapt. Whereas she offered herself as merely a more famous variation on the local officials who also spoke - punches at the air, a charge of partisan particulars, the laundry list of correctives, all of it nearly as classic and time-worn as that city on the bluff. The crowd half-listened, the line for Moose Drool beer grew longer. The story of the campaign was laid bare in the contrast, but we, sitting back in the rafters, averted our eyes as best we could. Despatches from the event focused on this or that new charge or policy twist, as if the candidates had even been competing in the same decade.

Clinton herself was more honest on this score, and knew she could never close the gap, which was why she launched her critique of the oratory itself as "empty words". This resonated with those already inclined to distrust Obama, but had limits as an attack, because what was politics but the attempt to communicate with voters and other politicians and bring them to one's side? More than that, it ran up against the fact that Obama was not a political performer in the conventional sense. Most American stump showmen - Huey Long, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton - plunged into the moment, lost themselves to it and the narrative created for them. Obama did not. He relished the crowd, sure, but he did not entirely open himself up to it. Even in the biggest arenas, he retained a hint of the observer's remove, which was to be expected given that he was, after all, a writer. His memoir, Dreams From My Father, if clichéd at moments, had demonstrated a true writer's sensibility, and his political tract, The Audacity of Hope, had managed at points to transcend that form.

This aspect of the candidate was, to me, the biggest mystery of all. Most of us tend towards one pole or the other, observer or participant, critic or actor, consultant or candidate - one burdened by heightened self-awareness, the other liberated, if not always for the best, by a shortage of the same. Here was someone who possessed enough self-consciousness and detachment to have noted, in The Audacity of Hope, telling details of his first visit to the White House - of Bush's asking an aide for a squirt of hand sanitiser in a moment alone with Obama, of the Secret Service's reaction when Obama set his hand on Bush's shoulder. Yet here he was, day after day, also satisfying huge crowds who all expected a revelation. In the week leading up to Super Tuesday: 13 cities in 11 states. In one day alone: 14,000 in Boise, 18,000 in Minneapolis and 20,000 in St Louis. This hybrid character type confounded Clinton's attempt to cast him as a mere itinerant troubadour. But it also helped explain why not all the voters he met were signing on. At some level, perhaps, they could sense that even as Obama was shaking their hand or asking about the new machine on their shop floor, he might be filing something away for the next book.

We could see this unusual blend behind the scenes as well. On his ventures back to the press section of the plane, he bantered with the challenging bravado of the self-confident politician, leaning forward in his trademark white shirt into the scrum of mini-tape recorders and cameras. But even here there was a reserve, a not entirely concealed disdain for our clamouring questions and whatever dust-up of the day they happened to revolve around, as if he thought that presumably well-educated scribes like us ought to know better. There was also a slight reticence one on one. Assigned as the lone "pool" reporter to cover him on a detour from the campaign trail in Ohio to Illinois to attend a memorial service for five college students killed in a classroom shooting, I had several amiable chats with him on the chartered private jet.

We spoke about our kids, home towns, sports. But there was a limit to the engagement - unlike Bill Clinton, this was not a candidate who needed to win over every person presented to him, to convey as much of his brilliance as possible in each encounter. It was as if Obama was held in check by a constant sense of perspective. He enjoyed good conversation, but there were a lot of reporters to meet along the way, a lot of people, and only so many hours in the day. At some point on our return flight, it became clear he just wanted to read the papers, which he did, ploughing through the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, front to back.

Even as he stayed on course to claim the nomination, he felt demoralised over the campaign’s detour into the cultural shadowlands

One April day on her way back from a lunch break in the withered steel town of Charleroi, Pennsylvania, Theresa Krall, a social worker and Democrat, said she liked Clinton the best. Between Obama and McCain, she wasn’t so sure. “Obama speaks wonderfully, and he’s very intelligent. But I’d have to research more about him against McCain.”

Such was the nature of Obama's bet on meritocracy that, at some point along the way, the primaries against Clinton seemed to blur into the looming general election against John McCain. The conservative, blue-collar Democrats who sided with Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary following the rantings of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the long-time minister of Obama's Chicago church, were the same voters Obama would be fighting hardest for months later against McCain. McCain and Clinton echoed each other in savaging Obama for his poorly phrased musings, at a fundraiser in San Francisco, about "bitter" small-town Americans and their tendency to "cling" to guns and religion. It was a riff that showed Obama's analytical side in a less flattering light, drew attention to the very cultural gap he was seeking to close, and was only partly mitigated by having been intended as a defence of rural America against charges of bald racism. Even as he stayed on course to claim the nomination, Obama's demoralisation over the campaign's detour into the cultural and racial shadowlands was plain - the listlessness that some saw on his face at a Philadelphia debate where Clinton brought up his association with a 1960s domestic terrorist-turned-college professor was more like aggrieved disbelief that it should have come to this. Urged to counter during this difficult Rust Belt phase, Obama maintained his trademark equanimity but also stoked false fears about Clinton's health plan and misquoted her as praising the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Later, he would also take out of context McCain's comments about the need for a 100-year US presence in Iraq and about the economy.) Clinton hurt her own cause with embellished tales of landing under sniper fire in Tuzla, Bosnia, ammunition for those who did not trust her word. But Obama's true deliverance came, at last, when both Clinton and McCain tried to push their populist advantage too far, clubbing Obama for his refusal to go along with their call for a summer-long gas tax holiday. It was a classic gimmick (in reality, it would save consumers little) and one that seemed perilous to oppose, but it was just the foothold Obama needed to return to the high ground as he ridiculed the idea at every stop.

This was Obama in his element - quoting experts, appealing to higher reason: "The American people are smarter than Washington gives us credit for." And it worked, as he put the race away in North Carolina. Shortly before the final primaries, he embarked on a victory lap through Oregon, and here was Obama as he wanted to be seen. On the long flight west, he made a rare extended visit to the back of the plane for a word game with the press and aides. (Having to lead his team-mates to the word "revolution" without resorting to the words "American" or "French", he offered: "Thomas Jefferson called for it to happen every once in a while." When none of his team-mates knew the answer, he went more middlebrow: "A Beatles song.") In Eugene, he paid an unannounced visit to the University of Oregon's legendary track in the middle of a big annual athletics meeting; once the women's two-miler was done, the meet came to a halt and the candidate strolled around the track, bathed in sunset and waving up to the old grandstand as the crowd - the ultimate Obama demographic, track enthusiasts in the Pacific north-west - rose as one to applaud. An hour later he spoke to thousands on campus, aglow with self-reflective triumphalism.

"There've been times where you get whacked so many times that after a time, you feel you have to whack back. You've got to go negative. You don't want to look like a wimp," he said. "The times . . . I'm most proud of is when we resisted the impulse, and the times that I'm least proud of is when we succumbed to that impulse."

 

But the turn towards McCain would renew the original challenge in a different form. Against Clinton, his best card had been the one he wanted to play, the call for new politics. Against McCain, he was expected to wield a blunter instrument: the charge that McCain’s party had made a complete hash of everything. An obvious tack, but it complicated his call for post-partisan reconciliation. His stump speech had from the start been full of economic prescriptions – though these were often overlooked in the focus on his rhetorical crescendos – and he had given several serious addresses on Wall Street reform, demonstrating a deeper engagement on the subject than McCain. Yet the pitch lacked an overarching thrust, a lunge for the Republican jugular. It was as if Obama was held back by what he knew, that much of the country’s economic pain had as much to do with global upheavals as with the Bush tax cuts and trade policies. As if he knew his forays into populism in the primaries had edged into protectionist demagoguery, and that an African-American candidate could afford to sound only just so angry and intense. But it was also as if he thought that winning on the economy was somehow too easy and more conventional than what he had really set out to do in this campaign.

To those unnerved by his gifts, the African roots and Muslim name only ratcheted up the distrust. Where do they make people like this? Not around here

Chatting with me early in the primaries, David Axelrod, Obama's strategist, said not to expect the usual partisan fire from Obama: "He's never been an aficionado of the cheap applause line. Voters get sold short. They're smart and sophisticated. They realise that it's important to replace a Republican with a Democrat, but that it won't do enough", if "all we do is change parties without challenging our politics".

This sort of talk unnerved Democrats who did not understand why many of Obama's ads against McCain did not hammer the Republican brand more aggressively. They fretted about how Obama's discursive style would fare in the debates, even though he had shown improvement over the course of his countless encounters with Clinton. Obama's challenge on the economy also involved an awkward political reality. Even as the weak economy was making him the alleged favourite, he was in fact lagging in states and regions that had been hit the hardest under Bush. Conditions had only worsened across the Rust Belt since 2004, when Kerry won Michigan and Pennsylvania and narrowly lost Ohio, yet all summer Obama was barely holding on to the first two and lagging in the third. Meanwhile, the former Republican strongholds he was hoping to nab, Virginia and Colorado, were states that remained relatively prosperous.

The easy explanation for this paradox was racial prejudice, but something broader was at work. Over the past decade, Democrats had gained with college-educated professionals and in the more dynamic regions, in formerly Republican areas such as northern Virginia and the Philadelphia suburbs, while Republicans had claimed distressed states that had been Democratic, such as West Virginia, places that felt increasingly disconnected from the megalopolises that candidates of the Kerry and Gore kind most represented. Leading Democrats were worrying about Obama's struggle to carry conservative "Reagan Democrats" whom Clinton had won in the primaries in places like western Pennsylvania, yet many of them had already deserted the party for Bush, and Kerry and Gore had carried that state anyway. Sure, Clinton had a better shot at reclaiming them, and Obama could not lose too many of them, but they were no longer the base of the party, certainly not of his party.

 

Not that race didn’t play into it. For some, particularly older voters, Obama was the first affirmative-action nominee, period. Bob Norman, a retired awning maker, was blunt when I came to his door in the working-class Cleveland suburb of Parma. “The media’s letting him sled on down the hill because he’s coloured,” he said. Marlene Newlon, a landlord in Grafton, West Virginia, offered a more direct variant as we strolled down the street of that shrivelled railroad town: “I’m not voting for a black president. I’m sorry.”

On the flipside, who knew how many of the young voters who were shattering all assumptions about their endemic apathy were doing so to flaunt their tolerance, a benefit gained from a youth spent listening to Kanye West and imitating Kobe Bryant? And there was the basic fact that what Obama had done was essentially to carry the same highly educated liberals attracted to reformers past (Bradley, Howard Dean, Gary Hart) and then, thanks in part to his heritage, add to them black voters, breaking up the coalition that had helped past machine Democrats stave off the highbrow types.

The more interesting role of race, though, lay in the way Obama's ethnic particulars exacerbated the split perception of his talent. To those unnerved by his gifts, the African roots and Muslim name only further ratcheted the distrust: Where do they make people like this? Not around here . . . Meanwhile, among his admirers, much was made of Obama's ability, as a biracial American, to embrace and represent all. But was it not also true that for many his appeal lay in all the things he was not - that his confounding of the stereotypes on either side only made him more appealing for those inclined to admire such singularity? Consider a black politician of equivalent aptitude with typically African-American roots. Would not his uniqueness have been more obscured than Obama's by discussions of racial redemption and his embodiment of a group? And consider a young white Democrat with the same outsized skills. Would the ambition that drives Obama be writ more conspicuously, and unappealingly, on the face of a rising star who could not, like Obama, be said to be putting his talents towards the cause of national reconciliation? If this bright young white candidate gazed into the distance as is Obama's wont, chin upturned just so, might it appear to voters as if he were thinking only of himself, not of history?

Thus did the elite candidate who happened also to be the first serious black candidate move into the home stretch. McCain picked up where Clinton left off with his “Country First” theme, casting Obama as a self-aggrandising climber and going so far as to charge that “Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign”. There were the “celebrity” ads, which in a clever twist showed Obama in a dazzling light, smiling broadly before 200,000 Berliners – he is a star, you are not, and he knows it. But the most direct counter to the audacity of talent would come from Sarah Palin.

Here was a culture warrior from the front lines, her pro-life convictions evident in her decision to carry to term a baby with Down's syndrome and to encourage her pregnant 17-year-old to marry and start a family. In her convention speech, Palin delivered with gusto a speech that bristled with rural resentment, including a quotation from the notorious arch-conservative, anti-Semitic columnist Westbrook Pegler: "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity." This was followed by a string of bold appeals to the heartland, including her declaration that "it's time that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice-presidency".

Challenges to her qualifications brought retorts about Obama's own swift rise, to which Obama partisans wanted to respond that it was less about résumés than about capacity and learning and engagement with the broader world. They wanted to say this, but with the spectre of Jefferson's yeoman looming, they mostly held their tongue and grimaced - until, to their delight, Palin's glaring struggles in her television interviews made their case for them.

Palin's stunning burst into the Outside, as Alaskans call the Lower 48, was soon enough trumped by cataclysm, the Wall Street meltdown. And within two weeks, the financial crisis had, among other things, utterly reshaped the presidential race, throwing a bevy of key swing states into clear leads for Obama. This was received as predictable - any evidence of economic plight worked to Obama's benefit, right? But this had not been the case all year. The economy had been in decline all campaign, and yet Obama had failed to open as wide a lead as many Democrats thought he should. Yet something was different now. At one level, the sheer scale of the devastation was prompting a partisan shift that brushed aside all else, a furious lashing out at the incumbent party, maybe even an ideological epiphany. Beyond that, however, it seemed possible that Obama was at last benefiting from the politics of thoughtfulness. Voters who had lost their jobs in Steeltown, USA a year ago had wanted to see more passion than Obama was able or willing to provide. But voters terrified and perplexed about this more abstract, far-reaching crisis wanted something else: to know that the people in charge were thinking hard and carefully before acting. They wanted to see serious deliberation among wise men. Many voters rightly saw the crisis as the fault of the coastal elite, the MBAs who had made their millions pushing paper in New York and the hedge-fund outpost of Greenwich, Connecticut. But voters also saw that a crisis this grave and convoluted required an elite response, measured, informed, competent. And as Obama reacted with his usual restraint - restraint bordering on detachment - and as McCain jerked into a more haphazard response, the needle moved. McCain, so long simply a default option for voters wary of Obama, had, between the Palin pick and response to the crisis, come to seem "unsafe" in his own right, polls showed.

Voters saw that a crisis this grave required an elite response, measured, informed, competent. McCain had come to seem “unsafe” in his own right

The numbers continued to move after their first two debates, where Obama met McCain’s visible contempt with yet more calm, to the frustration of some of his own supporters. Just like that, he was suddenly in command, finally riding the current of economic distress, and positioned to close the deal with the far superior ground organisation and money machine he had been building all year. McCain, meanwhile, made a final attempt to frame the out-of-nowhere talent he was up against as threatening. Palin started it off, with new warnings about the radical/professor whom Obama once knew in Chicago.

"Our opponent . . . is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," she said on the trail in Colorado. "This is not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America." Such remarks provoked a virulent sort of enthusiasm from members of the party base who now dominated McCain-Palin events. Among undecideds, however, Obama again appeared to be reaping the benefits of his demeanour - exotic as he was, his extreme moderation made it harder for voters to picture him in cahoots with bomb-throwers. His surrogates scolded McCain and Palin for inciting the crowd, and a somewhat abashed McCain tried to switch to a more temperate tone. And Obama plodded happily along, proposing a new $60bn economic relief package on 13 October before retiring to Toledo, Ohio - selected for its proximity to all those long-suffering post- industrial voters who seemed to be finally warming to him - to prepare for the final presidential debate.

Before Palin's debut, and before the markets fell apart, Obama had his final chance at a mass, unmediated presentation of the meritocrat's case, at the Denver convention. The McCain camp howled at Obama's choice of a 76,000-seat stadium and the classical backdrop constructed for the stage, and even many Democrats cringed, but they should have seen it coming. This campaign, after all, had been launched on aspiration and presumption. Not for him the cramped indoor podium where a hundred other pols had all, in their way, made the customary appeal to the average voter in the average state. Barack Obama was betting, again, that America was ready for a little elevation.

So much hung in the dry, thin air of Denver - not just the rest of this astonishing campaign, but also everything after that. What would come of all this if he made it, and finally had the chance to embark on the work he had spent 21 months talking about? How would a post-partisan candidate rein in a Democratic congressional majority out to run roughshod? How would the decisions be made at day's end when all due deliberation had run its course, and the thoughtful unifier was in the position of having to make one side or the other unhappy? (Most immediately: would he stand by his calls for middle-class tax cuts and big spending on health care, alter native energy and infrastructure, even as the deficit hawks claimed these things were now unaffordable? Would he raise taxes on the wealthy and on capital gains even in a deep recession?) How would his reform push fare in a Washington so calcified by lobbyists and corporate lucre, and how disappointed would his expectant base be by the inevitable lapses and compromises?

Most of all, how would this man, who had never run anything but a law review, a Senate office and his campaign staff, fare as national leader in a time of ultimate stress? From early in the campaign, he had opened his stump speeches by declaring he was running now because "we are at a defining moment in our history" and "cannot afford to wait". To some ears, it sounded grandiose. Now, it was all too true. Was this more than he had bargained for - or was this just the sort of moment for which the natural aristocrat was made?

But first, the speech. He laced it with enough partisan fire to satisfy the back-seat drivers worried that he had been insufficiently tough in the face of McCain's barrage. Yet near the end he managed to return to the idea that got it all going back in Iowa a year earlier, and in Boston three years before that, only now it came with the extra edge of having seen just how many were hoping he would fail.

"For part of what has been lost these past eight years can't just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose - our sense of higher purpose. And that's what we have to restore," he said. "I know there are those who . . . dismiss such beliefs as happy talk. They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan horse for higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values. And that's to be expected. Because if you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from . . . You make a big election about small things. And you know what - it's worked before. Because it feeds into the cynicism we all have about government . . . But I stand before you tonight because all across America something is stirring."

With just a couple weeks to go, amid earth-shaping gusts even stronger than what he has been creating for nearly two years, it's looking like he might be right.

Alec MacGillis writes the "Letter from Washington" for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn has attracted "socialism fans", not Labour voters

The leader's project is to transform the Labour party, not win elections. 

Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, and (following a vote of no confidence and a leadership challenge) re-elected to the same post in September 2016. In February this year, many of those who had re-elected him expressed disappointment at his effectively unconditional support for Theresa May’s invocation of the Article 50 process to leave the European Union; perhaps to placate them, Corbyn subsequently called for a demonstration in support of those who would suffer the most from EU withdrawal, but then failed to turn up.

Part of the public rationale for Corbyn’s three-line whip on the Brexit vote was that if the party opposed it, then that might lead to a loss of support in predominantly working class constituencies in the North and the Midlands that had voted Leave by large margins: constituencies such as Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central, where the party nevertheless went on to lose vote share in by-elections later the same month.

But despite all this — despite Brexit, which Labour Party members and voters had overwhelmingly voted against, and despite what was arguably the worst by-election performance for an opposition party since the late 19th century — Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party are still for the most part Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party, and they’re not going anywhere — and neither, therefore, is the man himself.

Asked whether Corbyn’s continued leadership of the party was a good thing, the answer from sidelined deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, was pragmatic: "It doesn’t matter; that is the situation." This impasse will not endure forever: Prime Minister Theresa May has called for an early General Election, and Corbyn (who has been asking for one since December last year) has given his support. But in the six weeks that we have left until the Labour Party is overwhelmingly (and perhaps irreparably) crushed, it may perhaps be worth reflecting on how it got into this appalling mess.

1. A hostile takeover

The best way to find out what a particular group thinks is to survey a random sample of about a thousand of its members — and this is exactly what Ian Warren of Election Data has done, by commissioning a YouGov opinion poll of the Labour Party. Warren’s poll found striking differences between party members who joined before Corbyn became leader and party members who joined afterwards. Among the former group, 28% approve and 62% disapprove of his leadership, but among the latter, 69% approve and 20% disapprove. The poll also found Corbyn’s leadership to have the approval of only 47% of those members who voted Labour in 2015, but of 73% of those who voted for other parties at that time. Both of these findings support the view of Corbynism as a hostile takeover  of the Labour Party.

The party has long been attractive to such takeovers because, since the early 20th century collapse of the Liberal Party, it has consistently been one of the two most dominant parties in the British parliament. However, it was recently made more vulnerable to takeover by rules changes that gave anyone who joined the party or registered as a supporter an equally weighted vote in its internal elections.

Corbynism is the exploitation of that vulnerability in order to increase the influence of a particular faction within the Labour Party. This faction is sometimes referred to as Labour’s "hard left" wing, to distinguish it both from the party’s "centrist" wing (think Tony Blair or Harold Wilson) and the "soft left" that lies between the two (think Ed Miliband or Neil Kinnock). However, it is perhaps more useful to refer to it as the party’s "Bennite" faction. This emphasises its long-term leadership by Tony Benn, father of Melissa Benn, the author; Hilary Benn, the decidedly non-Bennite MP whose sacking from the shadow cabinet prompted the 2016 leadership challenge against Corbyn; and Stephen Benn, the 3rd Viscount Stansgate.

Although originally a centrist, Benn converted to Marxism in the 1970s, acquiring a devoted following among the more radical elements that were by then flowing into the party membership. He was never successful in his attempts to become party leader or deputy leader, but Benn was responsible for the party’s adoption of its most radical manifesto ever: a programme of industrial nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from the EU’s predecessor organisation, the European Community. When Michael Foot, a representative of the party’s "old left" (think Aneurin Bevan or Richard Crossman) led Labour into the 1983 general election on this manifesto, it received its worst defeat since before the Second World War. Foot resigned as leader of the Labour Party and was replaced by Neil Kinnock, a left winger who had not supported Benn.

With the party under Kinnock’s leadership, Benn and his associates — such as Ken Livingstone, who had become leader of the Greater London Council in 1981, and Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected to parliament for the first time in that fateful 1983 election — were unable to prevent the expulsion of their allies in Marxist-Leninist groups such as Militant (originally known as the Revolutionary Socialist League), and were increasingly sidelined from the late 1980s onwards. Their defeat seemed cemented in 1995 when Tony Blair amended Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution to replace its commitment to public ownership of industry with a commitment to unspecified "democratic socialist" ideals, subsequently rebranding the party as "New Labour" and (together with his then-ally, Gordon Brown) leading it to an unprecedented run of three general election victories in 1997, 2001, and 2005.

However, the balance of power shifted with the party’s demoralising 2015 defeat under its "soft left" leader, Ed Miliband. Following Miliband’s resignation, Corbyn — at the time, a largely forgotten Bennite — secured sufficient nominations from fellow MPs to gain a place on the leadership ballot. In accordance with rules changes agreed under Miliband, the ballot was put to members, registered supporters, and affiliate members of the party, whose ranks were swelled by large numbers of people joining specifically in order to vote for Corbyn. Corbyn’s victory was convincing, although it is noteworthy that – despite the influx of new members – he was not the first choice of 50.4 per cent of party members.

After winning this internal election, Corbyn swiftly moved to install his allies at the top of the party. His long-term friend, John McDonnell — another Bennite, who once described Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky as his "most significant" influences — was appointed to the most senior shadow cabinet position, and a number of Marxist-Leninists from outside Parliament were given important posts within the party. Labour centrists often refer to Communists as "Trots", i.e. Trotskyists (that is, supporters of revolutionary proletarian internationalism as represented by the Fourth International). However, the prevailing ideological climate of Corbyn’s circle tends more towards the other primary stream of European Marxism-Leninism, i.e. Stalinism (that is, support for the totalitarian Soviet state as well as — for unclear reasons — its gangster capitalist successor state, the Russian Federation).

The antifascist blogger, Bob from Brockley, explains as follows:

Corbyn has had a weekly column in… the Communist Party of Britain’s Morning Star, and he has used that column to promote a basically Cold War second camp worldview, most recently in promoting Kremlin lies about Ukraine…After leaving Oxford, Seumas Milne [whom Corbyn appointed as the Labour Party’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications] cut his political teeth in a group called Straight Left, whose USP in the small but crowded market of the far left was that it thought most other Communist groups were insufficiently appreciative of Stalin’s achievements. 

Let’s not get carried away, though: whatever the political background of the Labour leader and his circle, there is no need to assume that all those who voted for him are current members of revolutionary Communist organisations. Some sort of Communist influx has undoubtedly occurred, especially within Momentum (the "grassroots" pro-Corbyn organisation founded and owned by Corbyn’s old friend, Jon Lansman, and now riven by conflict between its Trotskyist and Bennite wings. As Colin Talbot has argued, there are very large numbers of aging ex-Communists who may have "turned to Corbyn as the political equivalent of going out and buying a Harley".

But Corbynism appeals to a wider (but not that much wider) group of mostly middle class people whose primary cultural identification is with "the Left". Such people are keen to support Corbyn because they see him as one of their own: a vegetarian pacifist who has never been interested in the tedious work of winning elections and scrutinising legislation but who has (as he told Nigel Nelson in the middle of his first leadership election campaign) "always [been] passionate about justice, the environment, and war and peace", and who, in his youth, "got arrested in most countries [he] visited for demonstrating".

Although Corbyn was originally elected with broad support from existing members of the party, his power base within it now primarily consists of people who joined it in order to re-shape it in his image and their own. These people might best be thought of as "socialism fans", and are quite different from traditional Labour Party members and voters. They are people who joined the party not because they agreed with its goals and wanted to help it achieve them, but because they identified with the culture of Leftism and sought an active form of cultural participation — much as theatre buffs might join an amateur dramatics club, or history enthusiasts might join a medieval re-enactment society.

The difference between those who joined the party in order to help its representatives get elected to local and national government and those who joined the party in order to place and keep Corbyn at its helm is as stark as (and in many ways parallels) that which George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier describes between, on the one hand, "the warm-hearted, unthinking Socialist… who only wants to abolish poverty", and, on the other hand, "the foaming denouncers of the bourgeoisie, and the more-water-in-your-beer reformers… and the astute young social-literary climbers… and all that dreary tribe of… sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers" who flock to "Socialist" organisations and drive away ordinary working class people who might otherwise be inclined to join or vote.

It is not just that members who voted for Corbyn in 2016 (i.e. after and despite the bad opinion polls, the dreadful showing in the May elections, the loss of the referendum, and the vote of no confidence from those it was Corbyn’s job to lead) are — as Warren’s YouGov poll shows — far more likely than those who voted against him to engage in low-investment forms of political activity, such as sharing campaign messages on social media, and far less likely to engage in high-investment forms of political activity, such as delivering leaflets or knocking on doors.

It is that they have a very different idea of what the Labour Party is for. They view it not as a party of parliamentary government or opposition but as an opportunity to engage in demonstrations, protests, marches, and rallies — as well as thrilling social media battles against insufficiently radical Labour MPs (and their supporters). These are the people for whom Corbyn was speaking when he said: "We’re all in power. We just don’t realise it. We have the power to speak, to influence, to demonstrate, to demand."

Engagement with the business of parliament is irrelevant — perhaps even an impediment — to the socialism fan’s enjoyment of such "power". Thus it seems unsurprising that, of those who voted for Corbyn in the 2016 election, only 11 per cent consider "understanding what it takes to win an election" to be among the two or three qualities most necessary for a Labour leader (compared to 55 per cent of those who voted against them), while 30 per cent and 31 per cent respectively consider "mov[ing] the party to the left" and "tak[ing] on powerful interests" to be among them (compared to 2 per cent and 6 per cent of those who voted against him).

The conflict between socialism fans and people with a more direct interest in electoral politics plays out again and again in social media. For example, when Owen Jones last month asked Corbyn supporters on Twitter what they thought of the prospect of an early election, he was told that "transforming the Labour Party" was "never a short-term project". The Corbyn supporter who supplied this answer seemed indifferent to Jones’s objection that the "decimation of Labour" would be the result.

A few days after I observed the above exchange, a Labour Party who had once held the post of Political Education Officer within his CLP used the relatively less public platform of a Facebook group to inform me that it did not matter whether the party lost votes as it turned towards socialism, because votes for a party that was (on his view) insufficiently socialist were no different from votes for the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats. As he continued: "I want Labour to be firmly socialist", "I think New Labour must be permanently exterminated", and "the important thing is having Labour as a socialist party and eradicating New Labour for good".

One might wonder what end could be achieved by transforming Labour if it could not then be elected to government? But that is the wrong question: the eradication of Blair’s legacy is an end in itself. This is recognisably the same politics advocated by Corbyn-supporting journalist Paul Mason in conversation with the more sceptical Carole Cadwalladr:

"In America, he says, ‘what the Occupy generation chose to do was to occupy the Democratic party and that’s effectively what [we] have chosen to do here: to occupy the Labour party. … We, on the left of the party, didn’t want this fight. But it’s like what General Sherman said in the American civil war: “You’ve chosen war. We’re going to give you all the war you can take" …I want to lay waste to the whole neoliberal hierarchical tradition that Blairism and Brownism represented’."

We see more of the same in the following, by the influential left-wing author, Richard Seymour, who laid out his vision on Twitter:

1. Regarding "pessimism", a few points of order. The most plausible outcome of Corbyn's leadership has never been socialist triumph.

2. The party apparatus and the wider terrain (media etc) was always going to be set against him.

3. The electoralist goals of Labour would always conflict with the goals of regrowing the grassroots, winning socialist arguments.

4. Because the latter work on a long timeline, whereas elections are short-term, responsive to news cycles, parliamentary squabbles, etc.

5. Even winning an election wouldn't be triumph, because it's a question of what kind of country you govern -- political economy, etc.

6. The best hope for Corbynism was/is that it would transform Labour, democratise it, make it a mass campaigning party.

7. A party capable of organising social power beyond electoral arena -- but that means taking short-term losses, esp middle class votes.

Winning elections is not an objective; losing votes is not a problem; the goal is to transform Labour: to take it out of electoral politics, to refocus it on the exercise of "social power", and above all, to democratise it, i.e. to put it under the control of anyone who wants to join it, rather than those of its representatives who have been elected to parliament or to local and regional government by the general public and who do the day-to-day work that this involves. If that goal is ever achieved, it is hard to imagine what the party would do next. Those who share a desire to take it over do not necessarily share much else in common, besides a hatred of Tony Blair. In fact, the most likely outcome would be a series of splits, for example between those who wish to abolish private property and those who only want to nationalise the railways.

Corbyn’s leadership can be advocated by liberal environmentalists and revolutionary Communists, as well as by mutually opposed sub-groups of the latter, because his own ideology is impossible to pin down beyond a commitment to a "socialism" that he defines only in the vaguest possible terms. "You care for each other, you care for everybody, and everybody cares for everybody else", (another gem from Nelson’s interview) is his clearest statement yet of what the word means when he uses it.

What manner of policies for the governing of a country could one derive from such a position statement? Almost any — which means that all those who wish to, can imagine that Corbyn would govern in accordance with their own preferences. But the defining feature of Corbynism is that it is only incidentally concerned with the outside world. It is primarily a politics of coalition between members of the self-identified "Left", who will be able to work together only as long as there is no goal beyond the defeat of Labour’s centrist and soft left factions.

For example, the Stop the War Coalition, whose president was Tony Benn until 2014, whose chair was Corbyn until 2015, and which retains Corbyn’s full support, is felt by many people to be a front for Britain’s largest Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Workers’ Party or SWP (of which the above-quoted Richard Seymour used to be a member). It seems oddly unbothered by the savagery of Daesh/Islamic State. Meanwhile, the Morning Star is unbothered by the equally barbaric Kremlin-backed Assad regime and likewise retains Corbyn’s support.

What rational sense can this make? It’s not just that these are groups that no reasonable and humane person would want anything to do with. It’s that Trotskyists and Stalinists were at each other’s throats even before Stalin had Trotsky murdered — and that Daesh and the Assad regime are at war. Similarly, Corbyn can insist that "women deserve… unflinching support in the face of violence and abuse", yet ignore his own feminist supporters when they demand that he distance himself from Stand up to Racism over the well-documented willingness of the SWP (for which it is, of course, yet another front organisation) to cover up allegations of sexual violence by its own senior members. Because all the associated speaking and demonstrating and demanding (to return to Corbyn’s above characterisation of the kind of "power" that he and his followers appear to understand themselves to wield) is covered by the umbrella of an amorphous Leftism with no need for ideological coherence, relatively substantial numbers of socialism fans can be recruited to the support of often rather nasty groups even as the majority of the population is repulsed.

Corbyn, with his vague passion for "justice, the environment, and war and peace", is the ideal figurehead for this cultural or aesthetic Leftism and its cynically tactical coalitions - an apparently blank canvas onto which socialism fans can project their fantasies. Since 2015, his own saintly figure has been the focus of perhaps the largest coalition of all, devoted to the single issue of getting the Labour Party out of the government business by installing him as its leader and keeping him there. As the rest of this article will argue, it scarcely matters how particular Corbyn supporters might choose to define their politics, because they all speak the same language in support of this shared goal.

2. The commonplaces of Corbynism

Here is a quote amalgamated (note the ellipses) from three comments that a single individual made on a mutual friend’s Facebook post on 27 February 2017. Between his posting of the second and third comments, I commented that the Labour Party is not primarily a socialist party but has "always had room for socialists — provided that they can reconcile themselves to electoral reality".This comment of mine is referenced in the third of his:

"A centrist-Labour would now be what was once considered right wing. Corbyn is hardly hard left, but mainstream politics has lurched so far to the right it’s normalised the right doctrine and neoliberalism. As Raymond Williams scarily predicted, the values and ideas are of neoliberal capitalism are so normalised it appears to be the only way, the way it’s ‘always been’. … If the only viable choice is a right leaning Labour party, or an extreme right Tory party, dictated mostly by the right wing and corporate owned media, then really democracy and decency are already lost. …‘Electoral reality’ is exactly what Raymond Williams warns about. This is the way it is, there’s no room for change. Corbyn represents a genuine difference. If the choice is between Extreme Tory and Tory-Lite, then what is even the point? Corbyn has repeatedly been on the right side of history, and his policies have genuine popular appeal and yet it’s increasingly clear the media control what people see and hear."

There’s nothing special about the above, but that’s the point: the most striking thing about it is its sheer predictability. Although not all attempt to understand contemporary politics by reference to the work of Marxist literary critics who died three decades ago, Corbynites say more-or-less the same thing on a daily basis, both on social media and off it. For example, the day after the above Facebook comments were made, the aforementioned Morning Star bluntly asserted that "people understand Jeremy’s message to be true" in an editorial published under the headline "The only political leader offering radical change". An article published later the same week in Socialist Worker — the official newspaper of the aforementioned SWP — argued that "Corbyn’s 'hard left' policies seemed normal inside the Labour party when he first became an MP in 1983" but "n]ow they are regarded as very left wing", and, as a result, "most of the media have waged a vicious campaign to undermine Corbyn".

Like those articles, the Facebook comments above are assemblages of what rhetoricians call topoi or "commonplaces": ideas or themes that are — within a particular culture — frequently revisited and rarely challenged. Within particular groups, people adopt the same ways of speaking, which imply the same ways of thinking. The following are clearly recognisable as the kinds of things that Corbynites say:

Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are what the public really wants.

Jeremy Corbyn only seems to be "hard left" because the Labour Party has moved to the right, leaving him behind.

Without Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party would be virtually indistinguishable from the Conservative Party and there would be no point voting for it.

Jeremy Corbyn is different from other politicians.

Jeremy Corbyn brings change that powerful forces seek to prevent.

Jeremy Corbyn has always been "on the right side of history".

If members of the public think they don’t want Jeremy Corbyn, that’s only because of the malign influence of the media.

The only thing missing from the above list is the assertion that Jeremy Corbyn is actually very popular with the British public. If you haven’t heard such lines before, then you haven’t yet met the people who joined the Labour Party in order to get Corbyn into the leader’s office and keep him there — the people for whom Corbyn’s leadership is the only good thing about the Labour Party — the people for whom supporting Corbyn is the very point of being in the Labour Party.

Taken literally, these ideas are a mixed bag. There is never any clarity as to what Corbyn’s "difference" from other politicians consists in, nor as to why it should be considered a good thing. The nature of the "change" he is said to bring is similarly nebulous. The grand-sounding claim about "the right side of history" only means that he voted against the invasion of Iraq. And while some of Corbyn’s policy positions are potentially popular with voters, those are positions that are shared across the Parliamentary Labour Party, including by centrist MPs. As for the idea that Corbyn originally represented the mainstream of the Labour Party, that is true only in the limited sense that his entrance into Parliament was via the disastrous 1983 election, which the party fought on a manifesto that was largely the handiwork of one of its most left-wing MPs. 

But the power of commonplaces arises from repetition, not from rational consideration in relation to empirical evidence. Indeed, their very point is that they are never subjected to critique, serving instead as accepted starting points for trains of thought that reliably loop back to the point of departure. For Corbyn’s supporters, a good argument is an argument both founded upon and re-affirming Corbynite commonplaces, while a deceptive or mistaken or otherwise Blairite argument is an argument that does not.

3. The culture of the Left

One of the most interesting aspects of these commonplaces is their ability to circulate between groups that might otherwise appear to have fairly fundamental disagreements, including supporters and opponents of Britain’s membership of the European Union, as well as both Stalinists and Trotskyists. This is because they have their roots in the culture of the 21st century British Left — which is shared across multiple left wing groups and left-identified individuals unaffiliated with any specific group — rather than in any particular political analysis — which is the sort of thing that socialists and Communists will feud over until the end of time (hence the virtually microscopic size of all British parties to the left of Labour).

Here, for example, is an editorial published nearly two years before the above social media comments in Solidarity, the official newspaper of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty or AWL, a Trotskyist organisation formerly known as Socialist Organiser, membership of which is proscribed for Labour Party members:

"The huge support for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader is a reminder that what seems like an overwhelmingly dominant right-wing ‘consensus’ in bourgeois politics can be limited and unstable. It shows that large numbers of people, including working class and young people, still want a politics that is different to, and to the left of, the consensus of neo-liberalism."

We can read this and the more recent quotations we have already seen almost as a single text. Left politics, identified with Corbyn, are positioned as "different to", "offering radical change" from, or "represent[ing] a genuine difference" with regard to a "normalised" or "consensus" position described as "neoliberal" or "bourgeois" and identified not only with the Conservative Party ("Extreme Tory") but also with all Labour MPs not overtly affiliated with their party’s left wing ("Tory-Lite"). This politics is not really "hard left"; rather, it is "popular", "understood to be true" by "people", and supported by "large numbers of… working class and young people", such that any apparent lack of enthusiasm from the general public must be explained, whether explicitly or otherwise, by conspiracy theories — for example, involving "a vicious campaign" waged by "the media", which has "control [over] what people see and hear".

The latter is particularly important because it functions as an alibi for the failure of the rest. For example, while I was writing this, a message was posted to a popular Labour Party Facebook group using a reference to Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent to support the argument that it is not the Labour leadership but the media that need to change. "Labour politics is fine," the poster concluded, and if "a political party that clearly represents the interests of the vast majority of the population cannot obtain the commensurate backing", this can only be explained through media bias.

To accept this line of reasoning is to accept then the Labour Party will never again win elections because it cannot change the media, but to assert that its future defeats won’t matter, because they won’t be the party leader’s fault. If indeed one regards elections in which the general public participates as in any way important – which many enthusiasts of party democracy apparently do not.

Such thinking goes all the way to the top of the current party, with Corbyn’s closest parliamentary ally, McDonnell, informing two journalists at the Guardian — a newspaper that was intensely critical of Blair (especially over the war in Iraq) and that publishes numerous pro-Corbyn commentators — that because their employer "became part of the New Labour [i.e. Blairite] establishment… you feel dispossessed because your people are no longer in power" and therefore collude in the media’s attempt "to destroy a socialist who is trying to transfer power from the establishment to the people". Corbynite commonplaces all the way.

4. "Working class politics"

But what is "the establishment" and who are "the people"? In practice, the former simply means whoever held positions of influence in the Labour Party before Corbyn’s election as its leader, and the latter simply means the Bennite faction of the Labour Party and its allies in various left-wing organisations, some of whose members are banned from joining Labour.

On the subject of organisations proscribed for Labour members, I turn now to an editorial published just after Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader in The Socialist, the official newspaper of the Socialist Party or SP: another Trotskyist organisation that formerly practised entryism under the name of Militant but subsequently shifted to competing against the Labour Party in local and parliamentary elections, latterly in partnership with the SWP as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition or TUSC (from which the SWP recently withdrew in order to focus its efforts on supporting Corbyn). The editorial, which also writes of ‘huge enthusiasm for Corbyn’s pro-worker platform’ argues as follows:

"The battle against Labour’s right is not simply a battle between two wings of a party. Behind them are the class interests of the different participants. The right ultimately represents the capitalist elite, which was delighted with the Blairite transformation of Labour into a party that could be relied on to act on their behalf, and is fighting to turn the wheel of history back to that situation."

It’s worth thinking about this carefully. Its scope is the Labour Party itself (from which ex-members of Militant are banned), and its concern is with whether the party shall remain in the state to which it was transformed by Blairite Labour MPs for the benefit of the "capitalist elite" or shall be re-transformed by Bennite Labour MPs for the benefit of… well, who, exactly? The idea appears to be that Corbyn’s leadership will deprive the "capitalist elite" of the tool that the Labour Party supposedly became under Blair. The Labour Party does not have to win elections for that goal to be achieved. Indeed, it could simply vanish – or fragment into micro-parties indistinguishable from the rest of the British far left.

The image of heroic struggle within the Labour Party is given graphic form in a drawing on the cover of the issue of Solidarity from which I quoted previously, which shows workers (standing on the left, of course!) cheering Corbyn on while senior Labour Party figures (including Blair himself with a badge that reads "Tony Tory") and obese, drunken journalists (naturally standing or sprawled on the right) hysterically condemn him as an "extremist" or a "disaster". The drawing is captioned "The Socialist who stood in a Labour leadership election", and accompanying front page headlines are "Back Corbyn’s campaign" and "Fight for working class politics", while the article quoted above carried the slightly different headline, "Back Corbyn, fight for working-class politics!" From Corbyn’s mouth come vague, policy-free statements of rejection: "I don’t agree with austerity" and "I oppose attacks on the working class and the poor!"

This is, I would suggest, the sum total of the Corbynite project: the installation at the head of the Labour Party of a "socialist", i.e. a person upon whom Marxist-Leninists can pin hopes, and who makes statements aligning himself or herself against right-wing policies (such as "austerity") and with "the working class" and "the poor". What do actual "working class" or "poor" people think of this? They certainly aren’t very keen to vote for it.

In contrast to all the above, and without claiming that it typifies the views of any particular group, I offer the following report of a working-class individual’s discourse on Corbyn, simply to remind my readers of what the Labour Party might look like to those who turn to left-of-centre politics in hope of what George Orwell characterised as "better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about" as opposed to the revolutionary’s "vague threat of future violence":

My Mum, brought up working class in a railway worker’s house, got a phone call today from the Labour Party about her direct debit being cancelled.

She gave them both barrels about how Corbyn was a traitor to the working class by dooming Labour to opposition and bringing about a further decade of Tory government. She said that she would not give another penny to the party until Corbyn had gone. She told the person on the phone that the best government she had ever known was the Blair government and that Gordon Brown saved the world only for this Jeremy Corbyn "tosser" to put it all at risk.

I would like to apologise to the poor bugger who made that phone call as well giving a big shout out to my Mum.

(Taken from the Labour’s Future Facebook group)

Unheard of talk! Blair’s government the best that a "working class" person had ever known? Perhaps the National Minimum Wage and the Sure Start Centres and the extra billions for education and the National Health Service counted for something after all. And Corbyn a "traitor to the working class"? The latter accusation is more typically levelled at Labour Party centrists such as Blair and Brown — the "Tory-Lite" leaders who (we are frequently informed) took the votes of working class people for granted while selling out their interests for the sake of "neoliberal capitalism".

Although Trotskyists, Stalinists, and Bennites alike tend to present Corbyn as the champion of "working class politics", it should be recognised that his programme has very little to offer working class people in the here-and-now. Even in the fantasy scenario of a Corbyn-led government, the hoped-for benefits to the working class would still be indirect: rather than implementing policies to the direct material benefit of actual working class people, a hypothetical Prime Minister Corbyn would — according to the AWL — implement policies to facilitate the working class’s fulfilment of the destiny assigned to it by classical Marxist theory, i.e. the overthrow of the capitalist order and the institution of social ownership of the means of production and exchange, which an elected government could not achieve even "if it wanted to". In the real world and at the present moment, in which the proletariat does not yet acknowledge its revolutionary future role, actually existing working class people are of interest only insofar as representations of them can be conscripted in support of arguments over who will lead the Labour Party.

Meanwhile, those same actually existing working class people repay the compliment by taking little or no interest in the Labour Party. A survey carried out before the 2015 General Election and again in December of the same year found that both before and after the increase in party membership driven by Corbyn’s leadership campaign, over 75 per cent of Labour members lived in households headed by someone in an "ABC1" occupation, i.e. that less than one in four would ordinarily be classified as working class. In socio-economic if not in cultural and political terms, the new membership was indistinguishable from the old membership. The fight to transform Labour from a party seeking to achieve limited although concrete reforms through engagement in the work of local and national government into a social movement more interested in exercising "the power to speak, to influence, to demonstrate, to demand" is therefore probably best understood as a form of middle class identity politics (the identity in question being "left").

The immediate beneficiaries of Corbynism are not working class people per se, but members of "left" political organisations or factions either (a) seeking power within the Labour Party, or (b) directly competing with it in their efforts to win votes in elections and/or to recruit members. Some of those people are working class, but most are not. The Morning Star responded to last summer’s challenge to Corbyn’s leadership with an editorial headlined "Justice must be won for the working class", in which it argued that "[t]he cumulative anger and frustration that’s been building in working-class communities across these lands over the last few decades has found an outlet" in support for Corbyn and opposition to his detractors in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Given the historically low vote share of candidates for Corbyn’s Labour Party in the strongly working class constituencies of Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central last month, such assertions should not be taken literally. Retaining Corbyn as Labour leader wins no justice for the working class; it only consolidates power within the Bennite faction of the Labour Party and provides members of Trotskyist and Stalinist organisations such as the SWP and Communist Party of Britain with a path to greater influence within the Labour Party and greater esteem within the wider Left. The anger and frustration that really troubles the Morning Star is that felt within the revolutionary socialist sects that take themselves to be the guardians of the best interests of the working class of Marxist theory and feel aggrieved that the UK’s largest left-of-centre party is not run by the most left-of-centre people in the UK.

5. They, Daniel Blake: the great spoken-on-behalf-of

One of the defining moments of Corbynism was the release of I, Daniel Blake: a critically-acclaimed BBC Films movie about a tragic working class welfare claimant. It was directed by Ken Loach, a long-term friend of Jeremy Corbyn and the creator of an hour-long promo video in support of the latter’s re-election as party leader. I, Daniel Blake had such an impact on Corbyn’s followers that many of them renamed themselves "Daniel Blake" on Twitter in perhaps the quintessential statement of socialist fandom. "We are all Daniel Blake" was another popular slogan, and — coincidentally — the headline of an article that appeared in the same issue of The Socialist as the editorial quoted above. Following the unprecedented drop in Labour’s vote share in the Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central by-elections last month, Loach wrote in defence of Corbyn’s leadership in a Guardian article saturated in Corbynite commonplaces.

The article begins with Loach’s recollections of his own visits to Stoke-on-Trent and Whitehaven (the centre of the Copeland district), promoting I, Daniel Blake with Labour Club screenings organised by activists from Momentum, the privately-owned pro-Corbyn organisation briefly discussed above. Having pointedly criticised Labour activists outside Momentum by commending the behaviour of the Momentum activists in question as "a model of how Labour activists should work" and recalled audience complaints of "the failure of Labour governments… and, importantly, Labour councillors", Loach cut to the chase:

"Now let’s ask the real questions. What are the big problems people face? What is the Labour leadership’s analysis and programme? Why is Labour apparently unpopular? Who is responsible for the party’s divisions?

The problems are well rehearsed but rarely related to the leadership question. A vulnerable working class that knows job insecurity, low wages, bogus ‘self-employment’, poverty for many including those in work, whole regions left to rot: these are the consequences of both Tory and New Labour’s free market economics. … The central fact is blindingly obvious: the Blair, Brown and Peter Mandelson years were central to this degeneration. That is why Labour members voted for Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn and his small group fight the Tories in front and deal with the silent mutiny behind them. Yet the MPs, unrepresentative of the members, are doing immense damage. How come the media don’t put them in the dock? It is they and their backers in the party bureaucracy who have been rejected.

It was their Labour party, not Corbyn’s, that lost Scotland, lost two elections and has seen Labour’s vote shrink inexorably. … If Corbyn can be removed, it will be business as usual, with scant difference between Labour and the Tories. If it is to transform society, the party itself must be transformed."

As we see from the above, the priority for Loach — who in 2013 founded the rival Left Unity party and in 2015 campaigned for it against Labour — is the transformation of the Labour Party (yes, that again). That — on his account as much as on that of the Trotskyists and other Corbynites quoted in previous sections of this essay — must (naturally) precede any significant external politics. What is at stake is not the day-to-day work of parliamentary opposition to the Conservative government, nor the short- to medium-term ambition to replace that government with a Labour government that would implement specific policies for the benefit of actual working class people (say, a higher minimum wage and an improved public health service), nor the still less glamorous equivalents in local and regional government, but the eternal — and fundamentally aesthetic — imperative for ‘difference between Labour and the Tories’, i.e. for Labour to be led by the kind of person for whom a socialism fan would like to vote.

Exactly as in the examples quoted in the previous sections, a historic struggle is said to be in progress, with, on one side, Corbyn and his followers, and on the other, a coalition between the Conservative Party, past Labour leaders and cabinet ministers, and "[Labour] MPs, unrepresentative of the members": because the job of Labour MPs is to represent whoever currently constitutes the majority of the (now very middle class) Labour membership, rather than the ordinary voters whose representatives in Parliament they officially are. But this inversion of democracy is no problem at all, because, under Corbyn’s leadership, the party is not unpopular, but only "apparently unpopular", its true popularity presumably concealed in the voting booth and revealed only at screenings of I, Daniel Blake.

Loach’s essential argument is that the sufferings of working class people require Labour MPs and bureaucrats to submit — and submit enthusiastically, for the quiet resignation with which they accepted the result of the September 2016 leadership election is here condemned as "silent mutiny" — to Corbyn and his circle, who will rule over the party in the name of the working class — that is, of them, Daniel Blake.

6. Selling a piece of St Jeremy

We can see how this plays out on the ground in in John Harris’s short video documentary about the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election. The film is well worth watching as a whole, but the part to which I would like to draw attention is the interaction between a Labour Party activist and a potential voter. Here, PV is the potential voter and LPA is the Labour Party Activist:

PV: What you go- what you gonna do for the community and that?

LPA: What do you think needs to be done for the community?

PV: Pff. I dunno. Like, some better shit, init, like, you know what I mean? Like, build fucking, like, I dunno, like, more youth centres, stop closing shit down.

LPA: Yeah.

PV: Like, help people that are vulnerable and that. Put people in better housing.

LPA: Yeah.

PV: You know what I mean? Stop sending people to jail for stupid shit.

LPA: Yeah.

PV: You know what I mean, like?

LPA: Are there any people that you think represent your views, do you feel like the Labour Party represents the, the —

PV: Nah.

LPA: Why not?

PV: ’Coz they’re all full of shit, man, they’re all like upper class people that’ve, you know what I mean? There’s no —

LPA: Yeah.

PV: No people who’ve actually lived it in there, is there?

LPA: Is that something you would vote for? If people were talking about, like, opening more youth centres, and, uhm, making fairer like justice system and things like that?

PV: Yeah.

LPA: Because that is what, uhm, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, stands for at the moment.

PV: But everyone says that, everyone makes, like, promises and that but shit don’t get done, does it?

LPA: One thing I’d say about Jeremy Corbyn is that he’s quite different from politicians that’ve come before – like, do you know that none of the Labour Party want him, basically, like, to be the leader?

PV: No-one wants him ’coz he’s a dick.

LPA: (laughs)

PV: You know what I mean, like?

LPA: Why do you think that?

PV: Well, he was saying stuff like, ah, he doesn’t wanna use our c-, our Trident missiles and all of that shit

LPA: Yeah.

PV: ’Coz if someone come over here and started blowing us up, like, what are you gonna do, pour ’em a cup of tea and be like, "Yeah, crack on."

LPA: But do you not know that Trident costs, like, six hundred billion pounds, so if we didn’t have Trident, all the things that you’ve just said — youth centres, better justice system —

PV: Yeah but the thing is, I don’t actually care, like.

LPA: You do!

PV: But I don’t.

LPA: You do!

I shan’t dwell on the fact that the estimated cost of Trident renewal is not £600bn but £17.5-£23.4bn according to the Ministry of Defence, which supports it, and £100bn according to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which opposes it. It’s easy to make a mistake in the heat of the moment.

It is more helpful to focus on the radical disjunction between the priorities of the activist and the Stoke resident to whom she is speaking. The latter expresses concern for the local community and with things that affect his life directly: local issues such as housing, youth centres, and institutions that have closed down, as well with what he regards as unjustifiably high rates of incarceration among community members.

But instead of talking about what the Labour Party has done for Stoke-on-Trent, or for people like this potential voter, or about what the previous Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central achieved, or about the merits of Gareth Snell, the Labour candidate for whom the activist is nominally canvassing, and about what Snell might yet do to improve this specific Stoke resident’s life, what does the activist choose to talk about? Why, the leader of the Labour Party, of course! Moreover, she talks about him by commending him for his difference from other politicians and she evidences this difference by stating that other Labour Party politicians do not want him to be their leader.

To an individual not steeped in Corbynite commonplaces, it must have seemed a funny sort of praise for a leader — and a still funnier sort of reason to vote for one of the people he will lead. Among Corbynites, the truly great thing about the Labour Party still appears to be that its MPs are led by someone they don’t want to be led by. But in the world of ordinary people, that is not really a hot sell.

Neither is opposition to the renewal of the Trident nuclear programme, which many British people believe to be necessary to their own safety and that of their families. And, given that — in conversation with a potential voter focused on local issues — this particular activist can only argue for the benefits of such opposition through appeals to the attractions of entirely hypothetical policies — Corbyn has never proposed investing money saved from Trident in youth centres, there’s no connection between Trident non-renewal and justice system reforms (which Corbyn has not in fact proposed), and, in any case, the Labour Party voted to renew Trident despite Corbyn’s opposition, so this is all rather beside the point — it is hardly surprising to hear that the potential voter in question doesn’t care about what he’s hearing. The activist doesn’t seem to believe that he doesn’t care, but I do. Why should he care about the virtues of her grey-bearded, white-faced saint? All that has nothing to do with him.

At the end of the day, the activist speaks as she does because she’s there for Corbyn’s sake. The potential voter to whom she speaks responds as he does because he’s not there for Corbyn’s sake, but because it is his home and he lives there. His concerns relate to the conditions of his day-to-day existence; hers, to the internal power struggles of the Labour Party. To a member of the Labour Party, it may matter greatly whether the latter has a representative of the self-described Left for a figurehead, but what can that matter to anybody else?

Indeed, this particular non-member expresses frustration with Labour for being full of what he calls "upper class people" who have never "actually lived it" — which, give or take a quibble over the meaning of "upper class" (which in Britain traditionally refers to members of the hereditary aristocracy, such as Tony Benn, rather than to the merely well-connected and well-heeled), is an accurate description of the wealthy, metropolitan, privately-educated career politician that Corbyn empirically is.

The fight to defend Corbyn’s position as Labour leader may be carried out in this man’s name as a presumable member of the working class, but that doesn’t mean he has a dog in it.

7 The beating heart of Corbynism

During the Cold War era, the Communist Parties of North Korea, China, the Soviet Bloc, and elsewhere gained what legitimacy they had as rulers of their respective territories from their claim to represent the workers — but as everyone but the Stalinists now admits, they only ever represented their own interests as the elite of a now-discredited political system.

Corbynism makes the same false claim, but its ambitions are smaller: rather than aiming to govern a state, it aims only to govern a political party. And while it can’t win an election in which the general public participates, it can probably still count on winning multiple internal leadership elections, because the only people who can vote in those are the kinds of people willing to join a party led by Jeremy Corbyn. I have made no pretence of trying to persuade such people in this essay; if a three-line whip in favour of the Tory Brexit bill and the loss of a safe Labour seat to a Tory candidate are insufficient to dislodge St Jeremy from the special place that he holds in their hearts, then nothing I can say will make a difference.

There are enough socialism fans in the UK to vote Corbyn into the Labour Leader’s office, but not enough to vote him into 10 Downing St, and they’re rotten useless at persuading anybody else that voting for Labour candidates might be a good idea, so this — to be perfectly frank — is where we’re stuck (at least until 8 June).

Corbynism is a paranoid and inward-looking politics, obsessively focused on the relationships between and within the groups that make up the self-identified Left. It has little interest in — and still less to offer — the outside world. While Corbyn alienates most members of the public, enamoured socialism fans regurgitate a stock of commonplace platitudes to anyone who will listen, reassuring themselves that the leader of "their" party is a politician wonderfully unlike all others, and that they are right to support him, and that anything that others might suppose to have gone wrong must have been somebody else’s fault (if indeed it was wrong at all). That’s what they’ve been doing ever since he got onto the leadership ballot, and it’s what they’ll still be doing on 9 June, no matter how many talented and hard-working Labour MPs are reconciling themselves to the end of their political careers.

Because that’s just how socialism fans like it. If it wasn’t, they’d shut up and go home.

Daniel Allington teaches and researches in the School of Media, Communication, and Sociology at the University of Leicester.

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