No one has yet been able to tell the full story of why Jeremy Corbyn rose from rank outsider to winning the Labour Party leadership.
Some people have suggested reasons for Corbyn’s popularity. He was confident and stood for something, unlike the three other Labour leader hopefuls. His call for a bottom-up policy process appealed to people alienated from the Party. He tapped into a latent, deep discontent with austerity.
Each of these narratives is important. But none of these captures why 50,000 people allegedly joined the Labour Party since the election, and another 50,000 people became eligible to vote in the leadership race because of union membership or signing up as supporters.
What is needed is a careful review of the profile of these new members, and an analysis of patterns in how they joined the Party.
While we await that comprehensive empirical study, here’s another possible explanation for why Corbyn won. He won because he offered the politics of love, which appealed in light of the state of British society today.
What is the politics of love? I’ve written about the idea recently with Philip McKibbin. The politics of love works in a world where politics is grounded in values. The politics of love makes love the foremost value of politics, and suggests that politics – and politicians – should be motivated by love. It takes love to be a deep warmth directed outwards towards another person or object. And it emphasises the importance of active, wholehearted relationships in politics.
The politics of love draws on earlier references to love in politics made by Jimmy Carter, Vaclav Havel, bell hooks, and Martha Nussbaum. If applied, the politics of love might shift policy in a more humane direction, alter the language of politics, and transform the relationship between citizens and politicians.
The politics of love helps to explain Corbyn’s victory – in at least three ways.
First, Corbyn called clearly for more kindness in politics, with less negativity, less name-calling, less ruthless and unnecessary personal criticism. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has summed this up, saying that Corbyn’s “new politics” is a “kinder form of politics where you respect the other person’s views”. Kindness is closely associated with love: both are personal virtues, grounded in altruism and goodness, that are rarely invoked in politics.
Secondly, Corbyn sketched policies that expressed a sense of love to constituents. In his victory speech, he said that one of the first things he did upon being elected was to speak at a mental health open day, to show that “there are many people who suffer in silence from mental health conditions, suffer the abuse that often goes with those conditions, and the rest of society passes by on the other side”. We need to convey to these people, Corbyn said, that we are “prepared to spend the time and the resources and end the stigma surrounding mental illness”. In addressing mental health, in wanting to unlock creativity in people through the arts, in tackling austerity, the Corbyn campaign articulated a sense of love for citizens – and this show of love in a deeply lonely society may be part of Corbyn’s appeal.
Thirdly, Corbyn rode a wave of love that has surged through popular movements, before and after his campaign to be Labour Party leader. The move for marriage equality in the United States, secured in June 2015 with the US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell, was met with a swelling of references to the hashtag #lovewins on social media. The surprising surge of public support for refugees in the United Kingdom in recent weeks has also seen mentions of love: at one Oxford rally for refugees that I attended, “love not hate” was written on several placards waved in the crowd. Corbyn’s popularity can be explained, at least in part, by the ethos of compassion and warmth that underpinned these other movements.
If it really is the politics of love that captures part of why Corbyn did so well – and it will only be part of the story – then questions remain for this vision of politics.
How does the politics of love operate in a world of policy trade-offs? Is the politics of love even possible when modern British politics is cutthroat, petty, and antagonistic? Should the language of “love” be used, when there might be less airy alternatives, like compassion or dignity?
These are questions that will be answered in the coming weeks or months. For now, we might have a tentative, partial answer to the question of why Corbyn won the Labour leadership race. Rather than the win being a result of Labour’s supporter system, or Labour’s supporters being deluded, it could have been something deeper, something more fundamental: perhaps it was a result of love.