New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
  2. UK Politics
27 September 2017updated 01 Aug 2021 9:42am

No, Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity is not a cult

The Labour leader used to be accused of being unpopular – now he’s being criticised for how popular he’s become.

By Anoosh Chakelian

When Jeremy Corbyn arrived at the Labour conference hall to give his speech, the audience erupted in a chant of “Ohh, Jeremy Corbyn”. It went on for some time.

To the tune of The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, it’s been the anthem of the conference. From sweaty nightclubs to fringe panels to the conference floor, it’s been ringing out from all corners of Brighton for the duration of the party’s annual gathering.

Other apparent signs of hero worship include a fairy-light-framed portrait of the Labour leader with a tinsel halo appearing in the conference hall, Corbyn merchandise (including RUN DMC style t-shirts and propaganda posters), and even an (abandoned) attempt by party officials to have him “walk on water”.

These all add up to what is being dubbed Labour’s “personality cult”. It’s a phrase I’ve been hearing increasingly from Corbynsceptic party members, journalists and Labour MPs – and has been addressed by the man himself (who told Sky News he was “deeply embarrassed by it”). JK Rowling even tweeted that Labour is “turning into a solipsistic personality cult”.

While it’s true that we’re not used to seeing politicians treated like rock stars in this country, the “cult” accusation is wrong.

To be a cult, Corbyn’s support would have to be niche. The general election result showed us that it’s not. Yes, there are hardcore supporters among the membership who won’t hear a word against him, but ultimately the way he approached campaigning and inspired the activist network Momentum to help the party out resulted in winning constituencies where voters would be unlikely to chant Corbyn’s name. His manifesto included something for everyone, and so had a broad appeal. This backs up the ambition voiced in his speech that he wants to be “mainstream”.

Reducing the Corbyn surge to a cult also suggests it’s overwhelmingly sinister. While there are far-left trolls who react aggressively to those who voice opposition to Corbyn (something he indirectly acknowledged in his conference speech, saying, “there can never, ever be any excuse for any abuse of anybody by anybody – we are not tolerating it”), they don’t define the majority of his supporters.

Labour has nearly 600,000 members now, making it the biggest party in western Europe, and a record number of delegates (13,000) turned up to the party’s conference. This should be celebrated, rather than seen as a threat by the Labour leadership’s detractors in the party. The only people who should fear mobilisation of increasingly engaged Labour party members – and the renaissance of Labour as a mass membership party – are the Tories, who have less than a quarter of the number of members.

Lastly, calling Corbynism a cult suggests it’s ridiculous or naïve. This is the kind of sneering attitude – particularly towards young people or erstwhile non-voters – that scuppered the Conservative campaign. The failure to take young people, including millennials, seriously has given the Tories a real electoral headache. They thought young people didn’t vote – but now they do, and Labour has both fuelled and taken advantage of that by giving them a policy offer.

Both the right and left used to criticise Corbyn for being too unpopular for electoral politics – and now they’re criticising him for how popular he’s become. If the only insult they can throw at him is how much people like him, perhaps it’s a sign they should stop mocking him and start taking him seriously.

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy