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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.

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.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”