The absolute boy and the melts: how Corbynism created a new political language

Inside the new left-wing world of Seven Nation Army chants, slugs, and centrist dads.

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Clutching their phones and cans of Red Stripe, 600 people wait for Jeremy Corbyn. It’s the opening night of the Labour party conference in Brighton, and this group has gathered close to the official conference centre, in a gig venue called Synergy. Some queued for two and a half hours to get in.

At 8pm, the activist Shelly Asquith – the youth and student co-ordinator for Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign – introduces the speaker the crowd has been waiting for: “The next prime minister of this country… the absolute boy, Jeremy Corbyn!”

Dry ice fills the room, and the instantly recognisable “DUM-dum-dum-dum-dum-DUM-DUM” bass line of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes thumps out. The crowd chants, “Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn!” and the absolute boy appears through the smoke. The scene provides an introduction not only to Corbyn’s rock-star status among Labour’s left, but also to the new language that is being used by his supporters.

“The absolute boy” is an approving nickname for Corbyn. No one has pinned down its exact origin, but it echoes the colloquial American term “homeboy” for a supportive friend. “I introduced him as that as it has come to be a popular, affectionate name,” Asquith tells me, when I message her to ask.

One of its earliest social media uses was on 29 March this year, in a Facebook post by Corbyn’s former spokesperson Matt Zarb-Cousin, accompanying a photo of him and the boss: “Jeremy turned up to my leaving drinks because he’s an absolute boy.”

Since then, the phrase has found its way on to official campaign literature (“This absolute boy supports a post bank – so should you!” says a recent communications union leaflet), the US writer Lena Dunham’s Instagram feed and even BBC 2’s Newsnight. On 12 June, Abi Wilkinson told the programme: “He has got a fan club. There are young people on social media – it’s like ‘Jeremy Corbyn, the absolute boy’.”

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Other terms you can expect to hear from those who call Corbyn “the absolute boy” are less affectionate. “Melt” is reserved for Labour moderates or Corbynsceptic commentators. “Slug” is reserved for political enemies. You can also “salt” a slug, or – echoing football and video game chat – “see off” or “body” these opponents by destroying them in debate.

“I’m not the originator,” says Matt Zarb-Cousin, to whom a lot of this slang is attributed. “There is a cohort of Twitter users, described as ‘left Twitter’, who have their own kind of lexicon.” Some of this slang originated on activists’ WhatsApp groups, jokey Twitter conversations among Momentum figures and left-wing writers and the podcast Reel Politik, whose five young presenters delight in hurling insults at their opponents (often journalists who are not deemed to be left-wing enough).

Reel Politik styles itself as a British version of the American podcast Chapo Trap House, one of the pioneers of the Bernie Sanders-supporting “dirtbag left”. The idea is to use deliberately caustic, hyperbolic and even offensive language to mock what the left sees as the Milquetoast politeness of the centre left. The Reel Politik podcast describes the former Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith as “a banter-loving sub-mediocre former Viagra salesman from the Blairite hack-spad-MP conveyor belt” – in contrast to the “genuinely significant and inspiring politician Jeremy Corbyn”.

The hosts of Reel Politik undoubtedly see causing offence as part of their mission, but that’s not the case across the new left. “People respond as if [the slang words] were intended to be used as mass-deployed terms, that they’re terms of abuse and insult,” says Aaron Bastani, the founder of the alternative left-wing news platform Novara Media, who is well-versed in the language of Corbynism. “Maybe that’s a generational thing… I’m not trying to be a twat when I say these things. It’s more of a joke.”

Bastani says that people under 40 are more likely to understand that “in-jokey language can diffuse very quickly. There’s a quick turnover time in terms of new political and social lexicons.”

Adopters also say that they’re responding mischievously to establishment figures who mocked and insulted them as Corbyn rose to power. They were labelled “Trots” and “entryists”; Owen Smith called Corbyn a “lunatic”; the Blairite commentator John McTernan described MPs who nominated Corbyn as “moronic”; and the Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh tweeted that those in the Corbyn movement “are just thick as pigshit”. (He later apologised and deleted the tweet.)

Ash Sarkar, a senior editor at Novara, contrasts these established terms of abuse – which “have got more of a socially agreed malicious weight” – with the new left vocabulary. “Words like ‘melt’ and ‘slug’ were kind of crafted as a bit of innocuous fun,” she says. “We’ve been called much worse,” adds Zarb-Cousin. “So it’s just trying to make light of it.”

The rise of Corbyn slang should be considered as part of a wider world of memes – Richard Dawkins’s term for the cultural version of genes, which reproduce and spread through communities. Other examples include the hashtag #CansforCorbyn, with which supporters posted photos of themselves cracking open a beer following Labour’s general election gains. Grime4­Corbyn is a campaign group that grew from musicians such as Stormzy who supported the party.

Then there is the now ubiquitous “Seven Nation Army” chant. It was heard throughout this summer’s Glastonbury Festival, which Corbyn addressed, and repeatedly from the Labour conference hall in Brighton, including as the leader stood up to give his main speech. Tom Watson, the deputy leader who last year aspired to oust Corbyn, sang it during his own speech.

The pop song’s distinctive bass riff has been chanted from football stands for years – the NME called it a “football anthem” in 2012. Football culture, with its nicknames, chants and fierce tribalism, has strong parallels with the new Corbyn cultural movement. Zarb-Cousin says that the Corbyn colloquialisms are very similar to language used on “football Twitter”. “I think the cultural aspect of Corbynism is often missed; that is integral to his support, particularly among young people,” he adds.

In-jokes and neologisms also bring a sense of belonging. “This stuff obviously [comes from] the in-crowd,” says the slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, the author of Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue. “Slang has always had this double role: one to push away the outsiders, one to big up the insiders and make them identifiable to each other.” Zarb-Cousin, Bastani and Sarkar have become online personalities, as well as more mainstream writers on the left, such as Abi Wilkinson, Ellie Mae O’Hagan and Owen Jones.

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To have an in-group, you need outsiders to define yourself against. In recent weeks, the Corbyn crowd has given a new name to their sworn enemy: the “centrist dad”. These are middle-aged men who oppose Brexit (and therefore regard Corbyn’s position as insufficiently pro-European) and insist that their values represent common sense, in contrast to what they see as the naive radicalism of the young left.

“As a young woman who’s relatively prominent online, it’s always men in their forties who patronisingly explain everything about politics to you,” says the Guardian columnist Dawn Foster, who has used the term “centrist dad”. “It comes from a position where they have ‘sensible, grown-up’ politics and everybody else is wrong.”

This insult evokes a generational divide as well as a political one. BuzzFeed’s UK news editor, Alan White, 36, who has two young children, has been chatting to fellow “centrist dads” (“We have a label! We’re a movement!” he says) about the term.

“My peers and I grew up in an era where, for a while, the most exciting political developments were the revelations about John Major’s underpants,” he tells me over email. “Nuance was pretty much all you had to care about. Now it’s Trump and Brexit and Nazis, and Labour actually being left-wing.”

Many “centrist dads” are Labour voters, and White identifies a “frustration at loss of power to a politics they’d felt was dead but which was new and exciting to the next generation”.

They are, however, not the only ones who feel alienated by the new language of Corbynism. In July, Sirena Bergman – who voted for Corbyn in both leadership elections – wrote in the Independent that “absolute boy” is “steeped in a deeply ingrained patriarchal mentality of female objectification and sexism”.

Of the phrase, Mark Forsyth, the author of The Etymologicon, says: “I can imagine it being in the changing rooms of a rugby club – ‘Oh, he’s the absolute boy, drink ten pints’… It sounds aggressively macho public school.”

Yet all the women I speak to who use the term “absolute boy” reject accusations of sexism. “This idea of laddiness I think is missing the point,” Ash Sarkar tells me. “It’s dissonant, right? No one looks at Corbyn and sees ‘ultimate badman’. They see a very kind, very earnest vegetarian who makes jam. The point is that it’s playing with the disconnect between the weighty expectation of this political moment and the personality that’s leading it.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s office is aware of the slang that his popularity has inspired. But it may take a while for the incongruity of his supporters calling him a “boy” to reach the 68-year-old Labour leader. After all, as he told the Islington Tribune, when he heard the “Seven Nation Army” chant from onstage for the first time, he thought the crowd was booing. 

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer