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'Corbyn-mania': cult of personality or political movement?

Why have thousands of people seemingly have vested their political hopes in a single figurehead?

Heather Blakey
3 August 2016
 Rick Findler / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Corbyn speaks to the crowd at a rally. Photo: Rick Findler / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.There are two narratives about the current turmoil surrounding the Labour Party leadership. While it would be beyond naïve to rule out the possibility that there is some intentional misrepresentation going on, it is nonetheless important to recognise that some actors at least are genuinely at cross purposes in how they understand the terrain. This matters because this debate touches upon underlying questions about democracy, sovereignty and citizenship, which we ignore at our peril.

The first narrative is that Corbyn is at war with the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). It goes like this: Corbyn has lost the faith of 172 out of 230 sitting Labour MPs, who represent a much wider constituency of Labour supporters and voters than just Labour members. For them, it is clear that Corbyn cannot lead the PLP, and the party needs a leader who can. They believe a core problem is that Corbyn’s support within the party is shored up by the entryist hard left (organised through Momentum) who employ bullying and intimidating tactics to shout down any opposition. In this account, there is a disturbing cult of personality around Corbyn, whose supporters will not admit to any faults in their leader, and who would rather see the Labour Party fail than be led by anyone else. Their goal is seen to be control of the Labour Party, not electoral success. The PLP believes that Corbyn only speaks to activists and hardline party members, while they want to win the support of ‘ordinary people’ who need a Labour government to win at the next election, whenever it comes.

The second narrative goes like this. The Parliamentary Labour Party is at war with the members, who support Corbyn because he is a different kind of politician: principled, honest and decent, and he stands for genuinely left-wing progressive politics, something which has not been on offer in a very long time. In this account, the PLP never wanted Corbyn to succeed, and did everything they could to stop him winning in the first place. They are understood to represent the political establishment, careerist politicians who cannot tolerate a challenge to the cosy Westminster set-up which guarantees them a ‘job for life’, and who want to protect the political status quo. This is a narrative in which the PLP ‘rebels’ would rather see the Labour Party lose the next election than win under Corbyn. Seen from this perspective, the PLP care much more about subduing the left within the party than party democracy. They have done everything possible to shut Corbyn out of the leadership contest, because they know they can’t win against him in a straight race. Corbyn’s supporters believe they are more in touch with ‘ordinary people’ than the PLP are: they understand why people feel that politicians are ‘all the same’ and they want the Labour Party to offer a real political alternative, to be the voice of the people once more.

Of course, both of these narratives are caricatures, and proponents of each ‘side’ would offer more nuanced positions and concrete evidence in defence of their views. However, my concern here is not to evaluate these positions, but to take a step back and ask why both narratives about Corbyn, despite the fact that both profess a belief in democracy, have such a focus on one individual. In the first narrative (versions of which are prevalent in the mainstream media), the movement is almost erased; the focus is reduced to Corbyn. It is implicitly understood, insofar as the movement is even seen or considered, that removing Corbyn would neutralise the movement. In the second narrative, the movement is much more to the fore. Indeed, it is a prominent narrative espoused by the movement. However, via the so-called phenomenon of ‘Corbyn-mania’, the public focus remains on the individual – the expression of the movement is primarily to defend Corbyn from attack, and to keep him in place.

So, both in how it is represented and to an extent in practice, a collective enterprise of the Left becomes individualised, its hopes and failures seemingly vested in one man. This distillation of a fluid, heterogeneous social movement to a ‘cult of personality’ makes Corbyn and his supporters particularly vulnerable to critique. Thus, Marina Hyde, writing in the Guardian opinion section, mocks the hashtag: #whatyoudotojeremyyoudotome. I would like to turn this critique around, and ask why a movement which believes in increased participation, member-led democracy and collective action has come to develop this very individualised focus. To do this, we need to take a step back and think about the wider dynamics of our political system. James Madison, writing in defence of the new US constitution in 1788 (Federalist 63), explained that a key virtue of the new representative system, its superiority over direct democracy, lay in "in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity". This is to say that the deliberate aim of a representative system of government is to ensure that individual voices replace the collective voice of the people. And more than 200 years later, this is indeed what happens.

the deliberate aim of a representative system of government is to ensure that individual voices replace the collective voice of the people. 

It is a truism that Parliament, rather than the people, is sovereign in the British system. What this means is that representative democracy was grafted onto a system which remains remarkably monarchic in character, a ‘winner takes all’ system in which the winning party gains the full resources of the state with relatively little in the way of checks and balances on their exercise of power. This is a degree of power unparalleled in other modern democracies, encompassing the (unique) power to make and unmake constitutional laws with relative ease. By contrast,  democracies that had modern revolutionary moments - such as France and the USA - have binding constitutional agreements, which whilst not immutable, act as a ballast on the whims of the legislature. To illustrate, the ‘balance of powers’ as originally conceived in the UK referred to the balance between the monarchy, aristocracy and Parliament, not the judiciary, executive and legislature, as elsewhere. Add to this the fact that, under the 'first past the post' voting system, a majority of citizens (even among those who actually voted) need not vote for for or support the party which then gains such untrammelled power, and it is clear that the role of citizens in even mandating political decisions is severely limited.

Therefore, given the primacy of the party holding power, the internal democracy of political parties is a vital conduit for the active voices of individual citizens to be heard within the collective political process. This brings us to the internal row or ‘civil war’ within the current Labour Party – with Corbyn and the members on one side, and the majority of the elected representatives on the other. It is well-documented that the Labour Party has become markedly less democratic in recent decades, a process which culminated in Blair’s managerialism. For example, processes such as policy formation are in practice opaque, with new members struggling to understand how to contribute. The bulk of the work is done by national level bodies, centred on the National Policy Forum. Members can submit ideas to the forum, but it is up to the forum as to whether they take these up and develop them. The resulting policy report and associated manifesto are formally passed by members’ delegates at conference, but it's well documented that there is a high level of frustration within the membership that conference has become an increasingly stage-managed affair. The emphasis, at least since the 1980s, is on presenting a united front rather than democratic debate over policy. Taken together, this allows for a high degree of leadership control over the direction of the party. The tenuous position of members within the current decision-making structure can also be witnessed in the current leadership election arrangements, both in the battle over whether Corbyn, the person who it is believed the majority of members want to vote for, would be on the ballot paper, and in the recent changes to the eligibility rules for voting. Despite higher membership support for Corbyn than either Smith or Eagle, members could attempt to persuade the NEC, but they had no sovereign power over the decision. In other words, the political system as it stands does not, in practice, empower the members of the movement around Corbyn as active political agents in their own right. Arguably, Corbyn-mania is an expression of the political agency of the citizen in this system, not an abdication of it.

Arguably, Corbyn-mania is an expression of the political agency of the citizen in this system, not an abdication of it.

It is no accident that one of Corbyn’s central platforms is precisely the democratisation of Labour Party internal procedures. For example, many of his leadership campaign policy statements were collectively produced and his speech as leader to the September 2015 Labour Conference included a ‘firm commitment’ that members would have a real and final say on policy (indeed, one of his earliest moves as leader was to launch a Policy Making Review). Support for Corbyn does not just equate to support for a left policy agenda, but support for a more democratic voice for party members – a voice that they currently do not have. Corbyn represents a route to change that they cannot effect without a representative who holds power within the existing structures of the Labour party.

In this situation, the people in the movement have no choice but to fix their hopes, dreams and political agency on a figurehead. If you cannot carry your own voice within the party or the political system, you need someone to carry it for you. And when that figurehead is attacked, is it surprising that the movement rallies to support the figure that they have chosen to carry their voice into the arena from which they are excluded? Is it surprising that when the figurehead is attacked, the people in the movement themselves also feel personally attacked? For this reason: #whatyoudotojeremyyoudotome.

If you cannot carry your own voice within the party or the political system, you need someone to carry it for you. 

Moreover, this lack of agency and representation within the mainstream of the Labour Party is particularly acute for the left of the party, if for no other reason than 'first past the post' concentrates attention on a very small number of centre-ground ‘swing voters’ (under Proportional Representation, there is at least the scope for parliamentary representation of a wider spectrum of views, though that in itself would not itself address the wider question of citizen sovereignty). This is clearly a factor in the PLP’s opposition to Corbyn. As a result – and this perhaps brings us to the crux of ‘Corbynmania’ – it is now Corbyn or no-one for the democratic left of the party. Given that any new challenger requires the nominations of 20% of the PLP and Labour MEPs combined, it is simply not realistic for the movement to try and get a different candidate espousing the same grassroots left agenda into a position of power within the party (which, as I have argued, would be necessary if the movement was to be effective without Corbyn).

This context goes some way towards explaining how this most unlikely leader has become the focus of so much personalised and emotionally charged attention in today’s Labour movement. Corbyn is neither a demagogue, nor a charismatic ‘media-star’ in the style of Pablo Iglesias. Indeed, this is part of his appeal. However, in May 2015, out of 1,180 Labour Party members asked who they would like to see take over from Ed Miliband, just two said Jeremy Corbyn. But in gaining a place on the 2015 leadership ballot, he became a wedge in the door of mainstream politics, for people who wanted mainstream politics to change.

Compare this, for a moment, with the Green Party. This is a party who, in Caroline Lucas, has arguably one of the most appealing and charismatic leadership figures in modern politics. While Lucas is clearly held in deep affection by the members of her party, she is not the subject of ‘Lucas-mania’. Why? Arguably, because the Green Party is structured to ensure that sovereignty is held with the members, in both their individual and collective capacities. Any member can propose policy motions. All members can vote on the prioritisation of those motions, to determine what is discussed by conference. All members of the Green Party can attend conference as voting participants. Conference can amend motions, rather than being required to pass them ‘in toto’. Any member can stand for any position (subject to a number of nominations from fellow members, and minimal membership requirements). This is not to say that party democracy always works smoothly or perfectly (in fact, internal governance is currently under review), but in the Green Party, you can carry your own voice; you are not forced to delegate it to a figurehead.

Of course, the Green Party is a party on a different scale from Labour. For Labour, there would be practical concerns with developing a system which could facilitate the voices of (since the EU referendum) over half a million members. Moreover, where the Green Party can more easily develop quite radical models of democracy and leadership, by virtue of their marginal position with regard to mainstream politics, Labour is under much greater pressure to conform to the models of democracy and leadership expected by the political establishment. While Corbyn describes leadership as about listening, facilitating other voices, ensuring democracy (far from encouraging a ‘cult of personality’, he has said of his election that ‘this wasn’t anything to do with me’), many mainstream voices in the political establishment, including the media and the PLP, articulate a vision of leadership which focuses on strength and control. A movement which arguably wants a much more decentralised vision of leadership is operating in a context which only recognises a ‘strong man’ model. So where does this leave us? Whether we are for Corbyn or not, it is vital that we look beyond the figurehead, at the reasons that such a figurehead exists, the reasons that so many ‘politically active’ people choose, in a sense, to invest their political agency in someone else. 

The evidence of political alienation is all around us, and the right is making hay with it. If we on the left do not take this opportunity to ask ourselves what our role in creating that alienation is, not to mention asking what our response should be, then there is a danger that we concede the ground to a very different kind of populist politics indeed.

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