Frontiers in Psychology: Corbyn and His Critics

©Peter Brooker/REX Shuttershock
It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.
Theodor Adorno

There have recently been a number of voices on the Left claiming that if Labour under Jeremy Corbyn were to lose a snap general election, then its leader ‘will be utterly trounced and the brand of politics he represents discredited for a generation’. This is according to Harrison Jones, blogger at the Huffington Post and self-described ‘lazy activist’, who goes on to suggest that Corbyn will never win power until Jones’s Tory father is satisfied with him; that is, until he divorces himself from the kinds of progressive principles that have been responsible for his successes and mass appeal. Jones condemns the ‘warm bubble of angry tweeting and self-congratulatory-holier-than-thou-we’re-going-to-win-delusion’ of Corbynites, otherwise known as a hopeful and well-earned sense of optimism about the prospects for Corbyn’s victory. Slating the thousands of Scousers who assembled in the rain on August 1st as being ‘holier-than-thou’, rather than simply being keen supporters of a left-wing Labour leadership, is exactly the kind of language which feeds into the hands of Corbyn’s leadership rival, Owen Smith, and his Blairite backers in the PLP and mainstream media.

The reason for Labour’s currently dire polling ratings becomes clear when we recognise that Labour was in fact polling level with and even above the Tories before the attempted coup began after June’s European Union referendum. When the public see a Labour Party in utter disarray — with MPs willing to risk the existence of the party if it means getting rid of Corbyn — it should be of no surprise if Labour’s ratings dramatically plummet. But during the same period, Labour’s membership has surged dramatically and is on track to soon boast one million members (largely because of the botched coup). Harrison Jones, amongst many others, peddles the myth that thousands upon thousands attending pro-Corbyn rallies doesn’t actually signify anything at all. For him, these are not ‘real people’. They are not swing voters or non-Labourites. They are just a political and psephological enigma, some kind of ghostly presence wholly detached from the real world.

Another young writer, Abby Tomlinson of Milifandom fame and self-described ‘feminist, activist, and occasional attempter of political commentary’, recently claimed that pro-Corbyn rallies perpetuate the ‘false narrative’ that Labour are leading in the polls. This is a uniquely peculiar criticism of democratic, peaceful, mass political rallies. It is similar to criticising a large crowd of football fans waving Everton flags for giving off the false impression that they are higher up in the league table than they actually are. If Everton supporters and left-wing Labour voters are not actually on top at any given moment, they therefore have no right to cheer on their team and doing so will lead to damaging consequences, according to Tomlinson’s logic. It’s almost beyond belief that Tomlinson — who has only recently been accepted to Cambridge University and has never been part of a major political campaign for longer than a few months — can call out Corbyn (the soft-spoken peace activist who has never aspired to a position of power) for his ‘ego’, supposedly surrounding himself by loyal fans despite his original shadow cabinet being anything but loyalists.

None of this is to say that political rallies, and the energy behind them, are going to bring about a clear Labour victory at the next election. There is something ultimately apolitical and passive about mass rallies and demonstrations. They are a major image boost for Corbyn and allow like-minds to meet each other, but they also amount to forms of ceaseless, tireless ‘resistance’, ways of being seen to be politically active and effectual without having to engage in any concrete political structures or organisations. Asad Haider recently made a similar criticism of ‘identity politics’ and the era of microaggressions, trigger warnings and constant privilege-checking:

Bewildered by New Times and Skeptical Ages, the Left is far too caught up in petty squabbles, on the one side an ahistorical absorption in spectacular postures of undirected rebellion and identitarian narcissism, and on the other, a stodgy and unattractive orthodoxy. The art of politics is nowhere to be found.

Haider rightly objects in another piece to ‘reducing politics to identity performances, in which positioning oneself as marginal is the recognized procedure of becoming-political’.

Identity-based proclamations of one or another form of radicalism simply ‘passes for politics’, for Haider. Indeed, many straight, white working class and middle class people in Britain feel that thanks to the rise of identitarianism, politics is no longer for them. It is purely for the more visibly oppressed and marginalised. Disengagement follows, first on university campuses and then elsewhere. The UK Left, along with Labour, seem dedicated to rehashing 20th century-style politics via tedious ‘speaking events’ at which anti-capitalist audiences are ironically reduced to passive spectators, and where a small number of celebrity writers promote their books and patronisingly demand that the audience answer certain urgent questions (à la Owen Jones) and express ‘solidarity’ with numerous struggles. These tactics only intensify the sense of detachment and loneliness many voters feel. All too often are we promised constructive discussions and goal-setting and campaign-launching, only to be met with history lessons and narcissistic forms of self-expression/identification which serve only to reinforce the invited speakers’ sense of radicalism.

This is not to say that such motives can be ascribed freely across the Left. After Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, liberal commentators such as Jonathan Freedland were quick to brush aside Corbynism as simply a novel psychological contagion, with Corbyn being the blank canvas upon which disenchanted voters could impose their political aspirations. The sheer diversity of Corbyn supporters speaks directly against this patronising fallacy. To widen this already increasing support, Labour needs to spread the message — through social media, video ads, local leafletting and so forth — that it is dedicated to providing free, world-class healthcare and education, implementing a living wage of at least £10 per hour, and also pushing forward policies related to climate change (without which there won’t even be a hospitable Britain for Labour leadership elections to take place at all).

Labour needs to move away from the Left’s ‘stodgy and unattractive orthodoxy’. It urgently needs to appeal to non-Labourites and older voters, many of whom are Tory sympathisers. To do this, Labour should at least match the Tory’s commitments on pensioner benefits, convince older voters of the benefits of a purely publically funded NHS, and detail how Labour will devote itself to protecting the services these voters regularly rely on. Support for the self-employed and younger entrepreneurs will also likely persuade some Conservative voters to consider Corbyn’s leadership as a viable political force to achieve their career ambitions. Importantly, Corbyn needs to keep hammering home the message that, under his leadership, Labour will be a genuinely accountable organisation, working directly for its members — an essential message in a time when suspicion of the political classes is extremely high.

Touching on these concerns, Owen Jones’s recent blog on this site put forward a number of questions that Corbyn supporters need to answer if they are to become a more effective opposition. Unfortunately, Jones’s timing was appalling, his arguments about Corbyn’s weaknesses feeding directly into Owen Smith’s camp and the media’s broader narrative of the decline of Labour under Corbyn. Jones seemed to place most of the blame for Labour’s current crisis on Corbynites and the Labour leadership rather than on the 172 rebelling MPs who passed a vote of no confidence in their leader and the coup plotters who have been undermining Corbyn since his election. Jones complained that it cannot be true that he has succumbed to ‘Guardianitis’ (‘a liberal disdain for the radical left’) simply because he is ‘free to say exactly what I want; and I’m not staff — I barely even go in to The Guardian. I spend far more of my life at left-wing rallies and with left-wing activists’.

Jones appears fairly blind to the processes of ideological assimilation, as if he physically needs to shake hands with Jonathan Freedland on a daily basis in order for his views to shift. He also omits the crucial fact that he spends his time at left-wing rallies speaking to, and not with, activists. More worryingly, only a few days after Jones’s blog Owen Smith echoed its conclusion by saying that Labour could ‘bust apart and disappear’, with Jones’s words playing into the wrong hands at the wrong time. Moreover, Jones’s blog rarely sticks to the issues and its first half is almost entirely filled with sentences like ‘I cannot even begin to put into words how much I’ve agonised over Labour’s terrible plight’ and ‘I know how the Establishment treat their opponents: I literally wrote the book on it’.

But while modesty may be lacking, the more fundamental problem is Jones’s central argument that if Corbyn loses the election, or if he fails to mount a serious opposition, then the Left will likely be destroyed for a generation. It’s well known that tens of thousands of registered supporter votes have been removed by Labour, and so if Corbyn does in fact lose public anger will be directed not at ‘the Left’ but rather at Labour’s reactionary institutional structures.

Corbyn’s recent ‘10 Pledges’ to rebuild Britain have been met with open arms by much of the progressive sectors of the press and social media, and there’s no reason to believe that the goals set down by these pledges (free education, security at work, secure housing, environmental protections, economic democracy) would somehow disappear if Corbyn were to be unseated and the Labour Party were to split. Jones also claims that it is difficult to distinguish between Corbyn’s policies and Ed Miliband’s — a fairly astonishing claim given Miliband’s ambivalence towards austerity, his market ideology, and Corbyn’s long opposition to an aggressive UK foreign policy in contrast to Miliband’s ‘pragmatic’ opposition to the bombing of Syria in 2013.

Chelley Ryan, writing in the Morning Star about Jones’s blog, points out that:

[D]espite the best efforts of Corbyn’s detractors, I’ve noticed him growing in confidence and stature over his short tenure as leader, and I am a bit surprised that Jones hasn’t noticed, or if he has, he hasn’t remarked upon it.

Jones seems oddly fixed on the idea of replacing Corbyn before 2020, proffering a few names such as Clive Lewis (a firm NATO supporter) despite not having asked Lewis about his willingness to go along with this grand plan. As Manuel Cortes put it in a scintillating response to Jones discussing last year’s leadership election, ‘[b]arely had the votes been counted to give Jeremy his unprecedented mandate than Owen was embarking on his “it’s all going wrong” shtick to anyone who would listen’.

But aside from the slight melodrama and faux modesty, Jones nevertheless makes a number of very urgent and important points. One of these reflects an undercurrent in much of Jones’s writings since Chavs: He often points out that the mass of the population simply aren’t engaged politically and express themselves in countless other ways than to brand themselves ‘socialists’ or ‘Corbynites’:

There are, as I say, 65 million people in Britain. Most people do not spend their times discussing politics (or seeking out political content) on social media.

Labour’s communication strategy is going to be crucial here, especially given that so much of the electorate continues to rely on tabloids for news. Its growing membership will also, naturally, be crucial. A Labour Party with a million members will be able to modify the current ‘stodgy and unattractive orthodoxy’ of Constituency Labour Party meetings — and indeed of some Momentum meetings run by an old guard of far leftists completely out of touch with the concerns and personalities of the contemporary multi-ethnic working class — and transform the party into a mass movement with direct influence on the institutions of local government; that is, it will have a level of influence that horizontalist, extra-parliamentary activist groups never have. Building a mass, left-wing movement around disparate but interlinking issues (climate change, gender and race, humanitarian foreign policy) will allow Labour to attract a uniquely broad range of voters, potentially staving off the clique-like mentality of some smaller progressive groups, which often lead to the forms of isolation the novelist John Cowper Powys (who Philip Larkin called a ‘gigantic mythopoetic literary volcano’) spoke of in his 1934 autobiography:

How often in my life there have come such moments when I have turned away in sullen apathy from the tribal activity into which I have been flung! I can recall the feelings so well with which at such times I have hunted round in my recalcitrant mind for a fellow-Ishmael, or Ishmaeless, and found none. I can remember once ever so much later — when we lived at Montacute — feeling aggrieved with every member of our large family — and walking along up the lane, beyond Mr. Marsh’s farm, in the direction of Thorn Cross, searching for this unknown fellow outcast.

Developing Labour into a mass movement will send a powerful message to those, like Tristram Hunt, who believe that the party should be run by the 1%, reflecting the interests of his Oxbridge colleagues, whose mindsets Aldous Huxley captured well in his first novel, Crome Yellow:

Systematically, from earliest infancy, its members will be assured that there is no happiness to be found except in work and obedience; they will be made to believe that they are happy, that they are tremendously important beings, and that everything they do is noble and significant.

A mass membership driven to support Labour by a sympathy for Corbyn’s left-wing pledges will act as a direct counter to what Paul Mason calls ‘[t]he essential assumption of all centrist politics … that the victims of rising inequality are too stupid, too inarticulate, their kids too dazzled by celebrity news, their communities too atomised for them to ever effectively fight back’. This will also stir elements of what Mason calls the ‘suburban middle classes’, who vote Tory or Lib Dem unless they feel their assets and interests are threatened. A peaceful, democratically accountable and lively Labour membership (that is, one saturated by the right level and intensity of identitarian issues such as gender and race equality) in conjunction with Corbyn’s clear, progressive pledges should send the message to these suburbanites that Labour does not pose a threat to them. Instead, it will work to bolster the public services they care about and socially progressive causes they sympathise with.

Relatedly, there are a number of subtly deep-seated psychological motivations behind leftists refusing to engage with Labour politics — motivations Corbyn and his communications team will have to address. Many reasonably adhere to a general principle often articulated by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges, that political and organisational hierarchies should be regarded with suspicion, and should be undermined and dismantled if they are found to be morally illegitimate and harmful. Returning to Powys, this idea was given a unique articulation in his 1951 novel Porius. After a young child asks ‘What turns a god into a devil, Master?’, his mentor, the wizard Merlin, replies:

Power, my son. Nobody in the world, nobody beyond the world, can be trusted with power, unless perhaps it be our mother the earth; but I doubt whether even she can. The Golden Age can never come again till governments and rulers and kings and emperors and priests and druids and gods and devils learn to unmake themselves as I did, and leave men and women to themselves.

In his essay ‘The Individual, the State, and the Corporation’ published in The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky, James Wilson claims that ‘State authority is justified when it prevents autocratic authority that is not responsible to the populace and subsequently overwhelms the populace’s autonomy and capacity to freely and fully associate with one another’. We should

continually evaluate a government and other forms of institutional authority by asking such empirical questions as: how decently does the institution treat each individual member (including those ‘aliens’ unofficially affiliated but nevertheless profoundly affected by that society)? How are wealth and power distributed? How much choice do all people have in pursuing their chosen goals? How monotonous is their work? Which of those individuals subject to the institution have meaningful, adequate rights that protect them from violence and from private and/or state tyranny?

These and other anarchist and far left libertarian notions are hard to disagree with. But in reality — and from my own experience working within leftist student groups, anti-G8 and Palestinian solidarity organisations — these appealing and highly tempting philosophical maxims can also lead to a peculiar form of passivity; better not get your hands dirty with party politics and CLP meetings lest one be tainted by the poison of ‘mainstream’ political life.

Somewhat fittingly, it is only through making our presence and opinions known within the Labour Party that the rebelling MPs and coup plotters will be deselected and replaced with representatives who reflect the opinion of the mass of the party. Succinctly, it is only by recognising and operating within illegitimate hierarchies that other illegitimate and destructive political forces can be combated. This process will be tedious, at times boring, and will require dedication, a sacrifice of time and energy, and above all patience. But it is also the most effective route available to us. Matthew Arnold’s brother, Thomas, demonstrated a great level of penetration into the issue of engaging with political structures otherwise adverse to one’s sensibilities, exploring in a letter what John Goode called, commenting on his writings, ‘the ineradicable hostility which the progressive mind must feel towards society’:

Take but one step in submission, and all the rest is easy … satisfy yourself that you may honestly defend an unrighteous cause, and then you may go to the Bar, and become distinguished, and perhaps in the end sway the counsels of the State … All this is open to you; while if you refuse to tamper in a single point with the integrity of your conscience, isolation awaits you, and unhappy love, and the contempt of men; and amidst the general bustle of movement of the world you will be stricken with a kind of impotence, and your arm will seem to be paralysed, and there will be moments when you will almost doubt whether truth indeed exists, or, at least, whether it is fitted for man. Yet in your loneliness you will be visited by consolations which the world knows not of; and you will feel that, if renunciation has separated you from the men of your own generation, it has united you to the great company of just men throughout all past time; nay, that even now, there is a little band of Renunciants scattered over the world, of whom you are one, whose you are, and who are yours for ever.
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