Corbyn and the new political Puritans

Last night, the local branch of my CLP gave overwhelming support to a motion in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Compared to some accounts of recent CLP meetings, the discussion of the motion avoided the degree of hostility that has occurred elsewhere, but the manner of the support given to it clearly demonstrated the current plight of the Party.

For his supporters, Corbyn is the symbol and architect of the true socialist party for which they have yearned for so long. Years of alienation from mainstream party politics, and resenting the sharp edge of right-wing media, poured out in the fervent applause for declarations of loyalty to their leader.

Their support for him was also impervious to any critical reflection. The current conflict of the Party was presented as a simple Right/Left split. ‘Is he ‘Corbynite or Blairite?’, asked a confused member at one point, unable to place another speaker in the simple binaries of this narrative. Criticisms of Corbyn’s failure to work constructively with the PLP, to appoint a strong team around him or project a clear message to the country were met with dismissive groans. A speaker who had joined the party in 1951 and campaigned for it for decades since was initially heard with respectful silence until it became clear that his point was that Corybn was not electable, at which point others simply began to talk over him.

‘I’m fed up with a Party that’s just concerned with winning’, said one person. ‘Maybe Corbyn didn’t have a great Brexit campaign,’ said another, ‘but you have to say he’s got resilience.’ The point about his honourable struggle against a hostile right-wing Party and media was repeatedly made regardless of the fact that unhappiness against him stretches deep into the Soft Left and that Corbyn is now facing sustained criticism from the Daily Mirror. When I argued that it seemed unreasonable to accuse someone like Seema Malhotra of treachery when she had worked so hard to support John McDonnell and commissioned research that was instrumental in defeating proposed Conservative tax credit cuts, I was met with stony silence. Appeals made by me and some others to attempt to find some common ground were met with resounding indifference.

I am, in my day job, a sociologist of religion. I have never experienced an atmosphere like that Party meeting anywhere before outside of conservative religious groups who are deeply convinced of the truth of their way of seeing the world. The fact of the growing Party membership was, as in any committed Evangelical group, taken as confirmation of the moral rectitude of the movement, with no interest shown in whether connections with the wider electorate were being made.

Whilst there are individual supporters of Corbyn who remain courteous and thoughtful, the movement forming around him is, at its heart, a form of political puritanism, for which Corbyn is a model puritan leader. It is a movement of moral certainty, largely devoid of policy, fuelled by symbolic struggles against evil, treachery and compromise.

If we recognise this, the current leadership contest increasingly looks like another dead end. One of the characteristics of a puritan movement is that its sense of moral mission trumps all. Corbynist puritans will not allow their sense of purpose to be thwarted by a leadership election defeat – even if that were to happen. They will continue to organise, try to take over the running of CLPs, de-select ‘disloyal’ MPs where they can, and carry forward the fight which is never ultimately about forming a government but overcoming their opponents. Trying to fight with puritans is ultimately self-defeating as it merely re-energises their sense of being engaged in a grand moral drama, struggling against forces of darkness within and beyond their movement.

Whilst Neil Kinnock’s battle against the Militant Tendency in the 1980s should be remembered with great respect, his recent compelling call to the PLP to fight for control of the Party is arguably a mis-recognition of where we are now. His victory in the 1980s was made possible by the support of unions and a majority of the Party membership. Neither of those conditions hold true now. If the majority of the PLP and their supporters attempt to fight the Corbyn puritans for the Party, a protracted struggle will ensue in which our energy will be diverted from articulating a clear social democratic response to our current national crisis.

It is not defeatism but common sense now to initiate a clear split within the Party, even if this might mean letting go of the ‘Labour’ name. This is not a re-run of the 1980s, for what we are seeing is now not the equivalent of a split between an SDP and a gradually reforming Labour Party, but a split between the SDP and the Militant Tendency. We should not fear a significant division on the Left, because the Corbynist movement will, in time, turn in on itself as it finds new ‘traitors’ to blame for the electoral failures that will inevitably face them. There is a deep current in English cultural life that is antipathetic to puritan movements, with good historical reasons. We should trust those deep pragmatic sentiments in our national life, believe that a Corbynist movement left to itself will be banished to electoral obscurity, and take on the deeper challenge of ensuring that the one nation aspirations that Theresa May sought to lay claim to yesterday are genuinely realised as we enter this crucial period of national reconstruction.

Gordon Lynch

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