Nick Cohen

Labour’s far left is a personality cult without the personality

Labour's far left is a personality cult without the personality
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The Labour left that has dominated radical culture since 2015 appears to have had a stroke. Its candidates for the Labour leadership seem paralysed. The ‘journalists’ who have sold their souls and become propagandists don’t know what to say.

Supporters of the Keir Starmer and Jess Phillips campaigns believe the machine will crank up again when a left-wing candidate finally emerges. But no one can be sure. At present, all we can see is factional hatred. Readers who have grown tired of pious lectures about the ‘issues being more important than the personalities’ will not be remotely surprised to learn that the hatreds are all about personalities, with divisions on points of principle being as substantial as stage props.

The Labour left did not expect Jeremy Corbyn to win the leadership election in 2015. If John McDonnell had thought a left-wing candidate stood a chance, he’d have run in his place. In 2019, the prospect of power, or at least the leadership of the Labour party, hovers in front of the far-left like the dagger before Macbeth, and many are willing to seize it and thrust it into the back of a rival.

I know I risk losing readers in the minutiae of far-left spats, but they cannot be avoided, so here goes. In any rational political movement Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s chief of staff, would be finished. The conventional thing to say is that under her, Corbyn and Seumas Milne’s direction, Labour fought its worst election campaign since 1935. This is a calumny. In 1935, Clement Attlee had taken over the leadership of Labour. He won 102 new seats, as he began to rebuild the party after its near extinction in 1931. In 2019, Corbyn was a stale Labour leader who lost 60 seats. The question for the 2020 leadership election is whether Labour members and the unions are happy to sink into permanent irrelevance. The question has yet to be forcibly expressed by any of the candidates.

Before the election John McDonnell and others tried to restrict Karie Murphy’s political influence. Rebecca Long Bailey, McDonnell’s anointed heir for the Labour leadership, has refused to work with her and it is likely that Angela Rayner – Long Bailey’s friend and a contender for the deputy leadership –  has done the same. Murphy is Len McCluskey’s protégé. By snubbing her, Long Bailey is snubbing him. Jennie Formby (another McCluskey protégé and another Unite placewoman in the Labour machine) and, depending who you talk to, Seumas Milne are as affronted. They would have preferred Laura Pidcock, a true believer, as their candidate. But she lost her seat in the election. Unite and its media supporters are now pushing Ian Lavery as an alternative: perhaps as a manoeuvre  to remind the rest of the left that McCluskey cannot be slighted, perhaps in all seriousness. Clive Lewis, meanwhile, is saying that if his friends clamour for him to take the crown, he will reluctantly put aside his natural modesty and accede.

You can attach ideological labels to the competing candidates if you wish. Milne, McCluskey, Murphy and Formby are closest to the old Marxist-Leninists. They are happy with Brexit, which has been the policy of their faction of the far left for decades, and immigration controls. When they say the ‘working class,’ you can guess that they imagine that the working class is overwhelmingly white. Lewis represents the pro-European, multicultural left, and I wouldn’t rule him out making it to the candidates’ list even though he seems a no-hoper. Long Bailey is McDonnell’s representative on earth, and was thought to be the favourite. But her campaign is finding it impossible to gain momentum and it is worth asking why,

I believe her and the wider left’s problem is religious rather than political. They came to prominence on the back of a personality cult. But what does a personality cult do when its personality deserts it?

Those who looked at Corbyn's support for dictatorships and racists, and decided he was a fellow traveller with totalitarians, will not understand the affection he aroused. Nor will those who looked at his vacuous inability to take a position on Brexit and thought him an empty man. They will just have to accept that hundreds of thousands of Labour members came to see him as a Christ-like figure.

The British and much of the first world left live in a Manichean world. In the apt phrase of the sociologist David Hirsh the left sees itself as a ‘community of the good’. Capitalism, conservatism, ecological destruction and so on are not the result of complex forces, which require equally complicated reforms to abolish them or limit the damage they cause. They are the result of the greed, bloodlust and plain evil of wicked men and women. Opposing them makes you unquestionably good. In these circumstances anti-Jewish racism, the viciousness of labour politics, and the arrant stupidity of its manifesto at the last election cannot be contested or even acknowledged. For to acknowledge their existence threatens the community’s sense of righteousness.

Hence the most significant innovation of the British left is not policies that might work but the online pile-on where Labour ‘influencers’ denounce the compromised like puritan ministers ordering their congregations to shame a harlot.

Corbyn is the centre of goodness, and arouses a deep feeling of protectiveness among his supporters. It’s not just they have swallowed all the nonsense about him playing a leading role in the anti-apartheid movement, or working for peace in Ireland and the Middle East rather than endorsing the IRA, Hamas and Iran. It’s that the logic of their position dictates that anyone who criticises the good must be wicked. To describe all the 450,000 or so Labour members as cultists is absurd. But a large minority have gone along with dismissing anti-Jewish racism or accepting the end of free movement (an immigration control no right-wing Labour leader would have dared advocate) or making excuses for Russian and Iranian imperialism.

Now the leader is going, it's easy to say that the leadership cult will die with him. But it has no reason to die. Christianity, Islam, Mormonism and Scientology survived the deaths of their founders and flourished. Indeed, Corbyn and McDonnell aren’t even dead, and will be able to mobilise opinion against whoever becomes leader of the party from retirement. One worker for a rival campaign told me he expected 10 per cent of the membership to vote for the candidate Corbyn endorses. But who should that be and more to the point, what can they offer?

The real problem is not the passing of the leader but the emptiness of the cult’s theology. Rebecca Long Bailey has gone from being a likely contender to a nervous politician because the left lacks a St Paul who can solidify Corbyn’s incoherent doctrine into left-wing orthodoxy. All sides expect the impasse to be broken and for Momentum, Unite and the online propagandists to rally behind one candidate. But when they do, awkward and possibly fatal questions will remain. What is the left for? What beyond the maintenance of its power in the Labour party does it want? And how on earth does it intend to get it?

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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