People bloody people

People bloody people just won’t do as they’re told, or think what they’re supposed to think. If there is a crisis in the Labour party, and if it is a crisis of leadership, it’s a crisis that brings to mind The Emperor’s New Clothes – Hans Christian Andersen’s story of pomposity and self-delusion ending with a child, who hasn’t learned to be blind, pointing the finger:

‘But he has nothing on at all,’ said a little child at last. ‘Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child,’ said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. ‘But he has nothing on at all,’ cried at last the whole people.

 

1

Necessary to the denigration of Corbyn’s leadership and prospects has been the dismissal – by now routine – of his supporters, those who would point the finger and say the emperor is stark bollock naked. In December Tom Watson referred to Momentum as ‘a bit of a rabble’, a precursor to his more recent intervention claiming entrism/entryism. In all likelihood, in December, there must still have been the expectation that Corbyn would, sooner or later, be forced to resign; the PLP veto would prove effective, and business as normal would happily resume. When that proved not to be the case, attacks on his supporters could only intensify. In particular, Margaret Beckett has spoken of ‘members of a fan club’; while, not to be outdone, John McTernan has offered ‘cult’ and ‘sect’.

Such attacks smack of desperation. The emperor in question, of course, isn’t any of the individuals named in the paragraph above, or even Tony Blair (who appears below), but a belief system, one based on a particular version of authority. The authority of the political class has been challenged; and the only response is a charge of abnormality. Andersen’s story makes the point well, since his child hasn’t been socialised into the need to defer to social power; they see differently. This version of childhood, moreover, is at odds with the one a contemporary society is more familiar with, one that underpins the attacks on Labour members. Here, Beckett et al draw on discourses of childhood/youth in which ‘innocence’ signifies weakness and the need for protection by adults whose own superior status depends on a dismissal of the not-yet-adult as somehow inferior, to be patronised. (Given that this is a power relationship, it matters little that it involves different age groups, of course.) However, there is a twist (albeit one with no arms involved): the trope doesn’t quite fit as comfortably as Corbyn’s critics would hope for.

2

In July, as a leadership election became unavoidable, and Owen Smith was handed the seemingly thankless role of challenger, the unpopularity of so-called ‘extremist’ policies gave way to a renewed focus on the wrong kind of support. Smith, after all, has shamelessly adopted many Corbyn policies and has just had to insist he won’t drop them once he becomes leader. What happens under a Smith leadership between now and the next general election, whenever it takes place, of course, is open to conjecture. For the time being, it has become expedient to pay less attention to policies by focusing on personal qualities.

It has been said (so many times) that Labour couldn’t win an election by being ‘too left-wing’; the myth of ‘the longest suicide note in history’ lives on and, more than a year ago, when Corbyn’s leadership bid was still in its early stages, Tony Blair rejected ‘radical leftism, which is often in fact quite reactionary’ (complementing his earlier criticism of Ed Miliband’s leadership ahead of the 2015 general election). What is undeniable, however, is that both candidates in the current leadership contest are promoting policies to the left of anything on offer previously. Perhaps, then, Corbyn can be defeated because of his dodgy supporters. Hence the talk of fan clubs and cults, a continuation of the theme that, as party members don’t know what it’s like to be an MP, professional politicians are grown-ups who do know the business and should be allowed to get on with the serious business of running the country.

To develop the point, one might recall Weber’s observation that modernity is characterised by bureaucracy and the management of affairs by professionals who owe their status to competence – all of which replaced, supposedly, an earlier (in the present context, one might add less mature) time when charisma had a role to play and leadership might be based on personal (even ‘supernatural’) qualities. Hence the narrative of infantilisation, one at odds with the Andersen story cited above: for the critics of Corbyn’s supporters, just as young children might believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, so do those who refuse to grow up and face ‘reality’ believe in Jeremy Corbyn.

3

At such times – and Beckett and McTernan are by no means the only Labour figures to express themselves in this way – the speaker must necessarily belittle those they criticise in order to assert authority. Invariably polling is mentioned, if now ‘unelectability’ has less to do with policies than with personal qualities – although it must be impossible to say how far, at any given time, polls report reality (‘an anti‑Corbyn majority’) rather than constructing it. Nonetheless, Corbyn’s support within Labour continues to strengthen, whatever the electorate generally might or might not think. That Blair’s interventions – and those of so many others, granted media platforms at frequent intervals to warn of inevitable failure – have apparently had little effect on the party membership can only be explained by an irrational fixation on the part of Corbyn supporters. Told time and again that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, they refuse to give up on him.

Thus, when Watson spoke of ‘old hands twisting young arms’, he damned with faint praise those he considered too idealistic to resist manipulation, an attempt to divide Corbyn’s support; perhaps the intention was that younger supporters would become instantly suspicious of older supporters (in turn, the latter would become suspicious of the former as weak and untrustworthy because impressionable, and on and on). Similarly, to speak of ‘a fan club’ or ‘sect’ is to ask some to distance themselves from those others who are less serious. The individual who thinks I’m not like that is encouraged to look round and identify others who do fit the description. Whether or not this strategy (‘divide and conquer’) can succeed remains, of course, to be seen.

4

Of more interest here is the way in which the language of fandom betrays a deep unease on the part of those who feel they are, or should be, in control. When Beckett referred to ‘a fan club’ she dismissed political engagement as no more substantial than attachment to a pop star. Using fan – an abbreviation of fanatic, with connotations of mental disorder and/or irrational behaviour – as a term of abuse, of course, both avoids engagement with the substance of the issue and also positions the speaker as someone with the authority to pass judgement. Fandom is a phase one should navigate on the way to being grown-up (here, listening to Blair; perhaps, if reluctantly, accepting his advice to ‘get a [heart] transplant’). Research into fandom has become prominent in the last two or three decades, and it is worth citing, as an early example, The Adoring Audience, where it becomes clear that a focus on audiences and group behaviour is inseparable from the need to allow those without a voice to speak.[1] In particular, the chapter by Joli Jensen remains a fine introduction to the topic and one can easily see how it might be applied to Labour’s ongoing struggles between PLP and membership.[2] Specifically, Jenson noted that ‘the concept of fan involves images of social and psychological pathology’ (9) and went on to describe the way mass society has been seen to lead to alienation and vulnerability; at fault, of course, are dysfunctional mass media and advertising weakening community relations. Thinking is replaced by an emotional attachment. There is ‘a smug superiority’ (25) on the part of those whose status allows them to judge (which surely sounds familiar to anyone keeping up with the pronouncements of anti‑Corbyn Labour).

The argument does begin to get complicated, however. The description provided by Jensen, of course, based on elite anxieties regarding the manipulation of the working class, has points of contact with, for example, FR Leavis’ disdain for mass culture, or Richard Hoggart’s rejection of American pop culture: this is a twentieth-century narrative that remains powerful because of the interests vested in it.[3] Leavis and Hoggart – and many others who might have been mentioned here – spoke of a lack of discrimination on the part of those who are easily manipulated by advertising or mass media. One might think it was now, well over 20 years after the publication of The Adoring Audience, acceptable to be a fan; but Zubermis and Larsen, for example, begin their study by acknowledging that there is still something shameful about fandom.[4] Undeniably so.

5

As far as it goes, of course, this twentieth-century narrative is a little anachronistic. What must be considered is the way Corbyn has – cleverly? – been able to circumvent the traditional media, in the process no doubt offending those Westminster-based not‑journalists whose central role in day-to-day political discourse has been threatened. If his supporters insist on ignoring the wisdom of the Labour establishment, and remain immune to media bias, the ready availability of counternarratives is surely a factor. When Beckett speaks of fan clubs she taps into fears of dysfunctional media. This might well be the case, but the people in question – like Andersen’s child – are having none of it.

At the start of this week, Newsnight offered a discussion of anti-Corbyn media bias and this issue was raised.[5] Not least, the idea that online media sources might be taken as seriously as traditional print and broadcast media was greeted with some incredulity. However, what fandom research has shown is that audiences – those designated fans – are not incapable of rational judgement. To be a fan is to participate actively in the production of meaning; to be, in short, an expert. Perhaps those Labour members who will be allowed to contribute to policymaking under Corbyn – and, it seems, or so he claims, Smith – are the experts in question.

[1] The Adoring Audience, ed Lisa Lewis, 1992.

[2] Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterisation, in Lewis (ed), 9-29.

[3] Mass civilisation and minority culture, FR Leavis, 1930; and The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart, 1957.

[4] Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships, Lynn Zubermis and Katherine Larsen, 2012.

[5] Irony will always enjoy rude health when the BBC discusses political bias against Corbyn – on this occasion, all that was missing was Evan Davis chairing the discussion, but one can’t have everything. Update … and then, having drafted this article, and this footnote, I made the mistake of watching Tuesday’s episode of Newsnight, when Davis presided over the ludicrous #traingate piece. Yes OK – be careful what you wish for.

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