by Martin Odoni

Labour centrists just cannot help themselves, can they? JK Rowling – she who has gained barely-explicable recognition as one of the world’s ‘great’ authors – last week described the current Labour Party as a ‘solipsistic personality cult’. (On that evidence, I am not even completely sure she understands what the word solipsistic means, only adding to my doubts about her status as an author.) Nick Cohen, the Guardian writer singly most unable to distinguish between a fairer world and a world torn apart by all-pervading warfare, added his own clamour of contempt a couple of days later, calling the Labour Party Conference, ‘The cult of St. Jeremy’.

The damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t quality of trying to please the so-called ‘centre-left’ – really just conservatives with somewhat queasier consciences – is brought most sharply into focus by how bizarrely unaware they seem to be of their own contradictory mindset. For almost two years, their overriding objection to Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was that, “He’s unelectable because he doesn’t engage with the electorate.”

Over the last few months, Corbyn has disproven that charge overwhelmingly, securing over forty per cent of the vote at the General Election in June, and the largest total vote-count for Labour since 1997. Even if that was still behind the Tories, one does not win that many votes by not engaging with the electorate on a large scale. Subsequent to the Election, Labour has led the Tories consistently in every opinion poll, so it was no ‘flash-in-the-pan’ moment either.

This is only underlined by the response to him by his supporters, of which there are not only millions around the country, but many more around the world. Witness the singing of the almost omni-present, “Ooooh, Jeremy Corbyn!” chant reportedly in the USA, Italy and Belgium, to see just how far and wide Corbyn has shown his power to engage.

The response of the Labour centrists? “It’s a cult! They think he’s a messiah! This is worship, not leadership!” etc.

Now, one could well argue that the public fascination with Tony Blair in the mid-1990’s was little different, and yet Labour centrists never offered any objection on that score. But that is not my point. At no stage do the centrists notice the inconsistency – make that the one-hundred-and-eighty-degree paradox – of their position on Corbyn in itself. Corbyn is unelectable because he somehow both ‘fails to engage with the public’ and ‘is the object of a personality cult’.

Step aside, Schrödinger’s Cat. Step aside, Schrödinger’s immigrant. We now have Schrödinger’s Labour leader. How can someone who does not engage with the electorate draw a large cult-following from the electorate?

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The frustration of these contradictory insults is partly because, in truth, very, very few of Corbyn’s supporters see him as an ‘object-of-worship’ as such. They admire him for having the courage to smash the Overton Window of the last forty years and speak again ideas that were considered unthinkable thanks to Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch, and finally bring Keynesian social democracy back into the mainstream. Yes, there is affection for Corbyn, but for better or worse, it is the ideas he stands for that are important, and not just the man himself. Corbyn, it should be emphasised, is among the first to say that.

The chants of Oh, Jeremy Corbyn! seem as much to reassure him that he has far more support than would have seemed obvious for much of the last two years. Given the appalling hostility he has faced from both the media and his own Parliamentary Party during that time, supporters want him to keep his chin up and keep believing that he is doing the right thing. That is not ‘cultish’ behaviour, it is simply propping each other up around a shared idea; if you think about it, is that not sort of the point of political parties in the first place?

Support for Corbyn is therefore hardly a cult at all. But if that is how the centrists want to frame it, and supposing we humour them on that point for the time being, they still need to make up their minds; do they want a popular leader, or not? When they think Corbyn is not popular, they say he ‘does not engage the electorate’. When they think Corbyn is popular, they say he is ‘a cult-figure’. Corbyn must sigh at the end of every day; he might well win an Election very soon, but with the centrists, he cannot win at all. Should he become Prime Minister, they will simply move the goal-posts again, and complain that his majority would have been so much larger had he adopted a centrist platform.

But also, if ‘a cult’, as the centrists call it, is a bad thing, why did they spend nearly two years trying to get rid of Corbyn effectively on the grounds of him not being a cult-figure? If they now conclude that they were wrong about wanting a popular leader, they should at least have the courage to admit it.

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