A new line of attack has been developed against the pro-Corbyn side in the Labour leadership election. His supporters, it has recently been argued, are members of a dangerous political cult, while their delusional leader lives within a giant messiah complex. Now while I wouldn’t personally go that far, perhaps some of these allegations do carry a certain degree of truth.
Firstly, let’s get one thing quickly out of the way. I do not think that either Jeremy Corbyn or his supporters are members of a cult. However, one does not necessarily need to be in a cult to exhibit an alarming quantity of cult-like behaviour, something which has become an increasingly obvious characteristic among Corbyn’s most loyal group of supporters. For what it’s worth, I don’t view this as an attack on nor an attempt to undermine the Labour Party’s current leadership. Rather, I hope to encourage some degree of much-needed self-reflection, not only among Labour members but also those of other movements throughout the political spectrum.
In order to provide some structure, and because my personal knowledge of psychology is very limited, we’ll be using a definition given by Dr Arthur Deikman, a former professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Fransisco. According to Deikman, who has written a book about the patterns of cult behaviour in American society, cult behaviour includes, but is certainly not limited to:
- Compliance with a group
- Dependence on a leader
- Devaluing the outsider
- Avoiding Dissent
It is largely the latter three that I want to focus on today.
Dependence On A Leader
For obvious reasons, any successful political party leader should exhibit qualities that convince and inspire others to follow them. That might sound religious, and I guess in a way it is, but understandably every movement and political organisation needs a strong leadership figure in order to be effective. The striking difference between the majority of successful party leaders, Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair etc, and Jeremy Corbyn is that while the aforementioned figures have successfully managed to win over the mainstream public, and therefore power, Corbyn is a figure who is cherished and idolised by a small fringe group, in contrast to his spectacular unpopularity with most of the British electorate.
To that group, in our case that being the left-wing of Labour party members, and that of Momentum, Corbyn is a figure practically beyond criticism. A friendly looking, sixty-seven-year-old man with the highly ironic initials J.C, The Labour Leader has, over the course of the past twelve or so months, managed to develop what is essentially a religious following, where any hint of scepticism and dissent is punished with remarkable efficiency (more on that later).
In the eyes of these hardened supporters, The Leader can do no wrong, and a constant flow of spin is developed to justify even his most controversial and inexcusable positions. Sometimes, this torrent of spin flows right into the realms of Orwellian doublethink. The Corbynistas are always the first to dismiss the reliability of opinion polls, since almost all of them question their carefully constructed narrative, however, are also quick to share and overexaggerate any polling that supports their point of view (as limited and rare as such polling is).
Clearly, this kind of behaviour isn’t just limited to Corbyn and the UK. Supporters of Donald Trump exhibit many of the same characteristics: hostility towards the media, total ignorance of opinion polls, embracing of conspiracy theories and a practically religious devotion to their Leader to name a few. Both are also the leaders of political parties who have lost their last two general elections. Both were elected to their role on a strong anti-establishment message against the most fervent advice of most other party officials. Both have shown a clear inability to carry that message into the mainstream, and both are destined to lose, badly.
Devaluing The Outsider
The tendency to create a strong ingroup vs outgroup mentality is a defining characteristic of cult behaviour, and unfortunately, one exhibited by many of Corbyn’s supporters. Politics is often about reaching out, and as obvious as this might sound, any party that actually wants to win power can only do so by convincing the type of people who don’t usually vote for them. That doesn’t, however, seem to be something that Corbyn and his supporters are awfully concerned about. Instead, their incredible sense of paranoia regarding the mainstream media has created an increasingly inward-looking movement. A movement less concerned with reaching out to the centre as opposed to increasing its own membership, not to mention creating an ideological echo chamber.
The latter is, of course, another fundamental building block for any aspiring cultist, and anyone who’s spent even a few minutes scrolling through Corbyn-friendly Facebook groups would immediately recognise the resemblance. Confirmation bias is the air these people breathe and cognitive dissonance is the ground they walk upon. Of the articles being shared, is a constant flow of “Corbyn is great”, “Corbyn can win”, “Everybody Loves Corbyn”. Among the sources, you will find names such as The Morning Star, The Canary and Socialist Worker. The traditional left-wing press, you see, has long become the puppet of corporate interests. Some critical articles are posted of course, but only for the purpose of ridicule. Meanwhile, provided is an endless supply of memes, charts and graphs, always idolising Corbyn and almost always without citation.
A strong ingroup mentality is therefore created, and those belonging to the outgroup constantly find themselves on the receiving end of ad-hominem attacks. Arguments are often evaded, rarely addressed, and usually dismissed out of hand due to the other person being a member of the said outgroup. Articles are rejected as a matter of principle due to the publication hosting them, while a colourful list of adjectives is used to describe those with an opposing point of view: “Blairite, Red Tory, etc”.
The pro-Corbyn organisation Momentum has often found itself on the receiving end of criticism, and often unjustly so. Personally, I think it is utterly ridiculous to suggest that these people are some 21st-century British equivalent of the SA Brownshirts, mainly because I’ve met quite a few of them and most were perfectly fine people. However, there is a real danger of the group becoming the kind of “party within a party” that Militant emerged as back in the 1980s.
Many of its members rarely attend local Labour meetings, choosing to instead go to dedicated Momentum ones, hence helping to create an ideological ingroup within the wider Labour Party. A separate Momentum conference is planned alongside The Labour Party conference in September. In the same city, at the same time, with Jeremy Corbyn attending. There comes a point when one should ask themselves the following question: If The Labour Party doesn’t fit in with my personal political leanings, forcing me to instead attend rival events hosted by a fringe ingroup, then why on Earth did I ever join The Labour Party? And if the answer to that question is, “to support Jeremy Corbyn”, then you really start to sound like someone who doesn’t really support the Labour Party… just Jeremy Corbyn.
As previously mentioned, any views critical of The Dear Leader, especially those originating from popular figures, is denounced and punished with remarkable efficiency. For a case study, let’s use the Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who has recently come out in support of Corbyn’s leadership challenger, Owen Smith. As someone who nominated Corbyn for the leadership position last year, Khan has often been used by the former’s supporters as an example of Corbyn’s electability.
Victory in the London Mayoral election, they argue, was largely the result of Corbyn’s efforts, not Khan’s. That, of course, is the opposite of the truth. Labour and Sadiq Khan’s victory in London was achieved in spite of Jeremy Corbyn, and not because of him. Indeed, the Khan campaign was terrified of being associated with The Leader, whose unpopularity with the wider electorate made him a liability as opposed to an asset. At the time of writing, Sadiq Khan has a net positive approval rating of +30 among those living in London, while Corbyn’s is a net negative of -25.
Regardless, facts are secondary to many of Corbyn’s supporters, and once Sadiq Khan wrote an article in The Observer endorsing Owen Smith, a man who was previously the embodiment of Corbyn’s electability became a deceitful turncoat, and a member of the aforementioned outgroup. All of a sudden, he was “a mediocre mayor”, “a cheap bastard” and of course, “a Blairite”. The pro-Corbyn Facebook groups had a field day, demonising and casting Khan away as someone who was never really on their side anyway. As always, the array of cheap and meaningless memes started to fly all over the place… If only memes could win elections.
Remarkably, the tactics used by Corbyn supporters to effectively ridicule and demonise other Labour Party figures share some uncomfortable similarities with all the wrong places, most notably cults and Communist dictatorships. The year is 1974, and a young, fabulously talented Russian ballet dancer by the name of Mikhail Baryshnikov is performing on tour in Toronto, Canada. One night, presumably after realising just how great life was on the other side of the iron curtain, Baryshnikov evaded his Soviet minders and requested political asylum.
Once news of the defection broke out, The Soviet Government did everything within its power to transform the once popular and revered dancer into a national hate figure. His citizenship was revoked, stories of foul play were invented and flooded into the media, while Baryshnikov’s previous achievements were rapidly discredited. Just like with Khan after his intervention in the Labour Leadership race, history was re-written and the truth quietly thrown down the memory hole.
It’s the same tactic used by everyone from American cult leaders to Soviet Propagandists to The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. When someone leaves or defects from the ingroup, denounce, attack and discredit them until everything that person ever did was either a lie or a form of malice. Now if your goal is to run an inward-looking movement with alarmingly cultish characteristics or an Orwellian dictatorship… congratulations! However, if your trying to get a political party elected to government, well, you might want to consider a change in attitude.
If what you want is to achieve power through the ballot box, as opposed to a combination of pitchforks, firing squads and or wishful thinking, you simply cannot act as an inward looking echo chamber that is concerned more with ideological purity than it is with winning elections. As a general rule of thumb, each and every one of us should be open to opposing viewpoints and the concept of self-reflection. We have to accept that no one is infallible, and that if we refuse to accept evidence and listen to public opinion, we might not necessarily be a cult, but we won’t really be that far off from one.