There’s an old Jewish joke – usually attributed to Teddy Kollek z”l – about the parting point for Judaism and Christianity.
What would you say to the Messiah if he appeared on Earth tomorrow, the former mayor of Jerusalem was asked.
“Is this your first time here?” he quipped.
If only supporters – devotees, really – of Jeremy Corbyn were as equanimous about his arrival on the scene. He too has been here before – he’s made a 32-year career out of not being a careerist – but his campaign for the Labour leadership has been greeted as a moment of revelation.
This leads some to wonder if the fevered crowds flocking to the backbencher’s public meetings have come down with a bad case of Scotlanditis. North of the border, support for the SNP has taken on a religious character for some, with every policy and pronouncement from Nicola Sturgeon accepted on faith alone.
I heard an echo of this at Corbyn’s rally at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Friday. A packed hall – young and old alike but more male than female and overwhelmingly white – whooped and clapped at his every word.
Corbynmania shares some characteristics with organised religion. There are prayers (“Lead us not into the centre and deliver us from Kendall”), almsgiving (he thanked the congregation for £100,000 raised over recent weeks), a redemption narrative (resurrection of the old Labour Party), and an Antichrist (though instead of casting him out of Heaven, they want to throw him in the Hague).
The disciples hang worshipfully on the gospel according to Corbyn. They have accepted him as their political saviour and been reborn in the spirit of ’83. Perhaps they don’t quite revere him like the other JC – a Jew born in Bethlehem and therefore an illegal Israeli settler – but if he tried and failed to walk on water they’d blame New Labour for not renationalising the utilities.
But here the religion analogy breaks down. The Church of Corbyn doesn’t seek converts; in fact, it wants rid of people it finds insufficiently pious. They’re evangelicals in reverse: They will be His witnesses in Islington, in all Hayes and Harlington, and to the ends of the M25.
No, this isn’t a retread of the SNP surge. In fact, when we compare Corbynmania and Yesteria we see they are not only distinct but oppositional phenomena. The most committed (and committable) of Scottish Nationalists have formed a religious attachment to their party. No matter what the SNP does, they believe in it. Nicola Sturgeon could declare herself an enthusiast of puppy-choking and a sizeable section of the membership would start eyeing up Rover and the phone cord nearby.
The Corbynistas are devout sceptics. They’re just itching for him to win so they can declare him a sell-out in a few months’ time. While it seems there is almost no policy – save abandoning independence – that could cleave some Nationalists from the SNP, there is little Corbyn could do as leader that would satisfy his most intense partisans.
Like the SNP, they have a cause but it’s not the restoration of democratic socialism; what they yearn for is the comfort of betrayal. If Corbyn lived up to their expectations, that would mean there was someone in the world as good and sincere and progressive as them. And the far-leftist is a creature born of moral superiority.
That is what stood out at the Edinburgh rally: Amidst the CND badges, the salutations to “comrades, friends, brothers and sisters”, the denunciations of the Tory press and Labour moderates, there was a suffocating air of certainty. One speaker announced that “neoliberalism” must be rejected in favour of socialism because socialism is about the individual. No one laughed.
Katy Clark, left-wing former Labour MP, announced: “I’m more worried about the right-wing in the Labour Party right now than the right-wing outwith it”, before adding that “some of the people attacking Jeremy would not have been happy with Keir Hardie as leader”. The capacity was standing room only but it wouldn’t have hurt to squeeze a few doubts in too.
Mainstream journalists and politicians are lambasted for not “getting” Corbynmania and denounced as Pharisees for clinging to outdated conventional thinking. I know I should prostrate myself here and engage in some self-laceration but I’m not going to. The voters are seldom wrong, as any smart strategist will tell you, but Corbyn’s fan base are not voters so much as democratic tantrum-throwers. They opted out of British politics, by their own admission, two decades ago and since have either cast their ballot for one impossibilist sect or another or abstained altogether.
When the last Labour government was setting up the Scottish Parliament, introducing the minimum wage, repealing Section 28, and guaranteeing paid holiday leave, Corbynistas were still grumbling into their lattes and their pints of mild about nationalisation and the expulsion of Militant. Maybe they were left behind by modernisation but only because they chose to cling to a failed and dying creed.
And he has the young, too. His prescriptions sound original to them because they are not old enough to remember the last time they were tested in government. Endless strikes and flying pickets are inconceivable to those who grew up after trade union reform. If you try to tell them about rubbish in the streets and bodies left unburied they will accuse you of scaremongering. Inefficient state monopolies, a top rate of income tax at 83%, the debilitating culture of managed mediocrity – all these mean nothing to millennials. They have spent four years at university and have call centre jobs and debt to show for it. They feel their future and all their dreams slipping away and in these moments of desperation crude fantasy can pass itself off as hope.
Jeremy Corbyn draws on this embitterment and sells the angry and marginalised nostalgia for simpler times, before everything was sullied by compromise and Peter Mandelson. Labour would be worst affected if (or rather when) he becomes leader but Ukip could take a hit too. Their appeal is not just to Europhobia and anti-immigrationism; it is a broader reaction against liberal modernity. Where Ukip offers the outsider as a scapegoat, Corbyn points to the bankers and the Blairites; where they push national strength and pride, he extends the promise of political resurgence and class dignity.
Against the complexities of the modern world, with its free markets, liberalised trade, property gouging, and wealth disparities, the heroic dogmas of the academy and homely populism of the miners’ welfare. Corbyn makes for a mild-mannered demagogue – he reminds me of that Volvo-driving geography teacher who insisted on bringing in a Thermos of tea every morning – but a demagogue is what he is. It’s little wonder a poll this week found him slightly more popular with Ukip voters than supporters of his own party. It won’t carry him into Number 10 but don’t underestimate the appeal of Red Farageism.
Corbynistas naively preach that their man can “win back Scotland” and in doing so expose their ignorance of the political scene. The Tories are upfront about their preference for Corbyn but the Nationalists have been cannier, hinting that they could work with him in a “progressive alliance” in the hopes of bolstering his appeal to Labour members. They know Corbyn means more Tory governments and more Tory governments mean independence is a dead cert.
This is why it was telling to see a senior SNP MP slip up on Twitter: “Corbyn pursues the old Bennite fantasy that English people vote Tory because they want a more left wing Labour Party,” tweeted John Nicolson, adding: “He will never ever win a UK election. He is Michael Foot for the 21st C.”
And therein lies the chief difference between Corbynism and the SNP: The SNP wins elections. Corbyn’s flock can have all the faith they want; he doesn’t have a prayer.