At first glance the line-up for Glastonbury, disturbing the peace of the Somerset countryside this weekend, is unremarkable.
Foo Fighters, Biffy Clyro, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard — Australian psychedelic rockers, m’lud — will be familiar to habitual attendees of this annual celebration of mud and mind-altering substances into which music occasionally intrudes. But amid the pop groups and solo warblers one act stands out. This afternoon Jeremy Corbyn will take to the Pyramid Stage to bang the drum for his political agenda.
Glastonbury organiser Michael Eavis, himself a veteran lefty, explained why he invited the Labour leader to address the crowds: ‘We were so thrilled with the result that he had in the election. Millions of young people – Glastonbury people – voted for him. I think he has a fundamental sense of justice, of real political change, of being anti-war and anti-nuclear. That’s what we’ve spent our lives campaigning for, too.’
The ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn from obscure Marxist to rock star politician is the most implausible political drama yet to hit our screens, all the more astonishing because it is true and its authors are the British public. The Corbyn moment — it is not, yet, an ‘ism’ — may prove fleeting. Several years hence we might look back and wonder what strange fever seized Britain in the balmy summer of 2017. What drove a nation famed for its quiet reserve to lose the plot so spectacularly that it threw its government into turmoil ten days before negotiations began on leaving the European Union? How did a country whose prime ministers once lived under constant threat of assassination by the IRA come within a few percentage points of putting the assassins’ lustiest champion in 10 Downing Street?
Half of the UK is hoping the other half comes to its senses. But it is just as likely that we are seeing a realignment in British politics, one that could yet see Jeremy Corbyn become Prime Minister and deliver future victories to politicians like him.
Political observers agree that the Tory campaign was the worst in living memory. In the 1912 US election, Teddy Roosevelt failed to gain the Republican nomination, ran for President anyway, got shot on the campaign trail, and still lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Theresa May somehow managed to lower the bar. She campaigned with all the vigour of a burst whoopie cushion. Her top policy was designed to make her core voters poorer. She offered an uncosted manifesto then U-turned on it almost immediately. This former Home Secretary got outflanked on security by Diane Abbott after a terrorist attack. And when it all got too much for her, she hid in Downing Street and refused to come out.
This is a compelling case against Mrs May but it does not explain the 40 percent of voters who put their trust in Corbyn Labour. The brave new world offered by the socialists wasn’t all that new, promising free university education for all and no more cuts to bring the public finances under control. Politicians have been bribing voters with other people’s money for as long as there have been votes to buy and money to pay for them. Nor is class warfare terribly novel or the politics of betrayal an innovation. Demagogues are forever telling us our future is being robbed by one malefactor or another — the rich or the benefit spongers, the immigrants or the elderly. As Donald Trump, Brexit, and (until recently) the SNP have shown, there are a great many votes in grievance.
What is different is not the policies or positions of the parties but the electorate itself. It is younger, with turnout among 18-to-24-year-olds surging 16 percent on 2015 and voting by 25-to-34-year-olds leaping eight percent. According to YouGov, 34 used to be the age at which a voter became more likely to vote Tory than Labour; it is now 47. Those with a university degree are markedly more likely to vote Labour while those without advanced qualifications are solidly behind the Conservatives. As pollster Ben Page notes, ‘This was simultaneously Labour’s highest middle class support since 1979, and the Conservatives’ best score among C2DEs since then.’
For all the talk of a voter backlash against austerity, those most acutely affected by it — the low skilled and low paid — went for the Tories. Despite his enthusiasm for Venezuelan-style command economics, Jeremy Corbyn won over swathes of Middle Britain. The shift is not one of economics so much as values, tearing up the tarmac of assumptions and conventions on which British politics has run for generations. Labour and the Tories once chased the votes of Essex Man and Worcester Woman; the latest battleground is for the support of Kensington Corbynistas, the sort of electors who turned the safe London Tory seat red on June 8. The new centre ground is young, university-educated, and socially progressive. They were raised without religion; view faith as part mania, part hate crime; and spent four years in lecture halls being taught that the West is racist and men who blow up Tel Aviv nightclubs have a point.
They don’t buy a daily newspaper, get their information from partisan and sometimes conspiracy-minded websites, and were baffled that older voters were so upset about Corbyn and the IRA. Didn’t grandpa know it was Jeremy who secured peace in Northern Ireland? They have never heard of the Good Friday Agreement and don’t get what was so Good about Friday in the first place. Where their elders could not vote for Corbyn because of his support for terrorists and comradeship with anti-Semites, the 2017 generation would only have been put off if he’d been caught using the wrong gender pronoun.
For these voters the election was as much a clash of cultures as a clash of ideas. Their politics is impressionistic and fleeting, animated less by reasoned argument or an overarching philosophy than by a series of impulses and attitudes. Immigration is an unquestionable good; Western arrogance, not Islamism, is to blame for terrorism; bankers are wicked and corporate giants deserve to have their shop front windows smashed as long as protestors feel strongly enough about something. Assumptions such as these are jealously held and considered by the new generation to be axiomatic; no one, they figure, could possibility disagree with them unless they are an irredeemable bigot. This is a politics of moral preferences in which no one is permitted to prefer other moral viewpoints.
This is in part why social media was so crucial to the Labour campaign, both the official platform and those Corbyn supporters who took it upon themselves to spread their version of his message on Facebook and Twitter. In the main, this message took the form of memes rather than ideas. Memes are cultural markers disseminated online that appeal to identity rather than intellect and derive their power from seeming to be above traditional political arguments and therefore more easily shared to large numbers of people who would otherwise switch off at the first sign of campaign rhetoric. A frequently shared image during the election was an old photograph of Theresa May, complete with 80s hairstyle and bulging shoulder pads, sporting a blue rosette and leaflets. Next to her, a quote has been superimposed on the picture: ‘Curbing the promotion of lesbianism in Merton’s schools starts with girls having male role models in their lives.’ The implication being that Mrs May had once pandered to ugly prejudices about gay people in order to get elected and therefore the Tories should beware bringing Jeremy Corbyn’s past statements into play. The meme, posted by an anonymous Corbynite Twitter account, was shared thousands of times and popped up on many other sites. The only problem is that there is no evidence the Tory leader ever uttered these words and an investigation by the left-leaning outlet BuzzFeed failed to find any credible source for the quote. However, the veracity did not matter as much as the sentiment involved: Theresa May is a Tory, Tories are wicked, therefore she must be a homophobe, and those who detest homophobia can express their feelings by reposting this image far and wide.
This sentiment-based politics can also be witnessed in the backing for Labour amongst staunch Remainers despite Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding hostility to the EU and Labour’s unambiguous support for Brexit, including withdrawal from the single market and an end to freedom of movement. Political scientists will puzzle over the rationale at play. Did voters assume Labour’s pro-Brexit stance was all for electoral show, to be dropped in favour of a soft Brexit or a second referendum once in power, or did they hope for a minority Corbyn government that could be swayed by smaller, pro-EU parties? There is another possibility: That no calculation of any kind took place. To these voters, Brexit is inherently bad, Jeremy Corbyn is inherently good, and so his support for Brexit did not exist as a fact for them.
Britain has entered the world of post-truth. The left-of-centre philosopher John Gray is scathing about this politics of irrationalism, comparing it to techniques which delivered the White House to Donald Trump. Writing recently in the New Statesman, Gray contends:
Corbyn’s campaign had more than a little in common with Trump’s experiment in engineering popular emotions and perceptions. The ecstatic mass rallies, the indifference to fact shown in the Labour leader’s repeated denials of his meetings with terrorists and of the reflexive anti-Semitism that pervades much of the movement he has created, the belief of his supporters that the media are conspiring against him and the poisonous Twitter abuse of his critics are clear parallels. But this is not a protest from despairing communities left to moulder in abandoned zones of economic desolation. It is populism for the middle classes, serving the material and psychological needs of the relatively affluent and the well-heeled.
Of course, emotional intensity is not new in politics. Recall the ecstatic scenes that greeted the return to power of Labour under Tony Blair at the 1997 election or Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the American presidency. But those campaigns still operated within the generally accepted parameters of normal politics. Jeremy Corbyn has not enthused voters in a political party but recruited them to a culture war. This is why, despite his being a lifelong radical leftist, the manifesto Corbyn put forward was tepid by historical standards. Far from a rallying cry calling the proletariat to the revolutionary barricades, Labour’s platform pandered to cultural assumptions in order to win the votes of those who would have been put off by full-blooded socialism. Corbyn thus repackaged his leftism in an appeal to the new Middle Britain of young, liberal-minded voters.
For John Gray, this is where Corbyn has changed the rules of engagement:
What is new is Corbyn’s marriage of radical leftist ideology with a systematic appeal to middle-class interests. Nowhere is this better expressed than in Labour’s manifesto promise to abolish student tuition fees (which would cost the country as much as £12bn) and reintroduce maintenance grants, while declining to unfreeze welfare benefits on the grounds that reversing Tory cuts would be (as Emily Thornberry put it in May) “unaffordable”. Rather than addressing the desperate lack of opportunities for working-class children, who may never make it to university, Labour has successfully courted the middle-class youth vote.
None of this was supposed to happen. Jeremy Corbyn was supposed to lead Labour to electoral oblivion, and all the evidence pointed to such an eventuality even at the outset of the campaign. But Corbyn had realised something few others had: That a new middle class was emerging that shared none of the prejudices of their parents and boasted prejudices of their own. Bribed with freebies and soothed by bedtime stories of nasty old people ruining their life chances with Brexit, a politically and economically immature generation became the Children of Corbyn. The young have been set against the old, the socially liberal against the traditional-minded, a Britain unrecognisable to millions against a Britain unpalatable to millions more. We should have learned by now to be wary of predictions; a new Conservative leader might find a way to win over this unsettled electorate. If they don’t, the Corbyn culture wars will define British politics for years to come.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.