His appeal extends into football too. At the last Everton fixture before the general election, those very repetitive chants of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ could be heard in parts of the away end, and Vote Labour stickers were being enthusiastically distributed to anyone who would accept one, which was virtually everyone. Like the most unlikely political heroes, Corbyn cannot be understood purely as a politician. He is a social phenomenon, one whose brand permeates the arts, music, and sport. That still doesn’t make him a very good politician, insofar as a politician should lead a movement with sharp, unified message on the biggest troubles of the day into electoral victory, but he may yet become one. Already he has cultivated a huge movement with an outsize young contingent transfixed by his political personality.
In the continuously unfolding departure of the UK from the European Union, nobody stands better positioned to gain from governmental incompetence than the leader of the opposition. Jeremy Corbyn has settled very comfortably into his role of picking holes in the government’s missteps and carries it out with aplomb. His position is unassailable and has been since an election in which he is popularly seen as having morally triumphed. In fact he failed. The government that exists is not led by Jeremy Corbyn. He did terrifically well relative to his expectations, which many mistake for having done well in absolute terms, helped by the personal embarrassment suffered by a Prime Minister who called the election out of political choice rather than constitutional necessity. Why were the expectations so low? Corbyn himself, mainly. All that stuff about sympathising with terrorists, ruining the country and its economy with socialist reforms, haplessness in leading a Parliamentary party overwhelmingly against him? Well, a lot of it was and is true. In the seats where his party didn’t quite get over the line, or in the half a dozen seats that he lost to the Tories, his failings deserve scrutiny every bit as much as any other Labour leader who lost an election.
He should be doing much better. He has yet to appeal very far beyond his core vote. At Prime Minister’s Questions, he is usually found shouting across the aisle at the Prime Minister sitting several feet away either to deliberately amplify his point or because he can’t help the issue overcoming his temper. Yes, he’s very passionate, but this isn’t some purely cosmetic complaint. When he barks his points out, they are weakened. When your job as leader of the opposition is to hold the government to account, you need to make your words count. The subjects that he raises often represent genuine failings on the part of the government. You don’t need to share in his solutions to share in his objections. When he fumbles, he fails all those who rely on a golden weekly opportunity to truly force the government to reflect on and correct its errors. What if he deliberately spoke a little more gently, made people lean in to hear him? It might just increase the potency of his words. Hillary Clinton understood this. Compare her rallies from her two runs for President in 2008 and 2016. Where she would yell her message in her first run, eight years later she would speak softly, consider her words, before building up to a louder conclusion. You might say that she sounded more Presidential. She might have lost, but there is something to be learned here. Varying his tone would help his words flourish. Ultimately, the best way for him to do something about the government’s inadequacies is to become the government. It is all very well impeding the government now but, to become Prime Minister, he should look and sound like one.
Still he cannot reliably top May. Theresa May’s administration is terribly uninspiring even when Cabinet ministers are not resigning in disgrace. The rollout of Universal Credit remains mired in uncertainty. On the major issue of the day, Brexit, one that suffocates virtually all other issues, May, Davis, and the rest remain largely aimless – Corbyn could do worse than to push for membership of EFTA. Damian Green is the third major Cabinet minister to resign since the election. The vision of a country that works for everyone is neither a reality nor anywhere near becoming one. Yet the gap between Labour and the Tories is pretty much normally distributed around zero. Quite easily a more savvy Corbyn, with a coherent line on Brexit, could run rings round the government, and the Conservatives, for their own sake, should be ready.
For all the limitations of his style of leadership, his own supporters have a fervency, in the most extreme cases a sort of cultish adoration, that embarrasses Milifandom. With an enormous membership roll, the largest in Europe, the flood of activists that Labour could field in the election no doubt helped to shift a good few ultra-marginal seats. His sort of celebrity is of the type often called ‘rockstar’, so it was fitting that among his most endearing crowds have been at rock concerts that have had nothing nominal to do with politics. At a Libertines concert at Prenton Park on the Wirral, and at the Glastonbury festival, thousands of overwhelmingly young people not only politely welcomed, but rapturously cheered him. Across the Wirral, thousands again gathered in small and quite Tory-leaning West Kirby to receive him, in a seat whose Labour majority increased significantly.
His sensational appeal is paradoxically due in part to his normality. A recent interview with GQ magazine shows a politician with very human tendencies and flaws. There is something striking about him. When it comes to policy details, he is fairly thin on details and, in general, rarely puts as much emphasis on the source of his spending plans as the sexy plans themselves. The insufferable hard-left pin-up Dennis Skinner, who at least cannot be denied his honesty, bellowed at this year’s Labour conference that ‘we’ll borrow the money!’. Corbyn is cut from a very similar ideological cloth. In the interview, it is revealed that in over three decades as a backbencher, he never set foot in the offices of leader of the opposition. When he got there, he moved into a far smaller office. To most, this is needlessly impractical but, to many, it may be a sign of his characteristic humility.
Like a Nigel Farage figure, it is difficult to imagine Labour without Corbyn at the helm, thanks largely to his supporters. Those who jibe about them, particularly the millennial ones, being interested only in free stuff miss the point and play into his hands. There have been enough unfunny seasonal jokes about a mystical bearded old man clad in red offering free gifts. The Labour party successfully listens to and sounds like younger voters. Free university tuition is not just just a quickly cooked up bribe – Corbyn undoubtedly believes in it, however wrongly. That is what helps to explain turnout among 18-24 year olds jumping by a third in two years to 53%, with two in three opting for Labour: the excitement of voting. A sense of something to really believe in.
A notable parallel is sometime Presidential contender Bernie Sanders. Like Corbyn, he has shown an annoying lack of self-awareness in acknowledging his own failures, as well as a reprehensible slowness to address the bigotry of the nasty excesses of his movement. On Corbyn’s more glamorous than expected defeat, Sanders congratulated Labour on its performance. Meanwhile, across the Channel, Jean-Luc Melenchon electrified the French left in this year’s Presidential election and, with a little more luck, might have gone all the way. His campaign stickers, complete with his lovely phi logo, still decorate urban French lampposts. The point of these movements was not only policy, but how policy was given life by a real energy that tapped into culture.
This is where conservatism is not keeping up. Mainstream conservatives are fond of sneering at the legacy that bears his surname, but Andrew Breitbart showed brilliant acuity in saying that politics is downstream from culture. To understand the political context in the modern age, and in particular the persistence of a man who by conventional standards is a pretty mediocre leader of the opposition, that phrase is a crucial axiom. Politics doesn’t run on dull policy wonks. It works when it’s exciting, and a little bit rebellious. This is why the modern right of centre parties – the Conservatives and UKIP – are lagging. How the work of the current Conservative administration is supposed to be packaged into an exciting vision is a mystery. Meanwhile, unless shouting about burqas and Brexit betrayal is your bag, UKIP offers next to nothing – a great shame, as there is, or at least was, such potential for the party to capture a sharp, intelligent mission that owns the radical right.
Nothing that the right has offered in Britain, certainly in the way of endorsements from popular cultural figures, compares to the Corbyn phenomenon. Nor can a movement gather steam without popular figures cheerleading it. Georgia Toffolo seems lovely, but her staunch Toryism, going as far as calling Jacob Rees-Mogg a sex god (she’s not wrong), is unlikely to prove the foundation of a political movement of the kind that Corbyn has nurtured. There are serious reasons why Tory celebrities are a pretty rare breed. Being a Tory, or a conservative in general, isn’t very cool.
In part, maybe conservatism is not meant to be cool. By its nature, it is meant to be cautious, and averse to the utopian idealism that possesses much of the modern left. There are, however, some figures trying to defy that. Whatever you think of his narcissistic showmanship and merciless verbosity towards certain groups, Milo Yiannopoulos has made conservatism naughty and therefore fun for many students who had little political engagement beforehand. It is about time, and no surprise, that something has possessed the young right. The tail end of the millennial generation can’t all be Corbynite, and the conservative element can’t all be boring. Newton’s third law of physics, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, is a pretty good law in politics too. If Corbynism is in vogue, there should, and probably will be a right of centre equivalent too.
Hence the beautiful madness that is Moggmentum, the semi-organised frenzy to get Jacob Rees-Mogg into Number Ten. Why has this Etonian paleoconservative from tranquil Somerset captivated thousands of internet-savvy conservatives, to the point where he is the 4/1 favourite to be the next Tory leader? Well, for exactly those reasons: his unrepentant RP, his statements not eroded by any army of consultants, and an iron social conservatism mingled with classic Thatcherism. He intertwines these two crucial ingredients into something organic, fun, contrarian, and yet rigidly principled and, all the while, unmistakably conservative. It is a rebellion against a rigid Conservative establishment, so to speak, that has choked true conservatism and forgotten how to be radical. It would be brilliant to see him complete his unlikely ascent all the way to the office of Prime Minister, if nothing else to see what would happen. While the Mogg is imperfect, he might just remould the Conservative party into something substantial and also exciting.
And by goodness we need it. Australian writer Richard Neville is said to have said that ’there is an inch of difference between the Conservative and Labour parties. But it is in that inch that we all live’. It is high time that that inch was restored. Two parties that are clearly distinct, with two genuinely competitive, patriotic visions would make for a long overdue choice. That can and will happen when people are energised. Presently only one party offers this and, as long as that is the case, Prime Minister Corbyn is a prospect that will only get nearer.