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The paranoid style of Corbyn’s critics

The psychiatric wards of Brezhnev’s USSR were littered with dissidents held to be suffering from serious psychotic disorders, simply because their political opinions were not in line with those of the regime.

We British are far too genteel to do that kind of thing. Our preferred modus operandi is media insinuation, as witnessed in Alastair Campbell’s noxious black briefing campaign against the ‘psychological flaws’ of Gordon Brown, back in 1998.

Now Corbyn’s critics are in on the act, with the New Statesman running a long piece by Martin Robbins under the ostensibly incisive headline of Jeremy Corbyn and the paranoid style.

A bitter little hatchet job with a superficial veneer of intellectual profundity, expressly designed to facilitate Owen Smith’s floundering leadership challenge, it has gained quite a bit of traction on social media.

The reference point here is Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 work The Paranoid Style in American Politics, a work that dissects McCarthyism in the light of the tradition of rightwing populism long extant in the US.

Remarkably – given that it was first published half a century ago – the essay retains much of its bite even now. If you are curious as to the ideological antecedents of Donald Trump, here’s your starting point. If you haven’t read it, you really should.

And one of Hofstadter’s many acute observations is that for the political paranoid, the enemy is on many counts largely a projection of the self. I suspect that this is uncomfortably close to the truth when the Parliamentary Labour Party and supporters such as Robbins wade into Corbyn.

Let me run the last year past you again. Hundreds of thousands of people previously not engaged in politics have become Labour Party members or supporters. Labour is now the largest political party in Europe.

As a result, the Labour right has lost control of what for decades it has regarded as its private fiefdom. But rather than accept this reality, the deposed control freaks can only conceptualise a welcome development as down to the machinations of other control freaks.

Having organised for two decades through Progress, their very own party-within-a-party, they furiously point to Momentum as the reincarnation of the Militant Tendency.

Having had their private offices for many years funded by tax-minimising multinationals, they rail with fury at Jon Lansman’s temerity in incorporating Momentum as a crowdfunded private company.

Having stitched up dozens of by-election shortlists in favour of their own clique, they now accuse Labour left advocates of wider party democracy of seeking to rig future selection contests.

Corbyn is singled out by Robbins as very much the facilitator of all evil, a man whose ‘irresponsible behaviour … feeds into atmosphere that leads inexorably’ to bullying, misogyny, violence and intimidation.

Corbyn, we are told, doesn’t engage in abuse himself, but only because he doesn’t have to. His ‘army of followers’ are ‘quite happy to engage in abuse on his behalf’.

Our mad genius – holed up in his bunker, according to the article’s standfirst – is depicted as the commander of hordes of disciplined Daleks, with a vocabulary largely limited to ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!’ and ‘I obey!

Robbins himself links to an article highlighting that many Corbyn supporters are graduates. But he discounts in advance the possibility that educated people have formed a coherent view of current British politics, and drawn the conclusion that they want to see radical change.

The simpler course is to denigrate somewhere around a quarter of a million people as putty in the hands of a clique of conspiracy-mongering crazies only one step up from those who place the blame for chemtrails on shape-shifting lizards from the fourth dimension.

As evidence, Robbins adduces the multiple infamies perpetrated by Corbynistas on Twitter, a medium scarcely famed for its facilitation of intellectually sophisticated interlocution.

Have there been some memes that do not stack up for those of us whose higher education took in Stats 101? Do some websites and Facebook pages carry pro-Corbyn material readily ascertainable as intellectually flimsy? Have conspiracy loons – including some obvious anti-Semites – jumped on the Corbyn bandwagon? Yes, all true.

Charitably, Robbins grudgingly concedes that ‘most Corbynistas aren’t cranks’. But he goes on to contend that ‘an intense and vocal minority are, and they have formed a poisonous core at the heart of the cause’.

The obvious question is, how did things reach this sorry state? Who is responsible for setting the acrimonious tone of the slanging matches? If poison aplenty there be, who introduced it to the discourse?

Instead of throwing all the blame on sometimes intemperate pro-Corbyn Tweeters with followings of a few hundred, let us consider some of the statements made by Labour rightists with platforms in publications with circulations sometimes running to millions.

During the leadership campaign, such people branded Corbyn supporters ‘Trumpton revolutionaries’, ‘pig ignorant lefty click activists’, ‘psychotically furious about everything’, ‘terribly well-orfff, doncha know’, ‘infantile and possibly mentally impaired’.

Oh, and that’s not to mention ‘gibbering perpetual adolescents’, ‘a rancid collection of single-issue nutcases’, ‘the green ink brigade’, ‘halfwits’, ‘feminist lesbians, human rights campaigners and race-obsessed mentals’ and ‘dog on a string radicals who view a bar of soap as a tool of capitalist oppression’.

Let me stress, these remarks are gathered not from the meanderings of random social media space cadets, but the pages of the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Sun, Guardian and New Statesman. And yet in the minds of the ubiquitous abuse slingers of the Labour right, they alone are the intimidated.

More recently we have seen the Daily Mail’s famous ‘Labour must kill vampire Jezza’ graphic. Even Paul Dacre realised that such rhetoric was beyond the pale after the murder of Jo Cox, and the online version has now been toned down to the more acceptable ‘Labour must dump vampire Jezza’, which doesn’t even make much sense. But yes, the original wording said ‘kill’.

Meanwhile, a former Labour MP wrote a diatribe for Britain’s most rightwing broadsheet under a headline that implicitly compared Corbyn to Adolf Hitler. It suffices here merely to invoke Godwin’s law.

Another Labour right columnist merrily equated the Labour left to ‘Lenin-style bully boys who’d send women to the gulag’. Does Robbins still want to call us out for ‘paranoia’?

The Lenin jibe brings us to the obvious kinship between the Labour right mindset and reds under the beds scare stories once propagated by a certain well-known senator from Wisconsin, the very subject matter of Hofstadter’s polemic.

Hence the endless reiterated untruth, sometimes seen in the Tweets of Labour MPs, that Corbyn supporters contain a significant number of entrists.

As they know full well, even if every Trotskyist in Britain signed up to support Labour – and the vast majority have not – they could not possibly account for much more than 1% of those joining since Corbyn’s election.

But Robbins doesn’t let the facts get in the way of lurid descriptions of ‘a loyal hard-left movement, driving screaming protestors into CLP meetings, keeping uppity MPs in line with the prospect of more abuse or deselection, and ensuring that Corbyn will sign up enough supporters to win the leadership election by a landslide.’

The imagery is almost that of a Red Zombie Apocalypse. It couldn’t be further from Momentum’s quotidian reality of dull internal committee work, Saturday street stalls and public meetings open to anyone.

In other words, Momentum does pretty much what the Labour right does in my constituency, and actually does better than the left, if the outcome of the last AGM is anything to go by.

Taking his fantasies to their logical conclusion, Robbins sees before him a wicked masterplan to split the Labour Party, keeping on 40 ideological purist MPs the better to snaffle Labour’s Short money and ‘institutional donors’. Those of us with roots in the labour movement tend to call the latter ‘trade unions’, but let that pass.

More projection is clearly at work in these charges, given reports that up to 150 of the PLP are approaching wealthy donors to fund a project apparently codenamed ‘Continuity Labour’. If a split is brewing – and that is an outcome the Labour left is keen to avoid – it will be Robbins and his pals that initiate it.

Meanwhile, many old saws are mercilessly retailed. For the umpteenth time, nobody actually knows who put a brick through the window of the stairwell in Angela Eagle’s office block.

It may have been a bungled burglary. It may have been the far right. It may even have been a random act of drunken vandalism. But automatically to attribute a bad occurrence to one’s political opponents, without any evidence whatsoever, could easily be seen as … well, paranoid, frankly.

Robbins even brings up Seema Malhotra’s complaint that Corbyn’s office manager entered Malhotra’s office without permission, with the implication that Karie Murphy incarnates some sort of latter day G Gordon Liddy. More paranoia: the complaint was investigated by the Speaker, and not upheld.

Finally, despite the claims of Robbins and other to the contrary, the Labour left is well aware of Labour’s current standing in the polls, thank you kindly.

Team Corbyn needs to raise its game, or the PLP’s war of attrition could eventually succeed. But don’t expect us publicly to attack our own side while we are under sustained barrage from those with hostile intent. Staying on message is a political basic, not a sign of cult-like devotion.

Let me end on an apposite quote from another American man of letters, Joseph Heller. ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,’ one of his characters famously observed in Catch-22. And as Robbins’ lengthy screed clearly proves, they really after Jeremy Corbyn.


  1. Jeffrey Lucas says:

    Why is everyone talking as if a split would be a disaster? I think it would be the best thing for our democracy since universal suffrage. Both fragments would know that their only way to gain any power ever again would be to join a progressive alliance to bring in proportional representation. Then everyone gets their party back, everyone can vote for exactly who they want, and the Tories are locked out of power forever. What’s not to like?

    1. Richard Tiffin says:

      “What’s not to like”?
      A split anti-Tory vote for a start. Then how about a confused and divided working class; unions debating which group they should follow; a right union or two affiliating to the ‘moderate’ PLP grouping to sow further confusion and so on.

      I am of the view that a split is inevitable, the big bourgeois will expect their lap dogs in the PLP to attempt all of the above to ensure a leftist government does not come to power. But let’s not pretend it’s a good thing and encourage it. Let’s minimise it in every way we can by demanding that they keep the movement together, that they respect unity and the traditions of the movement.

  2. Bazza says:

    ‘Continuity Labour’ – CON LABOUR for short.

  3. John P Reid says:

    I think everyone who rads the telegraph ,knows of its views before hand, the comparison to a bunker m talbots, that Tom Harris suggests is, not bothering listening to the critics, something , that Churchill went along with, and in his case it worked
    Can you stop the Progress, party within a party, which was originally why militant was expelled, they had militant only meetings at constituency level, of which, they decided motions for their CLPs, against the party rules, progress have never done this, but momentum, did in one CLP recently

    1. John Penney says:

      Your usual incomprehensible gibberish, John. If you really can’t be bothered to troll coherently, just give it up man !

  4. Tony says:

    “Having stitched up dozens of by-election shortlists in favour of their own clique, they now accuse Labour left advocates of wider party democracy of seeking to rig future selection contests.”

    The stitch up went well beyond by-elections. To take just one example, there was the imposition of Angel Eagle on the Wallasey constituency.

    Also, some of the pictures of the stairwell window show glass on the outside. How would a brick through the window cause that to happen?

    1. Bazza says:

      Powerful stuff Tony.
      Perhaps re the grotesque Mail and its equally grotesque editor we should all complaini to the press standards organisation (particularly in view of the recent tragic murder of Jo Cox MP.
      I think an apology and a million pound fine would just about do!
      Also re a report in the Observer (think iit was 3/7 or 10/7) that a Labour Shadow after resigning went straight to their ex-office and wiped a computer clean of Labour’s considered position on the Finance Bill!
      For this industrial espionage a against Labour should be disciplined and reported to their CLP!
      Should all write to Gen Sec LP!
      Continuity Labour read CON Labour!

  5. Matty says:

    I enjoyed reading that, particularly as I myself was recently accused of being part of a cult merely for politely demurring from the assertion that Jeremy was a disastrous leader. Oddly enough, my insultor was not a Labour right guy but a Green Party supporter – takes all kinds.

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