British politics has traditionally been resistant to the phenomenon of the personality cult. The reason why is unclear. Some argue that we have an innate tendency to mock supposedly heroic figures, pointing to the fact that while fascist strong-men were being venerated on the Continent, PG Wodehouse was ridiculing Mosley and the Blackshirts as Roderick Spode and his Blackshorts. Others suggest we have simply been lucky – avoiding infection with the virus of hero worship by chance, not by virtue of any natural immunity.
Whatever the reason for that historic good fortune, the Corbynites are making a decent run at challenging it. “Traingate” may in itself be a relatively inconsequential issue, but it does tell us something about the state of the Labour Party.
First, it tells us that Corbyn and his team, while posing as the only honest gang in town, are willing to mislead, then mislead to cover up when they are caught, and then mislead again. That’s a problem given the “straight-talking” image they are trying to create.
More troubling is the second lesson from the absurd tale: that Corbyn’s fans are willing to disbelieve literally anything rather than accept that their man messed up. It’s natural to want to believe the person you support – of course it is. But it’s downright weird to continue to insist that they are telling the truth even when it is proven beyond any doubt that they aren’t.
What happened when Cameron was caught cycling to work, followed by a car carrying his belongings? Conservatives didn’t argue the footage was faked, or that the car was a fit-up organised by “the MSM” – uncomfortable as it might have been, we stayed in touch with reality and accepted that our leader had been busted in a somewhat dubious PR stunt.
There have long been signs that for some Corbynites the same standard doesn’t apply – after all, their support for him is based on the premise that everything we know about the electoral and economic track record of the hard left is wrong. Faced with polling evidence, in particular, they simply declare that the polls are routinely wrong, neglecting to note the important point that when the polls are mistaken, it is in overestimating support for Labour, not concealing some groundswell in popular socialism.
Traingate offered a perfect opportunity to test quite how far his fans will go to hold to their view that he is always right. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of walking some of them through the tale, point by point, with some alarming results (for reference, there’s a full timeline of Corbyn’s changing story here, by former Labour HQ staffer Tom Hamilton).
The degree to which some are willing to believe their leader over any and all evidence surprised even me. One argued that Corbyn took a seat after 45 minutes because people had got off the train. When faced with the fact the train didn’t stop anywhere for its first one hour and 50 minutes, making it quite hard for people to disembark, he chose to believe Corbyn over the “MSM” train timetable.
Several, when faced with CCTV footage, simply declared they believed a different version of events regardless, preferring to rely on eyewitness accounts from Momentum staff than on the images before their own eyes.
Most impressively, one Jeremy enthusiast argued both that he believed Corbyn when he said there were no seats at all and that he believed Corbyn later when he said there were some seats but he was unable to find two together for him and his wife. Believing one version of events in the face of evidence from elsewhere is one thing, but believing two contradictory statements from the same person is quite something.
While it’s important that a politician marketing himself for his honesty turns out not to be quite what he claims, it’s far more noteworthy that he has inspired such blind faith in some of his followers. This isn’t the lighthearted fandom of Twitter’s Miliband-watchers, or the panglossian enthusiasm of 1990s Blairites, or even the slavish loyalty of some Thatcherites – it goes far beyond any of them, not simply saying that their hero is great, but asserting that he is literally faultless. When you are willing to tear down every normal standard of logic and fact in order to give a politician an easier time, you have issues.
We may never know why people alighted on Corbyn as the focus for such adulation. Most movements like this around the world tend to follow someone with unusual good looks, or magnetic charisma, or remarkable oratorical skill. Instead, Britain has a personality cult centred on a man with the general aura of a supply teacher who is more than a little unhappy to have been called away from his allotment.
Perhaps this, too, is a symptom of our country’s historic resistance to such hero-worship. If our culture of scepticism does indeed make us naturally suspicious and scornful of a square-jawed icon with a silver tongue and a taste for snappy uniforms, then perhaps Corbyn is the natural response – who, after all, could see him and think him a dangerous figure to lionise? Why, he even seems reluctant to be on the platform in the first place – he’s just the type of flawless messiah that we need!
It’s never healthy to raise a person – and particularly a politician – onto a pedestal far above any feasible reality. Whoever the individual may be, and whatever their qualities, such hero-worship always ends badly for them and their followers, generating disappointment at best. Corbyn – there by accident, equipped with awful political judgement and routinely ill-advised – will be no different, and has already led some of his fans into conflict with verifiable reality. Only the British could quite deliberately hand “man of destiny” status to someone so disastrously ill-suited for the role.