‘We are Labour to the core and Labour to the tips of our fingerprints – and we would rather die than join any other party…’. I stopped and stood still when I heard these words of Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry sounding through my radio. Her tone was fiery and forceful, her words oratorical in their hyperbole. All in all quite the sort of thing that I do not usually associate with British politicians, who I see as occasionally impassioned, but mostly reserved in their speech.
But although Thornberry’s words may seem to be little more than the kind of excessive but understandable rhetoric that plays to the crowd at a party rally, they are much more significant than that. They are the product of, and completely at home with, the era of the personality politics.
I use these words to describe a political situation where who people are has become more important than what they do. The extremity of Thornberry’s words is necessary to this kind of politics. Her hyperbole is needed to emphasise the way that ‘Labour’ suffuses all those who are truly loyal to the party. She presents those listening with a covert ultimatum: be Labour with every inch of your body, breathe it, believe it; or don’t be Labour at all.
Part of being ‘Labour’ through and through is never deviating from that characterisation of yourself. It means being the most loyal of acolytes. It means unswerving devotion to a certain mode of being.
And it means that when the MPs of The Independent Group left Labour, they quickly became characterised as hardly Labour at all. Chair of the Labour Party Ian Lavery soon denounced all of the Labour members of The Independent Group as belonging ‘to the 1%’, as elites concerned with the preservation of the elite.
Lavery categorised them as he would categorise Tories, despite the fact that their voting records are not those of Conservative MPs. Chuka Umunna, a prominent figure in The Independent Group, has consistently voted for raising welfare benefits, for levying a mansion tax and for nationalising Britain’s railways. Luciana Berger, another ex-Labour Independent Group MP, has always voted against the bedroom tax, against the restrictive regulation of trade unions, and against academy schools. These MPs espouse core left-wing policies, and for key figures in the Labour party to ignore this is for them to reduce this issue to a series of ad hominem slurs. Political stand-offs have falsely become about personality. It is now more effective to quickly denounce an opposing figure as Other, as dissident, as lacking moral fibre, rather than to debate why they have taken their opposing position.
This is symptomatic of a politics that is increasingly holding global sway. Simply denouncing those who hold a differing viewpoint as “bad people” and categorising those who agree with you as good is now common in global politics, in democracies and dictatorships alike.
Corbyn’s supporters are generally defensive when people suggest that the Labour leader has inspired a sort of personality cult, but it is a claim that has often been alleged. And Jeremy Corbyn is not the only one. Remember the Milifandom, the online campaign (jokily) glamourising former Labour leader Ed Miliband? A phenomenon like that can easily be dismissed as inconsequential and light-hearted, but it is actually indicative of the way public political operations work. It seems as though the public feel a need to create sensations or even cults around their preferred leaders to inject some verve into their campaigns and credibility.
More sinister manifestations of this can be found in figures such as Trump and Putin, where supporters are quick to unleash vitriol on anyone who dares criticise their favourite leaders. For supporters of these men, politics and personality are all rolled into one, and criticism of either aspect can cause them to lash out.
And then there are ways in which this celebration of personality can seem more anodyne. Think about the rising star of Alexandra Ocasio Cortez. Undoubtedly, she has been on the receiving end of highly negative coverage by the far-right. They were the ones who brought up an old video of her as a student in 2010, dancing to the track Lisztomania, in the hope of humiliating her. This backfired spectacularly, and her supporters produced a flurry of tweets and well wishes, lauding the youngest ever US Congresswoman. This was a natural response to tactics which unsuccessfully sought to use aspects of Ocasio Cortez’s personal life to affect her political career.
But some of the celebration surrounding Ocasio Cortez is heavily, if not excessively, focussed on perceptions of her personality. The actor Russell Crowe tweeted in response to the video that Ocasio Cortez was ‘fantastic’, and that ‘This is a real person, in touch with her roots.’. I am not doubting that Ocasio Cortez is any of those things, but to jump from a video of her dancing to that conclusion seems a bit far-fetched. And the conclusion is heavily weighted to praise who she is as a person, rather than anything specific that she has done.
Positive attention towards Ocasio Cortez often appears in this form, and while this may seem harmless, it is reflective of a political condition where personality and politics are conflated, until a dominating perception of a politician’s personality ultimately dictates how they are viewed. It could even be said that the most popular politicians of today perform their personalities.
And while the excitement around Ocasio Cortez may seem to be the pleasant side of a sometimes unpleasant phenomenon, we need to scrutinise this attention just as much as we scrutinise the kind of rigid personality cults that have formed around more hardline figures. Because the moment we allow our perceptions of a politician’s personality to cloud our judgement of what they do, the moment we prioritise outward allegiance over political action, we fail to exercise consideration and balance in our political outlook. And this balance is vital for a future where we can all work together, through both agreements and disagreements, moving beyond the rigidities that the politics of personality imposes.