Do academics have a Corbyn problem?By Jonathan Dean on 3 October 2016
The UK political science community has a Corbyn problem. Few other political figures or phenomena come close to provoking the level of disdain among politics academics that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters seem to have unleashed. Undoubtedly, many will think Corbyn deserving of such disdain, but my contention is that those looking for scholarly insight to help make sense of the profound changes to UK left politics deserve better.
Let me be clear about my own stake in this. I am not a rabid Trotskyite Corbyn-worshipping zealot (for what it’s worth, I have found such people rather harder to come by than some suggest). I share many peoples’ concerns about aspects of Corbyn’s leadership (for instance, his media strategy and his not always robust response to Anti-Semitic and misogynist abuse within the party). I am, however, rather more pro-Corbyn than most of my political science colleagues (although this not saying much!). I am also currently PI on a Leverhulme-funded research project looking at resurgent forms of left politics in the UK, and have recently returned from an invigorating few days in Liverpool at the Labour Party conference and its Momentum counterpart. In what follows, I outline some of the ways in which this kneejerk anti-Corbynism is expressed. I deliberately avoid naming specific individuals or publications. This is done partly out of a (perhaps futile!) wish not to offend, but also because I describe what I think is a collective sensibility and attitude, expressed both formally (through publications and media contributions) and informally (through social media and in university corridors).
The first, and perhaps most obvious problem, is that we in the political science community have been curiously willing to repeat a number of factual inaccuracies about Corbyn’s supporters that have, of late, circulated in the mainstream media. In recent months, I have seen political science academics whose work I otherwise admire claim, variously, that all registered supporters of Labour are “entryists”; that the Alliance for Workers Liberty – a tiny Marxist group who, with respect, would struggle to organise a boozy session in the proverbial brewery – are willing and able to seize control of the party; that an SDP style split is imminent, and that Momentum is a) dominated by hardened Trotskyists, and b) gearing up for a co-ordinated nationwide campaign to de-select “Blairite” MPs. These claims are at best hugely overblown, at worst totally false. Few, I imagine, would dispute that part of our role as scholars is to interrogate the empirical veracity of claims made by politicians and journalists. But when it comes to Corbyn, we seem all too ready to relinquish this duty.
I think this points to a second difficulty: many of our dismissals of Corbyn are presented as merely descriptive (and thus impartial), but are marked by a thinly concealed partisan opposition to Corbyn’s politics. To highlight this is not to ask anti-Corbyn academics to relinquish their views. My aim is much more modest: that is, to ask for a little more honesty about our own political convictions, and reflection on how these shape our political analyses and commentary. Absent of this honesty, we are condemned to align an assumed impartiality with wherever the ideological centre of gravity lies at a given time. Indeed, politics scholars’ frequent characterisations of Corbyn as a “hard” leftist seem particularly fatuous when one considers that the current Labour leadership’s ideological commitments are arguably much more in line with the SDP of 1983 than the Labour Party of the same period, such is the rightward drift of the ideological tide in the intervening 33 years.
There is, however, a final curiosity in how we as a profession have responded to Corbyn. The rise in Labour Party membership – along with the “Green Surge” and the revival of grassroots left politics in Scotland – constitute some of the most significant shifts in political engagement and participation in Britain for many years, and yet the dominant response in our discipline has, with a few exceptions, tended towards disinterest and at times and outright hostility (in stark contrast, incidentally, to the seriousness we devote to analysing grassroots activism by the far right). This suggests that our ostensible desire for greater citizen engagement is in fact highly conditional: greater enthusiasm for politics is fine, one senses, but only if it is the right kind of politics.
I am under no illusions: some colleagues will no doubt consider my reflections mean-spirited, unfounded or in thrall to a mindless Corbynmania that any sensible political scientist worth their salt should unequivocally reject. So let me be clear: I am not saying that there aren’t significant criticisms one could level at Corbyn. I am simply asking that we afford Corbynism the same level of thoughtful analytical scrutiny we seem willing to grant to, say, Ukip. And, I would suggest, we should be less quick to adopt a position of disdain towards “really existing” citizens engaged in a democratic (though not unproblematic) political project. Finally, we owe our readers -and each other - a little more honesty about how our own assumptions and ideological commitments shape our scholarly responses to the on-going changes to the Labour Party, and to contemporary forms of politicisation more broadly. I really don’t think this is too much to ask.
Jonathan Dean is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Leeds and specialises in gender, left-wing politics and contemporary political theory. He has recently published articles in Capital and Class, Contemporary British History, Contemporary Political Theory and Political Studies. You can follow him on twitter @Jonathan_M_Dean.
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