The emotion of politics

How old does Jeremy Corbyn make you feel? It’s an odd question, but it’s the sort that might come up in counselling; you might make an emotional timeline to help you to understand why you feel as you do in a particular situation or relationship. I resigned from the Labour Party a couple of weeks ago. In the gloom that followed I’ve been reflecting on my emotional, political timeline. I wonder if I’ve left not just because of differences of ideas (ways of thinking) or forms of political action (ways of behaving), but because a bit of my emotional past has erupted into the present. Jeremy Corbyn makes me feel 17.

I was 17 (and a half) when a 34 year old Jeremy Corbyn gained his seat in Islington North. I have no memory of him from that time but I assume he was feeling pretty good about himself. Labour were defeated in the General Election in which he became an MP. However, not only had Corbyn won, he’d won under the umbrella of the 1983 manifesto that bore the hallmarks of his mentor Tony Benn and ally Michael Foot. That manifesto was all nationalisation, no nukes, and no membership of the EEC. Arguably, Corbyn’s policy ideas and political strategy are still rooted there. I suspect his feeling of strength as a politician was formed there, positively reinforced with every re-election.

I wasn’t feeling empowered in 1983. I lived on a council estate in a north-eastern town and Margaret Thatcher was riding high on post-Falkland’s war patriotism. I was largely bored, doing my first year of A levels and was a year away from finding feminism through the music of Tracey Thorn and a class consciousness via Billy Bragg. In my family, political activism went as far as voting and I was even too young to do that in May 1983. Viewed from my family’s place in the world, political activism was for people with social authority. The closest my parents got to people of authority was a school parents’ evening, a doctor’s appointment or a visit from the priest.

Ambivalent activism
Although I voted Labour in every election from then on, I abstained from party membership until 2010 when the return of the Tories to their ‘natural place’ in power got me to sign up. I was by then a parent and a ‘professional’ and I felt not just authorised but morally obliged to joined in. My local branch members were friendly and didn’t shame me for my 27 years of party political in-activism.

I felt ambivalent when Ed Miliband became leader in September 2010, but I have felt ambivalent about every Labour leader I can remember. I regard ambivalence as an appropriately adult response to a human being with power, even one I broadly agree with. Emotional ambivalence is the basis of political pragmatism. I have periodically tried to summon up ambivalence for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but he has, of course, provoked more polarised feelings. The tone of his supporters takes me back to 1983, when I wasn’t mature enough to be ambivalent about anything. I feel helpless, and gloomy and outnumbered by Corbyn enthusiasts amongst people I considered political allies.

Their enthusiasm is as much rooted in emotion as issues of policy and where they stand on the democratic structure of the party. Corbyn seems to make some people feel empowered, perhaps in a way they used to feel, or vindicated about long-held political beliefs. For those who were not even born in the 1980s, his leadership seems to stand for a ‘new kind of politics’. Corbyn doesn’t seem to speak of where we are now. Certainly some of the most animated conversations I’ve had about Corbyn’s leadership seem not to involve not adults arguing about ideas or strategy but people feeling like they did some time in the past or how they might in the future. Corbyn is in many ways a blank screen, on which ‘the left’, including me, project their hopes, fears and furies. No wonder he looks tired.

Splitting and reparation
But all the venom isn’t just because Corbyn is setting off a second adolescence in Labour’s middle aged is it? In many ways, it’s more like a collective infancy, where experience is ordered as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to overcome the chaos of early life. Under times of stress, even reasonable adults resort to such psychological ‘splitting’. Our political systems rely on this process as we take our sides on the left and right. But what’s happening in the Labour Party now is a process of splitting that is leading to psychological incoherence: an identity crisis. So, we have ‘Trots’ and Blairites’; entryists and revisionists;’the membership’ and ‘the PLP’; the MSM and social media; Tom Watson and Jon Lansman. There’ve been a few confusing cross-overs: the commentator and former Corbyn champion Owen Jones has, like an adult, responded to where things are now and has changed his position. The strength of response to this shift on social media shows the force of splitting in action: if he’s no longer a ‘good’ object, he must be a bad one. He’s paid the ultimate price and left Twitter for a while.

When this kind of splitting comes up in counselling the work is to redirect the energy that goes into maintaining a view of the world as a persecutory battle between good and bad. The aim of therapy is to redistribute that energy so that ambiguity becomes tolerable; things can be both, or neither, good and bad.

The Labour Party has worked through this process of splitting and reparation – what Melanie Klein called the shift from the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ to the ‘depressive’ position – since Kier Hardy was in therapy (he wasn’t). The party grew from different interests and periodically tears itself apart as it battles for the right to represent those interests in ways that seem, to different parties, appropriately democratic. A bit more self-awareness from the protagonists in this cyclical battle and a willingness to historicise their emotions as well as their ideas and strategies would help to bridge the splits.

I’m back, temporarily I think, to scowling from the sidelines, my Labour Party membership card gone for recycling. Being part of a community which is so overtly dysfunctional doesn’t help me to feel optimistic about change, and I might feel less fraught as a voter than a member for a while. I’ve relinquished Comrade Billy Bragg from my Spotify playlist for the time being, but I’ve got Tracey Thorn on my side this time round. If only I’d found her in 1983, I might be leader of the Labour Party by now.

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