There was uproar in the British Labour Party last week when the chief of the Communications Workers Union, Dave Ward, argued that left wing leadership hopeful, Jeremy Corbyn, was an antidote to a malevolent Blairite virus. Not surprisingly, it was Blairite leadership hopeful, Liz Kendall, who criticised the rhetorical nature of the viral analogy used by Ward. She described it as “offensive language”. Kendall’s disgust was also not surprising perhaps. Viruses are, after all, malevolent infectors with a harmful payload. Former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, also predictably jumped to the defence of Blairism, claiming that it was “ridiculous” to call them a virus as many of Blair’s policies, like the introduction of the minimum wage, were benevolent. Like Blair and Alistair Campbell, Straw has warned that if the party ignores this fact and moves further to the left it faces “oblivion”.
The use of viral analogies to instil fear is recurrent in political rhetoric on the right and left. The fear of the red contagion dates back to pre-Soviet revolution anxieties expressed, for example, in Gustave Le Bon’s observations of mass crowd psychology in the late 1800s. Le Bon’s frequent references to the threat posed by contagious crowds was an aristocratic response to the revolutionary demands of socialism during his time. Interestingly, back in 2012, Blair himself referred to Eurosceptics as a ‘virus‘ blighting British politics.
Wards’ use of the viral analogy is indeed similarly based on a malevolent infection of left wing politics by neo-liberal thinking. His Blairite virus ensured that the middle ground of politics would be defined for decades to come by a market agenda. Epitomized by the dark malevolence of Peter Mandelson, the Blairite virus not only infected the Labour Party with market values, it also gave further credence to a right-wing propaganda machine that rendered left wing politics opposed to neo-liberalism as somehow “bonkers” or “looney”.
Wards’ analogy does not however go far enough. The Blairite virus infected more than policy decisions. It spread like a fashion meme through the party and beyond. Like most fashions, Blairism was for the young, not the old. More profoundly perhaps, it infected the symbolism of the Labour movement. In 1997 purple became the new red. Blairite supporters began to don dark business-friendly suits. Linguistic utterances and gestural actions were further contaminated. Young imitators in other parties, like Clegg and Cameron, began to roll up their sleeves and affect characteristic Blairisms at party conferences.
Wards’ use of the malevolent virus also fails to grasp the potential revolutionary force of a benevolent contagion. Indeed, the desire for Corbyn the antidote misses the point. To succeed Corbyn needs to do more than combat a virus. He needs to go viral. To some extent Corbyn needs to become a virus in much the same way as Blair did in 1997. It is important to recall that before the War in Iraq Blair came to power on a surge of emotional contagion. After 18 years of Thatcherite contamination the mood of the population was ripe for a virus that promised something new; hope and change. As any viral marketer will tell you, if a virus is to succeed then it needs to reach a tipping point. Thereafter, the contagion will overspill.
The Corbyn virus must not however become, as the Blairite virus did, a Trojan. Blair’s third way was designed to convince people that market principles were compatible with a fairer society, which evidently they are not. Similarly, the UKIP contagion hides a deceitful viral payload that is not only intrinsically racist, but conceals malevolent policies intended to do the most harm to the people it tries to infect.
In contrast, the Corbyn virus must infect people with a benevolent sense that a fairer society is not, as the Daily Mail would have it, bonkers, or the dream of a lunatic.
Indeed, the spreading of a benevolent Corbyn virus has already started, and the Daily Mail knows it. Using another analogy common to political rhetoric, the right wing newspaper described how the Corbyn bandwagon has now become a juggernaut. Reporting from a rally in Tory dominated Norfolk last week, the Mail described a crowd contagion that “is not just stretching round the block. It’s stretching around the next block, too…”
“Inside the packed, perspiring, exuberant hall — once the headquarters of Barclays Bank, no less — the star of the show enjoys his first standing ovation a good 45 minutes before he has uttered a single word.”
The aim now, following the leadership election, is not to find an antidote to neo-liberalism. It is rather to fight a virus with a virus. The benevolent potential of the Jerry Corbyn virus has some much needed early momentum. After 10 years of Tory austerity, in 2020, perhaps the mood will once again be ripe for an emotional contagion that produces something that is, this time around, authentically new.