This Charming Man: Jeremy Corbyn and The Smiths

Why pamper life’s complexity
When the leather runs smooth
on the passenger seat?

– Morrissey

On Saturday I went to see The Smyths, a Smiths and Morrissey tribute band, at the O2 Academy Islington, a soulless venue inside the soulless Angel Central shopping centre. It’s the first time I’ve seen the band, and I was surprised at the following they have, with the room packed with bequiffed forty- and fifty-somethings up for a dance down memory lane. The band was great fun, and it’s an indication of the cultural impact of the original that they’ve been together for 15 years, three times as long as The Smiths.

The second song of the night was Morrissey’s Irish Blood, English Heart, which I thought a brave choice in politically correct Islington, and while I jumped around at the back I noticed that the response, even amongst this brushed and parted crowd, was pretty mute. Then about two-thirds of the way through the gig, just after That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore (of all tunes), the band broke into a rendition of those fatal opening bars to the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army; and yes, even in this room, the crowd broke into the moronic chant of ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ It was almost enough to make me vomit into my own beer. As you can imagine, I wasn’t too pleased by this, and not only because a White Stripes song has no place in a Smith’s tribute act.

After the gig I was talking to the guitarist (he’s the one on the right in the promotional photo above, wearing what I’ve just realised could be interpreted as a Jeremy Corbyn hat), who if not quite up to the genius of the greatest rhythm guitarist of his generation had nonetheless done a good job of nailing How Soon is Now?, and after telling him so I brought up the Corbyn chant. Quite apart from the fact that Irish Blood, English Heart contains the lines ‘I’ve been dreaming of a time when / The English are sick to death of Labour and Tory’, I pointed out that The Smiths were always on the side of difference and never conformed to what we are told to think either culturally or politically, and that whatever The Smyth’s politics may be, there is no way on earth that Morrissey would condone them slipping that servile chant into his defiantly contrarian music.

Though he lived now in London, the guitarist was originally from the North-East (I told him he’d lost his accent, and he groaned in agreement), and was the son of a striking miner. He had voted Labour all his life – as had I until I got into the business of how sausages and politics are made – was a supporter of Corbyn, and asked what my issue was with him. It’s a bit hard to explain estate demolition to someone when you’ve had half a dozen pints and been pogoing across a dance floor to his music, but I did my best. Interestingly, given the wall-to-wall lies Labour maintains about their programme, he had heard something about what I told him. He came across as a really decent bloke, and like most decent blokes he was desperate for a change from this Tory government, which is why Corbyn’s craven lying to people like him is so indefensible. I argued that Corbyn’s abject failure on every aspect of his party’s housing policies, far from being one of many issues facing the Labour leader, is the strongest indication we have of what sort of government he’ll form if elected to power, and it’s a million miles away from the one Corbyn’s promising to his deluded followers. He responded that Corbyn had to gain power first, and I said that we have to hold this rotten stinking Labour Party to account before they get into power, because by the time they form a government it’ll be too late. While few political parties keep their promises once in power, none have ever bettered them.

But apart from the lies of the Labour Party and their butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth leader, I was still struck by the bizarre response even a crowd like this had to that idiotic chant. These weren’t kids or the kind of religious nutters you see at Momentum rallies, and yet they were ready, at the drop of a hat, to behave like school children and sing their hymn to their messiah. I remember that famous photograph of The Beatles clowning about with Harold Wilson in 1964, but I can’t remember any politician having such support from people who would not consider themselves overtly political but presumably do consider themselves – for want of a better word – ‘cool’. So the question is, when did it become cool to behave like a star-struck groupie around a politician? I’ve always thought politicians were considered a notch above child molester in the rank of people you’d want to pose beside for a photo. Thatcher, certainly, had her share of adulation from the hooray-Henry stockbrokers in the 1980s, but that was because she was making them filthy rich. For as long as I can remember it’s been accepted that all politicians are by definition and profession liars, and yet somehow Labour propagandists have managed to convince a large part of the UK population that – even if the Labour party itself needs some changes – their current leader is the first politician in history to speak The Truth. I can’t recall any political figure commanding the sort of starry-eyed stupidity, toe-curling gormlessness and cringeworthy credulity that Corbyn does. It’s as if everything we’ve ever known about politics and politicians has been emptied out of the can-opened heads of half the UK and poured down a 1970s trash compactor. I know a lot of people are terrified of what’s happening to this knocking-shop of a country and are desperate for salvation from Theresa May’s cabal of crooks, pimps and used-car salesmen, but we’ve had corrupt-to-their-Eton-tie-knots governments before, and I don’t remember Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock drawing this sort of adolescent fandom.

I’ve been trying to understand this phenomenon since Corbynmania reduced the estate occupying housing movement of 2015 to the come-all-ye-faithful zombies of 2016-17, and I think there’s a connection between the opprobrium music figures like Morrissey and, more recently, Nick Cave have drawn for their views on issues such as touring Israel and Corbyn’s bizarre popularity across the spectrum of what passes for popular culture in the UK these days. In the absence of political agency to affect change beyond choosing between one capitalist administration and another every five years, it seems that we now expect our musicians and other ‘celebrities’ to single-handedly solve that minor matter of Israel and the Middle East; and by the same token, we’re happy – eager even, with that certainty that defines all religious dogma – to reduce the complexity of (and barriers to) real political change in this country to the chant of idiot children too scared of what’s staring them in the face every day to confront the political reality of our time. We’ll violently attack those who question our right to call ourselves a boy or a girl and chain ourselves to a runway in protest at the building of a new airport, yet we expect Nick Cave to sort out the Middle-East peace process and Jeremy Corbyn single-handedly to transform the sixth most powerful capitalist state in the world into a socialist utopia with free healthcare, an ethical foreign policy, nationalised railways and a council house for everyone who wants one.

If you really believe this, then I guess chanting ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ over and over again is about the extent of your political knowledge and understanding of the world; but I’ll always prefer the dark scepticism of The Smiths.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

‘Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before . . .’

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