‘Jeremy Corbyn Night’ at the Forum in Kentish Town, on Monday night, should have been a scene of orgiastic pleasure for socialist Labour. Corbyn’s victory was the triumph the grand old reactionaries of north London have been waiting a generation for. But they weren’t happy; they were as angry and full of bile as ever.
The scene took me right back to my childhood in Islington in the 1970s. My neighbours in the queue outside the Forum had posher voices than you hear at Annabel’s. The smart greybeards from the £2 million villas of Kentish Town and Islington were joined by a new generation of under-thirties: white, university-educated, also with upmarket voices. And how they lapped up the tide of anger pouring from the stage. The comedian Arthur Smith celebrated the day Margaret Thatcher died, to cheers from the audience, and quoted Jack Dee — ‘The Russians, they knew how to treat the royal family’. He went on to describe the traditional Tory fire drill in a crowded building — ‘Run for the door and trample over everyone else.’
Brian Eno, formerly of Roxy Music, mixed sanctimony with unpleasantness. He told us how he started writing left-wing protest letters decades ago because so few people write them, ‘unless they’re nutters from the right’. Does he ever read the Guardian letters page? Eno argued that Corbyn’s victory wasn’t enough. The left had to keep on fighting for the cause — something they don’t naturally tend to do, because they’re ‘nice’ and aren’t ‘permanently bitter’; because they like doing interesting things and ‘have girlfriends’. The implication was clear — lefties are lovely, caring people, unlike those nasty nerdy Tories. The comedian Francesca Martinez did more than imply, in her skit on the Tories’ ‘smarmy c*** gene’.
Jeremy Corbyn was unable to make the evening himself but he did send a message, saying his campaign was one ‘of hope and optimism’. Well, there wasn’t much evidence of either on stage at the Forum. It was like going back to the 1980s, and watching a series of elderly figures imitating Rick from The Young Ones. Other principal hate targets included Tony Blair — Arthur Smith had a line on him dressing up as Batman at a Chipping Norton fancy dress party, being ‘sucked off by Rebekah Brooks’. David Cameron got another dose of bile for his smooth ‘public-school skin’, as Smith mused on what his testicles were like — ‘quail’s eggs wrapped in silk’.
The Daily Mail was another safe public enemy at the Forum. And not just the Mail. Sara Pascoe, a comedian, reached new heights of sanctimony, saying, ‘Sorry if you’re a journalist, but you should get a nicer job.’
Where was all the hopey-changey stuff? The new red dawn; the glorious revolution ushered in by Jeremy? Well, there wasn’t much time for that, not while there was still a chance to be vile about the Tories.
There’s the same approach in a new ebook, Poets for Corbyn, crammed with hate-filled poems. ‘Wongawongaland’ — by a poet called Tom Pickard — centres around an evil Tory, ‘Doctor Gobbles’. And here is ‘Corbyn’ by Ernest Schonfield, a lecturer in German at the University of Glasgow.
‘So I can vote for Corbyn
Because I’m sick of New Labour bullshit
and I can’t wait to see the look
on war criminal Tony Blair’s face
when they elect a decent man
of principle and integrity
rather than some Tory-lite twat!’
How I feel for the undergraduates reading German at Glasgow University if this is the best their lecturer can do.
Left-wing hatred isn’t a new thing. Who can forget Polly Toynbee’s 2001 attack on Auberon Waugh and his fellow conservative writers two days after he died: ‘Effete, drunken, snobbish, sneering, racist and sexist, they spit poison at anyone vulgar enough to want to improve anything at all.’
In that same article, Toynbee said that Boris Johnson, then editor of this magazine, had asked her to write a piece about why the right is so nasty and why liberals are on the whole nicer — ‘His idea and something he disarmingly thought true: good medicine for his complacent readership, he said.’ Toynbee refused; she didn’t want to write for a right-wing magazine where politics was ‘just an Eton Wall Game between left/right tribes’.
Much as I revere Boris, I think he got it wrong. Of course, there are lots of nice people on the left and lots of unpleasant people on the right. But not as many right-wingers go in for ad hominem attacks as their opponents on the left do.
Why should this be so? The sanctimony comes from the idea that the left are goodies; the right baddies. There’s a sort of logic to it: the left, in a romantic, altruistic way, want to take from the rich to give to the poor; the right, in a hard-headed, cold way, point out that it just won’t work in the end. Warmed by this bath of all-round niceness to the world at large, the left feel entitled to be rude to individuals. The right — apologetic about their cool pragmatism — feel less entitled to make personal attacks.
Left-wing rage derives from frustration at not being in power — which they feel is their rightful position thanks to moral superiority. Thus Polly Toynbee’s marvellous self-regard in her column last month: ‘If being right was all it took to win elections, the Tories wouldn’t be in power.’
You could see the same frustration at the Forum. Yes, the Corbynistas were delighted their man had become Labour leader; but even their greatest optimists know it’s an uphill struggle for him to reach No. 10. Still, their nastiness on Monday night can only be partly explained by sanctimony and rage. It was also just pure nastiness.
Harry Mount’s Odyssey: Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus is published by Bloomsbury