How Corbyn Infiltrated Popular Culture

Felice Southwell looks at how Jeremy Corbyn galvanised the youth of Britain and a wider popular culture.

By Felice Southwell

There are many festival chants you’ll hear over the summer in muddy fields up and down the country, but the most recent shows exactly how the Labour Party leader has successfully infiltrated the popular culture of Britain like no politician in recent history.

I first heard the chant for myself at the Isle of Wight festival and to begin with al I heard was the well-known bass riff to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”. It was only when the group of loudly chanting girls got closer that I heard the words that they were saying were “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”.

That they were chanting his name was not surprising (after all the festival did coincide with the optimistic feeling present on the day of the General Election in June). What did make me sit up and think was the way that other people on the long and muddy trek back to our tents not only listened but joined in.

The sweeping nature of the viral festival chant has put Corbyn in a unique position politically. He has managed something politicians have been attempting since the dawn of time; he’s engaged young people. The promisingly high turnout of the election, estimated by IPSOS MORI in their ‘How Britain Voted’ survey as 69% among registered 18 – 24 year olds, shows how political campaigning and targeted policies for young people has paid off in terms of increased participation. Furthermore, with IPSOS MORI also finding a large swing to Labour among voters aged 18-24, beating the Conservatives by 62% to 27%, compared to a 43% to 27% split in 2015, it seems that Labour’s campaign also paid off in terms of gains.

It seems weird now to think of a time where there was not a social media presence of politics and especially political leaders on our newsfeeds. It has become the norm to see videos of speeches, tweets, or even political memes as soon as we open our apps. Corbyn’s infiltration starts here, among the dominant platforms of youth media.

Just take a look at music and politics. A connection long-established by protest songs, from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in 1939 to Bob Dylan’s classic ‘The Times They Are a-Changin” in 1964 and was reaffirmed by the “#Grime4Corbyn” movement. Corbyn’s interview with the popular MC, JME, founder of the Boy Better Know label, was viewed 352,480 times on YouTube by the time of writing. In this interview Corbyn talked about the housing crisis and higher education debts while the rapper praised the politician for being genuine. It wasn’t long before other grime artists came out in support of the Labour leader, and thus the hashtag was born leading to a social media campaign by Labour focusing on utilising every aspect of popular youth culture.

This is a prime example of how Corbyn has pushed his party’s message using a platform like YouTube which can inform and engage young people with no comparable example from the Conservatives, who’s main message of ‘strong and stable leadership’ was unanimously laughed at by the internet, even before the shock coalition following the election results.

But what about the older generation? Arguably we’ve not seen a similar infiltration into popular culture by Corbyn among voters over 50. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Labour’s message didn’t resonate. In fact, the BBC claims that in the 35 Labour gains, only 15 of them had more 18-24 year olds than average. Also, in many Labour-held constituencies, candidates managed to increase their majority. One extraordinary example of this is the MP for Bristol West, Thangam Debbonaire, who increased her majority from 5,673 in 2015 to 37,336 in 2017. This shows how, even if Corbyn didn’t fully infiltrate popular culture for all ages, his ideology resonated deeply within society.

In many ways, Corbyn did win this election. To reiterate what many commentators are saying, Corbyn’s rise from unknown backbencher, an unelectable outsider to a supported and unifying leader of a strong opposition is astounding. It is a political career spanning many years where Corbyn has been on the ‘right side of history’, notably opposing apartheid and the invasion of Iraq. His rise has been followed by a surge in political engagement both online and in the polls. Even missing out on winning a majority couldn’t stop his enthusiasm and optimistic drive to work, with a video emerging in the immediate aftermath of the election results of him saying “We’re back and we’re ready for it all over again”.

The truth is, I shouldn’t have been surprised that people joined in the Corbyn chant. Let’s face it, if it’s come to a politician introducing an artist at Glastonbury with a passionate speech on how we need to control inequality to make a better society, then politics has already come a very long way. In the face of sickening acts of terror and outrageous reflections of inequality in society, people have nowhere to turn except to love instead of hate and that resilience has paved the way for a new, unique type of politics which is exciting. The unity and engagement created by three simple words cemented, for me, the infectious optimism and drive for real change that Corbyn represents.


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