Last fan standing: Jeremy Corbyn supporters in the 2019 General Election

Over the course of the last three General Elections I have sought to document how fan-like engagements have increasingly shaped political participation. In 2015 I highlighted the centrality of polysemy in political messaging in FPTP-electoral systems; a theme echoed in the content-light slogans of the 2019 Conservative campaign focusing on process (getting Brexit done) rather than substance (what Brexit is). Two years later, I suggested that the affective investments in Corbyn among supporters that facilitated a particular reading of Labour’s 2017 defeat likely spelled future electoral calamity.

In the 2019 General Election campaign I, alongside my colleagues Benjamin LitherlandJoseph Smith and Niki Cheong, took to the field for in-depth interviews with 47 Jeremy Corbyn supporters across the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the East Midlands. While my 2017 prediction proved accurate, our interim findings suggests that the grounds on which it was made failed to sufficiently account for important differences between supporters.

The decline of the Labour leader’s popularity and capacity to serve as fan object since the heydays of Glastonbury revellers’ “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” chants documented in BES panel studies since 2017 coincided with a period in which the ‘constructive ambiguity’ (in other words polysemy) of Labour’s Brexit position grew unsustainable. Already strongly disliked by 2016 Leave voters (nearly 60% of whom rated Corbyn 0 out of 10 in the latest BES data) Corbyn’s wider appeal had been much more strongly tied to the Remain cause than Labour frontbenchers past and present have been willing to admit.

Notably, many of the Corbyn supporters we interviewed described the 2016 EU membership referendum as catalyst of their engagement in politics and subsequent support of Jeremy Corbyn as disappointed Remainers. Those who by remaining Corbyn supporters were included in our sample, negotiated this seeming contradiction through strategies of textual selection and distinct reading positions: from those unaware of Corbyn’s Euroscepticism to those interpreting his recent conversion to offering a People’s Vote as a manifestation of him upholding principles of fairness. Others saw the values that had driven their Remain support translated into an agenda that they felt was advanced by Corbyn beyond the question of EU membership, namely questions of fairness, greater equality and the protection of the NHS. While these strategies succeeded in maintaining an affective bond for our interviewees, to many former Corbyn supporters they did not.

Yet more significant for the future of the Labour Party and to a broader reflection on the impact of the fanisation of political participation is the recognition of widely diverging practices, readings and affective investments among supporters. The clusters of different fan groups that emerged in our research map closely onto fan groups across the spectrum from audiences to petty producers identified by Abercrombie and Longhurst: fans whose media use is generally broad (and often still broadcast-centred), as is their fan object (commonly being the Labour Party, translating to emotionally invested support of the current leader); a second group whose fan object is defined more narrowly (specifically Corbyn rather than Labour) and whose media engagement is more specific and tied to social networks both online and offline; and enthusiasts whose fandom is embedded in a tight social network through organisations such as Momentum and the use of niche media such as The Canary or Novara Media; and whose fan objects shifts towards their own activity, as was reflected in the focus on friendships and campaigning achievements in Momentum’s first reaction to Labour’s defeat. Crucially, while all groups share an affective bond with Corbyn as fan object and regard their readings as reinforced by being part of a broader movement, their reading and understanding of shared terms – and with it their visions of the future they strive for – is widely divergent. While almost all participants described themselves as socialists their definitions of socialism ranged from ‘being sociable’ and caring about others (among the most casual fans), via broadly social democratic ideas of a stronger welfare state, to support for expansive forms of nationalisation coming closest (if not close) to an orthodox reading of socialism among some Momentum members.

Rather than a sense of a shared positive agenda, what tied Corbyn supporters together was thus a shared dislike of the Conservative party and Boris Johnson in particular, much as, it seems safe to assume, such anti-fandom of Jeremey Corbyn drove the Conservative vote to a yet higher degree. In the UK’s post-referendum participatory political culture antipathy and anti-fandom hence function as key denominators around which fans and voters coalesce – a theme that not only marked Corbyn’s rise (with his initial attraction to most respondents being not any of the three other, better known leadership candidates) and fall from power, but likely to shape the Labour leadership election, too.