Corbyn’s victory shows that Westminster politicians are losing their grip

As expected, Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as leader of Britain’s Labour Party over the weekend. Thus ended the attempt by the bulk of Labour’s parliamentary party to remove him. There is much comment in the usual places that this will be a disaster for the party, and by and large I agree. But we are missing the wider significance. Mainstream Westminster politicians are losing their grip on politics. Wise politicians will need to change tactics.

Ironically enough, the heart of the MPs’ challenge on Mr Corbyn was that he was incompetent. That may be true, but the MPs’ attempt to unseat him failed to show any serious political competence itself. It is interesting to speculate as to why professional politicians should be so comprehensively outmanoeuvred by the amateurs. Britain’s electoral system does not in fact encourage serious electoral competition by its leading politicians. Most MPs are elected to safe parliamentary seats – so the main political skill is getting selected in the highly competitive, but internal, process of choosing candidates. Advance after that comes through ministerial or shadow ministerial promotion, which is even more about schmoozing that cut-and-thrust. When faced with a serious electoral challenge amongst a mass audience, MPs are often ill-equipped. This was demonstrated dramatically by Labour in Scotland, rich in formerly safe Labour seats, when they proved quite incapable of handling the SNP surge in 2015. It is also why there is little prospect of the MPs breaking away to form their own party – they don’t have the nous.

This is not so true of the Lib Dems, whose seats are much more competitive, with an important exception. In 2005 many Lib Dem seats really were safe, and were successfully passed over to politicians with little experience of hand-to-hand politics. These included Nick Clegg, David Laws and Chris Huhne, who then proceeded to take over the party’s leadership in parliament. The former, at least, proved ill-equipped for serious political competition.

But it hasn’t just been the MPs who have been routed. Their professional advisers (who like to style themselves as “strategists”) have been proved wanting, for all their clever talk. The Lib Dems are sore about the coterie of advisers that Mr Clegg surrounded himself with. Labour Leader Ed Miliband’s fared little better in 2015. The Conservatives’ David Cameron clearly felt they had cracked it. Relentless negative campaigning had seemed to win the day in the Scottish referendum in 2014, and for the Tories in 2015. But it fell apart in the Remain campaign in the EU referendum, against a Leave campaign that was sparky but distinctly amateur. Meanwhile the rout of the professionals is being perpetrated by Donald Trump in the US, to say nothing of Mr Corbyn’s  impressive victories in 2015 and 2016.

What accounts for this? Mainstream politics has lost its appeal. Perhaps it is too defensive. By and large the easy way to win elections is to undermine your opponent – but this has the long-term effect of undermining all politicians. Then there are the inevitable compromises of office, as the complex problems of the modern world will not yield to quick solutions. And the checks and balances of democratic politics mean that politicians have to cooperate with people they disagree with in order to get anything done, be that within parties or between them.

And then there is the fact that economic development does not seem to be going so well in the developed economies. Globalisation and technological advance helped roll back poverty in the developing world, and raise living standards for many in the rich countries too, but there were significant losers, who feel let down by their leaders. Then there was the economic crash of 2008/09, which showed that much of the economic growth in the previous decade was a mirage. Since then the developed world has been stuck in a period of low growth that mystifies economists – though many explanations are offered (poor macroeconomic management; inequality; the wrong sort of technology; demographic changes; reversing gains from trade; too much regulation; too much greenery – each has its fans). Confidence that mainstream politicians know what they are doing drains away.

And people are getting fed up. Exploiting this fed-up-ness lies behind the success of the amateurs, like Mr Trump, Mr Corbyn and the Brexit campaign. This has a very dark side. These campaigners may be sparky, but their main weapons are destructive memes, which bear little relationship to the truth. Indeed it is often referred to as post-truth politics. It doesn’t seem to matter what Mr Trump or Mr Corbyn says, his followers lap it up. Many of them know that a lot of it is untrue, but they love to give the other side a beating. That may be a bit harsh on Mr Corbyn, who is nowhere near the Trump or Brexit league of untruth, but his supporters seem unable to engage with adverse evidence, especially about the electoral appeal of their policies. The rise of modern media makes it very easy to live in a bubble of like-minded people who avoid checking their beliefs with reality. It is ironic that these same people accuse professional politicians of being in a bubble of their own. Actually polling, focus groups and various other techniques of politics make modern politicians more informed about popular feelings than most. It doesn’t help.

What to do? All this brings to mind Visconti’s film of Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard about the struggles of the Sicilian aristocracy during the Risorgimento (and perhaps my favourite film ever): “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same” says the leading character.

Some, like the FT’s Janan Ganesh, urge staying true to old-fashioned, pragmatic politics that the Conservatives have made their own. That is unappealing for those on the liberal left and centre. It means giving ground to the narrow-minded.

Instead I have to draw deep on my liberal optimism. Deep down people understand the truth, and will put up with lies only for so long. That is how Soviet Communism was destroyed. It is why the BBC brand remains so strong – look at the hoo-ha over Bake Off. Liberal politicians must stick with it: don’t play the dark forces at their own game.

But they must do more. They must be exciting again. They must discover new ways of tackling the modern world’s problems, and sell them to the public. To be fair to Mr Corbyn, this is part of his appeal, though he harnesses the dark, post-truth side too, and a lot of his ideas look like 1970s nostalgia. But some of his supporters seem willing to search for new ideas. Never has  this been so important.

Slowly the liberal left is finding these ideas. A new constitutional settlement for more inclusive and devolved politics. An economy less dependent on big corporations. Environmental sustainability being at the centre of the way we think, rather than endless attempts to expand consumption. Education for all that promotes modern skills and wellbeing. Public services that solve human problems rather than applying inappropriate big-industry models. Celebrating cosmopolitanism rather than give in to inward-looking nostalgia.

This thinking has to be finished and turned into an exciting synthesis that people from across political parties can take up, and which will appeal to the sceptical. Bridges must be built between the more open of the Corbynistas, the Labour centrists, the Lib Dems and the Greens – and not forgetting liberal Tories and Nationalists too. Surely that is our best hope.


9 thoughts on “Corbyn’s victory shows that Westminster politicians are losing their grip”

  1. Hi Matthew, another interesting piece, and a lot to reflect on.

    On a pessimistic note, I wonder if talk of unaccountable “elites” is actually an inversion of the change we are seeing in politics – with direct media meaning people realise politicians are actually just as fallible as people like them, not less. As Groucho Marx/Woody Allen said, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that had someone like me for a member”.

    For all the talk of new media, it’s easy to forget just how new it all is. Clement Atlee was no more charismatic (nor, probably, competent) than, say, the Miliband brothers -and in the scope of history, really a very recent figure. I think you might see the connection from this Wordsworth poem about Mont Blanc:

    From a bare ridge we also first beheld
    Unveiled the summit of Mont Blanc, and grieved
    To have a soulless image on the eye
    That had usurped upon a living thought
    That never more could be.

    Nothing is in soft focus anymore, like paintings of Mont Blanc or ideas about Atlee. The mystic qualities of steady leadership have been lost – whilst human nature has not changed to need it. Analagous with worries about the collapse of the Church of England, if people don’t believe in God, perhaps, they’ll believe in anything.

    On a more positive note, and perhaps this is a contradiction, Liberal Democrats should work their mind through the paradox of an election in which we lost 86% of our seats – but our government won an election. It was a good government and the polls showed tthis. Certainly voters misinterpreted the role we played, but overall, I think the electorate do get a big picture, most of the time. I usually hate to say the public can be lied to, but over the EU, they actually have been, for many decades.

    1. There are always lots of reasons to be pessimistic. A certain sunny optimism is one of liberals’ best traits. People may not agree with optimists, but they often like to be near them! Each age seems to have its own version of pessimism over the human condition.

      On talking about the flaws in our heros, it is striking that Trump and Corbyn seem to be immune. That would surely change if either of them won power, I suppose.

      And as for now, I like David Boyle’s idea that we amidst a paradigm shift, like in the 1980s or 1940s, which occur every 40 years or so. In the 1970s, as I remember well, it seemed that everything had gone to pot, and that the country and the economy was unmanageable. Then what the left calls “neoliberalism” came to the rescue. On this narrative, this philosophy is now played out.

  2. Matthew

    I think people are fed up. I don’t know about the rest of the UK but here in Scotland many people have just had it with politicians who just talk crap, and in Labours case, were happy to see the social problems in Scotland as the peoples fault while taking their vote for granted. Poverty in Scotland served Labour well but the referendum opened many eyes and people decided they had had enough. That doesn’t mean that enough want to end the union right now or have given up on the rest of the UK, but it is a clear from the SNP surge that the message is that the old ways are no longer acceptable.

    The SNP are far from perfect, but they understand that they can only succeed if they listen to the members and to the voters to varying degrees, they have even been able to move towards what they call a social democratic movement, but for me just actually feels a lot like social liberalism in some minor ways but they sensed the public mood for change and took advantage of that.

    Politics in this country are for the minority, or are perceived to be. First past the post has no place in a modern democracy but again serves the interests of the few at the top in my opinion. I would not be surprised to see PR (rightly) on the agenda in the medium term, a situation where the Liberals, Greens and even UKip are under represented compared to their vote is not good for democracy in this country and can only lead to greater discontent within the UK, possibly to the extent that Scotland does decide to vote yes in the future.

    We are also currently seved by too many poor and careerist politicians, that is our fault to a degree and the fault of the party system that favours those with money and who say the right things. I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn can win a general election but if he is what the members of the Labour Party want then it’s fine by me and enough are indicating they want change. The Blairites either leave, or bide their time, but I suspect that their time has passed.

    I do think that the Liberal Democrats can have a future again in this country, and I remain convinced that we need Liberalism, but they have got to start to fight for Liberalism. PR and Federalism have to be lines in the sand that will not be crossed and in Scotland Rennies anti Scotland retoric has to stop. The Scottish Liberal Democrats actually come across as anti Scottish, now I know that they are not but perception is everything. They have got to stop the SNP bad rubbish on everything and stop standing beside Labour and the Tories. They need to stand up and be Liberals, find the common ground that only Liberalism can deliver and show the voters that they are a party that can be trusted to do whats right.

    Overall though in my 47 years I cannot think of a time where I have ever been so cynical about our politicians, in all parties. We are ill served and if they are not careful they will wake up one day and find Scotland gone, the EU shifted to the right and England/Wales under never ending Conservative Government. They have got to stop Government for the few and the vested interests and find ways to include everyone in our society, failure to do that will open up a can of worms that I dread to think about, a step back the 30’s and 40’s is maybe not a far fetched thought.

    1. Thank you Bruce. I think you catch the mixture of hope and despair that many liberals feel. One problem is that though electoral reform is fundamental, the public is sceptical. Therefore making it a red line will be seen as yet more cynical positioning. I’m not sure what the way through there is. Perhaps to package it with wider constitutional reform. But liberals also need to find issues that have a more direct impact on people’s lives, and use them to build trust. That may be public service reform.

  3. though he [Jeremy Corbyn] harnesses the dark, post-truth side too, and a lot of his ideas look like 1970s nostalgia.

    I’m not sure what you mean by that. Particularly he phrase “post-truth side”. What is this truth you are referring to which you are concerned we might moving away from?

    I don’t believe there is any such truth. Since the 70’s we’ve been fed such a lot of misinformation on the way our economy works that hardly anyone can see a solution to our problems anymore. We might think we know, but what we think we know is almost certainly wrong. I was going to write “IMO” but it’s more than that. If the conventional wisdom was correct we wouldn’t have the problems we do.

    And it’s those unresolved problems which are the underlying cause of us all being cynical about our politicans.

    1. Truth is slippery, but you only approach it with a certain engaged scepticism which allows you to review contrary evidence honestly, and even change your mind. I don’t see that with much of Corbyn’s coterie. Whether that’s about the internal workings of the party (bullying, anti-Semitism, etc.) , with party’s electoral appeal, or with wider policy questions. All contrary evidence seems be dismissed as plots by the enemy. That is what I mean by “post-truth”.
      As you know, I profoundly disagree with you about economics. Where you see certainties I see fog. There was a perfectly coherent economic case for austerity, even if it turned out to be mistaken. But I don’t think I well ever persuade you of that! But I have tried to engage with your argument. I just find it unpersuasive.

      1. No sooner had I written my last post than I read Polly Toynbee in yesterday’s Guardian using the same phrase of “post-truth”. Very odd!

        I’d agree that some on the left have a bunker mentality. Our enemies are out to get us! etc. Maybe they are. What do you think? Personally I don’t mind if others have different, more rightish opinions to my own. There’s an argument for saying the railways should be nationalised and there’s a case for saying they shouldn’t be. It’s natural that we have different views on the ideal size of government. I’m not sure I can be too dogmatic, myself, about that. I’d say maybe 40% of GDP?

        But, and perhaps you’ve noticed, I do get frustrated when I try to explain my ideas on economics but then others just say they don’t agree, or it’s too simplistic, or “unpersuasive” etc etc. Anyone can say that about just about anything. Yes, I could be wrong but why? That’s the question to answer.

        As far as I can make out, what I’m saying is nothing new. It was all said by Keynes, Kalecki and Lerner over 70 years ago. Add on the idea of sectoral balances developed by Godley and any politican understanding what those 4 individuals have to say has a very adequate instruction manual for running the economy.

        I’d recommend Kalecki. Arguably he was Keynesian before Keynes and is a lot easier to read!

        1. The term has been around for a bit. The Economist did a whole analysis on it a couple of weeks ago.

          Yes the left is a broad church, and I must be careful not to generalise. And a lot of the coverage in the mainstream media is abysmal. The press have long operated in “post-truth” or “ex-truth” perhaps, though the strength of other media (especially broadcast) used to limit what they could get away with.

          I’m sorry if it doesn’t seem I’m engaging sometimes. I get frustrated too. My journey on economics has been a long one, and I’m still an amateur as far as the profession is concerned (you need to get a masters degree before they even begin to notice you). I think there are many faults in conventional economics (a focus on economic growth, for a start), though, as one of my friends has pointed out, the real problem is less economists (who have some inkling of the discipline’s flaws) than the masses of civil servants, etc who adopt conventional economic thinking without questioning it. Still, I think it is better to chip away at the edges than take on the giant head-on. Small flaws are easier too prove, and can open up into major gaps.

          And I would not suggest that what you say is particularly new – if anything the issue is that you discount layers of thinking since the great founders. I think that the collapse of Bretton-Woods in 1970s changed dynamics profoundly, into a world that was very different from the one Keynes had to deal with. We need the help of people like Mundell, who was one of the few to anticipate it, as well as live through it. But we shouldn’t dismiss contemporary figures such as Krugman, Stiglitz, Summers, et al, much as we must be sceptical of them too, especially when they politicise their message.

          And I do agree on quite a few things. I think especially on the effectiveness or otherwise of monetary policy – or even on what it is. I’m amazed with how many people think that money is essentially about notes and coins – and even respectable economists talk that way (“printing money”). Your piece on Lib Dem Voice was rather good!

  4. Well thanks for that compliment. I like Stiglitz, Krugman and Summers too. I also like other less well known economists like Steve Keen, Stephanie Kelton and L Randall Wray.

    I’d always considered myself vaguely Keynesian but it did trouble me, especially after the GFC, that I didn’t really understand how the economy worked and what had caused the crisis.

    A few years ago, I stumbled upon an article by Prof Wray in which he discussed the nature of money which he claimed was ignored by many economists. To him it was just an IOU of government which was made valuable by our need to acquire those IOUs to pay our taxes. Taxes drive money was how he put it.

    Then he went on to explain we can all borrow a pound of sugar and issue an IOU for it. If we need another pound we issue another IOU. But we can’t borrow those IOUs back. It doesn’t make any sense to do that. If we try, all we’ll be doing is swapping one type of IOU for another. So, once we understand that, the concept of government borrowing becomes simply the swapping IOUs of one form (say cash) for IOUs of another (bonds or gilts). In other words there’s really no such thing as government borrowing.

    I have to say that was such a simple concept but one that hardly anyone understands. I won’t go any further now except to say everything else he had to say fitted together perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle! And the picture that emerges is not at all like the one we might expect according to conventional wisdom.

    In my day job I do have to figure out how things work and spot specious arguments etc. I like to think I’m reasonably good at figuring out how things work and with Prof Wray’s help I think I finally managed to satisfy myself that the economy does indeed work largely as he describes. It’s a pity he isn’t better known and recognised.

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