The Corbyn Effect

It’s dangerous to pay too much attention to politics, because one can get caught up in caring who wins and who loses, which is a deeply unproductive distraction.

However, the details of political conflicts are of significance to the  extent that they inform our understanding of the structure of government and of society, and the trends applying to them.

It’s in that spirit that I look at the phenomenon of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party. It might help to imagine you are reading about something a century in the past, to achieve the appropriate detachment from popular controversies.

An underappreciated element of Corbyn’s appeal is that the general standard of the candidates is so low. This is a consequence of the fact that for decades, the most able and ambitious people do not go into politics. That is by no means a phenomenon restricted to the Labour Party. Cameron is marginally adequate as politician, but the Conservatives waited years for him; from the fall of Thatcher in 1990 to Cameron’s nomination in 2005, the weakness of the leading personalities was the  most striking thing about the party. The only figure who looked and  acted like a Prime Minister was Michael Hesletine, who would certainly have been leader were it not for the minor fact that everybody else in the party hated him. The leaders and near-leaders they ended up with were either decent people lacking force and ambition, like Major and Duncan-Smith, or oddities like Hague and Howard. Today, there are no plausible rivals to Cameron. (The fact that people talk about another oddity, Boris Johnson, as a future Prime Minister is evidence enough of that).

Labour is in the same boat. Whatever the circumstances are that are favouring Corbyn, he would not be the front-runner if there were a rival candidate with the status markers of Cameron, Blair, or even Kinnoch.

The same phenomenon is visible in the United States. The last President who you could have pointed to at a young age as a plausible future  President was Clinton, though Gore would have counted had he managed a few more votes in 2000. Neither Bush 43 nor Obama had the same kind of ambition or strength of personality; they are both fairly ordinary men who ended up in office more or less by default, on family momentum in one case and via a lucky path through America’s racial dynamics in the other. Bush 43 to an extent rose to the demands of the job, becoming more presidential than many would have expected, while Obama strikingly failed to do the same, but it is ludicrous to compare either of them to truly top-class politicians like Reagan, Clinton or Nixon.

It is a complex question why the likes of Clinton or Nixon no longer appear on the political stage, but among many reasons, the most important is that it has been becoming more obvious to potential recruits that party politics is not where the real power is. Business, academia, journalism, or pressure-group politics are more reliable mechanisms for turning personal superiority into influence and status than competing for votes. (The decline of machine politics, as described by Jonathan Rauch, may be another reason).

It is in this environment of relatively unremarkable men running for office: Millibands, Obamas, George Osbornes and Liz Kendalls, that any kind of perceived radicalism, whether ideological like Corbyn’s or personal like Donald Trump’s or Boris Johnson’s, starts to become attractive to voters.

Moving on to Corbyn specifically, I think Tim Stanley’s view of his  support as essentially nostalgic for the 1970s is largely right. Corbyn is anything but a firebrand—he does not resemble an actual radical leader like Tony Benn or Ken Livingstone, he is just a time-server of the hard-left committee circuit. Dennis the Peasant, not Spartacus. But his position calls to mind the time before globalization,  privatisation, outsourcing and leveraged buy-outs. Also, strikingly, the time before diversity co-ordinators, microaggressions, paternity leave and intersectionalism. His recent proposal to carry women-only carriages on trains is a hilarious demonstration of how out of touch he is with today’s left. It is actually perfectly reasonable to suggest that women should have safe spaces protected from men, but, aside from the practical difficulty of enforcing them on unpoliced and near-empty passenger trains, it is far too traditionalist and conservative an idea for the Tories or UKIP, never mind the Labour Party.

The struggle most associated with Corbyn, on the other hand, is  anti-colonialism. It is that which has produced all the photographs of Corbyn standing with or shaking hands with half the world’s best-known terrorists. In a world without a Soviet Union providing propaganda support for rebels and separatists, that looks like being a bigger obstacle to his electoral chances than marxist economics.

So there are two interesting things to draw from the election. First, the shift in quality of personnel in top-level national politics. This is potentially huge, because of the impact on the popular perception of the functioning of democracy. Democracy continues fine when people hate their leader, but it stumbles when they despise him, and it seems quite likely that the next Prime Minister after Cameron, and the next US President after Obama, will be very widely despised (as was Bush). The intrusion of outsiders like Trump into the political arena is also destabilising to the legitimacy of the process.

The second thing is that if Corbyn does become Labour leader, with his radical-left credentials he could lend a kind of respectability to a more sceptical attitude to political correctness and identity politics. That depends on how he fares as leader, which depends in part on whether there is an outright split in Labour—a pitched battle between left and right, or even an SDP-style breakaway.

Again, the point is not to predict the outcome (the feedbacks in the system are so powerful and chaotic that any development might end up triggering the opposite effect as a backlash larger than the trigging event), still  less to guide any kind of political intervention (passivism, do you speak it?), but to understand the forces at work in the modern representative democracy.


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