There seem to be some big things that Britain’s media and political classes don’t get about the new Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn and his ‘kinder politics’. One is that they are judging him as a politician but he’s acting as a campaigner. Another is that his weakness is seen as ‘not being electable’ and therefore not a threat to the Conservatives (the party in government) but there’s no election for a long time. Instant electability is not a requirement. If he sticks around, all sorts of things may change.
For non-UK readers let me try to summarise. In a classic example of unintended consequences, two weeks ago Corbyn was elected by a landslide after the Labour Party enabled almost anyone to become a member and get a vote in choosing the next leader. (Ed Miliband, his predecessor, resigned after a heavy defeat in a General Election earlier this year).
A long term campaigner as an obscure back-bench MP on (mainly) universalist ‘causes’, a left winger and serial rebel against the ‘Party line’, Corbyn was seen by 90% of Labour MPs as unelectable in any General Election, should he be put before the British public. Thanks to the change in rules, the unthinkable has happened and amidst much internal chaos, Corbyn is now presiding over his first Labour Conference as Leader. Thanks also to a relatively recent change in UK rules, we have fixed term Parliaments and the next election won’t be until 2020.
More Popular Than Expected
I make no great claims to prediction but right now Corbyn is winning far more public approval than many media commentators and politicians expected. People from all shades of opinion and degrees of political interest or disinterest have warmed to his ‘difference’, his patent authenticity, his emphasis on ‘principles’, his refusal to be packaged and spun as a ‘professional’ politician, and a series of small but significant gestures of political unconventionality. At his first Prime Minister’s question time he read out questions sent in by the public. He looks ‘badly dressed’. He makes a virtue out of differing views, publicly stated, in his Shadow Cabinet. He came on stage at the conference modestly, and without fanfare. In a society where politics is hidebound by Parliamentary tradition and convention this is a big deal.
So like many other ‘populist’ politicians making a virtue out of playing to a ‘non-mainstream’ values base, Corbyn looks and sounds ‘different’ from those who play to the ‘mainstream’ or the ‘centre’ because media and research professionalism says that’s the only way to win, and end up all ‘looking the same’ (something many people in the UK claim to hate) . In motivational values terms Corbyn is at the Universalist polar opposite to Nigel Farage of UKIP (authoritarian, appealing to the Power/ Materialism base).
Conventional wisdom may have it that this will simply drive the Labour Party into a smaller political ghetto (in values terms, mainly Pioneers – see this previous blog for data), leaving the middle ground (mainly occupied by Prospectors who Labour critically failed to retain support from at the General Election) free for Conservatives such as George Osborne. But I think that Corbynism could do real damage to the Conservatives, and partly because he has five years in which to do it, even if he himself doesn’t last that long as leader.
Damage to the Tories
Here’s why: simply because his victory was so unexpected, Corbyn is receiving huge media attention. This means that his ‘radical’, ‘left wing’ and ‘progressive’ views are receiving huge exposure in mainstream. Lots of people, especially young people too young to remember the politics of say the 1960s – 1980s, are hearing such political ideas for the first time. This is generating an air of excitement and youthful energy around a political leader in his sixties whose views the labour Party had long buried as political suicide because they would alienate the aspirational middle ground, or ‘Thatcher’s Children’ (as values research shows, mainly Prospectors).
Should these views become almost in any way fashionable, Corbyn’s newly acquired star status might even start to attract these ‘aspirational voters’. He’s not much talking to them or at them but more to his base yet simply being a ‘star’, a political celebrity, could be enough to win some over. It may well not be enough to win a General Election but very few people (not least Prospectors) vote by analysis and calculation, much more by intuition, Kahneman’s System One. By being the first prominent politician who has made many of them interested in politics, it is likely that some will vote for him on that basis alone.
If he and his allies succeed in pulling of the accidental ‘trick’ of social mobilisation that brought him to power as the leader of a party, and use it to build an army of activists prepared to campaign in a General Election, he could reverse the ‘hollowing out’ of British politics.
If that still seems impossibly unlikely, what is much more probable is that the ‘airtime’ the views of his team will receive, for example talking about renationalising the railways (something polling shows many Conservatives even approve of), and policies essentially designed to redistribute wealth and increase fairness and reduce inequality, will lead to these ideas re-entering the mainstream of British politics. For decades Labour didn’t talk about them, leaving an opportunity for the Greens and the Scottish National Party to do so.
What could really hurt the Conservatives though is that Corbyn could be recalibrating British politics. Last night I saw the editor of The Guardian pointing out on tv that Corbyn is talking a lot about changing how British politics is done (for example by ruling out personal attacks) and not about changing how Britain is governed (once you are in government). In so doing Corbyn is aligning himself with the public.
If there is wide public resonance with this ‘narrative’, Corbyn could force the Conservatives to compete on his terms not theirs. If his proposals come to frame the questions that the media put to all politicians, as the media do not like to be out of step with popular opinion, he could shift where ‘the centre ground’ lies. If Government v Opposition debates start to be run about ‘fairness’ as well as ‘affordability’ for example, the Conservatives may find it harder going.
Part of that public opinion is simply about liking. There are quite a lot of people – I have no idea how many – who say they quite like this strange man Corbyn because he seems different, authentic and honest, even if they disagree with many of his views. The Conservatives, not Tony Blair, will look out dated.
Finally, if he continues to talk pointedly and openly about wealth, privilege and abuse of both, Corbyn is likely to alert many people to the reality that the current British Conservative Government is indeed run by a highly privileged elite of landed aristocrats and very rich men and women, who do not appear to be experiencing the austerity they impose on the rest of the country. If their authority is also weakened by being seen to be on the wrong side of improving how politics is done, Corbyn could make the Conservatives look a lot less socially attractive.
For generations British political analysts have puzzled over why many British voters seem to vote for parties whose policies seem to disadvantage them, especially economically. Corbyn could win back some of those (the ‘lost’ Old Labour vote especially) but if his star continues to rise in terms of simply being liked and receiving a lot of attention, he really could change British politics.
Side-Stepping the Ghost of 1976
Generations of Labour politicians have been haunted by the memory of the 1976 ‘IMF crisis’ when confidence in Sterling collapsed and Britain had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. It paved the way to the emergence of Thatcherism and then New Labour and the political conventions of pitching to the ‘middle ground’ of voters that Corbyn seems to reject, in a style he definitely rejects, and with fiscal conservatism that (like Syriza)… he appears to accept.
Since that time the London media has used business or market opinion as a yardstick of credibility against which to instantly ‘measure’ government economic policies. Conventional wisdom says a Corbyn programme would instantly fail such a test. Yet it may no longer be so simple, because the wisdom of the markets (think Banking Crisis) and the authority of Big Business (think VW) are themselves diminished. That might not count for much once in government but that in turn might not worry voters who simply want to see a different type of politician being given a chance to ‘have a go’. At least for the time being, it’s campaigning, not politics as you know it.