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Hope Springs Eternal

“It’s easy to confuse democracy with democracy,” the always acute David Runciman writes in the current issue (dated August 27th) of the London Review of Books. It is indeed, largely because the word is so polysemous. Many of that growing tribe of media commentators mysteriously attracted to the attitudes of the far left (is it just that they’re bored?) felt that because the Greeks, or more precisely three and a half million Greeks out of the almost ten million electorate, voted No to the bailout conditions offered to/imposed on them then everyone else in the EU (population 503 million) should have felt bound by that democratic decision and gone back to the drawing board for another hard think. The only thing standing in the way of this common sense solution, we were told, was “the Germans”, or more specifically, Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble, frequently referred to in comment as “Frau” Merkel and “Herr” Schäuble, in a way that the bien pensants seem to think is quite funny and of course not at all racist. As it turned out, it was not just the Germans, and not just the Finns, and not just the Slovaks and the Slovenes and the Latvians, and not just the Austrians who did not feel absolutely morally bound by the Greek Oxi but in the end the talented gambler Mr Tsipras himself and a large majority of his parliamentary deputies. Democracy is one thing (or rather more than one thing), and political reality, and making the best of that frequently difficult and sticky reality, another.

David Runciman, however, is not thinking particularly about Greece but about the British Labour Party, which seems to be about to select young Jeremy Corbyn (66) as the man best qualified to lead it into the radiant future. The benefit of having a political party’s leader chosen by members and supporters rather than by a more restricted or artificial electoral college (MPs, party branches and trade union leaders for Labour, the famous “men in the grey suits” for the Tories) looks like a no-brainer. And that’s exactly what it seems to be boiling down to, since the collective of British Labour Party branch members, with added “new supporters”, appears indeed to have no brain, or a brain that looks as if it is programmed to shut down the body. Runciman’s particular point is that the micro-democracy of the current Labour exercise may not necessarily be good for the British macro-democracy –insofar as it could well have the effect of putting the Tories in power forever. And for this he –a little unfairly it seems to me – blames Ed Miliband and the abrupt manner of his departure.

Runciman compares the probable election of Corbyn as party leader to the Tories’ choice, in 2001, of Iain Duncan Smith (they could have had Ken Clarke, who would certainly have been a more broadly popular figure, but he was pro-European and didn’t appeal to the party rank and file). IDS was an old-style conservative in a way that David Cameron is not. His Euroscepticism and social conservatism appealed to the constituency organisations in spite of his standing a little apart from them in background: he was, and is, a Roman Catholic, while they are, for the most part, either the ladies who do the flowers for the (Anglican) church, boneheaded farmers or “go-ahead” businessmen, frequently dodgy. Cameron and Osborne are all in favour of money and people who have money and in the past that has often been enough for the Tory party; but there are of course other ways of being conservative, some of them perhaps even slightly interesting. To quite a few British voters at the time, however, Duncan Smith, as his party colleagues soon began to realise, came across as something of a weirdo, and if that was how he was going to be perceived it was quite likely that the electorate wouldn’t notice that Tony Blair, with his earnestness, somewhat piercing niceness and enthusiasm for bombing Iraq into democracy (and also en route to being “received” by Rome), was a bit of a weirdo too, although set against Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard he seemed like Mr Normal. And actually many voters, it appears, quite liked the niceness thing.

“Corbyn’s supporters,” Runciman argues, “are under few illusions that he fits the mould of a mainstream party leader. They know he’s at best an acquired taste and unlikely to be the man to win back voters lost to the Tories in the key marginals. A recent YouGov poll found that barely a quarter of Labour members believed that understanding how to win an election was one of the key qualities needed in a Labour leader (62 per cent wanted him or her to be ‘in touch with the concerns of ordinary people’).” “Ordinary people” of course, in this context, is not to be understood as statistically average sort of people or even as those people who don’t have a lot of money but rather as a vague amplification of “people who think like me”.

Breda O’Brien has been writing on this subject in The Irish Times (today, August 22nd) and as it happens she has been reading the same issue of the London Review of Books as I have, though she seems less taken by David Runciman’s analysis, partly because she too wants to take a swipe at “the mainstream”. One way to understand the apparent popular enthusiasm for Corbyn, Runciman writes, “is as a manifestation of what political scientists call the expressive, as opposed to the instrumental, theory of voting. If voting is instrumental then it’s presumed that voters are primarily motivated by the results they hope to achieve: leaders and parties who can deliver real benefits ...” The growth of expressive voting on the other hand “seems to chime with the world of social media and online communication, where self-expression rules and echo chambers proliferate. The internet is much more effective as a vehicle for expressing disgust with mainstream politics than it is for organising pragmatic reconfigurations of it.” You can say that again, Dave.

Breda doesn’t think a lot of this expressive/instrumental dichotomy, which I find a bit surprising as expressivism is in fact even more clearly in evidence in Ireland than it is in the UK. A quarter or more of Irish people (as polled) seem at this point to be saying that they will vote for Independents rather than political parties in the next general election. That is to say they are not interested in contributing to the making of any particular possible government to run the country or the economy (Fine Gael and Labour, Fine Gael and Renua and the Social Democrats and Labour, Fine Gael and the same and a few more odds and sods to make up the numbers, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin and a batch of Independents). What in fact they are saying, by voting for the hospital candidate or the turf candidate or the make our RTC a university candidate, is that they have opted out of being active citizens of the Republic of Ireland and retreated into an emotionally satisfying local form of expressivism, or indeed simply that they have worked themselves up into a such a great lather of contempt for “them” that it must be indulged or they will burst. There are other ‑ in Ireland usually far left ‑ forms of expressivism too (“I’m a radical, me”) but we won’t go there just for the moment.

Breda suggests that the Corbyn surge may be less to do with “expressivism” and more to do with the fact that many people actually agree with his policies (the two, I would argue, are not entirely different things when you think about it). I have little doubt that the people who either have long been members of the Labour Party or have, for £3, newly declared themselves to be supporters and who are voting for Jeremy Corbyn agree with Jeremy Corbyn. The point is: how many other people do? For it to be an instrumental rather than merely expressive act to vote him in as Labour leader would require there to be a hell of a lot. Let us not forget that the reason this leadership contest is taking place in the first place is that Labour recently lost a general election rather badly, with a leader perceived (or painted by his enemies) as being firmly left-wing (“red Ed”). But of course Ed was a lot more moderately (or sensibly) left than is Jeremy.

It seems now that many Labour members realise that Corbyn will never take the party into power but they no longer care. The people have let them down and they are in a huff. There will be no more trimming, no dissimulation. There will be socialism, or at least socialist words. It should of course be no surprise that the Labour left has the wholehearted support of veteran Trotskyists like Eamonn McCann (Irish Times, August 13th) in this voyage to nowhere. For Trotskyists, worse is always better: sharpening the contradictions, don’t you know.

Perhaps the greatest single argument against this fat-headed experiment in verbal radicalism however is that it has all been done before. In 1980, after the resignation of Jim Callaghan, who had lost power in the previous year, the British Labour Party elected Michael Foot as its leader. Labour initially performed strongly in opinion polls (Thatcher was very unpopular) but as the party left wing increasingly asserted itself through takeovers of branches and constituency organisations and purges (deselections) of sitting MPs it didn’t like and some of the party right defected to the newly formed social democrats (SDP) that trend was to be spectacularly reversed. In the June 1983 general election Labour went to battle on a “real socialist” platform (MP Gerald Kaufman called its manifesto, “The New Hope for Britain”, “the longest suicide note in history”). The party lost sixty seats in what was its worst general election result since 1918. Michael Foot, a man of some intellectual distinction whom almost everyone seemed to like, was sixty-seven when he became party leader and on the cusp of seventy when the general election took place. Jeremy Corbyn, who by all accounts is a rather likeable chap too, is now sixty-six and will probably be seventy when he leads whatever remains of Labour into battle in the next election, quite possibly against a forty-eight-year-old George Osborne. It will be a fun time indeed for Daily Telegraph readers but I think I will try to be somewhere else when it is happening.

22/8/2015

Read David Runciman here