On Electability and “Electability”

Tom Gann
Tom Gann
Aug 5, 2016 · 5 min read

If we think back to May 2015 it was clear and widely acknowledged across the party that with Labour having lost votes in every election since 1997 (over four million in total), the serious, possibly terminal situation in Scotland coupled with the harmful impact of boundary and electoral registration changes, that radical action was required for Labour to have any chance of winning in 2020. A number of posts such as those by Alex, Aaron Bastani, Paul Mason- though a strong line needs to be taken against the dangerous positions he takes around suspending free movement- and Jeremy Gilbert, outline either an entire strategy or feature sharp strategic proposals which could be electorally effective for Labour under Corbyn. These strategies would be able to make use of the enthusiasm, skills and the sheer number of new members. Two points I would add that are also key are, firstly, that as a local campaigning organisation, clear Corbynite policies will enable a far stronger engagement with local campaigns, for example against academisation. Moreover, these local campaigns, as the widespread opposition from Conservative Councils to the original forced academisation policy shows, will be able to bring in non-Labour voters. Secondly, part of becoming a social movement is not just campaigning but directly delivering consequences in communities- Southwark Momentum has 1,600 members- this means potentially, food banks, language and cultural classes, widespread support with benefits and housing issues, and childcare, in a borough in which one seat (Bermondsey & Old Southwark) could well be close in a forthcoming election.

Of course the strategy outlined in these posts may not work, it needs hard work and imagination from party members and from party employees responsible for election campaigns and ideally requires a lot less disruption from MPs. However, it is a strategy which begins to address the fact that Labour’s crisis from an electoral perspective is extremely serious. By contrast Owen Smith has not gone beyond slightly varied but still inane repetitions on the theme of a need for “a Labour government in Westminster”. To assert the need for a Labour government is not the same as producing a coherent strategy to achieve one. It is hard to see how, based on both previous policy positions (defence of the benefit cap, unwillingness to oppose Work Capability Assessments), statements and policies during the contest (the insipid one-hour contracts as a replacement of zero hours contracts plan, arguing there are “too many immigrants in some parts of Britain”), Smith will move beyond a repetition of Miliband’s mean and uninspiring ameliorations of the worst of British capitalism coupled with timid triangulation and capitulation to Tory revanchism (even if he wants to pitch further left, there is no way the PLP will allow this). This didn’t work in 2015 and is extremely unlikely to work in 2020’s even less auspicious circumstances.

The basis for the assertion of Smith’s greater electability, therefore, is not based on him possessing a better strategy for winning the next election but on his correspondence with a rigid image of being electable, an appearance and a set of gestures which are the (Barthes) “condensation of an ‘ineffable’ social whole, [which] constitutes an anti-intellectual weapon and tends to spirit away ‘politics’ (that is to say a body of problems and solutions) to the advantage of a ‘manner of being’, a socio-moral status.” Smith’s appearance, his age, his fourth-rate Clinton, third-rate Blair, second-rate Cameron choppy hand gestures to emphasise a point, represent nothing more than a conformity with the socio-moral semblance of “electability” which has nothing to do with the content of a serious election winning strategy. There is a similar structure to the projection of competence, Smith projects an image in accordance with “competence” but not actual competence- witness the claim to be “normal” because of his marriage and children unlike Angela Eagle, a statement that was viciously homophobic and misogynist from an ungenerous perspective or an incompetent and stupid gaffe from a more generous one.

Alongside the attempted projection of a particular socio-moral status in accordance with what is imagined to be an electable politician (and given present circumstances it would be necessary to question how far appearing like a normal politician is useful) is the repetition of the notion, belied by Labour’s recent General Election performances, that “elections are won from the centre”. This claim has, definitely, in some situations been true but it is mistaken to presume that it is true today. It is perfectly coherent and probably more plausible to argue that the set of contradictions, whether economic, political, geographical or cultural, that constitute the current crisis cannot be resolved by centrist politics, they can only be resolved radically, whether by the right or the left. Theresa May’s particular pitch bears this out, whilst liberal commentators have argued that it is a centrist pitch it is, in fact, a pitch largely to the right with some left positioning- and the left positioning functions in such a way to sustain the rightwards resolution of the crisis. For the rightwards resolution we see, amongst other pieces of reaction, the abolition of the Department for Climate Change and hostility towards EU citizens resident in the UK, for the leftwards resolution there is a potential set of policies around investment and a professed concern over the life chances of (mostly, and, significantly, white) working-class children. This pitch, however, is not incoherent, indeed it represents a return to the late 19th and early 20th century whereby policy aimed at the integration of large sections of the “respectable” working-class into a racially and culturally exclusive nation.

No part of May’s astute programme represents business as usual, it aims to master the situation in a way that a centrist Labour programme could not compete with. In this way the closest equivalent to 2020 may be 1979, with the added paradox that, under Smith, or his replacement should he win and be overthrown himself by someone further to the right, it would be defending the status quo with a timid “social democracy of fear” programme, despite Labour not having been in power for ten years. A Corbyn lead Labour, by contrast, could produce a programme and a strategy that allows the leftward resolution of the crisis, avoiding a situation analogous to that when Stuart Hall argued, “the new Right succeeded in its effort to establish itself as the radical political force, the political force that was going to change things. One of the most astonishing signs of the reversal in the 1979 election was to hear Mr Callaghan complain that the radical Right meant to tear the old system up by the roots. And we had been foolish enough to imagine that tearing society up by the roots was what socialism was about! The harsh, uncomfortable fact is that the Right was able sufficiently to identify itself as a kind of populist political force, able to connect its message with some of the actual, real discontents which people were experiencing”. The paradox is that the more “electability” is discussed on the terms of those opposed to Corbyn, the further away we get from a programme or a strategy that could see Labour win in 2020.

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