Are we seeing the ‘Japanisation’ of British politics?
While Corbyn is in the Westminster Village Stocks, the Left risks fragmenting into ideological isolation.
It’s summertime and most international news agencies are preoccupied with the Olympics, or off on holiday. Political news stories have slowed to a trickle, Presidential campaigns are on the low-burner, Prime Ministers are off abroad in search of better weather before the grim all-nighters of the conference season.
In Britain, the few journalists not enjoying their last, sweet summer in the Dordogne before Brexit brings the Iron Curtain down for good and Camembert becomes a thing of memory, have had a new game to play in between turning “medal” into a verb. At school summer fairs, a popular way to raise money for the school fund is by having the Head Teacher put into the “stocks” while the pupils and parents throw wet sponges at them. This seems to be what is happening in the Labour party. In this case Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t appear to have volunteered for the game, but it is certainly turning out to be a handy fundraiser.
Of course, none of this was supposed to happen. The Conservatives were supposed to be ripped apart by the Referendum result. The Government was supposed to collapse and we were supposed to be looking at a General Election over the Summer. Instead, the Conservative Party has healed itself like a liquid metal Terminator, selected a Prime Minister, and is getting on with running the country, unchallenged, with only the SNP occasionally dipping into the opposition vacuum to remind everyone in the South that they own Scotland. Down in Westminster Village, it’s open season, yet again, on the Labour party leader.
After winning three general elections on the bounce under Tony Blair, many on the British Left assume Labour is bound to win an election at some point. The Conservatives will fall out of favour eventually, and it’s more a matter of making sure the “right” people are in charge when the inevitable Labour Government happens.
Taking a look around the world, however, ping-pong, left-right democracy is not necessarily the norm. There are many nations that are at least nominally democratic, yet have experienced one-party rule for decades. And it’s often the Left that is on the losing side of these imbalanced democracies.
The Japan Syndrome
Japan has been governed with near-unbroken continuity since 1955 by the Liberal Democratic Party. Formed with the encouragement of the CIA after the end of the post-war occupation, the LDP is a loose coalition of mostly right-leaning factions.
The old joke goes that the LDP is neither Liberal, nor Democratic, and at least in UK terms, is barely a political party either.
Joining the LDP is not signing up to a central, fixed list of values. It’s more an opportunity to pursue a career in politics by twisting the system to the benefit of a particular group or demographic.
As the US took effective control of Japan at the end of WW2, the main concern of the occupation authorities was dismantling the system which had brought Japan to war in the first place. In 1945, the US believed that releasing Marxist political prisoners was a natural step to establishing Japan on the path to democracy. Fast forward to the early 1950s, the global political landscape had changed, and with it the priorities in Washington. The US needed Japan to remain a non-communist ally in the region, and this meant a government that kept Marxists, Communists and militant trade unionists out of power. The LDP was pulled together to keep the country running, keep the Reds at bay, and generally make the trains run on time. If that meant a little leaning on the press here, a little harassment of “trouble makers” there, well, they had a country to rebuild and just look at those shiny Bullet Trains.
It’s entirely possible to make a strong argument that Japan does not meet the ideal standard for a liberal, open democracy. But at the same time, it would be hard to suggest that the country is a benchmark for repression either, in a region of one-party states and political mass executions. At present (August 2016*), the LDP controls 60% of the House of Representatives in the Japanese Diet (Parliament), with the remaining 40% spread across six main political parties, and various independents. The Opposition includes everything from religious groups to Communists.
In other words, the Japanese system has been gamed to promote the status quo. The opposition is fragmented and more interested in the “purity” of their own sect than establishing a broad-based opposition to LDP rule. Day to day life is not bad for most people, even though things could be better, so there is no real incentive to take to the streets and “smash the system”. According to Japan-watchers, the country is sitting on a demographic time bomb, on the point of economic collapse, in a death spiral, and has been for over two decades. The apocalypse appears to be taking a long time about it, and is heralded with unemployment rates that most European nations can only dream of.
When Japan’s leadership changes, it is usually because of a shift in the relative power of factions within the LDP; not a wholesale rejection of a political ideology. Following this model, the UK Conservatives could keep reorganising themselves, redrawing the rules, shape-shifting and sliding for the foreseeable future, if not decades.
In other words, it’s not enough for Labour to be like the Tories, but a bit nicer. The Conservatives can do that. They can bring in a new face when we tire of the old, slide between the right and centre, all the time keeping the trains running and flicking just enough crumbs from the table to keep sufficient voters on side and themselves in power. They don’t need to do well, they just need to be “good enough” for most of the people, most of the time. In Japan, the LDP failed to win over the 21 constituencies that have voted Communist and it doesn’t matter a jot.
So as Labour heads to Liverpool for its conference and what will probably be the first in a series of annual ‘wet sponge’ challenges to Jeremy Corbyn; as alliances for overlapping and competing special interest groups are formed and broken; as identities debate whether “one of them” is fit to represent “all of us”; why not take a look at Japan and consider what 60 years of near continuous Conservative rule might look like.
* Source: The House of Representatives Official Website (shugiin.go.jp).