How Corbyn has changed politics
Let’s not get straight into what the people voted for like we did after Brexit, because we still don’t know exactly. With all the spin about the new progressive alliance, about the victory of hope over hate et cetera, we may need to remind ourselves that Labour did not win or nearly win. But something big happened on June 8, and it will change politics for everyone in several ways. And even for Labour’s opponents, that’s not all bad.
Even his critics must admit Corbyn enthused people where others have dismally failed. We repeatedly bemoan the levels of political apathy, especially among younger voters. He’s turned this around. Disagree with his ideas if you want, but it’s important to have an active citizenry. Thousands of newly politicised, cutting their teeth in the thrill of this upstart movement, have just embarked on a lifetime in political organising. Whatever happens — and I suspect the Labour party popularity will ebb and flow as it always does — the party now has a new wing of political organisers. Having spent years writing off centre-left and centre-right political parties (as I have) Corbyn shows those monster political machines have life in them yet.
Perhaps more significant though is the welcome impact Corbyn will have on political communication. Other politicians will look at his undeniably successful campaign and hopefully draw the lesson that the age of the deadening, meaningless soundbite is finally drawing to a close. In that sense, perhaps New Labour really is finished. For too long, politicians of all stripes have engaged in a collective unwillingness to answer questions, turning evasiveness into a skill. I have no idea who keeps telling them to do this or why. But anyone who has read a party manifesto or Green Paper full of empowered citizens, joined-up government, innovation, and personalised services will share with George Orwell in his Politics and the English Language: “a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy… who has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.”
Someone who says something using normal language suddenly appears to be blessed with those most precious political commodities: authenticity, honesty, and conviction. Our elected might actually realise that voters cannot be stirred into action by robotic repetition of work-shopped phrases like “strong and stable” and “hard-working families up and down the country”.
Perhaps — and maybe I’m being far too optimistic here — taking the voters for gullible and pliable knaves is seen for the lazy arrogance it is. In particular, the notion that newspaper headlines can swing it might be put to bed. The absurd parody of Corbyn’s positions by, especially the Sun and Daily Mail, were exposed. Speak to any Labour campaigner and they’ll tell you, rightly, that social media — especially the large and vibrant alternative left wing media — played a vital role in breaking the grip. There are plenty of problems with all of that, which I’ve written about elsewhere, but this was an alternative, cheap, unedited way for the renegades to get their message out.
(I realise that equally possible is a confusing dystopia of spin doctors advising on how to be ‘authentic’ and ‘ordinary’, and the public desperately working out how to tell authentic authenticity from inauthentic authenticity. I have confidence, however, that social media puts the balance of power with the public in this.)
The result also hints that bold and ambitious politics is possible. There were, throughout, some pretty consistently high levels of support for many of Corbyn’s ideas. A big tax on high earners, nationalising the railways, banning zero hours contracts and upping the minimum wage are all popular. Support for renewable energy is at an all-time high. Although his supporters will claim there’s a new progressive politics out there, I think it’s far wider than that. As I argue in my book Radicals, there is a growing appetite for ideas outside the mainstream. After all, plenty of other ideas are extremely popular too, which Corbyn is probably less likely to go for. Stopping benefits entirely for people who refuse to accept an offer of employment is hugely popular, and in one recent poll over half of respondents would be happy with a total ban on all immigration for the next two years. Around half the public now consistently want marijuana legalised, a number that will surely swell as US states with licenced pot vendors start showing off their dazzling tax returns.
Just like Donald Trump, a man in some sense his neat mirror opposite, the success of someone outside what was thought established centre-left / centre-right ideas is a cause for cheer. A liberal democracy with no radicals like him would atrophy and degenerate: society would become ossified, gripped by a dreary and monotonous set of unchallengeable dogmas and received wisdoms that save people the trouble of thinking for themselves. This is precisely what has happened the last 20 years. I don’t believe Corbyn would have done so well had it not been for Trump — he both opened up political possibilities, but also forced opponents to wake up. As I sketch out in Radicals, the challenges coming down the line — forces of climate change, technological change, fiscal crunch, mass movements of people — will demand new types of political ideas outside the centres left and right. 2016 was the year the Overton Window (that consensus which defines acceptable, ‘normal ’ political ideas) noticeably moved right. Yet the space into which Trump et al barged leaves plenty of room for others: Beppe Grillo in Italy, Spanish Podemos, Bernie Sanders, Jean Luc Melanchon, and many more to come. Perhaps 2017 is the year the Overton Window also breaks to the left. And what remains is a far more expansive politics, which in the end is good for everyone.