These last few days, as I found my attention drawn to the Labour leadership contest in the UK, I kept coming across the claim that a Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn would be unelectable, or, for short, that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. What does this claim say?
For starters, it isn’t really a claim about Jeremy Corbyn at all. It is a claim about Britain’s electorate. It says that given the choice, British voters will not vote in sufficient numbers to put a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn into government. The Labour Party won 9.3 million votes at the last election, whereas the Conservative Party won 11.3 million, with an overall turnout of 66%. Labour won 232 seats, the Conservatives 330. To say that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be unelectable is to offer a hypothesis that there is no way, given the policies the party would advocate, that these figures can be reversed.
It’s hardly a stupid hypothesis. It’s very difficult for a political party to engineer a sea change in public opinion. Especially when many people in that political party have no inclination even to try. The task becomes all the more difficult when the country’s media are overwhelmingly in favour, not of the status quo, but of the policy agenda of privatisation and stripping away of social rights, pursued by the Conservative Party but also pursued -in an ever-so-slightly watered-down form, by the Labour Party as it is.
I wouldn’t say the comparisons to the Michael Foot years are altogether inappropriate either: Corbyn as leader would be the object of merciless attacks from the press, just as Foot was in his day. Then we have the conditions of the ballot box itself. Jean-Paul Sartre, I think, is right: “No one can see you, you have only yourself to look to; you are going to be completely isolated when you make your decision, and afterwards you can hide that decision or lie about it.” Whilst the kind of message Corbyn might transmit as Labour Party leader would have undoubted ethical appeal, and may even chafe against the conscience of large numbers of Conservative voters, the act of casting a vote is conducted free from such disturbances.
There are a few problems that this hypothesis does not take into account. One is the fact that the implementation of austerity reshapes the way people see the world. I am not saying that austerity produces more progressively-minded people: it is not necessarily so. But it is simply wrong –when not a dishonest self-fulfilling prophecy- to suggest that the outlook of the British public has held static since the days of Michael Foot, or that it is unlikely to change in future.
Another is the fact that what people think, and what they end up voting for, are two different things. An Independent article the other day, for example, showed that in fact, people at large tend to agree with Jeremy Corbyn’s position on a host of issues: railway nationalisation, higher taxes on higher incomes, a ban on nuclear weapons, rent controls, a mandatory living wage, cutting tuition fees, opposition to wars in the Middle East.
If we say that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, then, perhaps we are really saying that the British political institutions cannot deliver what its public actually wants (assuming, of course, we actually care about that). Or we might put it slightly differently: the British public appears unable to get what it wants from its political institutions.
Now, this is a rather naive way of looking at things. “Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable” really means different things depending on who is saying it. Some people are saying “Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable” precisely because Britain’s political institutions work just fine for them, thank you very much. The way things are is, by and large, the way they should be.
When certain others say “Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable”, it isn’t because they’re acutely preoccupied by such a malaise afflicting democratic aspirations in Britain and want to find a way of tackling it. Rather, it’s because they want to take advantage of the malaise. They have an active stake in the malaise continuing. In fact, some people saying so are the embodiment of that malaise: for example, Blairite careerists in the Labour Party, or the sector of elite opinion in Britain whose calling is to shit smarmily upon anything that gives off even the slightest whiff of being socialist.
Beyond the question of Jeremy Corbyn’s electability, you see, lies a question about the reality of power in Britain. To wit: given the fact that it has a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich, and given the fact that the current arrangement is laying waste to the prospect of a decent life for millions in society, what ought the majority of people in society do about it?
As far as I can see, it looks like there are a lot more people in Britain thinking about this question than there were a few years back. And they realise that the answer is not voting for political Robocops such as Liz Kendall or Andy Burnham. Clearly the answer entails a great deal more than simply voting for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader. But it seems to be one way among many of posing the question.