Each of the Labour Party leadership candidates has had pejorative traits and labels applied to them over the course of the contest, the voting of which is now under way. Liz Kendall is apparently a Tory. Andy Burnham is nice but unprincipled. Yvette Cooper is some sort of rehashed Ed Balls. Jeremy Corbyn is hard-left in nearly enough about every article there is about him.
And, according to Alastair Campbell and many others besides, he’s unelectable.
The reasoning behind this particular accusation and the pessimism of many in the Labour ranks regarding Corbyn’s chances of walking through the door of Number 10 is supporting by two principal pillars. The first is the notorious performance of Michael Foot’s socialist Labour Party in the 1983 election. Comparisons between Corbyn’s and Foot’s visions are hardly rare, and neither are the implicit predictions of Labour’s chances in 2020 as a result.
The second pillar is the equally-notorious performance of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party last May. This particular Miliband, viewed by many as on the soft left and who aimed to drag the party back from the exhausted and tarnished brand of New Labour, also suffered a comprehensive rejection at the ballot box. Since then, the conventional diagnosis of such a disastrous showing has been that voters did not trust Labour with the economy following the condition that they left public finances in 2010. Ed Miliband’s refusal to admit that Labour overspent did little to restore voter confidence, and subsequent research in the aftermath of the election does indicate a lack of appetite amongst the electorate for anti-austerity politics. This is the kind of politics which Corbyn espouses as he outlines deficit reduction through a long-term plan in which cuts in public finances play no role.
The cry of the Kendallites, for whom restoring economic credibility with the voters via fiscal responsibility (i.e. austerity) is absolutely key, seems reasonable.
However, the UK Polling Report published an article in the last few days which questions the logic upon which the notion of Corbyn’s unelectability is founded. It cited a YouGov poll that first found that there was substantial backing amongst voters for policies such as the renationalisation of the railways and a top rate tax of 60%, both of which would fall squarely into Corbyn’s political comfort zone. However, perhaps more importantly, the same poll also uncovered similar levels of support for far-right policies such as a total ban of immigration or the abolition of international aid. A conclusion drawn from these results was:
“ voters themselves don’t necessarily see things as ideologically left and right and specific policies aren’t really that important in driving votes. However, broad perceptions of a party, its perceived competence and the public’s views on how suitable its leader is to be Prime Minister are incredibly important.”
I think it appropriate to be a little bolder than that: the modern British electorate is post-ideological in its voting patterns. This is not as surprising as it may first seem when one considers that many of the traditional categories of identity in the UK have blurred together or been completely broken down in the past 50 years. The decline of practiced Christianity has removed the historic link between Nonconformism and the Labour Party or Anglicanism and the Tories. Deindustrialisation, the decline of union membership and the increase of those who consider themselves middle class have diminished the notion of a rigid class system along with its ramifications on political support. The administrations of Thatcher and Blair, which saw low-income workers in council houses voting Conservative and executives in financial services voting Labour, are particularly indicative of how fluid the allegiances of the modern electorate have become.The great electoral blocs of our grandparents’ generations- underpinned by class division- have splintered, manifest in the proliferation of parties now represented at Westminster and in the national parliaments and assemblies.
To fill this ideological void, especially when there is substantial overlap in the political philosophies of the current UK parties, elections have become narrative-dependent events. Consider the Conservative Party platform in 2015. The Tories did not try to win over the electorate through convincing them that free markets and a small government provided the most efficient route to prosperity and freedom. They presented austerity as a regrettable necessity, rather than a option to be advocated, owing to Labour’s purported mishandling of public finances in the final years of the New Labour Era. And therein, in that narrative of Labour’s incompetence and maladministration, was the real vote-winner. The fact that “austerity” is of questionable intellectual value, propped up by a dubious conflation of national and household economics, and that it disproportionately harms many of those who would proceed to vote for its continuation, was neither here nor there. The point was that the narrative was good, and the narrative stuck. The persistent idea of the treachery of the Liberal Democrats over tuition fees, despite the arguable merits of their ideology and relative effectiveness in office, condemned them to infamous oblivion at the ballot box. One of the cornerstones of the SNP’s appeal across Scotland in the run-up to the general election was had nothing to do with modern nationalism, but everything to do with the sentiment that Labour had abandoned many of its Scottish voters. This was a sentiment that the SNP was more than happy to capitalise on. In each of these instances, voters were not engaging with parties ideologically, but instead treating each of them as a product to be advertised and sold to them by the most proficient marketer.
The triumph of narrative over ideology, the disintegration of traditional voting blocs and the caprice of an electorate prepared to back both radical left and radical right policies without perceiving any contradiction renders the accusation of Corbyn’s unelectability debateable. Voters no longer respond to labels such as “socialist” or “hard-left” in the way that they did in 1983, nor did they reject Ed Miliband’s bid for office because of his apparent position on the traditional, one-dimensional political spectrum. Provided that Corbyn can create and present a convincing enough counter-narrative that challenges Cameron’s Conservatives, then there is every chance that he could win over voters, both natural and unnatural to Labour and from every corner of the union. Meanwhile- in an effort to regain “economic credibility”- as Andy Burnham apologies for Labour’s financial record during its last term in office and Liz Kendall backs Tory cuts to welfare, they only buy into the perceptions that persuaded the people of the UK to reject their party in May. It is those who are complicit with what their opponents say about them who find themselves on the losing side.