Too few to mention

There’s been a flurry of articles in the last few days from commentators and political journalists who had dismissed Corbyn, asking themselves – with, I think it’s fair to say, varying degrees of rigour and sincerity – how and why they got it so wrong. Some conclude that they weren’t very wrong (Labour lost, didn’t they?) – or that if they were wrong, so was everyone else, so it doesn’t count (nobody expected that kind of vote!). Others – like the ‘Corbynsceptic’ MPs cited by Helen Lewis – “accept that they were wrong about Corbyn’s popular appeal“, but add a disclaimer: “Their concerns about his management style, ideology and past positions have not gone away.” They were actually right about Corbyn, in other words – they just didn’t realise that the voting public would get him wrong.

Others again plead a kind of Benefit of Columnists: you wanted an informed opinion, I gave you my informed opinion – and now you want to shut me down! Who would do such a thing but a Stalinist, a would-be censor, someone who wants to put good journalists out of a job… It’s a bit reminiscent of Lewis’s construction of Corbyn’s opponents’ response to post-election criticism, as MPs and grassroots activists who have put their lives on hold for seven weeks to campaign for Labour and who now don’t appreciate being treated like scabs. Never mind that the people doing the criticising have very often been campaigning themselves, or that nobody – by and large – is being called a scab. Criticism from the Left can’t be accepted as such, and it certainly can’t be heard; it has to be framed as an unpardonable breach of solidarity and rejected out of hand. The excess of these reactions seems to be part of the point – they seem designed to provoke outraged defensive pedantry (see above), thus diverting everyone’s attention from the original criticism and its object.

If we want to understand what’s gone on, though, clearly none of this gets us very far. I was a bit more impressed with this brief piece from Marie le Conte. Quote:

In hindsight, what has annoyed me the most over these past few months has been the lack of curiosity in political journalism. I have read many reports on the changing minds of the unlikely UKIP, Le Pen and Trump voters … What I wish I could have read more of is reporting on unlikely Corbyn voters; what makes them tick, what made them change, why they think that his political positions, which had mostly all but disappeared from the mainstream discourse, were the best the country has to offer.

It’s a good point, but in a way the question answers itself. Any one of us can assemble a mental image of the white working-class voter motivated by social conservatism and unavowed racism. It’s a social type we’ve become familiar with through all those endless UKIP/Le Pen road trips and exposés, but – more importantly – it’s a type that we already knew about; it goes back to Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death, and to the dockers marching for Enoch. But here’s the thing: we can just as easily assemble a mental image of the working-class voter demanding better pay and conditions, the young idealist getting fired up by radical ideas, the middle-class liberal getting involved in campaigning and moving leftwards… The question of why Corbyn would be attractive, to a certain kind of person, really isn’t all that difficult – any more than the question of why UKIP would be attractive (to a certain kind of person). And it’s not as if we didn’t have any idea about what might be a Corbyn-supporting kind of person. All those social types were right there in the collective consciousness; if John Harris wasn’t going to go out and find them, at least Owen Jones could have had a go. But nobody did; everyone assumed that those people weren’t out there any more, just like they assumed that the working people of Britain had had their heads turned by Farage and Brexit.

A lot of these writers who seemingly had the urge to get under the skin of people unexpectedly going right suddenly went silent when it came to people unexpectedly going left, presumably at least partly because Corbyn was simply written off as a future failure after each of his victories.

Some features did get written about the Corbynistas, but much of the response from mainstream media and political figures alike went from condescending shrugs to full-blown smirks.

Yes – and ‘shrug’ vs ‘smirk’ is a classic example of a distinction without a difference. But rewind a bit – Corbyn was written off as a future failure after each of his victories. This looks to have been written fairly quickly and without much reflection, which has allowed some interesting material to surface (if you’ll pardon my psych-speak). To put it another way, logically this makes no sense. How do you go from “he hasn’t got a hope, ha ha” to “OK, he won, but he hasn’t got a hope next time, ha ha”? What’s the mindset? Doesn’t the lizard-brain self-preservation instinct kick in at least? (Warning! Incoming data inconsistent with expectations!) What’s so important as to override those signals?

my political roots lie in student activism, and I knew in that summer of 2015 that in order to become the political reporter I wanted to be, and do my job as accurately as possible, I needed to get rid of my biases, and unfair assumptions on some corners of the political spectrum.

What my personal opinions were then and what they are now doesn’t matter; what does is that I firmly believe that my work, which I take very seriously, hasn’t been influenced by whatever it is that I happen to think or say in private.

This probably isn’t relevant to this post, but I do find this odd. I’m a Marxist; I’ve been a Marxist since I was 19, give or take. So I’m currently a Marxist university lecturer; before that, I was a Marxist journalist (employed for three years, freelancing for six); and before that I spent several years as a Marxist computer programmer and data analyst. I could also say I was a Freudian journalist and a Darwinian programmer, in the sense that I’ve always thought that some of their fundamental insights are valuable and reliable as a way of looking at the world – which is pretty much what I think about Marx. As a journalist I wrote about Druids, Bomber Command, decimalisation, the Queen’s nanny and a fair variety of other topics. At no point was my copy spiked or returned to me for being too ‘political’ – or too psychoanalytical or too evolutionist, for that matter. You can have bedrock beliefs without trying to bring them into every conversation, surely. (Anyway, doesn’t everyone have bedrock beliefs?)

In hindsight, I do however think that I may have been overzealous in compensating for what I saw as my political weaknesses, which pushed me to joined the sneering chorus chanting that Corbyn was about as likely to be successful as I am to become an astronaut then marry Rihanna.

It is, after all, hard to go against the grain when you’re the new kid at school and all the loudest voices are shouting the same thing, though this doesn’t excuse my own lack of political imagination.

Again, I find it hard to identify with this. Perhaps it goes back to being bullied at school, but I’ve always felt I know exactly what I think about important subjects, and never felt any need to conform to the views of the people around me. Or rather, I’ve never had any doubt that there was a way I thought about any given issue, and that I’d be willing to back it as at least provisionally correct, whatever anybody else thought. I am the gin in the gin-soaked boy, and I’m very happy about it. (So are you, of course.)

I regret patronisingly mocking my friends saying that if only Jezza was given a chance he could do wonders, and I regret not spending more time talking to the very people Corbyn appealed to, to understand a phenomenon I found slightly baffling.

This is another odd, unexpectedly revealing passage. We already know that Marie (like so many others) didn’t make the effort to imagine how Corbyn supporters might think and then go out on the road to find them, John Harris style. And fair enough – who can afford that amount of time out of the office? But it turns out that she didn’t make the effort to imagine how Corbyn supporters might think even when they were her friends. It’s one thing to say that an abstract mass of ‘voters’ are deluded or stupid or don’t exist; to maintain that level of denial with people you know is something else. Whatever’s driving this antipathy to Corbyn, it’s clearly strong stuff.

What I will add, though, is that this was not quite a victory for the left. Thursday’s results seemed unbelievable partly because the bar had been set so low by sceptic MPs and commentators.

Labour did not win the election, and any opposition party should have hoped to do at least this well in defeat while running against a campaign as clunky and dreary as May’s.

…and we’ve lost her. Shame – it was going well for a while there.

First point: sceptical MPs and commentators did not “set the bar low”. I’ll come back to this – it’s important in itself. But let’s imagine that they had done. Let’s imagine that you’d sat down a week before the election to bash out a column (I’ve done it, let’s not dress it up), and you’d said something like “Given the immediate political situation and the longer-term trends – which I take to be X, Y and Z – I think it’s highly unlikely that Labour will make more than one or two gains. This is [regrettable/just as well] in view of how [Jeremy Corbyn/the Labour Party/the state of political opposition in this country] relates to my assessment of what’s at stake at the moment (the key issues being A, B and C). Having said that, it’s always possible that Labour will outperform my expectations, so let’s [keep our fingers crossed/prepare for the worst].” That would have been setting the bar low. And how would you have reacted to the actual result? Not, I think, by saying “yeah, well, basically it only looks like a dramatic result because we all set the bar low”. Anyone who cares enough about politics to write about it – pure “Westminster soap opera” merchants apart – will have had a stake in the result; not a “yay Corbyn!” stake necessarily, but a “let’s not have a one-party state” stake, a “can we at least slow Brexit down” stake, or for that matter an “IRA sympathisers don’t belong in Downing St” stake.  And when you have low expectations of somebody, in an area you care about, and they exceed them, you react. So when people respond as if this was a ho-hum, unexceptional result that didn’t particularly bother them one way or the other – and that only looked striking because of the way people managed expectations – I’m afraid I don’t really believe them.

Coming back to the first point, nobody actually did set the bar low; setting the bar low would have been saying “the best Corbyn will do is make a few gains here and there” or “this will be a tough election, we’ll be lucky to break even”. When you set the bar low for somebody, you’re setting them up as winners – in a small way – or at least as honourable near misses. You’re judging what they’re about to do in terms of positive achievements, in other words. Those sceptical MPs and commentators – did they judge Labour’s impending General Election performance in terms of positive achievements? Of course not. They confidently anticipated a minimum of 30 losses and a maximum of, well, you name it – 100? 150? This would, of course, have been a disaster for Labour, and that’s exactly how they saw it. Blaming Corbyn for an impending historic catastrophe isn’t “setting the bar low” relative to future successes – it’s saying that Corbyn’s leadership is such a disaster that there aren’t going to be any future successes, with him in charge or quite possibly ever again. Labour didn’t out-perform those forecasts, they proved them wrong. Yes, those results seemed unbelievably good, and yes, that did have something to do with those forecasts. The connection is that, if you took those forecasts seriously, the results literally were impossible to believe. Now, those forecasts – and the contemptuous, dismissive mindset from which they came – have been comprehensively disproved. That in itself is a victory for the Left: we’re credible – even popular – in a way we’ve never been in my lifetime.

As for Marie’s second point: no, we didn’t win the election. I don’t think anyone ever thought we could – after four successive elections of losses, we started much too far back. What we have done is show just how much damage Labour can inflict on a Tory government without winning outright – and that story’s only just getting started. As for “any opposition party should have hoped to do at least this well”, really? Corbyn’s Labour gained 30 seats and increased its vote share by 9.7% relative to 2015. This was the 20th general election since World War II; in eleven of the twenty Labour lost seats, and only six of the other nine saw Labour gain 30 seats or more. (Neil Kinnock is the only other Labour Party leader to have seen his party gain 30+ seats without forming the next government; in 1992 Labour gained 42 seats on a rise of 3.8% of votes.) Only one other election saw Labour gain more than 9% in vote share, and that was Attlee’s historic victory in 1945. Labour gained 8.6% in 1997, but three of the four elections between then and 2017 saw Labour lose both seats and vote share – and in the fourth, in 2015, Labour gained 1.3% but still lost 26 seats.

So no, we really couldn’t have expected any opposition party to do just as well; a charitable observer, if there had been any, actually would have set the bar low for Labour. What we achieved, under Corbyn’s leadership and with a Corbyn-approved programme, really was remarkable.

But that’s not to say that nobody could have seen it coming: there are reasons why Labour appealed to the people it appealed to, and those reasons – and those people – were there to be identified the week before the election just as much as the week after. The fact that nobody did see it coming just tells us something about those political commentators: where they looked, where they wanted to look; who they took seriously, who they wanted to take seriously; what they thought was possible, what they wanted to think was possible.

Most of the Labour Party has now swung behind Corbyn, but I expect there will be holdouts – and I expect to see them as much on the ‘soft Left’ as on the Blairite Right. (The soft Left, unlike the hard Left, isn’t defined by policies or beliefs but by its position, which in turn is defined relative to the Right of the party.) The soft Left is also where most of our commentariat is located. Which makes me think – and what it makes me think of is the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always on my mind”. (Bear with me.) Neil Tennant’s remorselessly deadpan delivery of the song converts a mid-line caesura into a line break, making the nagging self-reproach of the lyrics even more relentless:

Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could have
Maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as well as I should have…

and so on, and on, and on. Suddenly, midway through the fade, he leaves the line unfinished and lets it hang:

Maybe I didn’t love you…

I never hear that line without a weird sense of release – yes, that would explain it… And maybe that’s also the explanation for the commentariat’s inexplicable failure to see the positive qualities of Corbyn and Corbynism, qualities that are apparent to at least 40% of the British public and (apparently) a large majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Maybe you just weren’t looking; maybe you just didn’t want to see, or understand what you did see; maybe you were just never on our side.

Update What should appear, after I’d finished composing this post, but this from Jonathan Dean (h/t @Moonbootica for the Tweet). Quotes:

the problem we face is, I would suggest, more fundamental than that a few of us (myself included) made some dodgy predictions underestimating how Corbyn’s Labour Party would fare at the ballot box. More significant, I would suggest, is the fact that few in our profession were even interested in Corbynism. Corbynism was, for many, so self-evidently misguided that it barely merited any scholarly attention or analysis.

the myth of neutrality persists: rather than have an honest discussion about how our political analyses are shaped by our ideological commitments we just pretend, in public at least, that we don’t have any. And at times we have cynically hid behind the veneer of scholarly objectivity to actively pursue an anti-Corbyn agenda, enthusiastically confirming rather than interrogating kneejerk dismissals of Corbynism in print and broadcast media. If we were more honest with ourselves, we might concede that a lot of us think that the royal road to good, robust, ideologically neutral political science scholarship passes somewhere to the left of Tony Blair and to the right of Angela Eagle.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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