There have been many political surprises over the last few years. Each is characterised by a rejection of politics as usual and the status quo. From the SNP and UKIP to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election, voters from all sides of the political spectrum are giving their support for something different – if not something new – voicing a shred frustration with perceived Westminster elites.
I write from the United States where I’m a visiting fellow at Yale University during my research leave from my institutional home of Durham University. American politics has for a long time seen successive campaigns targeting career politicians and the so-called Washington, DC establishment. To be successful is to be seen as an alternative.
Witness the surprising lasting power of Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Trump is many things to different people, but standard politician he is not and so there is a part of the electorate that continues to provide strong support for this most unlikely of candidates.
This anti-‘the Consensus’ politics has now landed in Britain. Like most movements, it is built on myths taken by its adherents as obvious truths.
The first myth is that elected politicians are all the same no matter their different political parties. This can sometimes involve some near unbelievable comparisons. Drafting and defending cuts to public provision supporting a social safety net is rather different from agnosticism or opposition. What the majority in Parliament wants, they get. Saying no always and everywhere to anything the government does could make some feel better about their virtuous pedigree, but coming second – and losing – most votes for five years at a stretch is a winding path of despair pleasing only the career protestor – and even they can lose interest fast.
The myth that all Westminster politicians are alike is a nonsense. There is a gulf the size of a solar system that divides most Tory MPs from Labour and Lib Dem MPs on education, health, and the economy – and that’s before we account for differences in policies among party leadership. To reduce all MPs to a single issue or vote – like a welfare bill or the Iraq War – makes a simple narrative that may fit preconceived ideological views. But so often what is simple is simply a distortion of the greater complexity that is life and no less political life in Westminster.
The second myth is that politics in the capital need a redeemer that can play the role of political saviour. Someone who can cast out the vices and reassert the virtues.
But this gets wildly wrong what any one person can usually achieve as leader. Individuals can make for powerful figureheads, but organisations are composed of more than just that person. Such aspirations – if only there was the one right person, then everything else can or should fall into place – not only puts unrealistic pressure of expectations on the anointed one but they can also so easily lead to disappointment. Politics affords little time for hearts and minds to be won over.
These myths are especially powerful for the opposition as they campaign for change – or at least a change in which party has political power. It is no less existent in the US among the Republicans than in the UK among my fellow Labour Party members and supporters.
But I think there are also so cautionary tales worth telling. The first is that leadership campaigns are about choosing a party’s direction of travel – and this is now over. The new politics has arrived. Jeremy Corbyn has chosen his shadow cabinet and having his opportunities to set out his position – as is his right. To be clear, I support whoever is the leader of the Labour Party. The leadership contest is now done and dusted. Corbyn is our leader and I’m ready to assist his team however possible.
There are some among us who are a bit too oversensitive to any criticism the leadership receives. First it must be recognised that the ability to question and debate issues is at the very heart of Corbyn’s new politics. To ask for clarity is not to be disloyal – this is the democratic opening up of policy making that Corbyn’s supporters campaigned for. The politics of consensus is not a politics of unanimity, but of majority where we do not walk in lock step. Think coalitions of the willing issue by issue and not articles of faith.
Secondly it the campaign to win over the party cannot be the only aim. Labour must perform better in future contests. It was widely reported that many members supported Corbyn’s rise because they wanted a ‘real opposition’ and didn’t care much for electability. This certainly wasn’t true for many of his supporters I spoke with who are all about winning the next general election.
But the new poll out by YouGov reported by LabourList provides serious cause for reflection. I am not suggesting that party members are wrong to think Corbyn is doing well as leader – from the dire predictions that greeted his selection, he has done remarkably well in that regard.
And yet it is deeply concerning that the perception of our leader – and perhaps about politics – by Labour members is drifting away from where the public is. Note that if the public doesn’t support us, Labour will not win back power.
The easier road to victory is to move the party to the political centre – which every strategist will remind you is a moving target – where a majority of voters are found. The more difficult path to power is to move the public to where the party is – because this means not only winning over hearts and minds, but changing them.
What next? We can begin by burying the myths. Westminster is not Corbynistas versus The Others. It is much more complex than that – and the larger the coalitions within Parliament we can build then the more effective our opposition can become. Witness the success of Labour Peers for an instructive guide to how this can work and work well. Let’s also not hoist unrealistic expectations on our leaders and party for what can be achieved in the short-term. Voters are to be won over – no party is entitled to their votes. Even if the most progressive voice fighting for a Britain the public needs desperately. This is where the veterans on the doorstep are needed every bit as much as our welcome new members to get word out and win the public back.
Finally, I would be very wary about straying too far from where the voters. If the party wants to move left, it must get the public to move left with it. The voter is never wrong – he or she also chooses whoever is preferred. I’d caution against going too far too quickly because it only makes the task of winning over voters more difficult. Either way, alienating voters is a losing strategy. There is more work for all of us to do whatever our individual takes are on the big issues to get Labour into office again. I’m up for the challenge, but a challenge it is – so let’s act now because the next election is much closer than it appears.
Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University, Visiting Fellow at Yale University’s Law School, columnist for Newcastle’s The Journal and Communications Lead for Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson @thom_brooks