#Corbynmania and figuring what UK Labour needs to learn, unlearn and re-learn…

Courtesy of BBC man Nick Sutton I got to listen to Jeremy Corbyn speaking live in Ealing on Periscope last evening. You can see what’s pulling people in. It’s the plainness of his speech, a classic anti hero figure in beige.

In a heavily corporatised environment where everything is checked for compatibility with the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and [cough] the Daily Express, there’s not much human left in there.

If Gordon Brown had to pace to release the memorised details of his speech yesterday, Corbyn’s came straight off the cuff. There wasn’t much detail, but a lot of dream level stuff that’s hard to quantify.

What many of his mainstream detractors (with the notable exception of Andy Burnham) miss is that social justice explicitly matters to Labour folk.

There needs to be dream material from which to weave any future that is to be significantly different from the past. It’s also true that in order to get there, some revisiting of the past is critical too.

I tend to agree with Turgon that in the 1983 election Labour hit brick walls other than Michael Foot’s manifesto. The ‘suicide note’ epithet was a post hoc rationalisation by a Kinnock intent on a reformed approach to politics that would see Labour win again.

John Rentoul was a child of that era and on Sunday wrote this confessio on ‘belief updating’..

I now realise I was stuck with two assumptions that turned out to be false. One arose from the 1983 election, which was one of the formative events of my political views. That was when Labour offered a programme remarkably similar to that offered by Corbyn today (except that he has equivocated on pulling out of Europe, which Neil Kinnock did only when he became leader after the 1983 election).

I assumed that the reaction to the defeat of Ed Miliband’s semi-skimmed Marxism would be similar, but that, because the Tory victory was narrower (a majority of 12 rather than 144), it wouldn’t take Labour 14 years to get back to winning elections.

In fact, we’ve seen in Northern Ireland that a series of narrow defeats can accumulate into longer term decline of the type we’ve seen in both the SDLP and UUP.

It gives rise to a long period of complacency suffused with the sense that ‘we are decent people’ of course people will vote for us (eventually).’

Byu contrast the Alliance Party’s near death experience in the Assembly elections of 2003 (at one point in the long STV count it looked like they’d only get one of their six seats back), was a prompt to action.

They’ve been the only party of scale outside Sinn Fein and the DUP to prosper since.

One of the things Corbyn has usefully been doing is questioning the party’s orthodoxies on a whole range of questions. When did ‘public housing’ become ‘social housing’ for instance? Blairism, in itself, is too narrow a doctrine to make the broad offer needed going forward.

But Ed Miliband has left two problematic legacies.

First is his failure to connect the doings of Westminster with the needs of people in the street, especially in the south but which is also particularly acute in Scotland (which he studiously ignored) where the party is suffering an epic existential crisis.

That hunger to only connect may be what’s driving the good feeling behind the Corbyn campaign, but as Michael Deacon satirically notes it’s based on a folly that the Labour party membership is a…

…body of people that is precisely representative of the electorate at large, proving that if Jeremy Corbyn wins the party leadership he can win a general election.

The second has been compounded by the gross mismanagement of an already ill thought through electoral system – ie, the setting aside of its only filtering mechanism (nominations) – means Corbyn only has the support of 6.5% the parliamentary party.

The near universal intake (note the Tories talked about this first in their open primaries model, which seems to have been quietly dropped) by expanding their membership to include almost anyone who (for good or ill) wants to influence the future of the Labour Party means that for the present the whole is literally beyond quality control.

But the defenestration of any filtering mechanism for political relevance and credibility (see discussion here) – the only things the party’s MPs were required to ante up with – has left the party in fearful anticipation of what their new electorate might do to them.

By far the most optimistic account of a future under Corbyn comes from Dougald Hine, who observes from an imagined future:

it [the surge] resembled the waves of networked disruption that first broke into view in the events of 2011. This was not a stealthy entryist takeover, years in the planning, it was a spontaneous movement to Occupy the Labour party, a suggestion taken up with an energy that took everyone by surprise. Such networks are like a mood in action, a rolling conversation that gathers momentum and brings the boundaries of possibility into question.

One of the characteristics of such a network is that it learns, experiments, adapts. In Greece, Spain and Scotland, the energy of the network had already evolved from the horizontalist purity of 2011 into a series of experiments in interfacing with the top-down forms of institutional politics. On each occasion, this had happened rapidly and unexpectedly. Now, it seemed to be happening again.

The ‘break from horizontal purity’ arises because, momentarily, the vertical controls are suspended. Only in an optimistic future do they get implemented in a functional way when vertical resumes (and Corbyn, or someone else, is elected).

On Jonathan Lampon’s programme (from 16.45) last week I suggested that even if Corbyn loses, the Labour party need to capture of what’s driven this new populism, perhaps in some way like the DNC co-opted Howard Dean into Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The problem though is that the UK is a parliamentary system, so the kind of demagogic simplification of complex issues that works in a presidential system may not be that helpful when trying to win an overall mandate, or getting people through a series of problematic local races.

Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks points out that new platforms for shared political action must…

…provide the capacity to synthesise the finely disparate and varied visions of beliefs and positions held by actual individuals into articulated positions amenable for consideration and adoption into the formal political sphere and by a system of government.

The platforms which have provided us with this kind of synthesis – journalism, academies, polls and latterly the once nimble footed think tanks – are in crisis. As a result the political (and media) environment is deeply unstable (ask any Tory MP who benefited from the UKIP surge).

According to this analysis:

Turnout is down, traditional alignments are looser than ever, more seats are changing hands than ever before, party loyalties are less and less important, party membership is still low and these factors show little sign of returning to their previous more stable and reliable levels. No matter how well a central machine is designed it is unrealistic to expect it to be able to ride this volatility. Au contraire, it may foolishly attempt to model it out. Wiser in my opinion to come to peace with it and adapt. [emphasis added]

Going back to the leadership election, there are reasons to doubt Corbyn has a functional politics beyond nostaglia that would not disappoint the devout sceptics currently trying to acclaim him into power.

But nor should the mainstream lose sight of why they are taking such a kicking. From across the pond, Ian Welsh:

Trump is doing well because he is telling some truths other politicians won’t, and because his actual policies sound good to right-wing populists. Populists have been divided into right and left for a long time, but it’s feelings that matter to right-wing populists. Trump comes across as a straight shooter and that’s why they’ll vote for him. (It is also why many of them will cross the lines to vote for Sanders if he’s the Democratic nominee and Trump isn’t the Republican one.)

Anyone who feels like a ”run-of-the-mill” politician loses big points in the current environment, because people feel like normal politicians are why we’re here, in this shithole economy, with no end in sight and plenty of reason to believe it could get a lot worse.

Sanders, Trump, and Corbyn in England (whom I’ll write about in a bit) are all doing well because of this dynamic. People are sick of the status quo and they will take a chance with anyone who is willing to actually bloody well try something different than the usual. And because most people don’t parse just on policy positions (nor should they, since politicians lie), what they are looking for are candidates who don’t act like the normal candidates and who therefore might actually do something different.

Might, being the operative word.

Populism (prone to missing opportunity for “impossible promises and grotesque chaos“) generally runs into trouble when it runs out of other people’s policy ideas, even if the biosemiotics it represents should be taken deadly seriously.

As David Runciman notes it is easy to mistake democracy for democracy:

The Labour Party is not a start-up. Disruption is almost certainly not what it needs. Indeed, disruption is more likely to destroy it than to revitalise it. The job for which Corbyn is standing has many different facets, of which the most important remains leading his party’s MPs in Parliament. This is the bit of the job it is nearly impossible to imagine him doing successfully.

It is not just that the parliamentary party is liable to be both split and demoralised by his election. He also lacks the experience. Corbyn at PMQs? Corbyn handling the press lobby? Corbyn managing the shadow cabinet? To see these as relics of the old way of doing politics is to mistake the range of policy possibilities for the range of institutional ones.

It may well be true that much of what Corbyn stands for – including a fairer tax system, greater public ownership of key services and more support for the low-paid – is popular with a surprisingly wide swathe of the public. But it won’t make any difference if the news never gets beyond a divided and dysfunctional parliamentary party. Voters don’t elect parties that are split. Those rules are not going to change.

Quite. Some rules may be suspended, others are not.

What Labour have chanced on in this crisis has much deeper implications and effects than who wins, or who can win. It’s a constitutional matter of form (consider why those MPs felt compelled to charitably include Corbyn?).

So to end with Dougald’s optimistic futuring in mind, I’ll close with this more pragmatic note:

…decommissioning any machine is a phased process. It doesn’t happen overnight, nor should it. Whatever mechanism is intended to replace the machine needs to be designed, trialled, tested, rebuilt, retested and then evaluated. Only then would the organisation be in a place to roll out the necessary reforms and begin the decommissioning. Such a process should take in at least one May election cycle and a representative sample of sites.

The status quo ante no longer exists. There is no safe place to go back to. But figuring how to unlearn and relearn the lessons of the past (distant and recent) may provide the new Labour leader (whomever s/he is) with the best possible platform for the future…


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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