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They told us ‘elections are won from the centre’. We’ll never believe them again

The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox

June 12, 2017
11 min read

Graffiti backing Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Duncan C, Flickr

Jeremy Corbyn has just gained the most support for the Labour Party since the 1945 election of Clement Attlee. A post-election poll from Survation, one of the pollsters that called the election the most accurately, now puts Labour ahead of the Conservatives by 6 percentage points, stating that Corbyn would win 45 per cent of the public vote (against the Conservatives’ 39 per cent) – 5 points up since the election only a few days ago.

This, we were told well before this campaign began and throughout it, was impossible. Corbyn was unelectable. He was too extreme, his policies were idealistic and his opinions were out of touch with the bulk of the British peoples’ values. ‘We have known this for years,’ the commentators said, ‘we have known this since Blair won an enormous parliamentary majority in 1997.’

There is an intuitive appeal to this logic. It was certainly an effective electoral strategy for Blair. He realised that Labour and the left in general were swimming hopelessly against the right wing tide of neoliberalism. This tide had become the new normal since the political landscape become dominated by a Thatcher-Reagan alliance throughout the 1980s.

Rather than resisting this neoliberal dominion, Blair took the opportunity to rebrand his party, not as an economic alternative to laissez-faire capitalism, but as a friendlier softer face on the same kinds of policy. He maintained the ‘for the people’ rhetoric while removing clause 4 from the party’s constitution (which stated that the party was a party for the workers which supported an ‘equitable distribution’ of ‘the fruits of their industry’).

Blair managed to create a sense of grassroots populist public support while appealing to conservative fears of ‘fiscal irresponsibility’ and ‘cracking down’ on crime, while simultaneously securing million pound donations from business interests.

In short, he hedged his bets. He covered as much ground as he could by appealing to left and right wing tendencies in the public, as well as ensuring that powerful elements within the political and economic system supported his campaign and understood that he had no intension of threatening their interests. It paid off for him fantastically. He won an enormous majority in parliament and gained Labour 145 seats, while the conservatives under John Major haemorrhaged 178. It was a historic electoral victory.

As we know, what came after this victory was less appealing to the public, and in 2003 provoked the largest protest against a government decision ever in the UK’s history. This led to Blair’s party losing 113 seats in 8 years – most of what he had gained in his rebranding and broadening (read watering-down) of the Labour Party. Five years after that, and two years after the massive financial crash which had been massaged by Blairite policies of financial deregulation, Labour was out, and they have remained out of power since (though it now seems that all that could change in a matter of weeks, or even days).

The long search for a new Blair

Throughout the last 20 years of decline in Labour control and support, we have been subjected to the insistence from most of the party that they need a new Blair, a new strong and inspiring centrist to reinvigorate the party’s base (which, we are told, is in the centre of the country, not the left). Brown, the Milibands (both the one they wanted and the one they got) and Owen Smith all tried to fill this Blairite void, but all of them ended up looking weaker than both their Tory opposition and their neoliberal predecessor.

The strategy of appealing to ‘the centre’ has not only been used by the Labour Party in recent years. The Conservatives have also become much more ‘centrist’ on a number of social issues, notably on issues like gay marriage. They too, especially since the rise of Corbyn, have been encouraged to move to the centre, including by Blairite strategists like John McTernan, who advised that it would be good policy for the Tories because ‘it is where the voters are’. Those six words have been the dominant electoral assumption of the past twenty years, in both the Labour party and the Conservative party. Throughout the UK but also in liberal parliamentary democracies all over the world, everyone has been trying to reach the ‘middle’.

The public is not always politically centrist. It is just as often politically radical, and this is often precisely what gives a new candidate popular appeal

It seems obvious doesn’t it? Why should a party be content with representing the views of a particular portion of the public when it can have its cake and eat it too? Well… I can think of a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that the public is not always politically centrist. It is just as often politically radical, and this is often precisely what gives a new candidate popular appeal. In fact, many of the most significant elections of the 20th century have been won by candidates who were far from the political centre, and that’s why they won.

Take Thatcher’s victory in the UK, or Reagan in the US, not to mention Trump. Trudeau centred his campaign around forcing a significant break from establishment politics, and Tsipras in Greece sold Syriza as constituting a radical breaks with politics as usual (even if they failed to take on the EU’s power monopoly). Look at the Sanders campaign against Clinton, who would, I have no doubt, have beaten Clinton in the Democratic primaries, had his own party not conspired against him in favour of his establishment rival.

Secondly, what is called the ‘centre’ by Blairites is not the centre of public opinion – it’s the centre of conventional establishment opinion. It’s the centre of an establishment worldview that stands in the shadow of Thatcherism and in the middle of a media’s vested interests in defending a system which it partly constitutes. Many of the neoliberal policies Blairites espouse are fantastically unpopular with the majority of the public, particularly the unending wars which came with Blair and the unending austerity which came after his economic financialisation crashed in 2008. (For examples of popular policies, please refer to the 2017 Labour manifesto.)

Thirdly, moving to the ‘centre’ may have been a good election strategy in 1997, but it doesn’t seem to be a very popular way of governing, as history has shown. Making promises to every side of the argument might make a lot of people vote for you, but leading a country tends to be about making decisions which necessarily leave some people unhappy. Acting as if a government can leave every demographic satisfied does not make it so (especially when the public supporters of a party have such different demands from the private interests which fund it). British politics is about taking sides, not about standing in the middle. Just look at the architecture of the House of Commons – the whole thing is built around conflict.

But there is really no need for me to list all the reasons that Blair’s centrism has failed. It was laid out in front of our eyes on Thursday evening. The rise of Corbyn has delegitimised not only the Conservative Party and austerity politics (with a little help from May’s groundbreaking incompetence), but also the idea that the best way to get votes is to appeal to the political centre.

The pull of the centre

So what caused the last twenty years of the Labour Party to have been so dominated by this reductive and closed-minded political vision? I think there are basically three reasons for it:

First is that in 1997 Blair won a genuinely massive majority which kept his party in power for 13 years. The weight of this as a political achievement should not be underplayed. However, the years since then have shown that trying to stay in the ‘centre’ of a political establishment which is publicly unpopular is a bad political strategy, especially when it includes backing austerity politics which harm almost the entire electorate.

Second, Blairite politicians and the institutionalised media have defended the centrist strategy because they personally benefit from it. This is probably the prime reason that this conventional logic has been so viciously defended by elements in the Labour party and by the vast majority of the print media.

It does not, however, explain why so many average voters continued to passionately defend ‘centrism’ along with the media, while vitriolically attacking Corbyn for his attempt to take the party back to its roots. Yes, to a large degree a complex system of propaganda is to blame, but it is too simplistic to dismiss Corbyn-scepticism on this basis, and it doesn’t win people over to tell them that they have swallowed lies.

Echo chambers aren’t just on social media

In my view, the most relevant and revealing reason for the near unanimous cynicism of Corbyn in the media, and widespread scepticism of his chances according to public opinion, can only be satisfactorily understood by invoking the image of an ‘echo-chamber’ or ‘media bubble’.

We’ve all heard about young people being stuck in social media echo-chambers – but the mainstream media is an echo-chamber too

We have all heard about people being stuck in echo-chambers, especially young people, particularly since the humiliating defeat of Ed Miliband in 2015. We are often told that our little voices bounce out from our social media accounts to our 100 or so followers, but never gain enough traction to make any difference to anything. We live in a social-media bubble which only tells us what we want to hear and only shows us what our personalised algorithm thinks we will ‘like’.

My point is not that we don’t live in media-bubbles – if you’re reading this you most probably already agree with the gist of what I’ve been writing. Nor am I saying that social media won Corbyn the election – I think it may have had a large effect, but nowhere close to the popularity of the party’s policies and Corbyn’s ethical integrity.

My point is that the right-wing, the establishment and the political ‘centre’ are all just as liable to fall into their echo-chambers as anyone else. That’s why the mainstream media never considered that people might like Corbyn’s policies, or him as a leader. That’s why May and her advisors arrogantly thought they could announce a cynical election for political gain and increase their majority. That’s why practically no-one on the TV even considered the possibility that Corbyn might do well, even when the polls started turning – they concluded that the polls must be wrong!

They were wrong because they did not look outside their ideological boxes; they did not properly consider the factor of change and the importance of analysing factors in the context of a changing public opinion. By no means is this mediation easy, far from it. But it is possible, I think, only if one keeps in mind that things always change, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed (just ask Heraclitus).

Yes, there are periods of political stagnation and depoliticisation, but those who think they have found the way to win every election are always proven wrong. Knowing what is going to happen next is always a matter of listening to what is changing, not what stays the same, nor what works ‘every time’. There is just as much of a danger in journalists trusting what their colleagues say and Theresa May trusting what her advisors tell her as there is in trusting what our newsfeeds tell us.

Next time we could well be wrong. We cannot get complacent. This is the beginning of something new – it isn’t the end of anything.

The change that will emerge from the Corbyn shift is, obviously, impossible to know. But what we do know is that political discourse in the UK has been irreversibly changed. One movement has been categorically thrust into the political mainstream, and another has died.

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