I want to talk about how the over-literal use of a metaphor in politics can blind people to reality, deliberately or otherwise. This is in the context of the UK’s election last week, but also the realities of the Brexit negotiation, where it suddenly seems possible that Labour might be about to destroy everything it’s suddenly achieved.
I’m getting a little irritated with Conservative supporters pretending they don’t know what the media is talking about because according to them, you know, the Tories won the election and Labour lost.
How democracy works
Democracy is a process, not a sport. Sport might be a useful metaphor, but only if we’re conscious of its limitations. Although we can talk loosely of elections being won or lost, they are not like a cup final. Elections are the part of the process that ensures governments remain answerable to the people they govern.
They are not a result in themselves, but a necessarily interim verdict on what governments actually do (these consequent actions are the real “results”). I say “interim”, because unlike a race or a match there’s no end to this process, just change within it.
Elections are governed by rules, to keep a level playing field (that’s how pervasive the metaphor is). But as recent events have shown, gaining the most seats is only part of the mechanics of democracy, not the objective. The objective of an election is for a political party to validate its programme, and that validation depends on how the choice for voters has been framed.
Theresa May demanded that the electorate should strengthen her power. They decided to do the opposite. In her own terms she lost, very badly, and if she’s clinging on to her job that’s only because for the moment her own party isn’t sure how best to replace her.
Nobody expects this uncertainty to last. She will be replaced, because she is rightly seen to have made a hubristic miscalculation, and to have conducted the worst election campaign in living memory. She lost.
Jeremy Corbyn was written off as a political joke, a throwback. Instead the election showed that his leftish manifesto, far from being a suicide note, had wide appeal. He has shown himself to have been far more closely aligned with the shifting mood of the electorate than May’s Conservatism. It has transformed his stature and influence. In this blindingly obvious sense, in this contest for authority, he won, and surly grumbling about the final distribution of seats is a rather pathetic attempt to obscure this blindingly obvious truth.
Clearly politicians interested in implementing their ideas need to attend to these realities, rather than the comforts of dubious metaphors. Theresa May’s first instinct seems to have been to pretend that nothing too serious had happened, to carry on as normal. This is an idea which can be bolstered by clinging to the sporting metaphor; on Question Time last week her transport minister Chris Grayling added the fatuous plea that the Tories had actually increased their share of the vote even though they’d lost seats. This kind of numerical literalism is part of a depressing drift towards Orwellian Newspeak, a willingness to claim that love is hate, or war is peace, in order to sustain a delusional view of the world.
As Grayling must surely know, political numbers stand in need of careful interpretation. Most obviously in a first-past-the-post system people vote tactically, reflecting complex cross-currents of opinion. Close to my home the Tory Julian Brazier lost his Canterbury seat after three decades of incumbency. There was a strong movement in the city to coordinate tactical voting against him, but its success, the fact that people were unusually prepared to be co-ordinated like this, probably reflects a combination of Brazier’s personal unpopularity and a more general anti-government feeling. All of this helped Labour also to achieve its best share of the vote in decades, but it doesn’t imply active enthusiasm for the Labour manifesto (I wish it did). Likewise the Conservatives also benefited from the collapse of UKIP, though if you compare the combined vote for UKIP and the Tories in 2015 and 2017, that combined right wing vote has shrunk; it’s hardly a win even on simple numerical terms.
In the event not all of the UKIP vote went to the Tories. A smaller proportion went back to Labour. Indeed one of the more obvious and striking features of the result was the squeezing of all the smaller parties, hailed by some as a return to the two party system.
I’d say it’s too early to judge that. The LibDems after all improved their position, but not by as much as they might have hoped. Their pitch was unashamedly to the “48%” Remainers in the Brexit referendum, and yet they didn’t vote for Tim Farron’s party. That requires analysis if we’re going to understand what actually happened.
What happened to the Remain vote?
Labour showed significant gains in the south, particularly in London and other university towns. These areas tended to have gone for Remain in the referendum, and it’s generally assumed that the young voters mobilised by Corbyn’s campaign are pro-EU; again the assumption could be usefully tested, but it’s at least plausible to suggest that a strong reason for their engagement, sitting generally under the heading of “hope”, was a desire to roll back the influence of older generations whose inchoate anti-EU prejudices had denied the young the opportunities that come with full participation in the EU.
All the same these and other Remainers chose to support Labour.
It may be that many Remainers have reluctantly accepted the referendum result, and now want only to minimise its bad effects, perhaps through a so-called soft Brexit. It’s likely too that the election really wasn’t about Brexit, despite being called in its name. In the event it seemed May had nothing to say about Brexit other than her usual platitudes, leaving a wide-open space for Corbyn to raise other issues and tap in to a growing dissatisfaction with so called austerity.
He was able to do this partly because Labour policy on Brexit looked ambiguous, or at best was a realistic acknowledgement of the UK’s limited options. It’s possible this allowed many Remainers to put aside their doubts and vote for the one party that seemed to have a chance of stopping the arrogant May, particularly as polls suggested a narrowing of the gap.
But the Brexit issue has hardly gone away. Indeed, the challenge of beginning negotiations in these febrile conditions is shaping current political reality. It’s why on Sunday Andrew Marr and Robert Peston respectively pressed Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell on the issue, and their answers, to return briefly to sport, could be the biggest own goal since, well, Theresa May called the general election.
Hard or soft?
Both were unequivocal. The UK will leave the EU. No doubt they would say this is because we must respect the “will of the people” as delivered by the referendum. This is to fall back into the same crude numerical literalism we’ve seen from the likes of Chris Grayling. As the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole pointed out, ironically talking about Theresa May’s position, this is “a phony populism in which the narrow and ambiguous majority who voted for Brexit under false pretences are to be reimagined as ‘the people.’ ”
But they went further. Both wrote off the possibility of remaining in the single market, or presumably the customs union. Both talked instead of some kind of “tariff-free access” to the EU market. Corbyn then talked of a continuing commitment to many EU institutions, and to continuing co-operation across higher education. In doing this he only underlines the incoherence of the Labour position, the fantasy which he seems to share with the Tory Brexiters, of the UK having its cake and eating it.
Corbyn and McDonnell have their own soundbite: they want “a Brexit for jobs”. This elides the reality that a hard Brexit would quickly destroy jobs. In the words again of O’Toole
“Brexit is a back-of-the-envelope proposition. Strip away the post-imperial make-believe and the Little England nostalgia, and there’s almost nothing there, no clear sense of how a middling European country with little native industry can hope to thrive by cutting itself off from its biggest trading partner and most important political alliance.”
Perhaps Corbyn/McDonnell would say they don’t want to cut themselves off, but this is the cake-and-eat-it fantasy again. The tariff-free access they talk about is barely an option, and would take years to sort out. Continued membership of the single market/customs union is the only realistic prospect of maintaining a favourable trading relationship, and Corbyn is simply wrong to suggest it effectively requires membership of the EU. It does of course require free movement (more or less), an idea which the internationalist Corbyn himself once supported.
Reality: the limited options
In truth the soft Brexit option, while economically less harmful, is also pointless, because it’s simply a less advantageous version of full membership. But there are no viable in-between options. Either we remain, or we accept EEA participation on the Norwegian model (the soft Brexit) or we make a full exit and start the protracted negotiation of bi-lateral treaties, otherwise known as a hard Brexit.
If Corbyn/McDonnell favour the latter as they seem to, they will sooner or later have to come clean about this and in doing so will split the progressive vote, ensuring the renewed return of the Conservatives. Indeed it may well be that a chastened Tory party, forced to acknowledge that the majority of its own MPs were in fact Remainers, could become the louder advocates at least of a soft Brexit, while Labour pushes for Hard oblivion.
There’s still time for Corbyn/McDonnell to shift on this. There are further good tactical reasons to do so. Labour now needs to deepen its support, to build on what it’s just achieved. This includes making some effort to bring business on board. Although I’d argue that Labour’s economic plans would create better conditions for sustained business success, business people are going to take some convincing. I am not suggesting any sops to neoliberal economics, but instead a fuller case for the alternative. An obvious first step would be to harness widespread business fears about the consequences of a hard Brexit, but right now Corbyn/McDonnell seem intent on closing off that opportunity. I hope I’m wrong.
Given all that’s happened it would be foolish to make predictions, but we can still talk of possibilities. It’s true that if by some progression of events Labour found itself at the Brexit negotiating table I don’t suppose Merkel, Juncker or Barnier would be especially keen on inviting a reinvigorated leftist influence to the union; all the more reason to push for it (and Corbyn would find plenty of friends in Europe).
Corbyn has already “won” against the odds. Get his positioning right in the UK and he could do so unequivocally in the inevitable second election this year. There is a significant opportunity for him to change the direction not just of Britain, but the whole of the continent. It would be a tragedy if, because of the whispering ghosts of old Left dogma, he squandered that opportunity.