People do not believe ideas they believe in the people who hold the ideas. The kind of politics which has gripped labour will remain long after Jeremy has gone. We are party with a crisis of identity with infighting built on cults of personality. Labour must become a party uncomfortable with disagreeing with itself and comfortable with agreeing with country. Maybe one strong enough to disagree with the country and change its mind. Cultivating a successful personality has been key to Corbyn’s internal rise and it will be centrals to labours electoral demise. Jeremy will preside over a failure not simply because of his public perception but that his perception is within the narrative of an opponent’s story. Sadly the greater defeats we are to have are much bigger than Jeremy.
If labour replaces Corbyn and fails to create its own narrative it will fail. The stories we have to tell the public – to hold their attention can’t be Blairism with a meme or Corbynism with a gif . It can’t be cultivated by our media silence our political naivety. A combination of a fast changing media landscape, have changed the game whilst the political realties and challenges are enormous . We need clarity of viewpoints and generality of sentiment.; messages which capture the zeitgeist but that is not beholden to it, that massages nostalgia but does not falsely indulge it. People need to know what we stand for what we are going to do and believe that its possible ; for that we need ideas, a leader and a story to combine which combines them both.
Obsessed by the question of leadership
All throughout the labour membership we have indulged in factionalism built around mythology and conjecture of senior political figures. Ideas and issues are expressed in a deeply embedded personality politics. Simply understood this is the presidentialisation of politics but its expression on the British left is more complex. Presidential leaderships styles aren’t unusual ,what’s problematic is when they arise when factionalism is strong and leaders are weak. So in this particular environment of strong belief and leaderlessness , Jeremy was a shocking but not surprising champion. He was the right man at the right time, calm and angry in equal measure. But unlike other president-style leaders -Jeremys weakness and the weakness of party organisation –there is a constant undercurrent of candidates and critics . Internal politics moves less like factions vying for influence and policy positions and more like a never-ending uncontested convention. In the past two years criticism has been more focused on different people not different ideas .
Jeremy would say they are “obsessed by question of leadership”. The media alongside charismatic politicians have exaggerated personality as division not ideas for their own advantages. This isn’t new but digital media, virality and social media accentuates the theatrics. The media enjoys the simplicity of it, clear-cut division and the ratings/clicks it brings. Partisanship has found comfort not in the obvious ideological division but in hyper personality. This poses significant challenge for a Labour party, lost inside itself. One that’s obsessed not in its values for a modern world but in its figurehead and its inability to reconcile leadership and ideological crisis .
Now it’s about people as ideas rather than the ideas of people .This is key to Corbyn’s internal success and public failure. OMOV dysregulated the mechanisms that power brokers in the labour party had for checking voters leftist tendencies and narrowing the field. Corbyn’s success isn’t the pity nominations and luck ,but it was strong pre-existing ideological partisanship .There was a large number of partisans who were revelling in division, seeking purity .But more importantly is that these people aren’t just ideologues they had attached themselves to the Corbyn personality. In response those on centre and soft left have left to seek their own champions .Failing to create their own ideas or narratives but hoping in the empty whispers of Nandy or Kinnock or whoever wrote the most recent op-ed .Our wilderness is not rival socialist newspapers and men in donkey jackets. It’s our politics lost insides the conceptions of a few people about political figures.
Labour members are fundamentally different from the rest of the public. More so than at any other time do they make up such a small sector of the population. They are less a reflection of the labour base more its fringe .They are significantly more left wing more liberal more politically engaged. They consume narrow media and have narrow social circles – politics rather than a 5 yearly event is a moralist sentiment a strand of identity. This aspect of politics as part of internet culture – is probably a refection of individualisation on culture. Demographic and political labels are deeply intertwined, like sociology as one of incarnations of the trinity. This is a combination of the mainstreaming of radical identity politics into the left-wing mainstream and added societal atomisation. Hence members, conceptualise party loyalty to individual narrow markers of social justice. This can make arguments deeply personal.
Though understating all of this. The X-Factorisation of politics, the echo chambers of social media the deeply held views of members; I’m still surprised we are at this point . You have varying political traditions shaky institutions and alternative fact permeating access to information. The twitter arguments, the trolling, memes become murkier. Somehow we end up with bricks in MPs offices, sexist taunts, racist abuse, booing journalists, petitionering and anti-Semitism scandals. Or perhaps less obvious the conspicuous silence of pretend unity ;lies and obfuscation about future electoral performance and more time spent criticising the media than the government . And losses : MP’s, Councillors ,Mayors, communities , hearts and minds . But failure is either spun, rejoiced or its a shouting match about Corbyn between factions . Little thought of polices which are only ghosts in the minds of Labour politicians , polices which haunt the lives of those who would have been helped .
Stuck between a Miliband Pledge Rock and Hard left place
People believe their views, values and their leader is an ethical decision a personal one. It’s a paradoxical mix of identity politics and individualisation . We are no longer a broad church and worse still division is based on personality and its relation to ideas rather than policy and values in a wider context. For many arguments are extensions of how you conceive your identity, making it more than just a leader. This is something opponents of Corbyn failed to understand to their own Owen Smith shaped disaster. They not only failed to realise they were guilty of similar shortcomings of conception but failed to understand why it meant their arguments fail and candidates fail.
The leadership crisis has allowed the vacuum only to be filled by speculation into future leaders not future ideas. It’s meant that the party is stuck between a Miliband Pledge Rock and a Hard left place. Ideas are swinging between blindly positively polled and classical Corbynomics. I’m not suggesting the leaked draft manifesto is bad nor the 2015 manifesto .But people don’t read manifestos but they are symbol of the priorities . Labour has lacked the emotional precepts needed to usher in change. They can’t frame peoples situations and put policy in there context. Its not that ideas are bad its not that the public may think them silly .They just don’t see them as credible or believable without any story for their necessity. And out the mouth of Jeremy – well I don’t need to explain that . These words may to us indignant in our opposition to tory failure seem facile but for voters they mean a lot.
We must be careful to avoid myths of a prodigal Miliband returning whilst “things can only get better” plays in the background. Or believe that a sexier Corbyn can turn everything around . These ideas are popular because many of us believe the problem is just Jeremy. They don’t understand the distance between members and the public, they don’t understand how to deal with personalised 24 news cycles, nor how to craft a politician who is credible but rooted more than a personality attuned to members but one for the country.
The next labour leader must be King Canute . They must understand they cannot change the tide, by simply commanding it. Though I stress the crafting of a message for how people consume media, it’s not just about media management. I’m cautious of the current landscape – a preference for polar personality rather than coalition building ideas . We can’t save ourselves by snappy press releases or witty soundbites or kind by-lines, but a national story. One that builds and emboldens a new political coalition .Jeremy’s failure can not be a Trojan horse for reheated blairism or bland centrism. It cannot be used as analgesic to swallow to wet soft left politics nor is it the ground for an electable Corbyn. Simply its not an excuse to shoe horn your politics but actually a time for labour to look out to the country .Labour has to reembrace a new country distinct from the politics its applied in the past. Political stories require clarity of belief and a sentiment to which people can apply their own pre-existing values . It’s not just about bland slogans but its about a message that someone can meaningfully apply if only briefly to their real lived lives and hopefully remember at the ballot box.
We must remove the solipsism which surrounds our factionalism. We must engage in our party’s problems but that reflection must not happen within the echo chamber of Labour party .We cannot sacrifice our chance at power on the altar of a nice man from Islington nor pretend any future challenger has tendency to the godlike. We are in leadership crisis but that mustn’t mean that a leader is the only solution to that. We shouldn’t sorrow in our history or mythologise our challenges we should have clear principle not rigid ideology .Crucially we must create a story that tells the British people that thy deserve more than they get ,that life chances opportunities and success should be more available to us . That there is an alternative , beyond austerity and in the misery of Brexit some grander future is possible . And we might just create a clearing to escape out through the wilderness.