Corbyn’s Glorious Victory and the Difficult Way Ahead

by Benjamin Studebaker

Jeremy Corbyn has steamrolled the competition and become the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party with an astounding 59.5% of first preference votes, eliminating competitors Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall without even requiring a runoff:

Corbyn’s victory is crucial to the fight against austerity. Corbyn was the only contender to vote against the government’s welfare bill. No other figure in British politics has offered a comprehensive economic alternative. But it will be five long years until the next election, and Corbyn will face a wide array of difficult obstacles and challenges. Can Corbyn–or any person–manage to prevail? At this stage we cannot be sure, but with Corbyn as leader we know that Labour will at least give it a try. In the meantime, let’s discuss some of the hostile forces Corbyn’s Labour party will have to see off over the next five years.

There are three big problem groups for Corbyn:

  1. The Tories
  2. The Media
  3. The Voters

Let’s discuss each in turn.

The Tories

To beat the Tories with an anti-austerity platform, Corbyn must challenge them on economic issues. This is especially difficult because it means that Corbyn must flip the Tory economic narrative. The Tory narrative holds that under Blair and Brown, Labour overspent, and that this overspending in some way caused or contributed to the economic crisis of 2008. The Tories claim that it is only because of their willingness to make “hard choices” and spending cuts that Britain’s economy has recovered. This is a simple, facile narrative, and it’s extremely appealing to those who have a limited understanding of how the global economy operates. We’ve discussed on this blog the problems with this narrative and the arguments that are used to support it, both in my viral anti-austerity post and its detailed follow up, and we are not alone–most economists and academics agree that the Tory economic narrative is a false and deeply misleading account of Britain’s economic story. But the arguments and principles economists and academics appeal to when debunking the Tory narrative are complex and difficult to articulate in quick soundbites. This puts Labour at an argumentative disadvantage, even though academically it has the better case. If Labour merely needed the support of economists and academics, it could win easily. But ordinary people like the simplicity of the Tory narrative. Labour’s arguments appear suspicious–the nuance and detail is mistaken for excuses and rationalizations for past Labour failings. During the last election, the Tories enjoyed the public’s trust on only two issues–the economy and the deficit:

Labour had the public’s trust on nearly every other issue (aside from Europe and immigration), but it wasn’t enough. Corbyn will have to defeat the Tory narrative and win the public’s trust on the economy. How can he do this? Ordinarily, we would hope that the media would point out flaws and inconsistencies in politicians’ arguments…

The Media

…but it’s unlikely that Corbyn will get much help from the press. Most journalists possess little expertise or training in economics. This would be fine, if journalists were able to identify the individuals who do have that expertise and help communicate those individuals’ ideas to the public. Instead, we see that many journalists are happy to parrot the Tory economic narrative and feed into it with lazy comparisons of Corbyn to various communist boogie men. This indicates that most economists and academics are at this point so far out of British political mainstream that the media considers it ridiculous to report on their views or take them seriously. In America, there are media outlets that deny climate research. In Britain, media outlets deny macroeconomics, creating a perverse intellectual climate where it is possible for millions of people to live in the land of the make believe. It would be funny if it were not causing millions to see their living standards fall or rise less quickly than they could and should. The media has effectively turned positions that once were (and to some degree still are) mainstream in Britain into radical views that can be casually associated with Soviet communism. They have taken positions that are held by the majority of economists and academics and painted them as raving lunacy. The effect is so pervasive that even some left wing outlets feel unable to consistently stand against it without placing themselves too far outside mainstream thought. The Guardian endorsed Cooper over Corbyn, and a great many on the left declined to back Corbyn not because they genuinely disagreed with him on policy, but because they have given up hope that the Tory economic narrative can ever be successfully challenged. Some of us have fully lost confidence in the voting public’s ability to distinguish between good and bad, true and false. This is quite serious.

The Voters

What Corbyn’s left wing opponents don’t recognize is that if it is truly impossible for Corbyn to win–if the Tory economic narrative is invincible, if it cannot be defeated–this means that the political system and media are so fundamentally broken that truth is no longer relevant to politics. This would mean that politics has become detached from reality. In such a society, democracy itself becomes a mere instrument of false hegemonic ideologies. Getting office and holding power becomes synonymous with denouncing reality and displaying a zealous enthusiasm for a collective false history. The entire process becomes surreal Orwellian nonsense. If what Corbyn’s left wing opponents say is true–if democracy requires Labour to affirm that cuts are growth, that pain is happiness, that economic ignorance is strength, then democracy itself has been so thoroughly co-opted and corrupted by the right that we must ask why we ought to support the democratic political system in the first place. Corbyn represents what hope remains for the system, and if he fails it is the system that fails. And in a democracy, we are the system–we are the ones that fail.

I’m not sure they’re wrong. Maybe Corbyn can’t win. Maybe this whole enterprise is doomed from the start. But if it is, we need to acknowledge the clear implication–if austerity is as flawed and damaging as we believe it to be, as the research says it is, this would mean that our political system is fundamentally incapable of delivering competent government in line with contemporary academic research. If Corbyn or someone like him cannot win no matter what, there is little to distinguish democracy from totalitarianism. If the whole of society is constantly engaged in perpetuating and reinforcing a collective ignorance, voting can only beget more ignorance.

The quantity and sophistication of the things voters need to know and understand to meaningfully challenge the Tory economic narrative is quite high. If the economy does reasonably well over the next five years, no one will be inclined to listen, and Corbyn will probably fail. But if there’s a recession in 2019 or 2020 for any reason–even if Tory policy has nothing to do with it–history suggests that this could create an opportunity. When times are bad, people open their minds to new and different ways of doing things. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, the Tories were able to use that opportunity to get people to embrace savage cuts on a scale no one would have contemplated before. If there’s a significant recession at the right time, perhaps voters and the media will be willing to ask themselves if perhaps there might be a better way, if perhaps the Tory narrative isn’t so invincible after all. And maybe, if we’re really lucky, they’ll decide that better way is Corbyn, and not UKIP or something worse. It was depression and misery that made the British people consider Attlee. With a Tory government in charge, depression and misery are certainly not out of the question. The right combination at the right time could perhaps give Corbyn a chance to win.

I’ll root for him. Won’t you?