On Corbyn and our collapsing orthodoxies

Posted on October 7, 2015

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This article was published on Open Democracy

A strange thing has happened in the British political scene since the financial crash of 2008. On the one hand, many mainstream economic commentators have begun to question the orthodoxy that prevailed prior to (and which was largely responsible for) the crash and its continuing fallout. This deeper self-analysis has occurred even as orthodox ideas have continued to dominate mainstream political debate and public understanding of how the economy works. By contrast, political commentators have for the most part failed to subject their own received wisdom to anything like the same degree of scrutiny. This is all the more surprising given that politics, like the economy, has experienced monumental disruptions and transformations during this period. The first thing I want to do here is to simply point out this strange divergence. The second is to offer a couple of possible explanations for why it might have occurred.

Let’s first be clear: I do not argue that economic orthodoxies do not persist in the mainstream media. They do. One only need pick up any edition of The Economist during the last seven years (barring a brief period of bewildered near-humility in the few months following September 2008) to see the persistent hold of “zombie neoliberalism”. However, in other quarters the sheer scale of the crisis has forced many commentators who take their jobs seriously to at least be open to alternative ideas. With disastrous public finances (which Osborne’s deficit fanaticism has barely touched), private indebtedness creeping back towards 2007 levels, rock bottom interest rates, and the high probability of another crash that will almost certainly be more serious than the last, we are in uncharted territory. Under these conditions, as the more astute economic observers have noted, the orthodoxy looks not only irrational, but positively extremist.

Let us, for example, take the media response to the policy of “People’s Quantitative Easing” (PQE) mooted during Corbyn’s leadership campaign, which proposed to use debt-free money created by the Bank of England to finance large-scale infrastructure spending. His Labour leadership rivals, Conservative Ministers and hacks of various stripes (typically those with limited grasp of the economic argument) dismissed the proposal out of hand on the basis of pre-crash orthodoxy, evoking Weimar Germany, Zimbabwe and other ill-founded comparisons in the process. Curiously, however, Fleet Street’s more informed economic commentators offered qualified backing for the idea. Far from being limited to those on the left, these included Martin Wolf of the FT, Ambrose Evans Pritchard of the Telegraph, and Anatole Kaletsky in Prospect. Following the healthy exchange of ideas that the proposal of PQE stimulated the policy seems to have been side-lined for now, largely due to a persistent (and perhaps idealised) dominant belief in the Bank of England’s current political independence. However, the fact that it is instinctively dismissed by (in many cases ideologically sympathetic) generalists and yet taken seriously by (even ideologically opposed) specialists speaks volumes. The difference is between those who have internalised the rules of the game and now police them officiously, and those who realise that rules are always contingent, that the current ones are failing, and that they should therefore be up for discussion.

This brings me on to the second part of the argument, which is that the kind of healthy exchange of views that accompanied the proposal for PQE has been conspicuously absent in the more narrowly political analysis that has accompanied Corbyn’s rise. Apart from a clutch of columnists from the more iconoclastic wing of the Guardian (Seamus Milne, Owen Jones, Zoe Williams, Aditya Chakraborty and that’s about it) and Peter Oborne, playing his lonely role as a non-doctrinaire and non-hysterical voice on the British right, there has been a resolute refusal to give Corbyn even a fair hearing, let alone any credit. This is hardly a surprise within the dominant right-wing media, but is a sorry state of affairs for publications like The Guardian and New Statesman, which should supposedly encompass a wide spectrum of opinion within the Labour Party (including the 60% who voted for Corbyn) and the left more generally.

In particular it has been depressing to see formerly dispassionate and professional, if somewhat insider-y, journalists like George Eaton and Rafael Behr accost Corbyn in increasingly tetchy ways for not following the “rules”. According to them, the Labour leader was obliged to discuss the Party’s election defeat in his conference speech and make a “pitch to Middle England”. Apparently his failure to do so was further evidence, if any were still needed, that he is neither serious nor electable. (Who knew that conference speech writing was so prescriptive?) Meanwhile George Osborne’s supposed “pitch to Labour voters” at the same time as slashing the tax credits of the hard-working families he is so fond of, was “clever politics”. The message is clear: it doesn’t matter that Osborne is pushing through an extreme policy that will make millions of working people dramatically poorer, the simple fact that he declares himself to be on the centre ground automatically makes it so. Or to put it another way, if you brazenly lie you deserve to be taken seriously. Those are the rules. Like it or lump it.[1]

This mental prison in which these mainstream left-liberal commentators have caged themselves has become more clearly visible since Corbyn’s rise, but it has been there all along. These iron laws (read bars) were built on the reverses of the 1980s and the electoral success of New Labour, just as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the so-called “Great Moderation” underpinned resurgent neoliberal orthodoxy in the business pages during the same period. Such rigid thinking may be understandable, if not excusable, in such a context, but why have the dramatic convulsions British politics has experienced since 2010 done so little to shake it? During this time we have seen, among other events, the rise and fall of the Lib Dems as a potential party of government; UKIP becoming a serious political force and bullying the Conservative front bench into offering a referendum on Britain’s EU membership; the SNP wiping out Labour and the Lib Dems in Scotland; and Corbyn’s own victory within the Labour Party. From the vantage point of 2007, these events (especially the last two) would have looked unthinkable. They certainly were not predicted by the purportedly serious journalists who now prophesy doom for the Labour Party. And yet here we are.

So what accounts for this woeful lack of imagination, self-reflection and, indeed, humility on the part of seemingly intelligent and informed political commentators? There are certainly several, among which the cosiness of the Westminster village and the over-representation of London-based and middle class journalists are certainly important. We can clearly add the gravitational pull of the predominantly right-wing press in setting the media agenda. The sheer offence some seem to have taken to Corbyn’s rise may be to do with something as petty as the fact that they have lost their privileged access to the top of the Labour Party. However, I would like to proffer two other reasons that reveal more endemic failures of political commentators in the post-2008 world.

The first failure relates to the nature of the object of study. Despite its misplaced self-perception as a quasi-science, macroeconomics is built upon paradigms that have the advantage of, to some extent at least, being refutable. If the neo-classical orthodoxy clearly fails to account for observed conditions in the post-2008 world, those who are not entirely blinded by ideological commitments (still a majority, sadly) are forced to at least engage with alternative explanatory models. The equivalent premises of the current political orthodoxy, by contrast, are far more abstract. These include the oft-repeated claim that Britain is an inherently “conservative country” and the assumption that Labour must always fight on the “centre ground” (whatever that means, if even Osborne can claim to inhabit it!) It is the sheer blandness of such clichés that has allowed them to survive in the face of steadily mounting evidence to the contrary since 2010.[2] This is not to say there are not aspects of the UK’s political-institutional inheritance or important cultural reference points that might exercise a moderating influence over political life. There may well be. But accepting these as the natural laws rather than partial and contingent configurations amounts to an act of self-lobotomy.

A second failure is that political commentators haven’t even begun to grasp the role of big data on (mis)forming perceptions of where political “gravity” lies. I don’t know how many standard deviations May’s Conservative majority was from the dead heat the pollsters had consistently predicted in the months leading up to the election, but it is certainly large enough to warrant contrition from commentators who based their views on such measures. Ironically, it may not be that the calculations were entirely wrong (as was the case with regard to the ratings of sub-prime mortgages for example) but that events in the lead-up to the election – specifically the “threat” of a Labour-SNP coalition – swung voting dramatically in the final weeks. Either way, the polling was a very poor predictor of what would actually happen. Yet such data, along with the even more methodologically dubious use of focus groups, continues to form the basis of much journalistic analysis, as well as political strategy. Unforgivably, the refusal of Corbyn to play by such demonstrably flawed logic is now taken by his critics as proof that he will inevitably fail. The story of politics since 2010 is of wild, unforeseen swings, and yet we are still told that we live in a predictable political world governed by natural laws.

Both of these points – the persistence of zombie centrism and the failure to understand the inherent flaws of big data-based analysis – point to a common fact that many economic analysts are beginning to grasp, but most political commentators still do not: that the defining features of the post-2008 world are complexity and uncertainty. The liberal-left commentariat seems to be trapped in a weird, geometric world in which the rhetorical “centre” plays an equilibrating role equivalent to the neo-classicals’ invisible hand. Unfortunately for them, and us, this bears little resemblance to the world the rest of us inhabit, where assumptions of orderliness and predictability have only passing relevance at best. That doesn’t mean Jeremy Corbyn has a good chance of winning the 2020 election. With most of his own parliamentary party ranged against him, in a country in which the vast majority of the print media is owned by a handful of oligarchs, and with a hostile City of London and security establishment lurking in the wings, I’d say the chances are pretty slim. But that will not be because he does not follow etiquette in his conference speeches, dress his programme up in centrist rhetoric, or obsess about what pollsters say the voters don’t like about him. Indeed his refusal to play by such rules probably improves his chances, because they at least leave open the possibility that he might help to shift the rules of the game in his favour.

Let me end by illustrating my central point with the example of Corbyn’s rise itself. Transport yourself back to late-2012. In a story you never would have heard at the time, an allegation emerged that trade union officials had wrongly interfered in the selection of a Labour parliamentary candidate in the Scottish constituency of Falkirk. Several months later the event gained national attention in series of hugely overblown scare stories in the right-wing press. Reacting to media pressure, then Labour leader Ed Miliband proposed and managed to pass reforms to the party’s relationship with the trade unions. The same package also replaced the electoral college system that had won him the leadership with a far more democratic and inclusive “one member one vote” system. Two years later, following Labour’s electoral defeat and Miliband’s resignation, this new system allowed Corbyn – a token backbench left-wing candidate who didn’t expect even to make the ballot – to sweep his mainstream rivals aside as new and existing members voted for him their droves. That is to say, in less than three years the Falkirk Butterfly had produced the Corbyn hurricane. To those who confidently predict that Labour’s abandonment of the “centre” will leave them out of power for a generation I ask: unknown to us now, what butterflies are beginning to flap their wings?

[1] See an exchange I had with Behr on Twitter here in which he attempts to justify his enthusiastic assessment of Osborne’s “cleverness”.

[2] This point is reminiscent of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous criticism of his fellow philosophy student Norman Malcolm, who commented that the British “national character” ruled out doing something so uncivilised as to attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler: “Whenever I thought of you I couldn’t help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. […] you made a remark about ‘national character’ that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy […] if it does not make you more conscientious than any […] journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends.”

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