Lola Seaton writes in the New Statesman:
Between 2015 and 2019, Jeremy Corbyn effected an abrupt reversal of this transformation of electoral politics into spectacle. For those, like me, swept up in the political enthusiasm Corbynism generated, audience democracy became party democracy once more. Hundreds of thousands flooded into the Labour Party, and electoral politics, in however shallow a way, became something we did rather than something we watched.
Corbynism was a rapidly assembled electoral mobilisation that lacked organisational depth. But the practical and emotional engagement the movement engendered – especially among younger age groups like mine, who came of age post-2008 and have never voted in an election that Labour has won – dispersed the aura of meaninglessness that shrouded parliamentary politics. If elections then, and for the first time, at least seemed to mean something, last week marked the return, after that fragile interlude, of their undissembled meaninglessness.
This reminded me of something I was thinking about a while ago, namely: how does political belief work? How do people decide what they believe and how they should act politically? I think the colloquial model is that you encounter ideas, match them against your own experience and theoretical framework and develop from that your political worldview. I think that's somewhat true but incomplete. I think a useful analogy to draw might be that of people's relative satisfaction. It's a pretty well-established fact that people's happiness isn't (past a certain minimum threshold of living standards) absolute, it's relative; they compare themselves to their friends, family, neighbours etc. Similarly, I think that people's politics are informed by the possibility-space of politics they see; the "Overton window". For this, I think a useful example might be Jeremy Corbyn.
Stephen Bush likes to say that voting behaviour on They Work For You etc doesn't often tell you much beyond what the party line is because most MPs aren't very rebellious. I think that's true, but if that is true I think the same also goes for the strict political programmes of parties. I think what needs to be taken into account also is with what frequency which things are said (I find myself reminded of the 2016 Clinton campaign's policy-free advertising) and more than anything, the way in which they're said; what the party is saying over and above the raw words.
Corbyn's policies may not have been as radical as people said, and it may have been more of a vibe, but it was a vibe that hasn't really been felt for a long time in Westminster. It's the vibe that change is possible, that you don't need to always have the lowest possible expectations. That a whole range of beliefs, ruled out of bounds by the consensus of a media owned and driven by a few rich men, are in fact not just widely held but widely popular.
That austerity is cruel and unnecessary and the Tories should be moral lepers because of it. That foreign wars and adventurism, far from being Brave, Sensible, Grown-Up etc, have been catastrophes—yes, for us, but chiefly for the poor bastards on the receiving end, and that should matter. That there are spheres of political conversation—industrial policy! public ownership!—foreclosed by the economic consensus that emerged in the 80s and 90s that, in the light of the real changes in the world since then, should be opened again. That those who were successful in the 90s and early 00s have not noticed that the current state of things is a result of their hubris and the failures of their policies—and many of the policies that were good and beneficial, like Surestart, were shredded by the Coalition.
My whole age cohort (and many outside it!) had felt brutally disempowered and (unlike all the people who said this over the last few years when what they meant was "I should be voting for the Lib Dems") politically homeless. And finally, here was evidence that we weren't just a few, we were many. We could find each other, and we could organise.
It was about getting people involved. Getting more people involved. Getting people to think that they mattered and could do something and it wasn't all about things that were done by the people somewhere else. That Sidney Webb quote about CLPs being made up of cranks and weirdos isn't entirely wrong, but guess what: the population at large is made up of cranks and weirdos. Most people probably think I am, and I definitely think you are if you're reading this. There is no "normal", no-one without some rough edges or square-peg tendencies or wildly contradictory beliefs. The only people who are that smooth are people who've spent their whole lives preparing for elected office.
I'm friends with a lot of people who would aver political beliefs far to the left of Corbyn. A few of them claimed that he was actually a milquetoast social democrat or something, perhaps not unfairly. But the vast majority got on board to some extent—not necessarily joining the party or anything, but maybe a bit of leafleting or even just talking to someone about it. He got them, for a short time, perhaps, to believe, and moreover to act on that belief. I think, with the benefit of hindsight, some Corbyn supporters might say that their defences of the man were a bit strong, possibly verging on disingenuous. But contra what some people think, I think a little of this sort of thing is actually good—it's something like Hirschman's hiding hand principle. If you look at everything through a prism of absolute crystal-clear reality you're going to gaze into the void and go mad and probably do nothing. If you believe in something, and you can get together with other people too, you might be able to change something.
It didn't end up happening! At least, not in the way we would have liked. The movement was too fractured, or its roots didn't go deep enough, or the forces arrayed against us were too powerful, or all of those or something else entirely. But things did change. Starmer is still running on large aspects of the Corbyn-era platform—rightly identified as popular—and the Tories, admittedly pressured by extreme circumstance and powered by extreme cynicism, have moved in that direction, to a certain extent. As Seaton observes towards the end of her piece, while winning elections is certainly the prime function of a political party, it is not the whole of their reason for being. I think that politics without an aspect of this kind of belief and inspiration and engagement, of showing things can and should be changed, is doomed to chase an ever-shrinking pool of the already-engaged—but believe that politics with it is still possible, and can still make things better for everyone. Not everyone who believed has returned to Seaton's "undissembled meaninglessness"; the high-water-mark is visible above, but we've not fallen all the way back—and we aim higher still.