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Britain's New Old Labour - When Idealists Give Way to Ideology

Mal Fletcher
Posted 15 September 2015
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Disillusioned idealists often project their ideal visions onto ideologues.

This is certainly true of politics, as is evidenced by the unexpected rise to prominence of Jeremy Corbyn, the recently elected leader of Britain's Labour Party.

After a long career spent watching events unfold from Parliament's back benches, Mr Corbyn has found a new seat in the House of Commons, at the centre of the action as Opposition Leader.

There is, however, good reason to doubt that Mr Corbyn can lead an effective, well-rounded Opposition in the House as distinct from a protest-in-residence.

Prominent members of his own party are wondering whether he can look beyond his pet causes to see the bigger picture, replacing ideology with principled pragmatism.

The ascendancy of Mr Corbyn, an unreconstructed old-school socialist, has not been greeted with universal acclaim within his own party.

Indeed some reports today suggest that he was met with stony silence at his first meeting as leader with members of the parliamentary party.

Only six of his newly appointed shadow cabinet voted for him in the leadership election. So even those with whom he has chosen to work most closely remain unconvinced of his leadership qualifications and unsure of the viability of his stance on key issues.

Nobody knows, for example, how he will vote on any legislation regarding Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent. Until now, he has been a committed unilateralist, calling for the West to abandon all nuclear weapons.

Nobody knows, either, how he'll vote - or call his party to vote - when it comes to problems surrounding terrorism, as he has long been a vocal supporter of Hamas and the IRA.

Most importantly, perhaps, he remains unpredictable on the economy. In his backbencher days he continually advocated huge increases in income tax on the wealthy and on business.

He has chosen to appoint a Shadow Chancellor who is even more radical than himself. This is already sounding alarm bells in many quarters, even from people who welcomed his rise, including prominent Union leaders.

So how has British politics - or, at least, the left side of it - come to this?

In part, the election of Jeremy Corbyn is a result of a deep disillusionment felt by large parts of the electorate when it comes to politics-as-usual.

This frustration with establishment politics is not unique to Britain. It is clearly a factor behind the unexpected rise to prominence of Donald Trump, now sitting at the top of US Republican opinion polls in the race to become his party’s presidential nominee.

Sitting just behind him in the race is Dr. Ben Carlson, another non-politician. Professional politicos like Jeb Bush, for all their super PAC financial support, are struggling to make any impact at all.

At the same time, the Democrat establishment are watching with surprise and/or alarm as Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist in this most capitalist of nations, threatens to overtake the centre-leftist former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, in Australia, yet another duly elected Prime Minister, leader of the Liberal Party, has been ousted by members of his own party, after a relatively short stay at the top,.

This follows hard on the heels of the Labor Party's Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Prime Ministerial dance, in which the nation’s highest office appeared to be the centre of a never-ending game of musical chairs.

The latest case of political patricide will do nothing to settle public agitation about the general tone of national politics, which is largely seen as being about self-service as opposed to public service.

It will do little to reassure a population facing an economic downturn and will damage Australia's reputation abroad. This at a time when stability is a must, as the lucky country looks for new foreign investment beyond China.

The political trust deficit, which I've written about elsewhere on the 2020Plus site, is arguably now at a peak in the UK, the US and Australia.

The EU has also taken a hit in this regard, particularly with its handling of the Greek financial crisis. The world - and Europe's people themselves – now wait to see how EU member states will respond to the refugee situation, balancing humanitarian compassion with the realistic demands of migration management.

Wherever liberal democracies are found, a loss of confidence in political institutions is often followed by disenchantment, frustration, agitation, impatience and anger.

When this happens, idealists in the population will often project their visions of a better future onto ideologues, whose intransigence on issues is often mistaken for a sign of prescience.

Further down the road, these idealists, particularly the younger variety, often find that their faith has been misplaced. Their aspirations for a fundamentally better society remain unfulfilled.

Why is this? Because ideologues are usually terrible pragmatists and politics is, in large part, about pragmatism.

Yes, politics should be undergirded by principles - and often it is not.

However, principles are not the same as inflexible ideologies, which remain unbending even when all the available historical and contemporary evidence suggest that they are misguided.

Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist ideologue. His long political record proves it.

He is outspoken about his hard-left beliefs and it is this consistency and frankness that many Labour members have found refreshing in an age of obfuscation and spin.

However, it’s worth remembering that ideas and reality often conflict.

On the day Mr Corbyn was elected Labour leader, I was speaking at an event for young community leaders in Kiev, a nation that has seen its fair share of socialist idealogues.

I’d like to see Mr Corbyn sell socialism as a way forward to the good people of Kiev.

For them, it represents only an oppressive and traumatic past, which they’re working hard and with passion to leave behind. They have seen the damage socialist ideology can do when it is carried into real-world, day-to-day practice.

At 2020Plus, we do not wish Mr Corbyn or his party ill. In fact, for Britain's sake, we hope to see a strong and stable Opposition emerge, for this can only strengthen the nation's governance.

However, given Mr Corbyn's track record, it is hard to see any united and politically viable Opposition emerging under his tenure.

One tends to reap as one sows. From the distant back benches, Jeremy Corbyn voted against his own party more than 500 times - which is high even by Westminster's sometimes eccentric standards.

How will he inspire loyalty and support for his programme from a party he's so often disregarded and even derided?

He obviously believes in his ideology with a passion and has built his career on it. Yet he gives no hint of an ability to negotiate or look for win-win outcomes.

Arguably, he gravitates toward causes for which he sees only a black and white outcome.

That may, for some, appear attractive in a lone parliamentarian representing a working class constituency. Championing the workers may seem even more laudable when the MP has himself come from a relatively comfortable middle class background, as has Mr Corbyn.

Yet ideologues are hardly ever comfortable with nuance or consensus-building. Like it or not, though they're not very "sexy" and don't often make for great headlines, these are among the core ingredients of government decision-making.




What’s your view?

Are electorates swinging to favour ideologues again?

Yes

No

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