Sunday 19 January 2020

To understand the rise of Corbyn, look into the Kensington flames

There were many reasons for Jeremy Corbyn's success, but deep down it's because the system isn't working, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

EMPATHY: Jeremy Corbyn, after visiting the horrific London tower block fire, again showed he is a natural communicator, with an ease with people that helps him to connect on a personal level. Picture: PA
EMPATHY: Jeremy Corbyn, after visiting the horrific London tower block fire, again showed he is a natural communicator, with an ease with people that helps him to connect on a personal level. Picture: PA

Eilis O'Hanlon

It was the revenge of the Remainers. It was the crisis in the NHS. It was Labour's promise to abolish tuition fees. It was Theresa May's refusal to debate her Labour rival face to face. It was the threat to make people with dementia sell their homes to pay for social care.

When it comes to explanations for the Tory government's failure to win a majority at the general election a little over a week ago, there have been as many explanations as there are self-appointed experts willing to offer them. All of them contain some measure of truth.

The Labour message was positive and well organised; the Tories had a terrible campaign. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural communicator, with an ease and empathy with people that helps him to connect on a personal, rather than merely political, level. He showed it again in London after the horrific tower block fire.

The prime minister, by contrast, lacks conviction and charisma; she is awkward, wooden, emotionally incomplete, as she also showed by shying away from meeting victims after the fire tragedy.

Young people were definitely a huge factor in the final result too, though there is no firm data on the numbers yet.

These are all details, however, many of them no more than anecdotal. Nothing fully explains why the Tories did so badly (despite still winning the greater number of seats and a larger share of the vote) and Labour did so well (despite the opposite), and anyone who does claim to understand what happened is either deluded or dishonest.

Even the Labour Party expected, on the night, to lose dozens of seats. If success surprised even them, only a fool would say it's easy to explain.

What's happening instead is an example of what Robert Dahl, political science professor at Yale University, called the "myth of the presidential mandate". Candidates themselves do not know exactly who voted for them and why, so they interpret the result retrospectively in light of what fits their favoured narrative.

He gives the famous example of Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980, which was claimed as "not simply a mandate for change but for peace and freedom; a mandate for prosperity; a mandate for opportunity for all Americans regardless of race, sex, creed; a mandate for leadership". The list goes on.

"The ballot," Dahl noted, "gives voters the chance to select candidates, but not to explain why they made those choices. The weakness of election results is that they are specific on one point only: who won and who lost."

And as it happens, he was wrong about that, if for all the right reasons. These days there is little agreement as to the outcome of elections. Did Trump really win? Did Brexit really beat Remain? That's what we're seeing now in Britain. Those who denied that the 52pc vote for Brexit was a convincing enough mandate to leave the European Union are now arguing that Jeremy Corbyn's 40pc is a mandate for change, which is at least as questionable as the idea that Theresa May's 43pc is a mandate for keeping things as they are.

But Professor Dahl was right to conclude that a mandate exists if it is seen to exist, and is accepted to exist, and if one's claim to have it is generally accepted as being true.

That's where Jeremy Corbyn has the upper hand right now. He didn't achieve a majority. Far from it. But he is confidently asserting that he has a mandate, and that claim is enjoying wide acceptance in the popular imagination, a development which the Tories are too weak to challenge.

Theresa May has remained in Number 10, but it is he who seems more in tune, not only with the 40pc who voted for him, but even with many who remain justifiably sceptical of the solutions which he offers. That mood is best summed up by Marlon Brando's character in the 1950s movie The Wild One.

"Hey, Johnny," someone asks him, "what are you rebelling against?" His famous reply: "What've you got?"

That's what Corbyn has captured - a profound dissatisfaction and discontent with the way things are. He has found a way to articulate the scars which the economic shocks of the recent past have left on people's souls.

The recession has been hanging over us like the proverbial black cloud for a decade now, longer than any previous downturn, longer than the economic models suggest is either feasible or bearable. Wages are falling. Prices are rising. There's no job security. The young can't get on the housing ladder. The old machinery of social mobility has been dismantled. The old are anxious about the future, their own and their grandchildren's. We're miserable, stressed, hopeless, whilst those at the top are sitting pretty, better off than ever.

As for the bank bailouts, and the refusal to burn bondholders whose recklessness fuelled the crash, that was an economic injustice so unforgivable as to be a crime.

That's what makes the fire in Kensington feel biblically symbolic. Here is one of the wealthiest places in the land, but where the gap between rich and poor yawns like a black hole. This was the final constituency to declare a result in the election. Narrowly, it went to Labour. Now comes an inferno of the poor to express that social divide in the most violent, terrifying form.

Vulnerable people who rely on the State were failed by the State, and died. Horribly.

It was this sense of wrongness that translated into a large upswing for Corbyn, as it previously found shape in the votes for Brexit, and for Donald Trump, and in Emmanuel Macron's success in France.

In what direction that protest vote goes is unpredictable. In France it has resulted in a virtual wipe-out for the socialists, and in Britain in a bloody nose for the Tories. In Scotland, the protest vote actually went to the Tories, and against the ruling Nationalists.

The only consistent message seems to be that whoever is in charge right now should feel very, very worried, because they're in the crossfire for the next populist uprising. The situation is volatile, and things can change quickly. If Britain's traditional caution is eroding, it's because there's no more punishment that people can take; austerity has reached the limits of its efficacy as an economic tool. Anything is bearable if there's something better on the other side, but people have stopped believing in that promise.

Protest and unpredictability: it sounds like the title of an undiscovered Jane Austen novel, but that's what Corbyn turned to his advantage.

He still has a mountain to climb. His supporters don't like to be reminded of it, but Labour did lose the election, and needs an equally big swing against the Tories next time even to overtake them as the largest party, let alone form an overall majority. In the past 40 years, only one Labour leader has won an election in Britain, and that was Tony Blair. Corbyn might be the second, he has momentum, but he hasn't done it yet.

His great advantage is the same one that Donald Trump had - he might have been around for decades, but he's never held office, not once, in any department, not at the most junior level. He's never had to make choices, then take responsibility for the outcome, much less absorb the ire of those he's disappointed. That means he's a blank canvas on which a dissatisfied populace can paint their own dreams.

It was the same with Brexit. It hadn't been tried before, so it had no whiff of failure. It was all possibility and promise. Let's give that a go, huge numbers of people thought. It couldn't be worse than the status quo. They might turn out to be wrong about that, but they had nothing to lose.

That's the seam of disaffection into which Jeremy Corbyn tapped. In the age of the populist, he may turn out to be the most skilful of all.

Sunday Independent

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