The tone of political utterance matters.
Mainstream Labour politicians express astonishment that Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leadership is gaining so much support. Tony Blair, Jack Straw and others have expressed apocalyptic fears of the effect on a Corbyn leadership on the electability of the party. His popularity, some say, must be the result of infiltration. Private Eye have an amusing take on this:
I have just received an email from one of the candidates for deputy leadership. It begins:
Your ballot paper to decide who you want to be Labour’s next leadership team is already on its way to you. It’s an important decision.
This message is sent to people who have already joined the Labour Party or become registered Labour supporters. Do they need to be persuaded or patronised? It ends with a PS after the candidate’s signature: “Your vote is important. Please use it.” This repetition of a call to act is, of course, a technique used by charity and other marketeers when writing to prospective supporters or customers.
I left the Labour Party in 1997 when I heard Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell speaking in a knowing way about the Labour brand. The marketing metaphor seemed inappropriate as it positioned the electorate as consumers to be manipulated. The neoliberal omens were not good.
After eighteen years of Labour and coalition administration, we are imbued in market culture in education, health and other public services. The situation has not reached quite the point I encountered recently in the USA, where I had to listen to an advertisement before making a domestic phone call. Yet the overall spirit of our culture is that everything has to be sold. In a strange application of post-modern philosophy, reality has disappeared. All that matters is advertising and appearance. Political candidates present themselves rather than their policies. Again, Private Eye catches the zeitgeist:
Corbyn doesn’t present himself as having particular qualities or capacities, as is the tendency of the other candidates’ manifestos. His prose is more impersonal as he calls for “a fairer, kinder Britain based on innovation, decent jobs and decent public services”. “Kinder” and “decent” are not part of the current political lexicon. Corbyn draws on a long socialist tradition of critiquing the influence of a market economy. Writing in 1817 about the effect on human life of the new manufacturing system, Robert Owen argued:
All are sedulously trained to buy cheap and to sell dear … and thus a spirit is generated … destructive of that open, honest sincerity, without which man cannot make others happy, nor enjoy happiness himself.
Writing in the current London Review of Books, David Runciman distinguishes between expressive and instrumental theories of voting. The former is based upon voters’ signalling who they are and what they value. Most of Corbyn’s supporters will be expressive voters, whereas those on the left who oppose him may be instrumental voters who fear that, under his leadership, and following his philosophy, Labour will never regain power.
But they may be wrong. Recent history in Scotland, Greece and elsewhere speaks of the power of popular movements and radical (yet long-established) ideas of social change. The Corbyn phenomenon is much larger than the charisma of one quietly spoken man.