The feeling for a very, very long time is that people vote for their choice of candidate according to election pledges and promises, only to find politicians frequently renege on their campaign commitments once elected; the echo of Mark Twain’s cynical observation ringing in their ears: ‘If voting made any difference they wouldn't let us do it.’
To prove the point, the newly elected leader of Britain’s Labour Party was something of a freak accident that only happened as a consequence of an ill-considered strategy to make the leadership election process more inclusive in the aftershock of a crushing general election defeat. The new rules meant that every man and his dog could buy a vote online in the upcoming leadership election for a nominal fee of £3.00. Tens of thousands seized on the opportunity, and a seasoned socialist backbencher named Jeremy Corbyn—JC to the faithful—won by a landslide. The mainstream media, and just about anyone with a stake in preserving the status quo, immediately fell upon the newly elected leader in a feeding frenzy—any pretence to media impartiality was abandoned.
Ten months later, when the UK embarrassed the Establishment by voting to leave Europe in the promised referendum, it was decided that enough was enough—democracy, that is—and ‘a very British coup’ was mounted by Labour colleagues which triggered a leadership challenge and a virtual schism within the Party. When a complaint came from someone in the audience that Corbyn was being crucified by all and sundry, the response from the challenger came straight out of Python: ‘He’s not the messiah—he’s a very naughty boy.’
Corbyn immediately worked toward a more dignified and collegial approach to politics; but when he dispensed with the usual weekly parliamentary pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions for an opportunity to pose questions from the general public to the Prime Minister directly, he was roundly jeered, and his growing fan base was dismissed as a mob. Some commentators joked about repeatedly punching him in the face or even having him killed in a drone strike. The mantra of his unelectability was monotonously peddled out to the public every day despite more and more members joining up in support. Meanwhile, Labour Party admin staff worked flat out to chuck them back out like a crew bailing out a sinking ship: they didn’t want the subscription money, they didn’t want to be the biggest social democratic party in Europe, and they really didn’t take to Corbyn’s brand of democracy with him acting as a channel through which ordinary people’s grievances could be aired. This was completely unnecessary as politicians are uniquely qualified to know what’s best for the people; and ultimately the country is best served by preserving it from the so-called ‘tyranny of the majority’—the trampling over minority rights by the ‘herd’.
The recent EU referendum was touted as a case in point and the result widely considered to be motivated by xenophobia. However, a recent referendum in Catholic Ireland to decide whether to amend the constitution in order to legitimise same-sex marriage completely dispelled the notion that ‘the majority’ are too frequently motivated by bigotry. The result was decisively in favour of making the amendment and strongly suggests the tyranny of the majority is something of a red herring or at the very least, inconsistent. Which prompts the question, what minority exactly is it that needs protecting and from whom?
What to make of Corbyn’s approach? He’s no great orator or demagogue and doesn’t provide the gratifying spectacle of dismantling one political opponent after another in any given debate, but he does enthuse and inspire people like no other British politician in recent memory. So how is it done? There is something Zen about the modus operandi which is more like the ‘art of fighting without fighting’: by not getting overly combative or personal, Corbyn tends to expose the ugliness of his detractors and, in this sense, gain a degree of public sympathy from folk who are turned off by what former Prime Minister David Cameron referred to as ‘Punch and Judy’ politics. By pointing out society’s ills in a reasonable way and asking for more, so to speak, he manages to make the government look curmudgeonly, sometimes even cruel. There is no doubt that by offering something contrary to business as usual, along with sincerity and an emphasis on listening and engaging as much as talking and persuading, he has managed to tap into a very deep well of public disenchantment. The other former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, also pinpointed the ‘art of listening’ as a politically essential skill—and he had certainly mastered the art of making a person feel like they were the only person in the room—except he didn’t practice what he preached when it came to the Iraq War. Corbyn at least promises something different and has undeniably ignited a movement, but he is still a long way from gaining critical mass. If he ever does, here’s hoping that the Establishment’s plan B isn’t, in the words of Bertolt Brecht, ‘to dissolve the people and elect another’…