Choosing a Leader: Thinking in Ink

3

August 13, 2015 by Andrew W M Smith

I’ve been thinking a lot about political messages recently, about hope, about change, and about all that comes between them. As the ballot for the Labour leadership draws ever closer, it’s challenging to really pin down who I support. I’m a long-standing Labour member, and not a recent sign-up or affiliate, though I’ll admit I’ve not been much of an activist lately. I voted for Ed Balls as leader last time round, as I didn’t like either flavour of Miliband, though then, as now, I wasn’t captivated or particularly inspired by the menu. That leaves me with a bit of a conundrum this time when figuring out who to support, as it’s a similar situation with a similarly difficult choice (and besides, no-one wants the political equivalent of ‘food envy’ that comes with ordering badly in restaurants).[1]

This image borrowed from the BBC

This image borrowed from the BBC

Simone de Beauvoir quotes Jean Jaurès in her book The Mandarins, saying:

“The man of tomorrow will be the most complex, the richest in life that history has ever known.”[2]

This is far more than saying the grass is always greener, and speaks to deeper desires, channelling the audacity of hope (to borrow a phrase) to believe that politics can change lives. I think our projections of the future are tied to our understandings of the present, and that this mandates a practical attitude to the politics of state. This thinking minds me to support Yvette Cooper. She seems to me the most credible candidate, the one most focussed on realistic deliverable policies (in particular, her focus on the success of SureStart and desire to expand it). Her speech in Manchester was really good, and showed more definition than has been evident in her campaign to date. I was struck, in particular, by one point Cooper made which seemed to sum up the central question plaguing me at this point:

“it’s not enough to be angry at the world, we’re the Labour Party – we have a responsibility to change the world, or what’s the point of us at all?”[3]

This remains, I think, key. She notes again in that speech:

“The fight for social justice has to start from today, not the world we remember it to be.”[4]

Much of her rhetoric is positive. She has the skills for government and has performed well in parliament. Yet, my support for Cooper is not assured, even this late in the day. I find myself somewhat underwhelmed by a ‘continuity candidate’, and fear she lacks the charisma to construct a broad electoral platform. Cooper has a steel edge, though lacks polish. I find myself asking if her policies are meaningfully differentiated from the agenda being set by the Tory government; does her commitment to progressive politics extend beyond basic welfare measures and saying ‘radical’ a lot? What is her meaningful vision of the future?

In an excellent article on history and anti-imperial struggles, Manu Goswani remarked that “the temporal referent of radical politics is the future.”[5] This is the promise offered by Corbyn, and it’s what tempts me to vote for him. His message is anti-systemic, and challenging to prevailing narratives of European political development. In that, it crests a wave of similar movements. Over the last month or so, I have seen more commentators invoke Ernesto Laclau, and really engage with the creation of left-wing populism that has occurred in a variety of European settings. The success of recent radical political campaigns (whether that be Syriza, Podemos, the Corbyn campaign, or (with reservations) the SNP), has focussed on this very point. This view of politics entails decoupling oneself from the tyranny of the present and the deep past, to find, instead, the short present and the long, and imminent, future. By disregarding petty squabbles (or by building ‘big tent politics’), these movements have instead gathered broad constituencies based on disavowing dominant narratives of the market and of neo-liberalism (the grand phantom).

As Jan Werner-Müller wrote of this style of politics:

“Such a force has the capacity to bring together citizens with different interests and identities behind one symbolic, possibly quite vague rallying cry, such as ‘Oxi’.[6]

The difficulty here, is in validating the contingent narratives of the age (environmental politics, for example) with the sense that we live one election away from utopia. Radical politics can be about more than progressive visions of utopia, though it must always retain an image clutched to its breast. To me, it seems, Corbyn treasures that vision of a radical political future in a locket by his heart.

I’ve written a fair bit on this blog about the grand sweeps of Scottish politics, and I don’t intend to rehash it all here. (My opinion on 2 steps to begin to fix Scottish Labour: 1) disaffiliate from the national party, and, 2) conduct open leadership primaries allowing write-in candidates.) In particular, the defining point of recent times (for me) has been the sustained importance of civic society. As older establishments waned, new movements provided means of collective identity more appealingly focussed on future referents than on the messy knots of preservation or precarity. For the SNP as a movement, the ‘banal nationalism’ of British statehood serves as a mainspring of oppositional fuel. It is the symbolic emptiness around which the left wing populism has been constructed. Can Corbyn, if successful, create a similar movement? He seems to be drawing some from parties like the Greens, though people’s commitment cannot be assumed. A friend joked recently that by uniting Trots and Tories in the leadership election, Corbyn is the most unifying candidate in history… Putting up this inclusive tent will be a difficult and ongoing task (though it is easier in opposition, with a grand villain to disdain). Corbyn also has a past on the fringes that will make front-line parliamentary politics challenging, and ongoing rumbles about party infighting suggest his popularity amongst his peers is limited.

I am conscious, again, of the echo chamber that convinced me of the last general election result, and delivered such a juddering blow when exit polls hit. Is Corbyn’s sudden popularity, and the appearance of ‘big tent politics’ around him, anything more than some spike in the ‘animal spirits’ of the country?

The answer is that I don’t know. I think, perhaps, that I’ll end up voting for Cooper, yet I remain somehow energised by Corbyn. Burnham I find entirely uninspiring, and Kendall not entirely credible. Both are decent politicians, though if they can’t enthuse a sympathetic audience like me with their campaign, I worry for their ability to convince the country.

And so, another day goes past wherein I swither between Cooper and Corbyn. A bit more reading, a bit more thinking, and who knows? When that ballot paper arrives, it’s decision time for real.

[1] Whichever way things go, I’ll probably vote Watson for Deputy. His heart’s in the right place and he seems the type of organiser who is likely to help the party remain united and is well suited to that sort of supporting role (even if he does play to the galleries a little too much on occasion).

[2] Beauvoir, The Mandarins, p.81.

[3] Yvette Cooper: “There’s a battle on for the soul of our party”, New Statesman. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/08/yvette-cooper-theres-battle-soul-our-party

[4] Yvette Cooper’s Manchester speech, New Statesman. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/08/yvette-coopers-manchester-speech-i-m-it-win-it-labour-party-must-be-too

[5] Manu Goswami, ‘Imaginary Futures and Colonial Internationalisms’, The American Historical Review (2012) 117:5, pp.1461-1485.

[6][6] J. Werner-Müller, ‘Rule Breaking’, London Review of Books, 37:16 (August 2015). http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n16/jan-werner-muller/rule-breaking

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3 thoughts on “Choosing a Leader: Thinking in Ink

  1. John baxendake says:

    Many thanks for this honest and perceptive account of doubt – a quality that is sadly absent in much of the current debate. I think you may be reading more into Corbyn than is actually there – a kind of new postmodern politics where I can only see the left Labour politics of my youth in the 69s and 70s. But today I lean towards Yvette, tomorrow I may feel differently.

    • Thanks John, I appreciate your comments. I’m increasingly of the opinion that you’re right, and, following a variety of discussions, find myself reinforcing the tentative conclusions I came to in the piece.

      I think there’s something unusual about Corbyn’s success that makes it more than simply old ideas reheated, even if his platform is mainly based on that. The popular movement that has gathered around him is something new, I think, that is going to change the Labour party regardless of the outcome.

  2. John baxendake says:

    Of course I meant 60s rather than 69s…..

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