British? Your vote probably doesn’t matter

Apparently, Jeremy Corbyn will cause “annihilation”. He’s been called a “dinosaur” whose policies are backward looking, seeking to drag Britain back into the 1980s, if not earlier. He has been deemed “unelectable”, raising the possibility of a concerted campaign amongst the MPs of his own party to usurp his leadership from the moment he takes office.

The man himself

And the funny thing is that those critiques, overblown while they might be, contain some kernel of truth. Jeremy Corbyn, the so-called “radical left-wing” candidate for the leadership of Britain’s second political party, probably would lose a general election by a significant margin. The Labour party as a major force in British politics could be under threat as it fractures along ideological lines, social democrats abandoning the loose coalition with business friendly neoliberals that Blair helped forge.

Tellingly, though, the alternative is just as unpalatable. If another candidate is successful in their leadership bid, the underlying possibility that makes Corbyn’s campaign so appealing goes unaddressed. Corbyn would be shuffled offstage and business as usual, the politics of the elite, would spin heedlessly on.

But if that happened, a fundamental flaw in British democracy would continue to be ignored.

The Candidates

Corbyn himself is the surprise front-runner, a last-minute addition intended to bring another perspective to the debate without threatening the more established candidates. However, his strident opposition to austerity, proposals to re-nationalise utilities and transport, and his long-held anti-war, anti-nuclear weapons stance, among others, have led to a surge in support. Party activists, in particular younger voters alienated by more robotic politicians, have been energised by different policies, a different direction, enumerated by a candidate who seems principled and honest.

Andy Burnham, seeing the way the wind’s blowing, looks like he’s trying to position himself as the Corbyn you could introduce to your parents. He wants to be radical, but only when he’s sure he can get support for it; fair, but not in a way that’ll endanger property prices. He’s even gone so far as to say that he’d involve Corbyn in the higher echelons of the party under his leadership. In short, his policy platform seems to be that he’s strongly in favour of the zeitgeist.

Sorry, if you're Australian you won't get this. But why have you read this far anyway?
Pictured: Andy Burnham

 

Liz Kendall’s role is as the carrier of the Blairite flame, the last prophet in a strange and foreign land. She’s so fawningly pro-business that she might as well be called Bankbi[1], but any other distinguishing characteristics seem to have been lost in the media shuffle. Unfortunately, she has been beset with misfortune, an endorsement from Blair having befallen her like a heavenly thunderbolt, and probably has little to no chance.

Which brings us to the preferred candidate of the mainstream leftist media, the candidate endorsed by the Guardian and the New Statesman. Yvette Cooper’s credentials for this are apparently her blandly inoffensive centrism (sorry, “ability to unite the party”) combined with a veneer of economic credibility. Playing into the managerial politics of the Conservatives, going with their framing of the Prime Minister as a harried mid-level corporate executive, whilst having no particularly radical positions to alienate anybody is for these publications the basis for wide electoral appeal.

Cooper’s policies on childcare are often pointed out as setting her apart. They are genuinely good proposals; gender equality is some way off being achieved in Britain, and comprehensive, universal childcare is an incredibly important, if not nearly sufficient, step towards that. Addressing the social and power structures that entrench and perpetuate discrimination is vital[2] (although it’s not as if the other candidates are in favour of bringing back the workhouse).

In this regard, even the point that a woman should be elected leader simply because she’s a woman has merit. Certainly, the prospect of another old white man in a position of power doesn’t particularly challenge the status quo.

But getting away from the merits or otherwise of the specific candidates, Cooper’s endorsement is illustrative of a far greater failing in British democracy. That is, in the British political system, having no clearly defined stance is a virtue while having clear, enumerable principles is the mark of a naïve fool.

An agglomeration of horse races, or tenuously stretched metaphors

The way British elections work is designed to produce one clear winner, as one party is supposed to gain a majority in the House of Commons and thus form a “strong” government. The “first past the post” system dictates that only the candidate in a constituency who receives the most votes is elected, meaning that parties have to appeal to large numbers of people and garner wide support to gain any political traction. Fringe or niche parties are essentially excluded from power.

Statistics from the 2015 general election display this perfectly. The Conservatives received 36.9% of a 66.1% turnout (11.3 million votes) but won, gaining 50.8% (330) of the 650 available seats in the House of Commons. Labour increased their share of the vote compared to the prior election, but lost seats. The Scottish National Party only received 4.7% of the vote (1.5 million votes) but won 56 seats because they concentrated on Scotland. The UK Independence Party got 12.7% of the vote but only won 1 seat, as did the Green Party with 3.8% of the vote; as more niche parties, their support was spread throughout the UK but was never overwhelming enough to dominate more than one area.

To win elections in the UK, a party needs to be, if not all things to all men, a sufficiently large number of things to a sufficiently large number of men (and women). The Conservatives are currently that party, even having managed to brand themselves as the working person’s party despite being opposed by a party literally named for the organised labour movement. They manage to present themselves as representing business interests, white collar workers, blue collar workers, and retirees.

Actually winning the next general election would mean that Labour would have to appeal to a segment of the population that voted Conservative in 2015. To do that, while retaining their base support, essentially mandates a stable, centre-left platform that advocates some fairness while largely agreeing with the Conservatives. A Labour hopeful would probably have to accept some elements of austerity in their economic proposals, for example, despite austerity being rejected by a significant portion of the UK (most notably in Scotland).

This isn’t necessarily out of the question. Five years of Tory government might prove to be something of a tipping point for the British public. Attempts to cripple trade unions, stigmatise and degrade the poor, and permanently reduce the state might prove to be a bridge too far.

On the other hand, there’s only really room for one party to claim it represents everyone. Or at least, there’s only enough space for one in the minds of the electorate. If the Conservatives at the moment represent broad swathes of society, then all others are defined by what they’re not, the unrepresented margins that the Tories leave behind. To win, Labour would have to take voters from the Conservatives by aping Conservative policies; but why would people go to Labour for Tory policies when they can go to the Tories?

Either way, it would mean the same group of people are represented by government. The political centre, those who can be depended on to go and vote, will be targeted for their support. The platitudes about ‘hard-working families’ and elderly people who’ve earned their retirement are spewed out by every party because those are the demographics that actually put people into power. If another candidate won the Labour leadership, winning back these same groups of voters will be their first objective. And then, if Labour wins, it’ll be another government championing a blinkered set of interests derived from a privileged minority.

Corbyn supporters, the largely young, energetic left of Labour, would have to be marginalised to broaden Labour’s appeal. On the same basis, those on the further edges of the political spectrum would again see their views and aspirations disregarded while minority groups that don’t command widespread political support would remain effectively invisible. Less than 20% of the population would end up with a government they want and that actually acts for their wishes.

What the Corbyn campaign highlights, then, is the urgent need for reform of the archaic, unrepresentative, and unfair British electoral system. He might be unelectable on the basis of first past the post, but his campaign has awakened and galvanised a segment of Labour supporters that hasn’t been properly represented for years. There is even credible evidence that a large number of his ideas aren’t considered radical at all, just that they are out of step with the centre-right discourse that led to the election of the Conservatives.

The election of another candidate would silence these supporters, though. It would be a reification of mass-party politics, an acceptance of and submission to the status quo. The foundation of leftist thought is a belief in the possibility of the future, the hope that tomorrow could be better. If a candidate other than Corbyn was elected on the basis of their “broad appeal”, Labour would be giving up on that hope.

So whether or not Jeremy Corbyn is elected as Labour leader, and whether or not he can or can’t lead Labour to a victory at a general election in 2020 misses the point entirely. The soundness of his policies or his value as a leader are largely irrelevant to the broader point; that there exists a majority of people who are ignored by government. His success is a direct result of standing for the values of some of these people, people whom the basic dictates of democracy demand be heard.

This isn’t a new issue, as the election results quoted above prove. But the discussion of Corbyn as if he’s a dangerous radical, rather than a representative of the concerns of a reasonable proportion of the population, emphasises how pressing it is. For a lot of people, Jeremy Corbyn isn’t a radical. Nor is an electoral system that actually makes that clear.

[1] Because Bambi’s a baby deer, and a baby deer’s called a fawn, and… oh, never mind.

[2] It should be noted that there’s been an absence of any discussion on racial inequality, intersections of class, gender and race, and other structural or systemic problems.

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