Posts Tagged ‘uk’

Corbyn’s manifesto is great. Labour is still going to lose.

Corbyn Labour Coup

The UK’s Labour Party yesterday announced its manifesto for the upcoming general election. It’s a dramatically different vision to the path the Conservative party has laid out for the country, and unsurprisingly, it is the most left-wing manifesto the party has had since the rise of “New Labour” under Tony Blair in the late 1990s. Contrary to the scoffing of some on the right, however, it’s far from being a loony-leftie document that appeals only to the fringes. If anything, it’s an incredibly populist manifesto; the majority of its policies enjoy very broad support from the British electorate.

The right-wing press argues that the manifesto shows Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, trying to return the UK to the “bad old days” of the 1970s (yes, that’s the same right-wing press that’s had a months-long priapism over notions like returning to Imperial weights and measures, or issuing blue-coloured passports; the existence of irony, it seems, is just another EU strategy to undermine Brexit). To some extent, they’re right; the manifesto does hark back to the pre-Thatcher years in parts, with policies aimed at undoing some of the more egregious mistakes of the neo-liberal policy regimes of the past 35 years. These include the ideologically motivated privatisation of a number of natural monopolies like public transport and energy, or the underhanded social engineering that saw council housing being sold off cheaply and never replaced, both of which date back to the early 1980s and are targeted in the manifesto.

Rather than arguing back and forth about the benefits of various different aspects of the manifesto, though, the point I want to make is that regardless of whether you consider these policies to be economically sensible or politically desirable, they’re undeniably popular. Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown – with margins that defy post-Brexit, post-Trump scepticism about polling – that the British public support the renationalisation of rail and other core services, want to see council housing stocks replenished, and favour the roll-back of the most extreme deregulations of the labour market, such as zero-hours contracts. If you go through the Labour manifesto line-by-line with British voters, you’ll find a strong majority in favour of pretty much every major policy in the document. The last manifesto to enjoy such a strong level of support was probably Blair’s in 1997 – a very different manifesto for a very different time.

Blair won 1997 in a historic landslide. Corbyn, for all that his policies resonate, is going to lose, and lose badly – likely handing Theresa May’s Conservatives a significantly boosted majority in the House of Commons, and perhaps losing key seats once seen as Labour strongholds. This is in spite of the fact that May’s Conservative policies are actually pretty unpopular; “Hard Brexit” is opposed by a plurality of the electorate, and some of her policies around things like education, the NHS and fox-hunting (yes, the fox-hunting debate is back) are opposed by a significant majority. It doesn’t matter; she’s going to win the most convincing Conservative electoral victory in a generation.

What this means, from a political science wonk perspective, is that a significant part of the British electorate is going to go out and vote for a party whose policies they disagree with. It flies in the face of certain fields of theory, which try to link the policy preferences of voters to their choices in elections, or to model the behaviour of candidates as principal-agent relationships – in which voters (principals) elect candidates as their “agents”, who go on to represent the policy interests of the voters in order to ensure future re-election. There’s more complexity to those models, but in essence they all assume the same fundamental thing – that voters have policy preferences, and that they evaluate the distance between their own preferences and those of electoral candidates, and assess the candidates according to that measure. If you have an election in which a large portion of voters who prefer nationalisation, labour market protections and investment in social housing knowingly go out and elect candidates who want to privatise the NHS, deregulate labour markets and leave housing entirely in the private sector; well, something is up.

Specifically, what’s up is valence issues. You can broadly divide the issues of concern to voters in elections into two categories. The first category is position issues – these are issues on which parties, and voters, have divided views. Things like immigration policy, Brexit, nationalisation, labour market reforms and so on are position issues, because different voters and parties have different positions on these issues. Even where a majority of voters lean a certain direction (for example, about 80% of UK voters oppose a repeal of the fox-hunting ban), the existence of a minority who believe otherwise turns this into a position issue. We pay a lot of attention to position issues, because they fit neatly with a lot of fundamental theories about policy preferences. Perhaps more importantly, they also fit comfortably with most peoples’ basic understanding of how democracy is meant to work, and provide points of disagreement and debate which are interesting to follow as they unfold in newspapers and other media.

The second category of issue is valence issues. Valence issues are things on which the vast majority of people and parties actually agree. For example, “enhanced prosperity”, or “lower crime”, or “better education”, or “lower unemployment”; these are all things that just about every voter, and every political party, agrees to be positive. There’s lots of disagreement about how you achieve those things, of course, but fundamentally if you’re talking about issues of economic growth, human security and so on, you’re talking about a valence issue – something everyone wants to attain, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum or how they feel about all the various position issues.

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t going to lose this election over position issues. On position issues, he’s good; the British electorate agrees with him, so much so that in an election where only the position issues mattered, he’d likely win the biggest majority Labour has ever held. You can imagine this in the form of a thought experiment; imagine a voting system where party and candidate names never appeared, and people simply selected their preferred policies, with their vote ultimately going to the party whose policies most closely match the voter’s. Assuming a kind of “veil of ignorance”, wherein voters could not guess which policies belonged to which party and thus couldn’t bias their selections according to party identification, Labour would win a huge majority this time out.

But Jeremy Corbyn is going to lose, because this election – like many in recent years – isn’t about position issues, it’s about valence issues. What valence issues boil down to is a simple question; given a core value that everyone agrees about, like “prosperity” or “security”, do you trust a given party or candidate to be able to deliver it? It’s not an assessment of policy, or a weighing of manifesto promises; it’s a simple, visceral and quite emotional choice of whether you think a person or a party has the competence to deliver the key social goods that a nation requires. Time and again in recent decades, we’ve seen electorates go to the polls, hold their noses, and vote for a party they fundamentally disagree with on many issues simply because they believe that that party is more competent and capable on the most fundamental issues of all, the valence issues.

Theresa May – for all that she has not been a particularly competent or capable leader, much as she was not particularly impressive as Home Secretary before – understands valence issues to a degree that Corbyn does not. While Corbyn has crafted policies on position issues which most of the UK electorate agrees with, May has focused entirely on projecting an image of strength and competence. She may be mocked for her constant and rather robotic delivery of her “strong and stable government” line, but it’s a good line; it speaks directly to the heart of the valence issues most people are basing their choices on. In fact, it’s rather hard to pin down the Conservatives’ exact policy positions on many things in this election, precisely because the whole party is running on valence. They’re avoiding talking about position issues, partially because they remain a party deeply divided on many of them, but mostly because their entire election pitch is that they’re a safe, competent pair of hands on the wheel, with little reference to where they’re actually planning on steering. Look also at how right-wing media and politicians alike respond to Labour’s policies. Rather than presenting an alternative or a competing worldview, their attacks are always based on claims that Labour is being unrealistic, or living in a fantasy land; that no matter how much you may like Labour’s policies (because the right wing knows that Labour’s positions are more popular), Labour in general and Corbyn specifically are too incompetent, too chaotic and too risky to put into power.

That’s why the Labour manifesto, for all that it’s a great document, isn’t going to mean much of anything in the long run. The problem isn’t that it’s too left-wing or too radical; it’s pretty apparent that the British public is quite receptive to some radical policy prescriptions on key areas right now. Rather, the problem is that Labour under Corbyn has done little to make people feel like the party has the competence to execute those policies. While those of us following the Brexit negotiations closely may be dumbfounded by the lack of competence and professionalism being demonstrated by the Conservative leadership in this area, that’s not the story that’s filtering through to the majority of UK voters. For them, the Conservatives are a competent party with some distasteful policies – and they’ll vote for that over a chaotic, incompetent party with lovely policies any day.

How did Labour get here? The blame, ultimately, has to rest with Corbyn; he’s leader, and the buck stops there. Certainly, the failure of the party’s centrists to unite behind the leader (even after their coup attempt collapsed) is also a major factor, but if Corbyn had cultivated a personal popularity beyond core leftist support then even his ideological opponents would have fallen in line. The party is fractured not because Corbyn has a different ideology to many of the Blair-era MPs, but because Corbyn is an electoral liability to the party. His great failure, I think, is that he truly believes that politics is about putting out the right policies and creating a manifesto people agree with; he has neglected the actual role of a modern party leader, which involves building a personal image of competence and leadership, and being an electoral asset for your party members around the country.

You can blame the media’s coverage of Corbyn and Labour for that negative image, as many of the party faithful do, and there’s some merit to that; but in the age of SNS and new media, Corbyn has shown no aptitude for engaging with the public through alternative channels and effectively challenging the narratives of the right-wing press. Again, I think, the problem is that he wants to let his policies do the talking, not realising that most people will not cast their vote based on policies. That’s a miscalculation that’s likely going to cost Labour a great many seats next month – because the greatest manifesto in the world is meaningless if you don’t believe Jeremy Corbyn is capable of delivering on its promises.

A Brief Thought on Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage, by far the most extreme of the mainstream cheerleaders for Brexit and certainly the political leader most comfortable with brushing shoulders with actual racism and fascism in his utterances, has resigned from the leadership of UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party. In UKIP’s moment of triumph, pyrrhic though it may be, Farage has stepped down from the party with which he is synonymous. It’s the latest in a series of resignations and retreats which have claimed the man who called the referendum, David Cameron, the man who led the Conservatives campaigning to Leave, Boris Johnson, and now the man who led the only political party to campaign in its entirety for Leave.

Where will Farage go? With Farage having met with media baron Rupert Murdoch the day before his resignation, speculation has inevitably turned to the possibility that his incredibly high media profile over the past few years (far outstripping anything justified by UKIP’s actual political representation) will now translate into a media job. It would make sense in many ways. Farage is nothing if not intensely egotistical (he’s dramatically stepped down as UKIP leader in the past, only to return to the job within days) and it’s hard to imagine that at this, the moment of his triumph, he would disappear from public life. A media role would let him maintain his profile and do what he loves best – lobbing grenades from the sidelines as Britain’s political establishment tries to sort out the mess (whenever they stop making new messes and get around to actually sorting anything out).

Regardless of what Farage does next – and it is also possible (if a little out of character) that he’ll fade away for a little while to spend more time with his £80,000 MEP salary – he won’t be gone for long. His departure now is a calculated one. Unlike Boris Johnson, who never intended for a Leave victory and whose best-laid plans were thrown into disarray by it (and by Michael Gove stabbing him in the back), Farage likely believed that Leave could win the referendum all along. He’s got a plan, not for Brexit – nobody had a plan for Brexit – but for himself and his future career.

Farage is a rabble-rouser, and he knows that the rabble he has roused is going to stay roused. Brexit isn’t going to deliver what Leave voters want, not least because what many Leave voters actually want is impossible by any means short of a full embrace of fascist authoritarianism. Britain will muddle through somehow – economically and politically damaged, perhaps outside the EU, and perhaps with the UK no longer intact. Migrants will still be there, though. Businesses owned and staffed by non-white people will still be there. EU regulations will mostly still be there. The people who have been left behind by successive waves of neoliberal policymaking over the past 35 years will, if anything, be even worse off than before. Their vote to leave the EU won’t have changed their economic misery or removed the visible manifestations of the immigration which they blame for that misery. Their anger with politics, with governments, with elites and with all of the institutions which make up the British state will only intensify and curdle as they come around to the belief that the politicians have screwed them again. They voted to leave, and the politicians found a mealy-mouthed way to wriggle out of it. The people, the real people, the proper English people, spoke, and all those lying experts and self-serving intellectuals and greedy politicians just found a way to ignore it.

Nigel Farage will be right there to nod, to listen and to focus that outrage, fear and fury – just like he did prior to the referendum. He wants to be out of politics for now, because he doesn’t want to be seen to have anything to do with the stitch-up that’s inevitably coming. In his absence, UKIP will likely fall into a terminal decline. It’s never truly been more than the Nigel Farage Party, with other senior figures like Douglas Carswell and Neil Hamilton having none of his profile, his charisma, or his political nous. It doesn’t matter; UKIP was a vehicle and has served its purpose for now. Farage gets to play the tired, noble statesman who has achieved his purpose, slide out of politics (whether into the media or into temporary obscurity is a moot point) and ready himself to step back in down the line. He’ll be just as outraged as the Leave voters. He worked so hard for this result, to secure the UK’s independence, and those grasping, sleazy politicians in Westminster have undermined it all and ignored the voice of the real English people. He will be the perfect chalice to hold their anger, their frustration and their hate, and they will power him onwards to whatever his next political goal may be.

We’re not done with Nigel Farage. The people currently scorning him for running away from his responsibilities as the UK falls asunder aren’t the people who matter; they’ve never understood or been in thrall to the cult of Farage the Everyman, Farage the Proper Englishman, Farage Who Only Says What Everyone Is Thinking. Those who have believed in him this far won’t see his resignation now as any kind of cowardice or betrayal – hasn’t he earned a rest, after putting it to those smug Eurocrats and Westminster slimeballs for so long? – and will embrace him with open arms and ample spittle-flecked fury when he returns.

Needless to say, it’s not exactly reassuring that the politician who has most openly flirted with fascism is the only one who actually seems to have a game plan…

Brexit Stage Right: What Now?

As of a few hours ago, the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. The BBC reports that the final result is around 52% to 48% in favour of Leave – or, to give it its catchy/annoying portmanteau, Brexit.

I’m writing this post largely because I’ve been asked pretty often by friends from outside the UK what this actually means, why it’s happened and what the next steps will be. If you’re a UK resident, you’re probably very well informed about what’s going on, and won’t find this terribly useful.

The Brexit Referendum was called by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who campaigned for a Remain vote. History isn’t going to judge Cameron very kindly; he promised the referendum for purely party political reasons, because he felt that the only way to keep anti-EU rebels in the Conservative party from tearing the party apart ahead of the 2015 General Election was to mollify them with the promise of in “in-out referendum”. Cameron also calculated that this would reduce the threat to his party’s seats from UKIP (the UK Independence Party), a niche right-wing party which campaigned on anti-EU sentiment and threatened to overtake the Conservatives in a handful of seats.

Cameron, and much of the political establishment, assumed that a Remain vote would prevail. Polling suggested that voters actively opposed to Britain’s membership of the European Union were a vocal minority. Every major political party, business organisation and economic expert backed a Remain vote. Moreover, history suggests that voters in the UK are cautious when it comes to major change, ultimately preferring stability to uncertainty at the polls – in recent years, the UK voted to keep its existing (rather terrible) electoral system and Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom, both votes which skewed towards the status quo.

That assumption, that Leave was an outside chance, may explain why what happens next is so unclear. No country has ever left the European Union, just as no state has ever seceded from the United States of America. Procedures exist – Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty outlines how a nation may leave the EU, and makes slightly grim reading for the UK, as it’s fairly clear that the terms of departure will be decided upon by the other member states in negotiations which do not involve the departing state. The EU, anxious to preserve its stability, isn’t going to be inclined to show the UK special favour in these negotiations. However, it’s not even clear whether this vote actually triggers Article 50 negotiations; the referendum was not legally binding, and the decision to leave the EU still needs to be voted upon by Parliament and formally announced to the EU authorities. Could the UK Parliament ignore the results of the referendum and stay in the EU? Legally, yes. Socially, politically; god knows. The ramifications of simply ignoring a referendum result are impossible to calculate.

Here’s what we can calculate. Firstly, David Cameron is toast. There is simply no way that a prime minister can survive losing a referendum such as this one, especially when the primary opposition he faced was from members of his own party. The Leave campaigners in his party, notably Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, may well negotiate to allow Cameron to remain for a while in order to let him soak up some of the flak that will inevitably come as a result of the chaotic days and weeks ahead. He is, however, now a lame duck and will have to leave soon. George Osborne may be gone even sooner; the Leave team will want a scalp, and while Cameron is useful to them for a little while yet, Osborne is not, and will be seen as a possible threat in a future leadership race. (Equally, both Cameron and Osborne could be defenestrated by the end of the day – it would be wise to keep Cameron on to maintain some continuity while things are figured out, but the Leave team are little if not impulsive.)

(Update: David Cameron has just announced that he will resign, but will remain in place as Prime Minister for a few months while the Conservative party selects a replacement. This does essentially allow him to absorb flak over the referendum – but he’s pushed the toughest part of the whole affair, the actual triggering of EU withdrawal, out into the long grass, saying it will have to be handled by the next Prime Minister. That leaves several months for Parliament to weigh its options and figure out if it really has the brass neck to simply ignore the referendum result and refuse to exit the EU. As for Osborne, no idea, but Cameron’s legislation probably protects him to an extent, and he’s a likely candidate for the Tory leadership from the pro-Europe side of the party.)

Secondly, the United Kingdom is toast. Of the four nations which comprise the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – only two voted to leave the EU. Every single district in Scotland was firmly in the Remain camp, and the country’s political leadership has been very clear about the need for another independence referendum should the UK leave the EU. A second referendum so soon after the first may seem crazy, but the notion that Scotland would not be permitted to remain in the EU should it leave the UK was one of the major arguments of the anti-independence campaigners last time around. With the UK now departing the EU, the landscape has changed dramatically; Scotland swallowed its pride and voted for stability, which England has now abandoned.

Northern Ireland also voted to remain in the EU, but that’s a far trickier situation – one which creates a political and constitutional mess that it’s going to take very delicate work to untangle safely. Voting in Northern Ireland was to some degree along old sectarian lines; nationalists voted to remain in the EU (of which the Republic of Ireland is also a member, of course), while unionists voted to leave. As soon as the results became apparent, Sinn Fein demanded that the UK leaving the EU should trigger a referendum on the reunification of Ireland – which Sinn Fein believes should count votes on the entire island of Ireland, Republic and Northern alike. The details will need negotiation (a plebiscite simply of the people of Northern Ireland seems more reasonable at first glance), but with Scotland likely winning its independence, it will be incredibly hard to deny Northern Ireland a referendum on its future – and that would represent a change to a status quo which remains very delicately balanced. The Good Friday Agreement which largely ended terrorist violence in Northern Ireland is almost 20 years old, and that period of peace has hopefully been long enough to endure through fresh political unrest; but whatever happens next in Northern Ireland, whether it’s a referendum (likely to be won by the Nationalists) or the denial of a referendum, it’s going to seriously upset one side of what used to be a very bloody conflict. So yes, David Cameron could end up going down in history as the prime minister who accidentally withdrew the UK from the European Union, broke up the United Kingdom and destabilised Northern Ireland after nearly 20 years of peace. I suppose at least he can console himself that with all that to discuss, most history books won’t have room to address the whole “intercourse with a dead pig” issue.

Thirdly, the impact on immigration will be minimal. While much of the Leave campaign has been focused on controlling immigration or “taking back control of the UK’s borders”, the reality is that the UK’s membership of the EU makes zero difference to its ability to control migration from outside the EU; and freedom of movement within the EU is a condition of membership of the single market. Non-EU members like Norway have to accept freedom of movement (along with most EU laws and regulations) as a condition of participation in the single market, and there is absolutely no way that the EU will permit the UK to enter the single market without also continuing to honour those rules.

There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that for EU citizens living in the UK, and UK citizens living in the EU, the impact of Brexit is likely to be minimal – at least in terms of their right to live and work. The nightmare scenario of EU citizens being deported from the UK in droves while the millions of British people who live in the EU are forced to return will not come to pass; access to the single market is simply non-negotiable for Britain’s economy, and Britain’s exit from the EU will of necessity include making whatever concessions are required to retain this. In practice, this will be humiliating for the UK; it will essentially be forced to accept whatever rules the EU passes in future, without having a place in the negotiation or the ability to veto proposals. Dressing up the EU exit as a triumph for sovereignty and nationalism will be a fig leaf for this, but the truth of the new arrangement will hit home eventually.

Fourth, this will cause a serious economic shock. Already we’ve seen an enormous loss to Sterling’s value, trading ceased on stock markets in the USA and Japan, a collapse in the value of several commodities and a rise in the value of gold as investors run for the world’s oldest safe haven. Whether this is just a short sharp shock, or the beginning of a loss of confidence that turns into another slump comparable to the one triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, nobody really knows. We’ll find out soon enough.

Either way, these things seem abstract, but they have real world consequences. People are going to lose their jobs, and they’re going to see their spending power seriously eroded. A weaker pound has some benefits – it’ll mean British exports are more competitive – but it’ll also mean that imports are much more expensive and that British consumers’ buying power is much lower. Moreover, pulling out of the EU will end EU subsidies for many regions of the UK and for many sectors including agriculture. Remaining in the single market will probably mean that not many companies actually leave the UK en masse, but many deprived regions of the UK will likely be surprised to discover just how much of their industry and infrastructure has been backed by funding from the European Union, not from the UK itself.

Fifth and finally, this isn’t just about the UK. Brexit has come about as a consequence not so much of the European Union or its policies, but as an expression of a general anger and dissatisfaction that has also reared its head across much of the developed world. It’s not unreasonable to compare the UK’s Leave campaign with Donald Trump in the USA, Le Pen in France or Wilders in Holland. Voting for Brexit was characterised by nationalist sentiment and a strong desire to “take back” Britain’s sovereignty from the ill-defined others who have appropriated it. It thrived in communities that have seen widening inequality and economic malaise even as they watched political leaders turn up on TV night after night to talk about economic recovery; communities that may have been delivered a mortal blow by the 2008 recession and the austerity policies which followed, but which had already been suffering from neglect and economic abuse for decades before that, as successive governments tore up more and more pages of the post-war social contract in favour of the shiny new religion of markets and efficiency. There was a time when those communities turned to left-wing movements for their salvation, to unions and to the Labour party; with much of the power of the unions broken and the Labour party pursuing aspirational middle class voters, opportunities have been opened for new and far less savoury political movements to take root. At their core is a deep dissatisfaction and anger not just with individual political actors but with the very institutions of democracy and representative government; a deep conviction that it is not merely that specific parties or policies that have caused people’s quality of life to decline, but that the whole system is stacked against them. Thus, anything that’s seen as part of the system – be it politicians, the media, or even academics and independent experts – is suspect. It is not an attitude that calls for political change, for a new party in power or a new prime minister; it is an attitude that calls for the tearing down of everything, and offers nothing with which to replace it. It is frightening precisely because, in its absolute conviction that the institutions of democracy themselves are a vast conspiracy against the common man, it ends up being insatiable; even if today’s Brexit leaders become Britain’s leaders, in doing so they will become part of “the system” and face the anger of the same people who now cheer them on. The cycle will continue until someone turns up with the capacity to tame the monster that has been conjured up by economic hardship, inequality and unthinking nationalism. Unfortunately, the lessons of the past tell us that such a person is unlikely to be benevolent.

None of this is unique to Britain, and none of it can be fixed by anything less than a fundamental rethink of how we have chosen to structure our society and our economies. Even as market capitalism and globalisation have done wonders at lifting the world’s poorest people out of poverty – an achievement for which capitalism does not get remotely enough credit – it has begun to run out of rope in the developed world. In nations from Japan to Western Europe to North America, inequality is growing and standards of living are slipping. Labour market reforms have turned whole generations into disposable people; I can’t blame British people for laughing off the notion that the EU has protected them in the workplace, when companies like Sports Direct have based their business model off exploiting every loophole, legal and otherwise, no matter how desperately cruel and inhumane, that might allow them to wring more money, more profitability out of their vulnerable, poorly paid staff. “If you leave the EU, you’ll lose your workers rights!” is no argument at all to someone whose zero-hours contract leaves them in desperate financial instability, or whose exploitation by an avaricious, unscrupulous employer has been rubber-stamped by the government itself in the form of a Workfare deal.

The Brexit vote wasn’t just a rejection of the EU; it was a rejection of the whole system, of the whole establishment, of the whole set of institutions and practices that make up the developed world. It was, in ways, a rejection of modernity – a demand to turn back the clock. Turning back the clock isn’t in anyone’s power to deliver. If we want to break this dangerous cycle of economic inequality, social cleavage and political extremism before it rolls out of control, though, it’s beholden upon our countries and institutions to start paying attention to inequality, to public services, to quality of life and to the huge swathe of the electorate for whom every mention of the phrase “economic recovery” in the past two decades has just been salt in the wound.

The PM, the Pig and musings on Power

I’m going to try to do something perhaps unwise, perhaps impossible; I’m going to try to write something serious about David Cameron and “pig-gate”. I’m even going to abstain from porcine puns – because for all that this story is gleeful tabloid filth, I think that at its beating heart there is an important story about control, about authority and about the nature of power in modern Britain.

(If you’re in the dark regarding “pig-gate”, the details are relatively simple; billionaire tax exile and former Conservative party deputy chairman Lord Michael Ashcroft has co-written, with journalist Isabel Oakeshott, an unauthorised biography of David Cameron. It is not flattering, and includes allegations of drug-taking among other things, but the attention-grabbing assertion is that during an initiation ceremony for an Oxford student society, Cameron “put a private part of his anatomy” in the mouth of a dead pig – and that photographic proof of this deed exists.)

Previous revelations about Cameron’s behaviour as a student at Oxford – such as his participation in the restaurant-trashing Bullingdon Club, whose initiation rituals include burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person – have not harmed Cameron’s career much. Such antics are undoubtedly odious but are largely the kind of thing lapped up by those already ideologically opposed to him rather than the sort of story which hurts his base of support. How this latest revelation will play out, though, is tough to predict; it should not need to be said that cases of bestial necrophilia among leaders of major nations are uncharted territory.

The danger to Cameron’s career is that this makes him a laughing-stock, his public seriousness as a political leader forever deflated by the cat-calls and innuendos which will, undoubtedly, follow him for the rest of his life. A leader who becomes a political liability to their party is not long for their job; up until now, the security of Cameron’s position has been based on being the most likeable and statesmanlike of the Conservative front bench. For how long can a leader be followed around every public engagement by snorting noises, pig-related heckling and constant mockery before his party decides that he’s no longer suited to being its public face? This calculation is no doubt being pored over and debated at length by the Conservatives today. There will be those who point to sexual scandals of the past and point out that they blow over eventually, but I don’t know that those models can be applied to something so utterly visceral, so profoundly embarrassing and so downright grotesque. I don’t know if this kind of story, once attached to the person of a politician, ever goes away.

I suspect that David Cameron will limp on in 10 Downing Street, not least because he will understand the historic shame of being the Prime Minister who resigned over the thing with the pig, but his authority will be weakened to the point where a leadership challenge over a rather less intimate issue in the relatively near future will give him an opportunity to bow out with some grace. Whether this scandal is ultimately his undoing or not, it is clearly a calculated attack. Lord Ashcroft feels snubbed and sidelined by Cameron, who seemingly declined to offer him the cabinet position to which he felt entitled; the billionaire’s revenge is to dig up this singularly humiliating moment from the prime minister’s past and ensure that it is splashed on the front page of the Daily Mail, the preferred scurrilous tabloid rag of the very heartland of Conservative voters.

Lord Ashcroft, pollster and political guru in his own right, knows as well as anyone else what this will do. This is not a playful aside in a fun little unauthorised biography that he’s putting together as a hobby with his journalist pal, Oakeshott; this is a carefully targeted, focused attack designed to wreak career havoc upon, and cause huge personal embarrassment for, a man whom Ashcroft sees as disloyal, or as having stepped out of line. And here, I think, is something much bigger and more interesting than the scurrilous details of Cameron’s vivid indiscretion; here is a rare public example of how power is wielded by Britain’s elite, of how control is exerted over those they wish to manipulate, and of how those groomed for success from a young age can be destroyed should they be seen to diverge from the steps they’re told to dance.

Initiation ceremonies or “hazing” rituals, often of a painful, humiliating, transgressive or sexual nature, are a well-documented part of the culture of many organisations run by and for young men, especially those from positions of privilege or in elite institutions. Hazing is a fixture, albeit usually in less extreme form than many might imagine, of “greek life” at US colleges; initiation rituals of some description are relatively common in elite societies at top educational institutions elsewhere. Such rituals seem to be an especially important part of extremely disciplined groups such as certain military units. The primary social function served by these rituals is to accelerate and deepen the bonds shared by members of the group, and the sense of loyalty to the group each person holds. By committing transgressive acts together, members develop a sense of sharing in a mutual secret, thus instantly creating trust; by overcoming some humiliation or pain, new members deepen their commitment to the group, as their internal logic reasons that if they are willing to endure such an ordeal, it must mean that the group is important and deserving of loyalty (otherwise, they would have made a terrible mistake and gone through all of that suffering for nothing). Through these acts bonds are forged, networks established; the “old school tie”, used as a metaphor for Britain’s elite networks, is also a metaphor for the actions and rituals, transgressive or otherwise, which created those networks during the formative years of their members.

That much is somewhat understandable; in truth, few of us are not part of a “network” based in some way on the same psychology, even if our networks are perhaps less likely to involve prime ministers and billionaires. Bearing witness to one another doing embarrassing things, usually if not always under the influence of alcohol, is a fairly standard part of the socialisation process, especially for young men; it may not be quite as ritualised or organised as ceremonial events which require very specific orders from local butchers, but moments of embarrassment or transgression shared with close friends are a basic building block of many of our relationships.

The ritualised, sexually grotesque nature of Cameron’s initiation sets it apart somewhat, of course; but what’s also different about this kind of ritual in elite circles is the calculation behind it, the power and control it affords, and the self-perpetuating network of influence it creates. Consider this scenario; at elite institutions, those earmarked – by wealth, by title, by connections – for future leadership roles are forced, as impressionable young people, to carry out humiliating acts in order to gain acceptance by an in-group. That same in-group will, over the course of their lives, help advance their career massively in ways both overt and covert; membership of that group essentially secures their success in life. The cost of entry, paid by all members of the group, is participation in humiliating acts; acts which will forever wed them to the group, because should they later act in a way contrary to the group’s interests or desires, their “indiscretions” can be brought back to destroy their careers or personal lives.

Precisely this kind of model of control is sometimes operated by groups with a clear hierarchy – one could argue that Catholic confession is a variation on the model, and Scientology’s “auditing” is a very clear case of a system designed to ensure compliance by extracting humiliating personal information from its subjects and then holding that information over them in case of disobedience. Political and business elite networks are different; there’s no evidence of a shadowy cabal or secret Illuminati who run this kind of scheme among the elite of Britain (or the USA for that matter). There is no need for such conspiracy theories; this system is self-sustaining and decentralised. It’s in the interest of people in the group to promote the careers of their fellow group members, precisely because they have control through their knowledge of that person’s transgressive acts; similarly, it’s in the interest of that person to promote the careers of the other members for the same reason. It’s a community of mutual self-interest and reliance, bonded together by a Mexican stand-off of embarrassing private information. The structure survives and is passed down to successive generations of elite young men precisely because it is self-policing, self-sustaining and remarkably effective.

How serious are the acts we’re talking about here? Who knows, honestly; the punishment unleashed on Cameron for his “betrayal” of Ashcroft includes allegations of drug-taking, along with the lurid story about the pig, but nothing of terrible legal gravity; for all that conservative commentators like Louise Mensch look terrible for trying to defend Cameron today, there is some extent to which this behaviour is “youthful indiscretion”. Certainly it’s far less reprehensible than the “rituals” of other groups of elite young men which have included, among other vile things, the drugging and gang-rape of young women. Is this the most humiliating or illegal thing Cameron has done? I have no idea; I hope so, but regardless of his personal behaviour, it’s clear from other accounts of hazing, ritual intituation and in-group behaviour that the limits to the behaviour of young men desperate to cement their inclusion in a desirable social group are often shockingly low, and lowered even further by alcohol and drugs. The more transgressive, horrifying and illegal the act committed, the more the network “owns” its members. There’s a vast difference between distasteful student hijinks and truly horrible acts like rape, but the underlying logic of the network of control would only be strengthened, not undermined, by the increasing severity of the acts involved.

“Follow the money” is one of the most important exhortations to bear in mind for those investigating political power and influence, but not all control is financial. The control exerted by elite networks is based on long-standing trust and loyalty, but also, in some cases at least, by a black and rotten heart of what is, in effect, life-long blackmail. Britain’s establishment, at least in part, can be visualised (for those of strong stomach) as a group of powerful men standing close together, each with the balls of the man next to him held in a powerful grip. Michael Ashcroft just squeezed, very publicly indeed; yet his relevations, though tremendously damaging, may be tame indeed compared to what the friends and compatriots of some of our other political, media and business leaders just so happen to know about one another.

“Unelectable”: the most meaningless word in Britain

Jeremy Corbyn is the new leader of the Labour party. He was elected in the first round of the STV-style race by a thumping margin over his three rivals, each of them a New Labour type of some flavour or another, none of whom ever really threatened his lead. At the outset of the campaign he was seen as a “token leftie”, his candidacy a matter of lip service to the party’s left-wing, just as Diane Abbott’s candidacy in 2010 had been. As his lead in the race became clear, Corbyn found himself denounced both within and without the party as a loony leftie, a communist, a friend of terrorists, a throwback, a threat to national security and plenty else besides. Labour’s membership, perhaps convinced of the need for major change by their surprise defeat in the general election, elected him anyway, handing him the greatest mandate a leader of a British political party has ever enjoyed.

The preferred buzzword of Corbyn’s detractors now is a simple, one-word argument; “unelectable”. From New Labourites watching “their” party dance from their grasp, to Tories perturbed by a leftward shift in the political landscape, via a news media largely sympathetic to right-wing framing, the word on Corbyn is that he cannot win an election (apart, presumably, from the one he just won). To the New Labour faithful, Corbyn’s presumed unelectability is a matter of bitter despair, which may yet play out in splits or defections. To the Conservatives and the media, “unelectable” is a word spoken half in jeering mockery and half in self-reassurance.

I’d like to dissect that word and its meaning a little. The implication is that Labour’s supporters (almost a quarter of a million of whom voted for Corbyn) are entirely out of touch with the nation and have elected a leader who will only serve to further alienate the broader electorate. This assumes that the British electorate as a whole is on the political right of Corbyn, are closer ideologically to the Tories’ position, and will therefore reject Labour outright at the next election in 2020. This assumption is based on the Downs model of political decision-making; there are some problems with applying that to the UK which I’ll go into momentarily, but first I’d like to address the elephant in the room.

The elephant in question is this; those arguing that Corbyn is “unelectable” today were incapable of predicting the outcome of this year’s general election only hours before it was held. Political opinion polling in the UK is in a state of unimaginable crisis. Its methodologies are broken and the data it produces is junk. This does not mean that in the absence of data we may assume the preferences of the British people to be whatever we feel like; but it does mean that anyone throwing around terms like “unelectable” is uninformed at best, and at worst, an outright charlatan. If predictions of electability in the UK actually held even as much water as a sieve, Ed Miliband would be Prime Minister and you’d never even have heard of Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps, in time, opinion polling in the UK may elevate itself back to a position of trust, but for now, organisations haughtily proclaiming the likely outcomes of Corbyn’s leadership (or anything else, for that matter) based upon hastily-conducted polls are to be treated with no more respect or gravity than tin-pot prophets, mystic oracles, and grannies with a knack for interpreting tea-leaves.

Coming back to the Downs model, then; the reason some people think Corbyn is unelectable is because the Downs model predicts that in a two-party system, both parties will veer towards a centrist position and their policies will become increasingly similar. This is based on an assumption that two-party systems emerge in nations where the electorate’s political preferences fall roughly on a bell-curve, so that the country is broadly politically homogenous and there’s a big swell of voters in the centre of the graph, for whose votes both parties compete. Supporters of this model would point to New Labour’s abandonment of various Old Labour principles (e.g. Clause IV, its commitment to socialism) and the Conservatives’ move away from core tenets of social conservatism (e.g. dropping support for the homophobic Section 28 and instead supporting equal marriage) as evidence for this process in the United Kingdom.

The Downs model, however, is a massive simplification – Downs himself acknowledged that the two-party system he described was an ideal, and that it would never be stable in a country which was not extremely homogenous in political preferences. That’s clearly the case in the UK; the share of the vote enjoyed by the two main parties has fallen steadily in recent decades, and parties such as the Greens, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats (though the latter has been laid low, at least temporarily, by their unpopular participation in coalition government) have seen their vote share rise, even if gains of actual seats have been held back by the archaic First Past the Post electoral system. Turnout in general elections is also fairly disappointing; a third of registered voters don’t bother to cast a vote, implying either apathy or a sense of being poorly represented by the candidates on offer, or most likely, a bit of both. The overall picture is of precisely the lack of homogeneity that Downs predicted would cause instability in the two-party model; so boldly basing the claim of Corbyn’s unelectability upon an assumption of a stable two-party system is foolish at best.

Besides; are we truly expected to accept that Jeremy Corbyn’s economic ideas, which are broadly centre-left and would not raise eyebrows in any developed social democracy, are a radical departure from the British political norm, while simultaneously accepting that the present Conservative government’s policies are just business as usual? Those policies include the privatisation of the National Health Service and of major parts of the police, military and education systems, relentless attacks on disability benefit and in-work benefits for low income earners, and the marketisation of third-level education such that higher-ranked universities may charge significantly higher fees to students, none of which seem remotely in line with the post-war political consensus of the UK. Shorn of the millstone around their necks that the Liberal Democrats became in the last parliament, the Conservatives have lurched sharply to the right. In fact, based on a comparison to the centreline of British economic policy in the post-war era, Corbyn’s policies are no more radical, “loopy”, or “crazy” than those currently pursued by the Conservatives; if anything, they are more centrist.

So Labour goes left; the Conservatives go right. One might equally shout “unelectable” at either one of those parties, for all the valid data we have to go upon. In truth, though, the question of electability is neither here nor there, because there isn’t going to be an election until 2020. Rather, the question that’s playing across the minds of more tactical thinkers in Westminster, I suspect, has everything to do with another political concept – the Overton Window. This is a political communications theory which essentially says that the general public, as a consequence of public and media discourse, develops a “window of acceptabilty”; any idea or policy which falls outside this window is crazy, insane and dangerous. Crucially, this window moves; people change their minds, often surprisingly rapidly. Supporting equal marriage in the USA would have been outside the Overton Window a decade ago; today it’s firmly in the middle. That doesn’t mean everyone agrees with it, but nobody in the mainstream of politics will brand you a radical, insane threat to the nation for supporting it any more.

The triumph of the Tories since the financial crisis of 2008 has been in hauling the Overton Window of UK politics firmly to the right. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been complicit in this; both parties essentially supported, or did not challenge, Conservative narratives about overspending prior to 2008 being somehow responsible for the financial crisis, about immigration being a “problem”, about people on benefits being “scroungers” (an amazingly successful and utterly depressing neo-liberal coinage), and so on. Even with the somewhat left-liberal Ed Miliband in charge, Labour seemed to think that its best chance at returning to government was to align itself broadly with Conservative policy. This caused two problems; firstly, as George Monbiot would have it, many voters seemingly reasoned “why vote for the echo when you can vote for the shout?”; secondly, it meant there was no pressure on the Overton Window, which rapidly slid rightwards, supported by the majority of the British news media, which is largely owned and controlled by offshore billionaires with a clear vested interest in right-wing economic policy.

For Corbyn to bring Labour left as the Tories continue to swing right creates, for the first time this millenium, a genuine battle over the direction of the Overton Window. The only way to move that window, after all, is to get out and pull; only by proposing, supporting and defending policies in the “loony” space at the edges do you haul the window of political acceptability into your court. Corbyn won’t face election for nearly five years; he has at least three years to drag Britain’s perception of what is acceptable, sane policy back onto ground that is more comfortable for Labour. In the process he will, I hope, ignite genuine debate and give the electorate some sense that there is a genuine choice emerging in British politics. Where we go from there is anyone’s guess; but until we see the results of that process (which will be messy, and bloody, and will get very, very nasty along the way), anything we say about 2020 really is nothing more than a guess. “Unelectable”? Come back and talk about that when there’s an actual election on the way. Until then, Corbyn’s job isn’t to win an election; it’s to change the landscape of British politics so that future elections have any hope of being won from the left again.