When I was a politics student at the turn of the millennium, John Curtice ranked a distant second behind Prof Bill Miller in the league table of Scotland’s leading psephologists. It seems remarkable to look back on it now, I agree – Scottish political coverage without Curtice at the centre, his hair magnetised by the electoral currents raging in the atmosphere? You’d have more chance of seeing Jeremy Corbyn leading the race for Labour leade…oh.
Professor Miller was my lecturer when I studied voting behaviour, a staple of every politics student’s training and very much the professor’s specialist subject. I’ve carried the insights from his lectures with me ever since.
The key lesson, it seemed to me, is that the commonly accepted models for explaining voting behaviour are all partial at best, and disastrous at worst.
I’ve been reflecting on Miller’s lectures recently in a desperate attempt to make some sense of Corbynmania, for good and bad. Here’s where I’ve got to.
(Features Banquo’s ghost, Tony Benn at Glastonbury, and the left wing paradox of harmful kindness).
This will be the second Labour leadership election in which I have a vote.
I pay into the political fund as a Unison member, so I was eligible to register for free this time. The party failed to locate me on the electoral register at the first time of asking, so I had to chase up the issue with their crack team at head office – y’know, the ones who are preventing infiltration by Trotskyists. The problem was eventually resolved, but not before I received the most wonderful guidance, which I quote directly from the official party email. “We accept the following as proof that you are on the electoral register: A copy of your polling card from the General Election“.
If only I’d kept my polling card to cover that eventuality!
Anyway, I voted for Ed Miliband last time and that went so well I’ve come back for more. But I’m really struggling this time. How nice it must be to see the world with the clarity of a Kendallista or Corbynite.
Returning to Bill Miller’s voting behaviour lectures, the most influential explanations of voting behaviour are as follows:
i) individual self-interest: also known as rational choice – you vote for whichever party or candidate will benefit you personally (usually financially);
ii) cultural transmission: you vote for whichever party or candidate your family and local community have traditionally supported;
iii) ethical values: you vote for whichever party or candidate most closely aligns with certain deeply-held beliefs you consider politically significant; and
iv) common good: you vote for whichever party or candidate seems most likely to promote the good of others (possibly not benefiting you personally).
It seems to me that you can map the four Labour leadership candidates onto these four models.
Liz Kendall is the most interesting candidate in many ways. I’ve never seen a politician so gleefully refuse to give the audience what they want. She seems to revel in revealing hard truths. It’s something to see.
Central to her campaign is the not unimportant point that Labour got thrashed in the recent General Election. The inference she draws from this is that Labour must chase the electorate by appealing to model number one: the individual self-interest of the voters. She has a number of other, more subtle and useful insights, but I would argue that this is her key message. In other words, Labour won’t win the next election without giving the voters something they can buy into from their own material position.
Next up we have Andy Burnham. Good old Andy. Solid, working class Andy. 1950s, Brut-wearing matinee idol Andy. He looks like the sort who would have supported the miners in ’84, and he certainly earned his stripes supporting the Hillsborough families (kudos for that).
I know that last paragraph is mostly nonsense, but that’s the image he’s going for. Remember that horrible ‘Heart of Labour’ logo? Good luck finding that one on google images.
Andy is surely the ‘cultural transmission‘ candidate – the sturdy bloke your grandad might have supported back in the black’n’white days when they counted the Labour vote by weighing it.
(I actually don’t mind Andy).
Candidate three is the one who puzzles me the most. Why is Yvette Cooper not absolutely walking this? I encourage you to have a look at her wikipedia page and remind yourself of the career she’s had. She worked for Bill Clinton in 1992!
What I had hoped would happen was that Cooper would emerge in this campaign as the radical candidate, particularly on women’s rights and child poverty. As far as I’m concerned she’s the party’s genuine Prime Ministerial prospect for 2020, but it just hasn’t happened for her at all during the campaign. One can only speculate why not.
So this hasn’t really happened, but an on-form Cooper would have mapped onto model three: the ethical value framework.
Which brings us to the man of the moment, Jeremy Corbyn.
I wish Jez no harm, and hope he comes out the other side of this entirely surreal episode unscathed. I suspect no one is more terrified that he’ll win than he is himself, so I don’t enjoy watching his enemies putting the boot in. So the discussion that follows is intended as gentle musing rather than a savage attack.
The rise of Corbyn exemplifies the fourth model of voting behaviour – that is, voting on the basis of what you take to be the good of others. People who identify with this model of voting behaviour will tell you that it is the only legitimate way to vote. At every election, people who vote on the basis of self-interest, community tradition or specific ethical standpoints are denigrated as selfish and/ or irrational, and insufficiently concerned with the common good.
The trouble with this form of voting behaviour is the frequent mismatch between what generous voters presume to be the good of others, and what those others actually want. Hence the intriguing paradox of left wing voters inadvertently harming the people they so dearly want to help by urging electorally unpopular policies on political parties.
This is where the study of voting behaviour – the attempt to attribute motives to the electorate – becomes fiendishly difficult. The voters simply refuse to cooperate with the models devised by political scientists to explain their behaviour.
Realistically, all four of the models I have described will explain the voting behaviour of different people at any one time, and they may even explain the changing behaviour of the same person at different points in time. To adopt a bildunsroman cliche, you might be a Ken Loach fan as a teenager (Burnham), before discovering Trotsky at eighteen (Corbyn), de Beauvoir at twenty-one (the Cooper of my dreams) and Hayek at thirty-five (Kendall). The trouble arises when we assume everyone votes on the basis of one of those models.
So who is Jeremy Corbyn? To me he’s a wizard, a time-traveller and a ghost. I’ll explain.
Imagine what was going through the minds of those two guys who dangled from the window ledge as Corbyn made that speech in London last week. Do you think they’d been fans for long? Perhaps they’d only heard his name, and they were desperate to catch a glimpse of this thrilling revolutionary orator who was suddenly making waves. And then Jeremy Corbyn walks on stage. And starts speaking. For the new recruits it must have been like seeing the bloke at the end of the Wizard of Oz.
Because you could have enjoyed essentially the same speech in the more intimate environs of Committee Room 2 upstairs in every student union building across the land on any Tuesday evening at any time in living memory. You would have found six or seven people there, some sporting the Palestinian keffiyeh, who would listen intently for a few meetings before being replaced by six or seven entirely different people at the start of the next semester. The lecturer presenting his thoughts on imperialism, austerity and smashing the state would either have looked and sounded exactly like Jeremy Corbyn, or he would actually have been Jeremy Corbyn. And if you disagree with that you’ve clearly never been to one of those meetings.
Does that make Corbyn wrong? Not necessarily – perhaps those guys were right all along and it was people like me who went along once and worried about the anti-Israel stuff who were on the wrong side of history. But it does explain the almost inarticulate confusion that has paralysed so many Labour figures as the Corbyn phenomenon has grown. They genuinely can’t believe anyone would buy the stuff he’s peddling.
Presumably the Corbyn novelty will wear off on the 600,000 registered Labour voters just as it did for generations of students attending Tuesday night meetings about imperialism, austerity and smashing the state (although it looks like it will hold good at least until the votes are cast in the leadership election). On reflection – are they even attending his rallies to hear him boringly critique austerity? I suspect the unconscious motivation (that word again) is actually something else – Iraq.
I assume I first heard of Corbyn when he chaired the Stop The War coalition. His name might have appeared in dispatches prior to that, following one of his 500 or so backbench rebellions against the Labour whip, but he certainly entered my consciousness explicitly in the lead up to the Iraq war. I think the political class have no idea to this day just how much the invasion repelled and repulsed enormous swathes of the electorate, and Corbyn’s name must have stuck in the back of many hundreds of thousands of people’s minds.
In the context of domestic British politics, the main casualty of the Iraq war has been the credibility of what Labour achieved in office under Blair. This has become significant, because suddenly anyone who doesn’t back Corbyn is dismissed as a Blairite, which is effectively like calling someone a paedo-shelterer. Now, call me naive, but is it not possible to distinguish between Blair himself, the ideological shorthand ‘Blairism’, and the Labour government of which Blair was a part? Because the latter at least was an enormous force for good. Among all of the more urgent, graphic and violent consequences of the war has been a collective amnesia across the left about how successful and effective Blair’s government actually was. And it diminishes the ‘debate’ that the party was supposed to be extending by helping Corbyn onto the slate when his supporters condemn out of hand the achievements of that government as Tory backsliding.
But we are where we are, and of all the people to be acting as the lightning rod for anti-Blair feeling who do we find but old Jez C. He had to bide his time but he’s come back to haunt Blair like the ghost of Banquo at the feast after all.
So he’s a wizard, a time-traveller and a ghost. I think he’s also tapping into the warmth and goodwill generated by Tony Benn’s appearances at Glastonbury in his twilight years. It must have done something to the generous-spirited middle-classes to see a kindly, charismatic old man spin tales from the glory days of the 1983 General Election and reduce the infinite complexity of the modern world to simple moral parables. Suddenly they’re queuing round the block to see to the less interesting follow-up; the 18th Brumaire of Jeremy Corbyn, as a Twitter joke had it.
These antidotes to boring career politicians really do seem to have had awfully long careers in the House of Commons, don’t they?
So what does the rise of Corbyn say about contemporary politics? Well, going back to my earlier discussion of voting behaviour, I think the polarised debate over Corbyn reflects an increasing entrenchment of attitudes among the relatively small number of people who are politically active. People who support Corbyn are speaking a different language to the pro-Kendall contingent. On one side you have people who think you should vote on the basis of what they think will help other people, even though what’s on offer is a country mile away from what the electorate actually chose at the last election. On the other you have an approach based on appealing to the self-interest of individual voters, which risks diluting the cultural and ethical aspects of the Labour mission. Then in the middle you have Burnham and Cooper’s perspectives being effectively lost through the utter blandness of their campaigns.
I don’t know how I’m going to vote in the leadership election. My only hope is that, whatever happens, the Labour Party and its new members and supporters find some way to draw on all four of the models of voter motivation personified so elegantly by the four leadership candidates. If there’s one thing I learned from my student days it’s that the electorate is unpredictable, far from unified in its behaviour – and always right.
If the party wants to get back into power any time soon it cannot reduce the complexity of politics to a single explanation of voter motivation – and that goes for the Kendallite rational choice approach just as much as Corbyn’s generosity of spirit.
But there is another theory of politics that gets less attention than it deserves, and which might explain the rise of Corbyn better than anything else I’ve discussed: the law of unintended consequences. Never mind the last-minute wheeze that smuggled Corbyn into the leadership race, just think about all of the millions of British citizens who decided not to vote at the last election. They must have still had their polling cards lying around somewhere, mustn’t they? Corbyn’s supporters have clearly dug them out of their waste paper baskets and used them to infiltrate the Labour Party.