Electability Matters, but Its Deployment Is Political

by Aaron Bastani

9 February 2020

Microchip08, Wikimedia Commons

The very definition of a democracy is regular and free elections. While you can talk about a range of other things, from the unaccountable power of the billionaire owned press to lobbyists and PR, all of them abide in countries which are formally democratic.

If you care about the direction of your society, elections are particularly important. For socialists a critical analysis of the status quo means little if you can’t offer an alternative. As Karl Marx once put it: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” In other words, canvassing in the rain is more important than understanding Kant’s categorical imperative. Of course you need both, but thinking sought as an end in itself, rather than as a tool for pursuing change, wasn’t his bag.

Of course, change happens in a panoply of ways other than elections. The term ‘in office but not in power’ expresses this well; the Blair governments commanded sweeping legislative majorities, but they depended overwhelmingly on a favourable right wing press. Equally, the likes of Ted Heath and Harold Macmillan lived in a world whose political parameters were determined by the labour movement. Change means culture as much as political power, economic muscle as much as parliamentary arithmetic.

There aren’t always easy distinctions between such categories though. Thatcher knew this well revealing her expansive theory of change when she said: “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.” This was an inversion of Gramsci – the master of understanding economics, power and culture together – who might have responded: “Culture is the method: the object is to change the economic relations.”

Socialists need to grapple with this very seriously: the kind of change they would like to create – including that of personal subjectivity – is impossible without state power. To get those you need a minimalist program of social transformation, not dissimilar to what Thatcher’s Tories offered in 1979. Back then, they wrote about helping free enterprise, taking on the unions, one or two privatisations and selling off council housing – with no real suggestion of the epochal shifts that would follow over the next decade.

In its next manifesto Labour will need to do something similar: blame finance and the bankers, re-nationalise rail and water, scrap tuition fees and promise to build bucket-loads of housing. Deeper economic change than that will have to come later – and its success will depend on the ability of socialists to build cultural institutions, including in the media and direct public opinion in their favour.

You might think that’s a backward step from 2017 – I don’t think it is – or that I’m about to declare my support for Keir Starmer – wrong again. Instead, I want to say that while elections matter and Labour needs to refine its policy objectives to five or six highly salient, attractive proposals, recent use of the term ‘electability’ is something altogether different.

That it has happened makes sense: it’s an excellent way to discipline a left-wing Labour membership, as well as a majority of public opinion which supports a radical shift from the failed status quo. It also has some truth to it, particularly now, sounding utterly asinine in 2017 when Labour had their best performance in a general election for 16 years. Last December, however, Labour lost – badly.

But its deployment is still political. Startlingly few spoke about ‘electability’ when arguing Labour should adopt a second referendum (they were polling ahead of the Tories until last January). Nobody said the party was ‘unelectable’ when, in 2018, Keir Starmer unilaterally told Labour conference that the party would hold a second referendum with ‘remain’ on the ballot.

Nor was it ‘unelectable’ when the party committed political harikari in Scotland during 2014 – campaigning alongside the Tories – and paying the price of losing every seat bar one in a historic heartland. The journalists so happy to talk about ‘unelectability’ were happy to platform the legion of Corbyn-sceptic Labour MPs, even as the party fared well in the polls. So why, all of a sudden, do they care so passionately about such things?

Call me old fashioned but whichever party you are in, and whatever you believe, you should vote for the candidate who best reflects your views. You should do this while considering whether they can win power. Politics is about compromise, but nobody gets actively involved  – at least not for long – to back people they mostly disagree with. The genius of Trump, Sanders and, yes, Johnson, is that they stood for something very clear and said to people ‘do you want to follow me?’ Other than Rebecca Long-Bailey that’s not something I’m seeing from Labour’s leadership candidates right now – and even with her I suspect it isn’t yet distinctive enough.

Instead, the public is now meant to operate like 30 million spin doctors, second-guessing an abstracted electorate. This is a world where it isn’t just politicians that operate by focus group but where our own sense of personal ethics is meant to be conditioned by it. Support drug decriminalisation, a sensible position given the failure of the ‘war on drugs’ since the 1970s? Sorry, but that’s unelectable. Think we need to decarbonise our energy systems immediately because we are close to the precipice on climate change? You are to blame for the Tories winning a majority, you bastard. Think LGBT people merit the same legal rights and personal dignity as anyone else? Stupid you – didn’t you know the ‘culture war’ only helps the right?

Where does this end? Conversations between work colleagues about racist chants at football? “Sorry Tony but you thinking that telling a player to ‘fuck off home’ should be mean a ban is why Labour is unelectable.” Not that Tony is running for public office. Or imagine Dan Hodges at home, eating dinner with his family: “Fancy lamb tonight kids?” he says, ready to pop off to his south London deli after filing another column on the metropolitan elite. “Actually dad, we want to try vegetarianism, we think meat is cruel and bad for the environment.” “This is why Labour is unelectable,” Hodges repeatedly whispers to himself as he puts on his shoes, angry that his pistachio-studded mortadella is now subject to a Gen-Z fatwa.

The quintessence of this was watching Tribune journalist Grace Blakeley and Tory commentator Iain Dale on Good Morning Britain. After Blakeley cited authoritative facts and sources to back up her opinion and, yes, spoke over Dale for all of fifteen seconds, Dale stormed off just as he was given the chance to respond. Rather than this demonstrating the right are useless when not playing politics on easy mode (they are), this was apparent evidence that Labour are ‘unelectable’ – despite the fact Blakeley brought facts to an important discussion, isn’t seeking office and this was … Good Morning Britain. The one with Piers Morgan.

Britain needs a Labour government and no doubt compromises should be made to achieve that. As I’ve said, the heavy lifting of changing society will happen when in power – and to push that in a progressive direction will mean building forces beyond parliament and shaping public opinion on issues like climate change and rising inequality in the present.

But at the same time, now is not the moment to avoid hard truths like the failure of the war on drugs, austerity and the inability of our economic system to deliver rising living standards. In fact, these viewpoints are needed more than ever. The magic is in doing that while achieving political power – not easy given the nature of Britain’s tax-dodging billionaire press.

Electability matters, sure, but don’t be fooled by its deployment to avoid things that need saying. Much in Britain is utterly broken and establishment orthodoxy has failed on the economy. That’s one thing the left has increasingly called right since the 2008 crisis.

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.


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