If Jeremy Corbyn’s detractors and critics will grant him nothing else, it’s that he’s a sincere and principled man. Even by their impeccable standards, he’s a politician who generally says what he thinks and does what he says, an individual whose words and actions exhibit a little more consistency than those of, say, Nick Clegg. Indeed, this trait is perhaps one of the main elements in his resounding capture of the Labour leadership, which was assured last week when 59.5% of the 422,664 ballots were crossed in his favour. Those who voted for him were drawn to his unfashionable honesty and anti-establishment credentials, which refreshingly distanced him from his centre-ground, Tory-lite rivals. Moreover, they were swayed by his assurance that he would do politics differently, wiping away the kind of duplicity and disappointment that has mired the standing of Westminster in recent times.
But as genuinely as Mr Corbyn has conducted himself throughout his career, and as unflinchingly as he’s voted according to his left-wing principles over the years, his promise to deliver a “new kind of politics” seems nothing less than disingenuous. For sure, he’ll be more “inclusive” in how he and his party operates, and he’ll no doubt champion policies which, in relation to the marginally shape-shifting Thatcherism that’s dominated British politics for more than 30 years, will come across as downright extreme. However, the idea that this change of tack will constitute a fundamental change in the political system is absurd, if not uncharacteristically dishonest.
It might be possible that, if elected as Prime Minister in 2020, Mr Corbyn would indeed reform the structure of parliament, transforming the House of Lords into an elected body of senators. It’s plausible that he might even attempt to rewrite constitutional law so that Britain becomes a direct democracy, allowing for referenda on every major bill. Yet even with these ostensibly substantial measures for increasing the electorate’s access to government, the hypothetical PM wouldn’t have constituted a new kind of politics.
That’s because a new kind of politics has already emerged, and more worryingly for Mr Corbyn, it’s of a stamp that prevents any single actor like himself, the Labour Party or even Parliament from making the kind of difference that at least 250,000 people in Britain desperately want to see. In this new political regime, the circumstances and conditions defining national life are not simply the effect of particular laws and legislation, but rather the aggregated outcome of innumerable agents and factors, most of which are entirely outside the remit of a Prime Minister or parliament.
Take the economy, for example. Here, Mr Corbyn may increase corporation tax in a bid to create more public-sector jobs and ultimately redistribute wealth, but whether this actually results in more jobs and a more equal society is another matter altogether. Such an endpoint depends on a whole myriad of extrinsic details over which he would have no authority, including: the tax regimes in other nations and on whether investing corporations might find these nations more attractive than the UK; on the state of the regional and global economies, on whether their health might dissuade entrepreneurs from establishing or continuing businesses located in the UK; on the state of markets, on their levels of activity and interest in British-based companies; on the existence of tax havens, which enable corporations to operate within the UK yet pay little or no corporation tax; on whether Britain’s foreign creditors (including the European Central Bank) are willing to continue investing in British debt/spending given the nation’s shift to a less ‘corporate friendly’ stance; on the domestic political situations within foreign nations, which affect the extent to which their corporations are prepared to invest abroad; and so on.
Because of such a metastasizing range of external factors, the government can perform only those actions which make certain results and states of affairs more likely, not those which directly bring them into being. Moreover, because these external conditions are proliferating, and because globalization means that the world is becoming more inextricably entwined, governmental actions are having an increasingly small role to play in determining the quality of life for the people who expectantly vote them into power.
Not only that, but as Moisés Naím describes in The End of Power, even getting to the point of implementing a measure is becoming increasingly fraught for politicians, let alone ensuring that it has the desired effect. Their ever-divided power has to contend against an ever-exploding pool of rival statesmen, factions, groups and organizations, and as the divisive election of Jeremy Corbyn has shown, the Labour leader will be undoubtedly confronting his own fair share of adversaries as he strives to reunite his party in the run-up to the next general election. Perhaps he will cleave insistently to his particular vision for the country and renounce all compromise, yet the need to recover party cohesion and solidarity will most likely dictate that his ‘new politics’ is marked by concessions from the very outset.
Hence, the upshot of all this is that, far from being new, Corbyn will be just another embodiment of what politicians increasingly are in this globalized, postmodern age. Namely, he won’t be a mover of events so much as a spinner of them, someone who presents and filters the complexities of history in a fashion that’s palatable to those whose votes he’s soliciting. In fact, it’s precisely in anticipation of this function that he so convincingly won the leadership contest, seeing as how he wove a narrative regarding Labour’s election defeat and Britain’s continuing socioeconomic issues that was more comforting to his potential supporters than anyone else’s.
In other words, he has assumed the post of Labour’s chief storyteller, and his success in the 2020 election will be predicated on whether he can weave better fables than George Osborne, or whoever else might succeed David Cameron as leader of the Conservatives. Such a role is the best he, or George Osborne for that matter, could ever really hope for today, since as outlined above, the ability of politicians to effect change is being diluted with every new organization, multinational corporation and developing nation that enters the global stage. The more critical mass such entrants accumulate as a whole, the less individual governments can counteract the pressure and impetus they bring to bear on the course of the world’s economic and social history. In turn, this aggregated pressure ultimately decides how people live and work, and by extension it will decide that all Mr Corbyn can really expect from his future in politics is a role as a humble narrator.
He will therefore have to start thinking how we will frame Britain and its place in the world, paying special attention to the kinds of symbolism, sentiments, statements and stories that would most effectively distract the insecure British from their powerlessness. With his focus on a “new kind of politics” he’s already off to a good start, although the inconsistency of this mantra with the reality of a world where political power is diffusing would risk undermining its credibility. A more promising alternative might be to bolster his dedication to “social justice”, since this cliché will provide individuals hard-bitten by forces outside of their control with a degree of hope for the future. Then again, it might not be any more believable than the idea of a new politics, given that even if ‘social justice’ isn’t an oxymoron, Britain’s ability to afford it progressively depends on conditions outside of its purview.
Nevertheless, Corbyn’s reputation as a straight-talking, no-nonsense soothsayer will perhaps be enough to overcome at least some of the alarm and incredulity that’s welcomed him into the realm of top-flight British politics. As some indication of the difficult challenge he now faces, his yarn-spinning opponents have already tagged him as a “threat to national security“, yet if Mr Cameron and his cohorts can make the electorate believe that the Conservatives are the party of working people, then there’s no intractable reason why Mr Corbyn can’t make them believe that Labour are the party of growth and innovation. And he should be able to, since as a politician this is his primary job: to make people believe, not necessarily to do anything else.