It’s staggering that as the world spiralled into a political death loop over the past decade, and trust overall in our electoral systems has taken a severe beating, that another phenomena should have come about: the political icon.
Leaders have, of course, always commanded a certain reverence. Charisma, good looks and oratory skills help elevate the ambitious to the very top, just as elite schooling and networking enable those with more modest skills to attain positions of power.
Yet such attributes have been in short supply in British politics, at one of the most turbulent points in the country’s modern history. There has arguably not been a single politician over the last decade – of any variety – that had the persuasive power to reach across the yawning divides to create the groundswell needed. Staggering to consider, when the ruling party has never once looked like a competent administration – even if one overlooks the ideological nastiness, barely concealed corruption and cronyism that have been the hallmark of their incumbency.
Yet what has become truly shocking is the whole-hearted buy-in of political idols from across the political spectrum – Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, and now, Dominic Cummings – to at least some degree. Most political commentators would drape this in the fabric of ‘populism’, which I find a vague term that misleads for want of more precision. All of these figures have been divisive perhaps due to the ever widening rifts in society, and it remains to be seen whether any of the outcomes of their political impetus benefits the country in the long-term.
There remains a hard core of Tory and New Labour fanboys who still get misty-eyed at the thought of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, drunk on nostalgia, the political equivalent of it-was-better-in-my-day, who maybe yearn to remember when class divisions were more binary, victories more emphatic for their team, the world didn’t throw up such harsh moral ambiguities.
Jeremy Corbyn, is of course a slightly different breed, not only because he was the only socialist ‘populist’ of the lot. like many Labour voters, I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn became leader – as it finally gave the Labour party a shot at establishing truly progressive policies based upon the roots of party’s history; but despite some very positive policies and a solid manifesto in 2017, it became apparent that he was unlikely to unite a country when he was unable to even unite his own party.
Of course the media smears and the undermining of his leadership from within his own ranks severely undermined his credibility, but the same naivety from Labour resurfaces time and again, in its inability to make capital from Conservatives’ mistakes. Even the election strategy for the 2019 General Election showed either an outstanding naivety or Corbyn’s belief in his own popularity was greatly inflated and misguided.
This however, is not about denigrating or praising a former Labour leader, who was in the grand scheme a principled man in an exceptionally cynical universe. Perhaps he was though, a man ‘out of time’ – a leader would have perhaps faired better running for Prime Minister in 2010 or even 2015, but by the time his chance came the country had irrevocably changed.
What separated Corbyn from the other aforementioned populists, is that they are all merely vehicles to initiate single issues – for Farage it was to provoke debate about EU membership, which he was considered an authority, but not so much of a political authority in the eyes of the public to elect him as a Member of Parliament; Johnson’s vehicle is his own ego – but he has served as a useful vector for his political party in that being a former member of the press corp, it would guarantee him – and his party – an easy ride to power. Journalists, after all, do stick together. And Cummings is an unelected oddity that has helped manipulate public opinion to push through Brexit, and as we’ve learned over the past fortnight, made himself his own fall guy, in order to justify his ‘herd immunity’ theory.
Let us not forget this is also a political culture that has created ‘Millifandom‘ and ‘Moggmentum‘ as a the ultimate homage to figures who are likely to leave any positive impression on political life in the UK.
Our political totems then, rarely manage to convince the electorate to coalesce around a grand vision. The electorate are after all, a reactionary crowd who vote with the instincts of a binge-and-purge addict who get what they want, then can take no more.
Corbyn carried a movement on his shoulders – one greater than any single issue – that of social justice and equality. Yet like the oft-parroted soundbite that Labour bods have regurgitated over the past 4 years – ‘for the many not the few’ – these precepts are intangible, abstract ideas that promises little and explains less: Old Blighty is repelled by this, preferring to leave the philosophical and the cerebral to our continental cousins, while we deal with common sense, nous, and concrete concepts. ‘Get Brexit done’ for all its vacuity and bluster, was – and remains – a remarkably effective piece of sloganeering in appealing to the Anglo-Saxon work ethic.
As Europeans go, the English are not intellectual. They have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or systematic ‘world-view’. Nor is this because they are ‘practical’, as they are so fond of claiming for themselves. One only has to look at their methods of town planning and water supply, their obstinate clinging to everything that is out of date and a nuisance, a spelling system that defies analysis, and a system, of weights and measures that is intelligible only to the compilers of arithmetic books, to see how little they care about mere efficiency.George Orwell – The lion and the unicorn
In some respects, the Labour Party ‘dodged a bullet’ in losing the last election – just six months into the current parliament, the government has to deal with a global pandemic, an economic depression with millions of jobs gone – and crucial Brexit talks still on the horizon. If 2008 demonstrated anything, it is perhaps that the British public are less forgiving of Labour’s attempts to tackle a crisis than it is when the Conservatives do so. But it is precisely during times of crisis that the country needs an administration whose policies and realpolitik is borne from equality, fairness and justice. As such, a progressive government victory in 2024 would require an entire parliament to unpick the damage caused over the previous decade and half, should they have the appetite to do so.
Given that the parliamentary democracy of the UK has offered such slim pickings for progressives throughout modern history, it is astounding that we have, and continue to, place such faith in the mechanics of it to give us the saviour or the salvation required to address inequality. An active democracy, if one exists, certainly doesn’t look like the kind of model where we place our utmost faith in individuals, and hope that they can bend the system to their will.
As the British left has discovered to their substantial cost, a social justice movement fit for the breathlessly rapid, tumultuous 21st century can only succeed through collective action and decentralised collectivism. Leaders can be ridiculed, smeared, or just not be up to the task. We must first convince and then each of us lead.