From the archive: Corbyn’s credibility problem is about politics, not economics
A few weeks ago I wrote about Lawrence Lessig’s kind of Presidential campaign. Lessig is a law professor at Harvard Law School and political activist with a particular interest in technology. Professor Lessig’s campaign is based on a single aim: to pass a piece of legislation he has called the ‘Citizen Equality Act’, which would introduce campaign finance reform, end partisan gerrymandering and greatly increase access to voting (including making election day a national holiday).
The idea underlying Lessig’s candidacy is that the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed in American politics is the way it does its politics. You can watch Lessig’s announcement video here, where he talks about the need first and foremost to address Americans’ inequality of citizenship, which is to say the influence of money in politics and how this corrupts everything else, including driving down voter turnout, so ensuring the continuance of corporate power determining political decision-making. Unless Americans can find a way to confront the influence of money in politics then nothing else can get done, especially anything progressive.
US politics is of course notoriously saturated and directed by big money. But British politics has its own money problem. As the Electoral Reform Society has stated: “British politics is being polluted by big money. Scandal after scandal reveals an ever growing arms race, where voters often appear to come second to big donors. Left to themselves the big parties have failed to find a solution.”
What I was most interested in was how Lessig’s campaign points to how big money effectively closes down what the public thinks is possible from politics, whoever they might vote for – possibly the most plausible single explanation for why public opinion surveys often suggest popular support for many progressive policies, yet the Tories keep getting elected and the political agenda seems to move inexorably to the right.
In other words, more money in politics not only determines government policies, it also has a the corrosive effect of making part of the public believe (understandably, though regrettably) that the views of ordinary people will never really be reflected in policies, so why bother to vote? This ‘despondency ratchet’ makes it harder to propose progressive policies, because many of the people who might vote for them have given up on the idea of voting (‘voting never changes anything’ – a self-fulfilling prophecy of course, but one that big money interests are quite happy to see spread).
But this also sets a trap for the left (let’s call it the ‘Corbyn trap’): it makes some people on the left think (not unreasonably or illogically) that if only you could get these non-voters to vote, then you’d win – and to do this this, you have to propose policies that people currently aren’t being offered by the large parties on the centre-left. You have to offer ‘real Labour policies and values’.
The reason this may be a trap is not because the theory is wrong, but because in practice these non-voters may be so sceptical about the idea of these more radical policies ever being enacted that they are highly unlikely to believe it’s worth voting or engaging in any kind of politics at all. It’s not just about what legislation a radical reforming government could pass through Parliament; it’s also a scepticism about whether powerful interests would find ways to avoid or defeat the aims of such policies in practice (for example, cracking down on tax avoidance, or redistributing wealth).
The logic of this argument is that the first job of any progressive politician has to be to persuade the public of the opposite – that real change is possible – by setting out a few big bold proposals for how to reduce the influence of corporate interests in politics.
Another way of putting it: Labour’s much-discussed problem with ‘economic credibility’ is really second to a deeper and more fundamental problem with political credibility. It also means that when commentators debate the credibility of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies, they might be focusing on the wrong issue.
So I was interested to read on the US website Politico about the ‘liberals who love Donald Trump’ – not because of his politics or (god forbid) his personality, but because as a billionaire who claims to have no need for big money backers, Trump has managed to present himself to disgruntled voters as the only candidate who can credibly circumvent this trap. He’s beholden to no-one, in contrast to his Republican opponents (a point he regularly makes himself). Trump may not be proposing campaign finance reform, but the reason that the liberals of Politico’s story ‘love’ him is because he is making their point for them more effectively than they ever could from the sidelines: that US politics is now so mired in money that only a billionaire candidate can be credible.
In the story, the pollster Stan Greenberg is quoted as describing focus group results in which he tested a hypothesis: How much trust could candidates gain just by proposing election reform? The results sound significant. When Greenberg put campaign finance reform at the start of his description of a candidate’s policies, then support for their economic policies rose by 12-13 percentage points. “But people need to hear the reform agenda first”, says Greenberg.
Electoral reform has generally been regarded as the ‘boring bit’ of British politics, something for the political geeks (and the Lib Dems). In the US, Donald Trump with his offensive remarks and his media skills developed in reality TV, has inadvertently highlighted how central the issue is. Which makes it all the more strange that over here the man who could be Labour’s next leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is apparently so conservative when it comes to electoral and political reform that it doesn’t even feature on his website’s list of policy proposals.
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