From the archive: Why is the left so stupid?

Michael Harris /   November 29, 2015 at 6:16 PM 13,211 views


Writing in today’s Observer, Andrew Rawnsley lamented that ‘There is no obvious escape route for Labour from the party’s agonies’:

“It is trapped with a leader without the confidence of his MPs who can’t be removed while he’s popular with its members. …In the short history of the Corbyn experiment, the past seven days have been the most spectacularly disastrous yet. There’s open civil war between the leader and his shadow cabinet over Syria. There’s Ken Livingstone telling the Question Time audience that the 7/7 bombers “gave their lives” as a protest against the invasion of Iraq, as if the killers of 52 people were in some way martyrs to a noble cause. We have Labour MPs calling for Mr Corbyn to resign while the leader’s office mobilises constituency activists to try to intimidate the parliamentary party. As if all that was not quite enough immolation for one week, we were also treated to John McDonnell’s calamitous response to George Osborne.”

Rawnsley sums it up when he writes that:

“This illustrates that the problem with the people currently at the top of the Labour party is not simply to do with their ideological complexion or their back catalogue of incendiary quotes. It is that they are simply bad at politics. And by being rubbish at politics, the people they most let down are those many millions of Britons who need a credible Labour party providing an effective opposition.”

Yes, but why are they so bad? Which is to say, why is the left so stupid when it comes to the political basics, like say the need to appeal to a broad audience, to not sound like they’re from another planet?

I don’t mean all of the left. There’s a smart left and a stupid one. Corbyn and McDonnell aren’t part of the former. They didn’t just have a ‘bad media week’ – they revealed themselves.

And I don’t mean ‘why is the left so stupid?’ from a right-wing perspective, when conservatives ask things like ‘why doesn’t the left understand that raising taxes is bad for the economy?’ (because it isn’t, not always; people on the right used to understand this as well).

What I mean is, why do parts of the left have certain obviously unpopular and distracting reflexes that they seem unable and unwilling to challenge themselves on, some of which have played out recently in the Labour leadership (I say ‘Labour leadership’, but I suppose given the minority they apparently find themselves in, I really just mean mainly Corbyn, McDonnell and Diane Abbott  – and how strange it remains to refer to them as ‘the Labour leadership’).

Reflexes such as:

Rawnsley notes something important about how Corbyn has mishandled the debate over whether to take military action in Syria:

“Given the experience of previous military action in the Middle East, the Labour leader ought to have an excellent chance of persuading people when he asks whether it is sensible to extend air strikes against Isis to targets in Syria. Yet he is the worst advocate for the positions that he holds. …Why? I think it boils down to this. There would be a more attentive audience for the Labour leader’s case if anyone thought he was opposed to air strikes because he has weighed up the many political and moral complexities of the Syrian situation and come to a reasoned conclusion that the course of action proposed by the prime minister is unwise. But his arguments, even the good ones, come over as weak because everyone suspects that there are no circumstances in which he would ever want Britain to act to protect its citizens and assist its allies. He has previously said as much.”

There it is.

The stupid left is both overly academic (which is to say vague, abstract and unworldly) yet insufficiently thoughtful, self-proclaimedly radical yet extremely conservative, claims to represent working people yet often sound like they disdain them, hold to rationality yet are unprepared to think problems through (to wherever logic and evidence actually leads), defend free speech and minority opinions yet seem incredibly intolerant of views they don’t like, bore on about ‘neoliberalism’ yet understand very little about markets and how they might be improved, believe that it’s only a matter of time before capitalism is superseded yet never seem to be ready a better plan (if they’re really pressed, their ‘socialism’ often sounds more like northern European social democracy; if only they’d just say that and stop posturing).

Because they think they’re clever, this left seems to think that people unlike them are stupid. By definition, this means most of the population. And so when the left loses, it makes sense to assume that the voters have been deceived, rather than to reflect that people looked at the various alternatives and made the best choices they could based on the information they had.

It’s this assumption that takes the left further away from what does need to be done: understand where people are, accept why they do, find out what arguments they respond to, and use these to build support and trust. Obviously this is incredibly simplistic. It’s also true. To essentially think the opposite – that you just have to stand where you are and people will eventually come to you – is to be reminded of what George Orwell wrote: “Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.”

As per his headline, Rawnsley suggests that:

“Labour is trapped. Trapped with a leader incapable of commanding the confidence and loyalty of his MPs. Trapped because Labour’s aghast parliamentarians are powerless to do anything about it. Trapped with a leader who can’t win the trust of the public but is strongly protected by the support of his members. This is the Corbyn catch-22.”

But I think Rawnsley provides the answer to his own question. Once an increasing number of ordinary Labour party members – many of whom voted for Corbyn – are done blaming the ‘right-wing media’ and ‘disgruntled Blairites’, they may agree that, as Rawnsley quotes many Labour MPs as saying, “We can’t go on like this.”

Until then, what John Stuart Mill (probably) called the ‘stupid party’ – which is certainly sometimes stupid in its own particular ways – will keep on winning.

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