7th September 2016
-By Steven Duckworth-
The Blank Canvas
What does Jeremy Corbyn stand for; what informs his political and moral beliefs; where does he stand on the political spectrum and what is it about him that enthuses thousands of people to support him?
These are all reasonable questions that I suspect most people who follow politics could answer reasonably easily. He’s a socialist, for sure, and quite left wing and he’s offering a prospectus based on true Labour principles. Pushed a little further people will probably say he believes in human rights, a peaceful foreign policy, nationalised public services and above all he is anti-austerity. But is that enough to fully understand his appeal to many within the labour movement?
While it is demonstrably unquestionable that Corbyn is ‘of the left’ there is nothing that he has written or said that suggests he has a reasonable grasp of anything approaching a sophisticated view of what socialism is and what it might look like in practice in early 21st century Britain.
He has said he wants to see a society where “nobody is left behind” and the wealthy have obligations towards the poor. I think most people would sign up to those beliefs. In fact a ‘one nation Conservative’ would not quibble with any of it. It doesn’t however reflect anything that is overtly socialist or particularly left-wing. In fact Corbyn’s radical credentials seem to stem more from his associations – various hard left protest movements over the years – rather than any coherent intellectual base he has developed for himself.
On foreign policy his views are framed by anti-western rhetoric rather than any commitment to an ethical foreign policy. On public services his reach doesn’t extend beyond an instinct that anything that isn’t the state doesn’t pass the sniff test. And on austerity his shadow chancellor’s plans do not challenge the austerity narrative of ‘a balanced budget’ which has put off former economic advisors such as Simon Wren-Lewis and Danny Blanchflower. In practice Corbyn has not proposed anything – defence and security issues aside – that would sit outside the sentiment or detail of Labour’s failed 2015 manifesto.
So far so good, but it doesn’t get us any nearer to understanding Corbyn’s appeal to people who are not only self-declared left wingers (the Trotskyites we continually hear about) but also the many of the Labour leader’s supporters who would define themselves as nothing more than ordinary people who are dissatisfied with how society is run and would like to see more of an emphasis on social justice; those that are often dismissively referred to as ‘the soft left’.
I believe Corbyn’s popularity is exactly because of his lack of concrete ideological platforms, but more importantly that he is relatively unknown and, bizarrely for a career politician of four decades standing, a fresh skin. Prior to 2015 not many members of the Labour party will have heard of Corbyn. Far less so the general population.
So in essence Jeremy Corbyn represents the blank canvas that both the far left (because of his previous left wing associations more than particular ideology) and those interested in social justice can paint their hopes onto, because there is nothing in terms of the man’s political philosophy or his public profile that will resist their daubs onto the canvas.
What those opposed to Corbyn’s leadership from within the Labour Party seem to dismiss are the human factors that drive his appeal. His supporters view him as a kind and principled man who dares to look beyond the machinations of party politics and policy-making towards something more meaningful. He is a standard-bearer for those who are sick of the inequality that they believe is perpetuated by the media in the interests of the elites. They also welcome the fact that he’s not a smartly attired political salesman with a winning smile and a soundbite at the ready.
What is powerful about the blank canvas is that it means that people aren’t buying into the politician’s views and vision so much as projecting their own aspirations onto the person. Therefore any attack on the man feels like it is a personal challenge. This in part explains why the mass rallies we see the Labour leader addressing are adorned with Corbyn paraphernalia, not Labour placards and leaflets. Older members of the party often feel frustrated at the inability of Corbyn supporters to concede even the most minor point made against the leader, but this is wrapped up in the personal connection the supporters feel they have with him.
Criticising a politician is easy; self- reflection is much harder. The difficulties the Owen Smith leadership campaign has run into have often been related to the fact that trying to get to the left of Corbyn is not especially useful, when the attraction to Corbyn is not rooted in any concrete policy platform, but in a vague collection of individual hopes and aspirations painted onto the current Labour leader. At this stage, taking on Corbyn and his supporters in a seemingly rational debate about his policies and his competence will be frustrating for his opponents and ultimately pointless. In fact the more he is attacked, the more his supporters feel it justifies their belief in him. We are left with two groups talking over the heads of each other, seemingly unable to agree on the terms of the debate, let alone resolve it.
Of course the blank canvas also allows people unconvinced by Corbyn to paint their anxieties and fears onto him unopposed too and the current opinion polls suggests that the vast majority of the general public are doing just that. If Corbyn is to have any chance of reaching beyond his base and start to change the perceptions of the electorate, he will have to start filling in the blanks in order to reassure them. That would mean also confronting his supporters with the reality of who he is as a politician and as a person which in return threatens to weaken his support base, something which he is unlikely to want to do.
So Labour is gridlocked between a leader who can’t win a general election and any challenger who can’t win the party leadership. This spells an electoral meltdown for Labour in 2020 or before, but it is difficult to see how that can now be avoided.
By Steven Duckworth