Saturday 25 January 2020

A Question of Character

Some Labour supporters are puzzled by how an overt charlatan like Boris Johnson was the preferred option for millions of voters versus Jeremy Corbyn, a man known for his principled (if not always popular) positions on a range of issues, as well as his kindness and unaffected way with ordinary people. Why was Johnson's appalling character profile more acceptable, and how will it matter over the next four or five years as Labour rebuilds? Learning from Jeremy's period in charge, how might the character of the new leader be important?

We know perceptions of politicians are heavily overdetermined by the media but it's not as though Johnson is a stranger to bad press and character assassination. His enemies are legion and to all intents and purposes, his personal life - including his inability to say how many children he has - makes him a laughing stock. And that's before you consider the lies, the laziness, and the incompetence. And yet, despite all this, Johnson won out for two key reasons which, I suppose, are among those few characteristics of politics that approach something of a law.

The first is the fear factor. As a rule, people will not follow or support leaders who make them fearful. Unless said leader has a grotesque apparatus of repression at their disposal. As Labour people, we will not vote or support Johnson because we know what the Tories mean for our communities and our class. We fear the dismantling of the institutions that many of our people depend on, the scapegoating, victimisation, and deportation of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, and the coarsening of public life. And, likewise, plenty of Tories fear Labour too. They fear us because they think we'll take their privilege away, make them cough up a lot more in tax, and speed up the sorts of changes they find objectionable, particularly the destabilisation of, in their eyes, their familiar way if life.

Unfortunately, Corbyn brought with him more reasons to be fearful. In the first instance was his pacifism and anti-imperialism, which was - still is - spun as being pro-Hamas and Hezbollah, pro-IRA and "anti-Western". Then there was the perception he was soft, and would not sanction the requisite tough action required to deal with domestic terrorists. And, of course, the perennial nuclear war issue, of his refusing to countenance a retaliatory strike against any hostile nation that might, for reasons, lob a nuclear missile or two our way. Coupled with the entirely false idea Corbyn is/was a communist, this is a recipe for widening the pool of those who would vote Tory, as well as making many of them more likely to do so. Yes, this fear didn't bloom in a vacuum, but the Tories and their press proved adept at stoking it precisely because it aggravated the collective unconscious of a whole strata of people. Considering how they were in a febrile condition thanks to the drawing out of Brexit - which they mostly supported, and even more wanted done - Labour's second referendum position contained every danger of prolonging matters, or of cancelling it completely.

The second issue is the question of competence. Or, as they say, folks don't vote for divided parties. Boris Johnson's stint as Foreign Secretary, and particularly his callous failures over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe should bar him from the Commons, let alone the high office to which he has ascended. And yet, as we saw, Johnson was able to use Brexit as a wedge to bulldoze the Tories to a majority. But he was only able to do this by bringing his party to the brink. This autumn's theatre of lost votes, resignations of cabinet members, the expulsion of rebellious remainy Tories made for a heartening show to those who wish the Conservative Party nothing but ill, but it proved his credibility on this issue. You might not like Johnson, but you knew his direction of travel. Unfortunately, for many of these voters, this wasn't the case with Jeremy Corbyn. Likewise you knew (or thought you knew) what his views were, but he lacked credibility because he had a laissez-faire attitude to internal opposition and appeared weak when it came to tackling his own critics. This crystallised when it came to the anti-semitism crisis, which appeared to be allowed to rumble on and fatally damaged his reputation for decisive decision making. And, again, letting the second referendum campaign run riot in Labour's ranks without trying to challenge it. In other words, how can you trust a man with the keys to Number 10 to deliver all these very ambitious and expensive policies if he can't even run his own party. Sadly, we know the answer to this.

What lessons can the next Labour leader draw from this sorry episode, apart from the obvious and banal fact the media will be against them? The first is Johnson will hark back to the credibility on Brexit he's in the process of consolidating, which makes Labour's long leadership election an indulgence. The second comes down to Labour's messaging. As much as remain-minded members supporting Keir Starmer might hope he's going to turn the clock back to the pre-Brexit days, I cannot believe he would be so stupid as to commit Labour to rejoining within the lifetime of this parliament. And the other two serious candidates, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy, aren't about to either. Thirdly, it's difficult to imagine any of these would stand for the behaviour we've seen from a persistent core of MPs, some of whom are now deservedly ex, in the event of their becoming leader. As relative unknowns vis a vis the public, they have to be seen as decisive, serious (up to and including wielding the stick if needs must), hungry to win, and with the right answers to the problems the Tories cannot solve.

Here's the thing. Without Brexit, Johnson hasn't got a lot to offer the new Tory voters. Indeed, well-respected strategists are recommending not to unduly bother spending much time pleasing them. And, as if by magic, now the election is safely out of the way local government funding is set to fall in the Tories' recent acquisitions and monies diverted to the Home Counties and the South East. It's almost as if Johnson is determined to mug off his new support. Having accomplished their most stunning victory in decades they are, with unseemly haste, undoing the conditions for a repeat performance. The opportunities for Labour then are there, in fact they're already starting to yawn, but they can only be exploited if we look back at the last four-and-a-half years and avoid the same mistakes.


Anonymous said...

Just a pedantic comment. "Affectless" means without emotional expression. I think you meant "unaffected"

Shai Masot said...

Corbyn's big mistake was not kicking the Blairite ultras out of the party in the autumn of 2017. He dithered. So now they're back... with wind in their sails!

Only a leadership candidate who clearly signals a brutal, blood-curdling purge of Benn, Hodge, Streeting, Coyle, Kinnock, and Phillips will get my vote.

Phil said...

Cheers muchly, Anon!

Ken said...

Ken said,
We are looking for a list of things by has said but has done something differen t.
E.g. No forms to fill in but now 31 with 29 compulsory in NI. Any others would be appreciated.
Btw our branch might be on the cusp of debating whether the L.P. Is a socialist party, in between the e excitement of the leadership debate and choosing council candidates.

Blissex said...

«And yet, as we saw, Johnson was able to use Brexit as a wedge to bulldoze the Tories to a majority. But he was only able to do this by bringing his party to the brink.»

Here our blogger makes the same mistake as the elitists, the assumption that who is the leader matters greatly to elections; most voters don't know who their MP is, or even what party s/he represents, only 15% of voters were aware in 2017 that May's slogan was "strong and stable", etc.
Various studies show that the leader usually accounts for close to 0 percent points of votes, and when it matters it is usually 1-2 percent points (the only clear exception was Tony Blair, an electorally toxic leader who lost millions of votes to New Labour, and remained in power only because the Conservatives had delivered a house price crash and he had not). In 2019 B Johnson managed to increase the Conservative vote by 1-2 percent points over the landslide won by T May in 2017, and only by even more extreme means that our blogger reports.

The real story is what T Blair once said: "people judge us on their instincts about what they believe our instincts to be”, and the vast majority of Conservative voters care very little about the scummier side of B Johnson, they only care about his instincts as to property prices and rents, and those are sterling and uncorrupted.

As to J Corbyn, a significant portion of Labour voters understood all too well that his instincts were for "Remain", and that those of B Johnson, however opportunistic, were for "Leave", and switched, in a rare case of them voting against the opposition instead of the government.

Because in general voters will not vote against a government that hasn't screwed up in some sense, no matter how attractive the alternative painted by the opposition; in 2019 they voted against an opposition that had screwed up.
Or perhaps as some commentators (like "Boffy") it is that B Johnson campaigned as the opposition (and indeed his government was a minority one), the opposition to a parliamentary majority that had screwed up brexit. That majority was made of Labour etc. and some Conservative MPs, and their expulsion helped him disassociate the Conservatives from the parliamentary majority that had screwed up.

Jim Denham said...

I think Corbyn's response (to be precise, Milne's response) to the Salisbury poisonings - ie giving the benefit of the doubt to Putin - was far more damaging than Hamas, Brexit indecision or the IRA in the public's assessment of Corbyn as unsound on security "patriotism", etc, etc.

CCCAAC said...

"only 15% of voters were aware in 2017 that May's slogan was "strong and stable","

Brainwashing works at the sub conscious level too. So while 15% of voters were aware of May's slogan I guarantee at the sub conscious level this was more like 80% The BBC didn't push this day in day out for nothing!

On that score, the committee has amended a previous policy:

The banning of all puppets and cartoon characters in adverts was replaced by adverts can only use puppets or cartoon characters. This has now been amended as follows:

Only puppets and cartoon characters can be used in adverts and they must be reading out poetry. All non poetic dialogue must be removed.

Signed Chairman of the Committee for the Campaign Against American Culture.

Blissex said...

As to questions of character, I have just been disgusted by reading this:

«Long-Bailey appeared to suggest that a member of the shadow Treasury team in 2016 deleted shared files when MPs stepped down en-masse shortly before a leadership challenge took place. She told the audience how she watched Rob Marris, then MP for Wolverhampton South West, resign from his shadow ministerial role during a committee meeting in parliament. Long-Bailey said he “flounced off”. Describing the unfolding events, the Corbynite frontrunner added that she had a “feeling that something wasn’t right” and rushed back to her office where a staff member told her that shared files had gone.
[...] Marris has told HuffPost UK that his assistant deleted the files because they were not the property of the party. Commenting on the statement made by Long-Bailey, the ex-MP said: “She is trying to imply I stole Labour Party information.” He added: “My assistant removed from the computer documents which my office created using my parliamentary expenses. That information was not paid for by the shadow Treasury team, it was paid for by parliament and it belonged to me.”»

What a comradely point of view! What a really not-tory sense of solidarity! And it is marvellous that Parliament pays for information that then becomes the exclusive property of the relevant MP.
Never mind that the computer used to store that information belonged to the party, and that accessing it to delete stuff after resigning from the shadow treasury team could perhaps be considered a rather naughty thing under the Computer Misuse act. A character like that perhaps should have considered imitating a character like Chuka Umunna. Even if I reckon that as to questions of character Angela Smith's rant about losing the £22,000 payout for MPs that exit politics because she stood for candidate again was one of the top moments of the decade.

Blissex said...

«The BBC didn't push this day in day out for nothing!»

Ah but the BBC is different from the press: the main reason why the press has very limited effect in switching votes is that it preaches to the converted, their marketing strategy is to pander to the smug prejudices of the already persuaded. When the Daily Mail rails against the frauds of the "scroungers" it is just providing confirmation to people already persuaded that the "scroungers" are fraudsters, etc; at most the press can reinforce already-existing persuasions.

The BBC is different: most people over 35-40 watch it, whatever their prejudices, and still has a reputation for reliability, for being unbiased, so it can swing opinions. That's why one of the fist acts of the new Johnson government was to intimidate it.

BCFG said...

" ie giving the benefit of the doubt to Putin"

Never has i.e, been used in such a dishonest fashion, i.e. Denham is a lying piece of shit.

Corbyn asked for evidence before jumping to conclusions, a statesmanlike judgment the world is sorely in need of right now.

But I guess for Denham, much better we have ;patriots' like Johnson who are always ready to jump to the correct conclusions!

Denham, a pro imperialist scumbag!

Blissex said...

«much better we have ;patriots' like Johnson who are always ready to jump to the correct conclusions!»

As to another question of character, a previously mentioned crucial moment in UK politics was this Early Day Motion:
That this House unequivocally accepts the Russian state's culpability for the poisoning of Yulia and Sergei Skripal in Salisbury using the illegal novichok nerve agent

Tabled 14 march 2018, that is a 10 days after the accidental self-poisoning of the Skripals, and the list of sponsors and signatories the roll call of the centrist-party-to-be: 36 stars of New Labour, 9 LibDems, 3 SNP, 1 DUP, 1 Conservative. The purest "atlanticists"/likudniks, the most eager to be "aligned" to the "deep state" (USA) The Establishment (UK). By this EDM they identified themselves as the most reliable, the most bendable.

Please read the full text and the full list of signatories, it is a marvellous example of the abyssal heights of "centrism". Even if perhaps Angela Smith's complaint about losing her 22k payout is, in a different way, even more profound. :-)