The current leadership contest for the Labour Party is demonstrating two of its purported weaknesses: narcissism and disorganisation. A lot of this was unavoidable. The bulk of the current party as is came of political age post-1994, so the entrenched power structure, down to local councillors, have a certain set of ideological, strategic, and tactical expectations, and a common accepted narrative. Anybody who teaches Thomas Kuhn would immediately recognise the relevance of this quote:
Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend most all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Normal science often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments. As a puzzle-solving activity, normal science does not aim at novelties of fact or theory and, when successful, finds none.
In search of a Kuhnian paradigm shift is the unexpected surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn. This, too, comes with a common narrative of sorts (if less unified or tidy): one of distrust for the “normal” politicians, established party structures, and a messianic, near cultish belief in their saviour, quite similar to Erik’s take on the support of Bernie Sanders: “Good take on the problem with Bernie Sanders: the cult of personality his fans are erecting around him that make any criticism an attack on their hero.”
The results of this clash are distasteful and unhelpful. A large segment of the status quo patronise Corbyn and his support as childish, amateur, and lacking in a basic understanding of electoral politics, perhaps best illustrated by Paul Blanchard’s shrill article:
The people who are joining right now are not living in the real world – or in many cases they’re just too young to understand how the real world will inevitably impact their future. They are desperate to indulge their fantasies of a utopian socialist state; and many really do believe that it’s actually possible to create it in the 21st Century. Jeremy Corbyn resonates with people who don’t want to govern. They just want to protest . . . So where do Labour people like me go from here? If Corbyn becomes the leader then I’ll have to think about resigning my membership.
Likewise, many insurgents respond by branding any who disagrees a Tory and nurture a deep, distrust of any extant party structures, including the local party. They proudly display their ballots as ranking only one candidate, because not one of the other three can possibly conform to their precise ideological purity. Under the alternative vote electoral system, we are allowed to rank order our candidates on the ballot below (which is not mine), and it seems short sighted to me to not utilise the electoral system to its fullest:
Ultimately, this clash is understandable, combining ideology with the possibility of a Kunhian paradigm shift. However, some of the damage being caused was clearly avoidable. Last Friday, I discussed how Labour has created a problem in the way it has defined the eligible electorate for the 2015 leadership contest. One must be a full member for a year before being allowed a vote in candidate selection for parliament or council in one’s own Constituency Labour Party. Yet, in the first truly democratic election of party leader, all one needs to do is spend three quid as a registered “supporter” of the party before the deadline of 12 August, with voting to commence three days later. My main concern in the post last week concerned how a poorly conceived system could create the appearance of illegitimacy in the outcome, especially if the winner is Jeremy Corbyn perceived to be riding a surge of support on the backs of Three Quid Tories. However, Labour’s attempt to filter or, face it, purge these rolls has created a public relations problem, and is viewed by many Corbyn supports as an explicit attempt to limit their electoral effectiveness. Indeed, it might even have created a legal problem.
Ultimately, the Labour Party is right to prevent those who openly campaigned against it in the previous election, or stood as candidates against Labour, from voting in the leadership contest. However, there is a profound lack of clarity and transparency in the process, and it’s being conducted on an ad-hoc basis on a shoestring which allows for considerable error, and error that will be publicised. Creating a truly democratic election for party leader has some merit, yes, but this should have been limited to full party members, not just anybody with £3. In choosing the latter, the party should have a) chatted with some political scientists about the ideological shape of the electorate in primary elections, and b) created clear, transparent rules for who can, and who can not, vote. It apparently didn’t effectively do the former, and clearly not the latter, so finds itself stunned that Corbyn is leading in most polls, and that a minor public relations disaster is in the making.
Regardless who wins the election, I’ll happily remain a member of the Labour Party (yes, even if Liz Kendall wins), for all its faults, and put in the same amount of work campaigning for Labour at the upcoming local elections in May as I have done the previous two years.
After all, I am pretty sure that they’re still going to let me vote in this thing.