Robin McAlpine: The election has shown that boldness works – indy supporters must pay attention

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says the rise in support for Jeremy Corbyn shows that people want hope and vision

AT THE advent of the New Labour years there was a sketch on the comedy programme Friday Night Armistice in which Labour MPs were taken to a training session at which they were given a gun and told to shoot a kitten.

It was a satire on Tony Blair's relentless conviction at the time that only political parties willing and able to make the 'tough choices' could ever be accepted by the population as a possible government.

The theory went that anyone could offer all that visiony-hopey stuff but that a serious government had to master the art of pessimism, of accepting the world as it is and living with it. In an era in which free markets were believed to be the only engines of social change, politics needed to be a modest affair, never promising too much.

My question is a simple one; is there nothing left which can disprove this insidious philosophy? Is there no amount of real world experience which is enough to contradict endemic political minimalism?

And this mindset holds absolutely firm among professional political insider types; hope is for losers, government is management, politics is all about the tough choices. Offer very little and deliver it efficiently.

My question is a simple one; is there nothing left which can disprove this insidious philosophy? Is there no amount of real world experience which is enough to contradict endemic political minimalism?

Because ever since political minimalism led us into the financial crisis of 2008, a lot of people seem to have noticed that minimalism may apply to them but that when it comes to protecting wealthy financiers, the choices aren't as tough as you might think.

The sense that anything is possible for the wealthy and the powerful, even as the rest of us have constantly to lower our expectations, appears to have posed some serious questions for electoral politics.

You can probably trace the resurrection of political optimism to the 2008 Obama campaign and the 'hope you can believe in' stuff (though Obama himself then did a fairly comprehensive job of undermining the message by attempting not very much).

The sense that anything is possible for the wealthy and the powerful, even as the rest of us have constantly to lower our expectations, appears to have posed some serious questions for electoral politics.

But I would argue that to see the emergence of the modern form of a more 'maximalist' politics you need to look to Greece, Spain, Iceland and Scotland at the early part of this decade.

And of those, only in Scotland were the new politics not rooted in acute crisis.

But with the vigorous efforts being made by the Scottish Tories and their loyal media to recast the 2014 referendum as being akin to the black death, I fear we are starting to forget how remarkable those years were.

At the outset, the political insider class around the independence movement were convinced that a cautious, safety first approach was needed – keep as many of the UK institutions as possible after independence and emphasise how little would change.

But it didn't work. So in a degree of frustration a grassroots independence campaign took over and did hope and vision in bucketloads. Once it did, the polls started to swing substantially.

I fear we have forgotten how remarkable indyref was. Progressive forces from all over the world took a very substantial interest in what happened in Scotland.

I fear we have forgotten how remarkable this was. Progressive forces from all over the world took a very substantial interest in what happened in Scotland. In London in particular, the indyref has been dissected and analysed for lessons. It strongly influenced the Corbyn team.

And even though the Yes side lost the referendum, the way it reshaped Scottish politics (most obviously by overthrowing almost completely the entrenched political dominance of the previous majority party) showed how powerful a different kind of politics could be.

A couple of years after the indyref we saw the phenomenon again in Britain. You might very well not like the Brexit messages but still they were a rejection of the previous era of technocratic managerial politics.

George Osborne published his spreadsheets, the bankers, CEOs and much of the establishment nodded in approval. We were meant just to go along with it, to make the pragmatic choice.

But we didn't. The Leave campaign's promises may have been fanciful, but they were still promises. Remainers mainly seemed to resort to threats and lectures about tough choices. Remainers lost.

In London in particular, the indyref has been dissected and analysed for lessons. It strongly influenced the Corbyn team.

In the US, everyone assumed the Democrats were simply going to rubber stamp the candidacy of that very definition of 'tough choice politics' – a Clinton. And make no mistake, if what you wanted was managerial politics as usual, offering little more than continuity, Clinton was indeed the most qualified candidate ever.

Again, it's now blasé to talk about the Bernie Sanders campaign, but that makes us forget just how remarkable it was. I've read plenty Clinton Democrats who now write as if the Clinton-Sanders choice was a balanced, 50-50 sort of an affair which Clinton simply won by being more popular.

This is, of course, nonsense. Sanders ran a campaign with virtually no establishment backing in which he faced the full (and cynical) might of the Democratic National Committee. I have no doubt he would have won a 50-50 fight, and probably comfortably.

But Clinton's minimalist politics marched on – until she was beaten by the wild, fantastical promises of Donald Trump.

Virtually everywhere you look, the same is happening. Emmanuel Macron is the poster boy for minimal politics at the moment and an absolutely undue faith is placed in him as an example of the 'tide turning' back to the politics of tough choices.

A couple of years after the indyref we saw the phenomenon again in Britain. You might very well not like the Brexit messages but still they were a rejection of the previous era of technocratic managerial politics.

But radical pitches from other candidates in the presidential election gained twice as many votes as Macron did when they went head to head. If the hopes for the survival of centrist, minimal politics rely on getting into a one-on-one contest with a fascist every time, they're in trouble.

And so it is today that we find ourselves discussing the possibility of Theresa May's Tories losing their Westminster majority. It is still a long shot, but the fact it is any kind of shot at all is remarkable.

For two years now there is one 'fact' that has united virtually every media outlet and mainstream commentator in the country – Corbyn is unelectable and a leftwing manifesto cannot be taken seriously.

I've been following the Guardian's coverage of Corbyn with gritted teeth – the swaggering certainty of most Guardian analysts (many former cheerleaders for Blair) that Corbyn is self-evidently bottled, distilled failure was utterly endemic.

There was one certainty in this election – the Lib Dems (good minimal centrists) would see sweeping gains at the expense of Labour, and the Tories (with a manifesto defined by its tough choices) would be rewarded with a landslide.

And so it is today that we find ourselves discussing the possibility of Theresa May's Tories losing their Westminster majority. It is still a long shot, but the fact it is any kind of shot at all is remarkable.

But those damned voters... Like indyref and Brexit and Sanders and Trump and Mélenchon and all the rest, they have failed utterly to adhere to the doctrines of professional politics-watchers.

They read the Labour manifesto and they liked it. They watched Corbyn (rather than some privately-educated journalist talking about Corbyn) and they don't seem to have found him half as terrible as they're 'supposed' to.

And so enough of them seem to be toying with voting for his ideas to leave the commentators utterly confused. We're crawling towards a point where a Corbyn victory is no longer entirely implausible. Which in itself seems implausible.

But that's where we are. I've advocated for a long time now that the politics of tough choices only works when it is allowed to be the politics of no choices. When neoliberal managerial politics goes head to head with neoliberal managerial politics, neoliberal managerial politics wins.

Tony Blair made absolutely sure that a politics of ambition and change did not win – by keeping it off the ballot paper. Then he took the failure of a politics he prevented from happening as evidence that it could never work.

Those damned voters... Like indyref and Brexit and Sanders and Trump and Mélenchon and all the rest, they have failed utterly to adhere to the doctrines of professional politics-watchers.

So here's a simple question – can you show me (apart from perhaps Germany) where caution and minimalism are working out for politicians? In fact, the less able these politics are to find a home in domestic elections, the more they are retreating into semi-democratic spaces like the European Union.

The truth is that the politics of tough choices was always an ideology passing itself off as a pragmatic analysis. Tony Blair did exactly what he wanted to do. The tough choices he talked about were how he justified his actions; they were never what defined his actions.

All of this has one massively important implication for the independence movement now. As soon as this election is over, we have two choices. Either we can learn from what is happening in the world all around us, or we can crawl back into the safety zone of professional managerial politics.

If we follow the urges of unionist commentators who are keen that we set out a much more 'pragmatic' and modest case for independence, we will cede all our ground to the 'poison the well' strategy unionists are pursuing.

Our messages would be just pragmatic enough to be inaudible over the unionist propaganda.

All of this has one massively important implication for the independence movement now. Either we can learn from what is happening in the world all around us, or we can crawl back into the safety zone of professional managerial politics.

But if we want to win, we need to produce a message strong and exciting enough to be heard over the din. Only a message inspiring enough to cut through cynical unionism can really make people want independence again.

So ask yourself this; soon we'll have no option but to turn our minds back to the core case for independence – choosing a currency option, creating a narrative about deficits, outlining the kinds of policies that could come after independence.

Quite a bit of what I've heard since the last referendum suggests that some people think we need to tone down the hope this time, be a bit more accountant about things. Because it worked so well for Remain and Clinton and Osborne and May.

Or let me put the question this way round – we have a big fight ahead and we'll need to fight that fight on some kind of manifesto, some kind of pitch to the public.

So which would you rather it was – something cautious like Ed Miliband's or something more exciting like Jeremy Corbyn's?

Picture courtesy of Andy Miah

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Comments

Bill White

Thu, 06/01/2017 - 19:42

Spot on Robin,

Watching Corbyn on last night's BBC TV leaders debate, I felt something I haven't felt for ages when listening to a politician, a sense of hope that at least one leader had a vision for a better, fairer country.

Everyone else is busy telling us how shit life will have to be in order to pay for the party that our bankers & elites had (and are still having) at our expense. Well stuff that for a game of soldiers.

We can actually have a better country, we just need to make better laws & better policy decisions which put people first and corporate interest bottom. If these "masters of the universe" decide to leave for greener pastures well funk them, they don't pay their way anyway. (they won't leave, they will operate anywhere they can turn a profit, large or small)

The YES side needs to offer us something exciting and worth hitting the streets for. The current offer is stale, boring & lukewarm.

JimD

Thu, 06/01/2017 - 21:26

After ten years of seeing their salaries decrease in real terms, people have had enough of being told to suck it up ad infinitum. Only in the south-east are they still in thrall to austerity Toryism. Corbyn only needed to refuse to go away and refuse to dance to the tune of the BBC and the papers, and offer an alternative. If he doesn't win this time, he will win the next.

Progressive but well thought-through politics can also carry us to independence. Commonspace have done a magnificent job on the policy of Independence, but where are the SNP? Are they even out of the starting blocks on a Scottish currency, and banking system? Is there a lot of work being done on this behind the scenes? Sure hope so.

florian albert

Thu, 06/01/2017 - 22:15

Robin McAlpine cites Greece, Spain and Scotland as example of maximalist politics.
It is worth looking at where each is in 2017.
Greece elected the Syriza, maximalist government which ran up the white flag when confronted by the Troika's determined opposition.
Spain still has a notably corrupt right wing government despite a couple of elections when it could have been removed.
Scotland has had an SNP government for a decade and it now under severe pressure over its failures in areas such as education.
It is doubtful that voters have 'read the (Labour) manifesto and liked it'.
There has been a reaction against May's political failings. (Ironically, May proposal to make people with property pay for their personal care was possibly the only genuinely bold proposal of the campaign. The cost of care for the elderly means that it will resurface sooner or later.)
Jeremy Corbyn has campaigned much better than almost everyone - including me - expected.
That said, he has made spending promises which the IFS has roundly criticized.
It remains unlikely he will become Prime Minister and even more unlikely that he and his allies, McDonnell and Abbott, would make a success of running the economy.
Not for the first time, the left is setting itself up for disappointment.

Deryck de Maine...

Thu, 06/01/2017 - 23:55

I am not sure what R McA was trying to say - at such length?

What does for instance
" Emmanuel Macron is the poster boy for minimal politics at the moment and an absolutely undue faith is placed in him as an example of the 'tide turning' back to the politics of tough choices." really MEAN? Or does one have to read and re read to get some understanding form the complexity?

"... absolutely undue faith...."???? How can anything be "absolutely undue"

Or did he mean "apostle and undue faith" a quite different meaning altogether?

And absolute faith is actually meaningless anyway. Faith by definition is "faith" it means "faith" as opposed to scientific or empirical logic. It is either faith or it is not Absolute zero in temperature is when one comes up against the buffers and there can be no more An absolutley empty jar or an absolutely full ja . But an "absolutely ... faith"? Faith is faith. Does he mean absolutely undue as in absolutely unfounded? But faith is faith because it IS unfounded!

"to be abut more accountant about ..." What does this mean?

"Or let me put the question this way round – we have a big fight ahead and we'll need to fight that fight on some kind of manifesto, some kind of pitch to the public"
That is not a question, it is a statement - so one is left confused looking for a question that never comes.

and so on and so on.

What was wrong with a nice gentle truism "we have a big fight ahead and we'll need to fight that fight on some kind of manifesto, some kind of pitch to the public." except for the fact that it says nothing really. Who would fight without a manifesto or sales pitch?

or as he already said
"But if we want to win, we need to produce a message strong and exciting enough to be heard over the din."
or
"But if we want to win, we need to produce a message strong and exciting enough to be heard over the din."

Why the more complicated repeats? And why 31 paras to say so?

Shades of Gus in "Drop the Dead Donkey" ?

What Bill Whyte said reminded of what Nigel Farage said of Corbyn's debate - Fargage said Corbyn was truthful and open and F admired him even if he did not believe in Corbyn's policies What so many said to Tony Benn who was admired if not always agreed with .

deryck

peterabell

Fri, 06/02/2017 - 07:53

While I agree that Scotland's independence movement needs to be bold and aspirational and inspiring, I'm not as taken with Jeremy Corbyn as Robin McAlpne appears to be. A maximalist agenda is all very well, so long as you can deliver on the big promises. Corbyn is undoubtedly saying things that people want to hear. But is there any substance behind the pretty words?

Let's not forget that, while Theresa May is the British establishment's first choice for PM, Jeremy Corbyn is the second choice. Whatever shiny baubles Corbyn might offer today, after the election it will be business as usual no matter who wins. We can vote the Tories out of office. But we can't vote them out of power. The British state is a Tory state.
The machinery deployed to make it impossible for a Corbyn to win an election, should it fail, will smoothly switch to making it impossible for him to make good on his manifesto pledges.

The big lesson of the first Scottish independence referendum campaign is that, ultimately, the voters will punish lies and empty promises. At the count in Perth in the early hours of Friday 19 September, when it was clear what the outcome of the referendum would be, I was talking with a senior figure from Scottish Labour. I remarked to him that Scottish Labour hadn't actually campaigned on the constitutional issue. That it had treated the referendum as a party political contest. It had won that contest. But, in the process, it had lost the country. The UK general election in 2015 proved just how right I was about that.

Yes! The independence campaign must be bold. But we must never forget that independence has to be won within the British political system. That's the SNP's job. It has to operate as the political arm of the independence movement inside the structures of the British state. The boldness of the wider Yes movement has to supplement and augment the work of the SNP. The Yes movement must work with its political arm, not against it - as happened all to often in the first referendum campaign.

What will win for us is the marriage of the Yes movement's vision and ambition with the SNP's principled pragmatism and political abilities.

geacher

Fri, 06/02/2017 - 09:32

Absolutely spot on Deryck, the amount of waffle and tortured prose that Robin produces means his message -sometimes a very valid message- gets lost in the verbiage. But he does get one thing right:
"So ask yourself this; soon we'll have no option but to turn our minds back to the core case for independence – choosing a currency option, creating a narrative about deficits, outlining the kinds of policies that could come after independence."
This is the SNP Achilles Heel.... 30 months on and still no viable currency option, still no published plan about how an indy Scotland would deal with THAT deficit and an ailing economy. Ms Sturgeon is now a liability to the SNP with her ramshackle manifesto ("tuition free university education" anyone?) and her "plans" to reduce the UK's deficit whilst Scotland's continues to rise.

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