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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