Prof Barry Richards
Professor of Political Psychology at Bournemouth University.
Section 1: Context
If proof were still needed, in the age of the Trump presidency, that democratic politics does not proceed in a rational way, then our 2017 General Election has thrown up some telling illustrations of the churning affect, and the illusions to which it is attached, that can shape electoral outcomes.
Impressive though the (Corbyn) campaign has been, and laudable in its call for social justice, the question now is whether the idealism it evoked will be channeled into the sterile illusions of our self-idealising political parties and factions, or will be a force for the longer-term changes in our political culture and electoral system needed to realize the vision of a better society.
What do we make of the surge of idealistic engagement amongst the young set off by Corbyn’s campaign? It isn’t clear how young the ‘young’ were, nor how many seats they directly won, but preliminary analysis of the results points to the likely importance in the vote of this surprising mobilisation. Most importantly, we don’t know what will happen to that idealism now the election is over, nor is it fully clear what issues are most important to it. Much will depend on the direction offered to it by Corbyn himself, especially given the lack of charisma and appeal elsewhere in his front bench team.
Yet television coverage was repeatedly showing us the depth of public cynicism about politics. It was conveyed in the default cliché rehearsed in many vox pops: ‘They’re all in it for themselves’. Anyone these days asked by a journalist if they trust politicians would be afraid of looking foolish if they said anything but ‘No’.
Of course the behavior of some politicians of all stripes has fed this conventional wisdom, but the cynicism is mis-directed. It is not their own individual self-interests which most politicians seem to be pursuing but the interests of their parties. Those collective interests (like those of ‘the country’) may at times be easily confused by politicians with their personal ambitions, as perhaps in May’s opportunistic call for an election. But much of the deception and pretension in political discourse is a product of our dysfunctional party system, and is in order to protect or advance the party.
The House of Cards illusion of Westminster as populated entirely by self-serving crooks has become an enduring feature of our political culture. Fortunately it does not prevent people from voting – the turnout of 69% was an encouraging feature of the 2017 election. But it comes and goes in the public mind, a recurrent hissing at hopeful politics. Does the fresh enthusiasm for Corbyn (when disentangled from re-treads of Far Left fervour) signal a weakening of this illusion, induced by television and social media images of an unpolished and unaffected person?
Other illusions are more transient, products of particular conjunctures. A prominent one during this campaign was that it was the ‘Brexit election’, to determine whether we would have a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. Since control over immigration was (according to the Ashcroft Poll) the second most popular reason for voting Leave in the referendum, we may assume that for many people ‘hard Brexit’ meant, positively and simply, a hard border. Yet the only party claiming to offer this was UKIP, obliterated by the electorate, and anyway the whole issue of Brexit was obscured by the Corbyn surge at the centre of which were the issues of inequality, redistribution and public services.
Cue here for another illusion to make its claim on our understanding: that politics is always fundamentally about the economy and material interests. This most long-standing notion can take several forms: individual self-interest, sectional interest, or general concern for the ‘economy’ can all be seen as key drivers of electoral choice. While for some people any of these calculations might be crucial, few of us (none of us?) are in a position to make them without recourse to ideas and assumptions borrowed or taken on trust from elsewhere – which means that even the most dispassionate calculations depend on affect-laden illusions about what is going on in the world. And for others, perhaps a majority, the calculative element is at most secondary, as shown clearly by the many referendum Leave votes cast in search of a sense of control and independence, and those Remain votes based on an attachment to a cosmopolitan identity. The Remain campaign’s mistake, of course, was to treat the issue as an exclusively economic one.
Labour’s new voters in 2017 were seemingly values-driven rather than identity-expressing, but they certainly were not calculators. They want a more fair society, with more public ownership and social provision. Idealism by definition comes with illusions, in this case likely to include some idealisation of Corbyn and possibly others around him. Impressive though the campaign has been, and laudable in its call for social justice, the question now is whether the idealism it evoked will be channeled into the sterile illusions of our self-idealising political parties and factions, or will be a force for the longer-term changes in our political culture and electoral system needed to realize the vision of a better society.