Since the results of the latest UK general election were announced last Thursday, I have had many conversations about what happened and why. I am not alone in this. The world, both online and off, has been alive with rabid dissections of Labour’s failures and Jeremy Corbyn’s missteps. One of the most common comments that I have heard is that Corbyn was always fundamentally unelectable and that Labour needs to pivot back to a more centrist leader if they want to have any hope of getting elected in 2024, a comment that annoys me greatly.
Instinctively, I disagree. I disagree in principle with anyone saying certain people are fundamentally unelectable, because the past five years have seen all sorts of people that many of us would have said were clearly never going to see the inside of the White House or Westminster doing just that. I believe that Corbyn is not inherently less electable that Trump or Johnson. It might be that, given the current political climate, Corbyn was unlikely to flourish; the same is often said about Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US, with many people now urging American socialists to see Labour’s heavy losses last week as a warning. Maybe now is not a time when a prominent socialist politician is likely to see an election win – but that doesn’t mean that socialism is fatally flawed in a way that the politics of the moment are not. I am sick of hearing people criticise Jeremy Corbyn without examining their own motivations, clearly assuming that if only I understood their arguments that I would agree. Look, I understand that socialism, even the basically-still-capitalist version of socialism gracing the British and American left at the moment, is still seen as a radical economic position, making Corbyn decently radical. And, in the case of many of the people I’ve been speaking to recently, I understand that you don’t want to pay more tax. However, this doesn’t make centrist politics inherently more good or valid than positions to the further left, nor are they inherently more electable. They may seem that way to you, people I have been in conversation with, but that is because you favour centrist politics and sweat at the thought of moving up a tax bracket. To me, given my politics, Corbyn was perfectly electable. This is all different, of course, from the question of whether or not a far-left Labour manifesto was likely win votes right now given the nation’s current political climate, but people are confusing the two, and I’m getting tired of it.
The latter question still requires analysis. Perhaps if Labour had been a more centrist party ahead of this election, they would have won more seats. It’s a valid question to ask if Labour are committed to getting elected next time at all costs, unconcerned with making their primary motivation to champion policies that they believe are important. Maybe an openly socialist leader is too radical for the British electorate right now. But saying that Labour should move to be more central for the votes throws up a host of questions about how principles and outcomes are weighed against each other in politics.
I often think about the idea of principle versus outcome when I make decisions, by which I mean that I ask myself whether this is a moment to stick to my principles or to compromise them to achieve a certain outcome. For example, you might believe that, in principle, politicians should campaign on the policies they truly believe in, even if they aren’t that popular right now. However, as Labour saw last week, you run the risk of not winning many seats. You might then decide that the outcome is what matters, as you can’t make any real change if you have no authority – but that might involve comprising your beliefs to entice a broader swathe of voters. It’s a tough balance to strike. Right now, given the state of politics being what it is, I am leaning toward sticking to your principles, even if it’s to your downfall sometimes.
I say this not because I underestimate the challenges of Boris Johnson’s government, but because a lack of political integrity is so much of what got us into this mess in the first place. After Trump was elected, one of the main criticisms of Hillary Clinton was that she was too establishment; long have professional politicians been viewed with suspicion, the same sentiment that dogged the Lib Dems in this election. When you move with the tides, saying whatever you think you need to say to curry favour in the moment, it becomes clear that you have no actual principles. Has anyone else seen Hamilton? It was this exact question that underpinned Hamilton and Burr’s rivalry. People with no principles are dangerous, because you elect them into power having no idea what they might do with it and no confidence that they will do any of things they promised while campaigning (does that sound familiar?).
Of all the things you might say about Jeremy Corbyn (and Bernie Sanders, for that matter), you can’t deny that they are consistent. There are videos dating back decades of both Corbyn and Sanders making impassioned speeches in favour of the same views they still support now. Regardless of anything else, you can trust them. What’s the likelihood that after thirty years of tireless campaigning Corbyn is likely to turn around and not do everything he can to fulfil those aims? Contrast this to Boris Johnson, who has lied constantly for the last six months and is already reneging on his election promises. While I appreciate why people think the Labour party needs to look at Britain as it is and try to connect better with the electorate, I think we should be wary of encouraging politicians to chase power, no matter the cost to their principles. We know what happens when politicians feel empowered to lie, evade scrutiny and do whatever they want. It’s happening every day, on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world. I do want to live in a world where left-wing governments are ensconced in office and doing good in the world – but that is a symptom of a society that prizes those same traits and wants to see equality and justice enacted far and wide. Advocating for Labour to head back to the political centre with the sole purpose of becoming more electable means losing many of the radical policies that I believe we need – a Green New Deal, heavy investment in the NHS, better wealth distribution and a re-examining of society right now at every level. I would rather have principled politicians who struggle in this political landscape than people who think nothing of abandoning their principles at the first sign of a few more shiny votes.
So no, maybe Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t electable right now. Maybe Labour do need a rethink. But if they choose to move back to the centre, I hope they do it because they believe it’s the right thing to do, not because votes have become more important than values.