Sunday, 13 September 2015

On electability.

With the election of Jeremy Corbyn to leadership of the U.K. Labour Party, there's been various commentary from social democrats, centrists, liberals and conservatives on the issue of electability.

Putting the issue of Corbyn's specific electability to one side, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about the concept of electability and what it means.

First, electability is often considered to be some form of rational or pragmatic response to the political centre. 'Here are what the people want to vote for; so to get their votes we must appeal to their aspirations.'

The key thing to remember here is that the people are many, not singular. The people are a many-hued gestalt, seething with internal dissent and disagreement. Take even one issue which has recently garnered majoritarian support: marriage equality. Conservatives can support it, a la David Cameron, because it reinforces existing institutions. Classic liberals and libertarians can support it, because it involves removing the state from an infrigement upon the individual. Collectivists can support it because it engages notions of broadening the concept of community and driving greater equality. 

'The people' support marriage equality now: but that agreement is built on tenuous assumptions and papers over different rationales as to how society can and should work. Say you got all the people - 'the people' who sought marriage equality in a room and then asked them about economic policy, about free trade and competition; about migration and Indigenous rights and genetically modified organisms. That agreement would shatter and reform in a hundred different ways.

This first notion of electability relies on an assumption that 'the people', that is, 'the middle ground' are fixed and coherent. Compromise is necessary and parties hew to a given centre. My point (and I think it's largely well-known) is that the centre is incoherent: the same 'suburban voters' who want lower taxes also often want no free trade and less migration and a nationalised Qantas and jobs for Australian workers. They want high pensions but no money to those lazy unemployed folk. They want more refugees but disdain asylum seekers. They want action on climate change but are ambiguous about paying for it.

They, they, 'they'. But who are 'they'? Other than people, and people change their minds. We've seen it recently in the shift over Syrian refugees; we've seen it in their attitude to the Abbott government, elected with what could surely be seen as a solid mandate and yet lagging in the polls almost ever since. Politicians like Whitlam and Attlee both proposed programs that were in their own way revolutionary, seeking to use government and establish institutions that had so rarely been tried before.

And of course, the point about the swinging voter is that they swing. The voters who delivered government to Kevin Rudd in 2007 through a swing from Howard also decided six years later they didn't really want any of that pro-climate change hope and idealism stuff, and laptops for kids either cost too much or wasn't done quickly enough. The political centre is an imagined fantasy that reinforces the existing power bases and allows them to limit what's acceptable.

Putting in practice a political platform that actually reflected what the average 'swinging voter' wanted (based on polling data) would be a mess of anti-immigration nativism and right-wing low tax dreams. It's also curious to note that despite both parties aspirations to recognise the voter's aspirations, no major political party has actually gone there. It's also important to recognise that the 'median voter' is not in any way representative of a coherent political centre, as mentioned above - people's attitudes to policy is a mix of the self-serving, the aspirational and the generously collective.

The notion of electability focusses on chasing votes, rather than persuading them. As such it's not exactly inspirational and narrows, rather than enlarges, the landscape upon which politics is played.

Does it work? Well, sometimes, yes, probably. But it's not a given and shouldn't be treated as such.

This leads me to my second point, which is the substantive message that the pursuit of electability sends to those who are the otherwise unelectable.

I've already mentioned that electability assumes a responsive attitude to voter's intentions; that parties move to them and harvest their votes. It also implies a form of wisdom of crowds - that while persuasion is possible, it shouldn't be attempted, because 'the people' know best. We often see this attitude in accusations of 'lefty elites', those who look down at your 'average suburban type' and call them racist, bigoted, homophobic, etc.

Fundamentally, electability assumes that 'the voters' are right.

Increasingly this notion is being recontested, as it should be. After all, majorities of (white) people once thought that women were men's property or that certain other people should be taken as slaves. Majorities distrusted Catholics, or Jews, or Muslims, and barred them from holding official roles in society, or worse. Republicanism led to deportation; conscientious objectors got shot; suffragettes were viewed as silly and hysterical.

The majority of Australians at various points supported the white Australia policy and capital punishment. As a gay bloke with a disability, I am all too aware that for much of the last century, I would have been imprisoned, subject to shock treatment, chemical castration and seen to be unfit to be around children, if the average voter had their say.

To minority communities, electability reminds us of a dangerous precedent. We can see this in movements like Black Lives Matter, which often split the centre-left between structural critiques and those who argue for 'respectful' debate. This is symptomatic of broader debates between principle and power across the centre-left: to work within an already compromised system, or to reimagine the possible.

It's important to remember that there are natural shifts in public opinion - the support for marriage equality was once seen as unthinkable, for example. The community changes and opinion changes too. All too often these changes (marriage equality, climate change, economic equality, domestic violence) leave politicians flat-footed and inauthentic: they were trying to keep up with 'the people' of yesteryear, not the ones of today. A focus on electability instills skills at backward-looking responsiveness, not a capacity to anticipate these shifts in values.

Politicians have often done great things that are not popular. Making assumptions that people can't be convinced both speaks to the weakness of your argument and a broader lack of faith in the community.

We can all list examples where parties and leaders have chosen not to embrace the worse instincts of the mob, or even to appeal to their preferences; political parties recognise that on many issues, 'the voters' are not 'right' and actively seek to oppose populist views. And the mindless repetitions of 'electability' serve as a reminder of its own failings as a concept - if anyone campaigns against migration or for the death penalty they'd be labelled populist.

But isn't populism just another form of electability? Why is it that parties disdain populism but crave electability? Where's the boundary, and who decides it? After all, modern social democratic parties often insist on continued tax cuts, reduction of public services, etc etc in recognition of the appeal of 'fiscal responsibility' but they are willing to oppose populist positions on free trade or migration. Why embrace one 'electable' position but not the other?

So ultimately 'electability' is a reminder that someone else is deciding what and who is electable, and in that sense, it cheapens our sense of who we are. Not fixed, but mutable; not solid, but nuanced; contradictory and emotive and as capable of being wrong as anyone. 

It's more useful in the long run to consider what lies within the bounds of electability - to consider what politicians are willing to oppose the voters on, and what they aren't. This analysis reveals electability as a useless construct, one that tells more about those who preach it than any objective reality.

Steve Jobs once talked about how his task was not to give the people what they wanted, but the thing they didn't know they wanted. Electability reduces what we can talk about in politics, and for that reason alone, it should be discarded as a rationale.

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