(First published in The Dominion Post, October 2.)
Jeremy Corbyn, the recently elected leader of the British Labour Party, has been described as a throwback to 1970s-style socialism. He even looks like one, his face being adorned with what one commentator described as a 1960s political beard.You could describe him as the accidental leader. When his name was put forward, few people took his bid seriously.
His 32 years in Parliament were distinguished only by his record of voting against his own party whenever it deviated from cloth-cap leftist orthodoxy.But the trade unions got behind him, party activists signed up tens of thousands of new members – mostly young, earnest and radical – and before you could hum the first bar of The Red Flag, Corbyn was the new leader.
I blame Tony Blair. Corbyn’s prospects must have been enormously enhanced the moment Blair warned the party against electing him.The former Labour prime minister is widely despised, and deservedly so – not just for getting involved in the Iraq war on spurious grounds, but for his fondness for hobnobbing with people like the odious Silvio Berlusconi and his shameless money-grubbing since leaving Downing Street.
The term Blairite, which once stood for a “third way” between the extremes of doctrinaire socialism and ruthless capitalism, is now toxic – so much so that Blair’s disapproval of Corbyn must have virtually ensured his success.The new leader certainly didn’t win the contest on the basis of his charisma. He’s a dreary grey Marxist. Even Labour insiders say his election has set the party back years.
For all that, I can understand why Labour members decided to give Corbyn a go. He stands for something.His ideas might be barmy, but they seem sincerely held. What’s more, he appears to have been consistently barmy for more than three decades. As far as we can tell, he hasn’t wavered from his principles.
In other words, he personifies the politics of conviction – a rare phenomenon in an era when politics is largely driven by focus groups, PR spin, the news cycle and opinion polls.Unfortunately for Corbyn, this otherwise admirable quality is likely to be useless as a vote-winner.
Conviction politics tends to be a dead-end street. Just look at the Green Party, apparently doomed forever to languish on the political fringes (although commentators have recently detected a diluting of its ideological purity), or Act at the other end of the political spectrum – a party grimly hanging on thanks to a dodgy electoral accommodation with National.Look too at the hapless Tony Abbott, a conviction politician but a disastrously inept one.
Successful politicians are those who take a pragmatic centre line, such as John Key.We don’t have a clue what Key’s values are. He’s never really told us.
Does he have a non-negotiable bottom line on anything? I couldn’t say. Does he have any fire in his belly? Not that we’ve seen.Norman Kirk had fire in his belly. So did David Lange and even Robert Muldoon, although in Muldoon’s case the flames were often dark and malevolent.
But not Key. He represents a breed of bland centrist politicians who tack in whichever direction is expedient.On some crucial issues – gay marriage, parental smacking – he jettisoned traditional values that a centre-right party such as National might have been expected to uphold. But he got away with it, and he’s won three elections in a row.
His admirer Malcolm Turnbull, the new Australian prime minister, seems cast in a similar mould, as does Britain’s bloodless David Cameron.Barack Obama’s idealistic supporters in 2008 thought he was a conviction politician, but in office he has disappointed them. That’s politics for you.
What’s interesting now is that the main threat to Hillary Clinton’s bid to win the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency, which until recently was thought a sure thing, seems to be coming from a little-known Vermont senator named Bernie Sanders.Clinton is a conviction politician only in the sense that she’s convinced of her entitlement to office. Sanders, on the other hand, is a genuine conviction politician and that rarest of creatures, an American socialist.
Both Sanders and Corbyn have gained traction partly because of a growing public distaste for entrenched political elites (which has given Donald Trump momentum too), but also because of a growing perception – and not just on the left – that capitalism has been hijacked by the greedy ultra-rich.They won’t win, of course. But at least they remind us of what politics used to be about.