The End of Post-ideological Times: The Centre Cannot Hold

Dr David Bates is Principal Lecturer and Director of Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. His research and expertise focus on contemporary and radical political thought, Marxism, Hardt and Negri, Occupy, Arts and Politics, New Social Movements.

Until recently, political scientists often claimed that British politics had ceased to be ideological – by which they meant that it was no longer divided so clearly between left and right. The concomitant claim was that election battles were to be fought on the ‘centre ground’. As a social and political theorist, I have always found these claims to be deeply problematic.

First, we might note that those issues which typically underpinned left-right distinctions (that is, issues of economic distribution, of wealth and power) have continued to shape British politics.

Second, the centre ground as typically understood is a fiction. The idea of the centre ground is, in the minds of most people, associated with moderation, a middle way between ‘extremes’ – an Aristotelian mean.   But as one writer has maintained, since the 1970s the fictitious centre is ideologically an extreme one. Put another way, extreme free market policies have come to be dressed in the clothes of pragmatic ‘common sense’. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has maintained, ‘post-ideological times’ are in fact the most ideological of times.

We have seen left-populist attempts to articulate a different common sense in Greece and Spain. In the last election, Ed Miliband spoke of the need to move the ‘centre to the left’. But he failed to articulate this within an effective left-populist discourse.  Jeremy Corbyn – aided by an innovative social media campaign – has achieved this. The Labour campaign was based on the articulation of a form of friend-enemy distinction which the political philosopher Ernesto Laclau has argued is essential to all forms of populism. Corbyn claimed to represent ‘the many’ (the people), against ‘the few’ (financial elites, Tories, media barons, et al). This was a rhetoric of mobilisation. And his mobilisation of young people (the turnout figure for 18-24 year olds is estimated to be over 70%) has been one of the big stories of this election.

In the Canterbury and Whitstable constituency, it is clear that the mobilisation of young people was a key factor. Another factor has undoubtedly been the palpable lack of popularity of the long-serving MP Sir Julian Brazier. Throughout the campaign, social media has focused on how his free market and socially conservative beliefs have conflicted with the economic interests and beliefs of his constituents. Indeed Sir Julian was considered by many to have taken the electorate for granted.  All his opponents were able to capitalise on this, but Rosie Duffield for Labour won through with the votes. It is difficult to imagine someone further away ideologically from Sir Julian (a man who has held his seat since 1987) than the new Labour MP for Canterbury and Whitstable.

As Bob Dylan would no doubt put it: ‘The Times They Are A Changin!’

Labour’s Brexit Strategy: Cut-&-Paste of Theresa May’s old promises?

This week, Labour revealed its Brexit strategy – Jack Brooks takes a closer look.

In the 10 months after the 23rd of June, the Labour party’s position on Brexit and what should happen next has been a bit… ‘undefined’ to say the least. They have been in an incredibly tough position of simultaneously wanting to appeal to the 63% of its voters that voted remain and not start any rebellions within the 218 out of 232 MPs that publicly supported remain, while also wanting to appeal to the 37% of its voters, 161 Labour held constituencies that voted leave and not hemorrhage any more of its working class support, a demographic that predominantly voted leave.

Having considered the above, it appears that Labour party HQ decided that their best course of action was to a) keep their head down, b) meekly try to appeal to both sides, while not really saying anything concrete, but c) mainly just oppose the government by saying. Of course, Labour was dealt a tough hand and this is a solid electoral strategy that, on the issue of the financial crash, saw the Liberal democrats sweep to 23% of the popular vote in 2010.

But then, like a renowned bandit brazenly slamming open the shutter doors to a sleepy Mid-western Saloon, Theresa May called a snap General election. The music stopped playing, everyone went silent and slowly turned their heads to the Sheriff who loudly gulped and realised it was his turn to say something… Sherriff Jeremy Corbyn was taken slightly aback and thus came out with a strategy that, with a few key differences, is basically the same plan the Conservative Government had in November.

First, let me know the few key differences:

  • Labour will not focus on new markets, instead focus on securing the UK’s existing trade ties, especially those with the EU
  • Labour will adopt a much more conciliatory tone with the EU27 in exit talks
  • Labour resolutely supports staying in: Erasmus, Euratom, the European Medical Agency, Europol & Eurojust
  • Labour promises to unilaterally protect EU citizens’ right to remain in the UK
  • Labour commits to not let the UK “lag behind EU in workplace protections or environmental standards in future”

These are a couple of added giveaways to Remainers that will certainly sweeten the Brexit blow for them, but in terms of the “real meat” of the last 10 months debate so far – ‘Hard Brexit versus Soft Brexit versus No Brexit – their position is the now infamous “having the cake and eat it too”-Brexit.

This is illustrated by statements by Keir Starmer in the same press conference on Tuesday:

  • He wants to rip up the Government White Paper and go for a “tariff-free trade with the EU, no new non-tariff barriers on trade, regulatory alignment and continued competitiveness in goods and services.”
  • However, he still rules out continued free movement, membership of the European Free trade area and Single market membership.

As Theresa May discovered to her dismay in January, these two things are incompatible as far as the European Union is concerned. When she proposed it as her plan, the EU27 said for all intent and purposes “We won’t agree with that and you will crash out with no deal”. An eventuality that Starmer said would be the “worst possible deal”.

Electorally, the Labour Brexit plan might make sense. Labour continues to (try to) appeal to both sides and win the election. Corbyn and his party will only need to deal with untangling the contradictory manifesto commitments after they have won.  Also why look a gift horse in the mouth? The blessing of being the opposition with staggeringly bad polling is that you don’t have to live in the bounds of reality (which is quite a lot of effort in any case). Nevertheless, if we do experience the largest polling mistake in modern history and Labour wins a majority, we need to expect a lot of back-paddling.

Jack Brooks is a 2016 Politics and International Relations Honours Graduate of Canterbury Christ Church University and graduate coordinator at the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) at CCCU.

A Poisoned Chalice? The Short Unhappy Fate of UK Party Leaders

Image: Plaid Cymru CC BY-NC-ND

The recent Northern Irish Assembly Elections were significant in all sorts of ways, as this great piece explains. Northern Ireland may be to moving to a very different place politically. Unionism no longer has a majority, the Unionists may no longer hold a veto in the Assembly (via the petition of concern) and there is, on paper at least, an anti-Brexit majority in the new Assembly, that could govern the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU. The elections also led to the resignation of Mike Nesbitt, leader of the UUP, and severely destabilised ex-First Minister and leader of the DUP Arlene Foster who is hanging on but may not last the course of any negotiations.

What is equally fascinating is that Nesbitt, who became leader of the UUP on 31th March 2012, was until 2nd March the second longest current serving party leader in Britain. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood pipped him to the post by a mere 16 days.

Looking across current UK party leaders in the table, there’s one rather surprising fact: more than 50% are women (and this may be related due to the glass cliff). Another surprise is that they are all either quite or very new. Five leaders have been in charge of their party less than a year (including the Prime Minister). Four have been in charge for less than 2 years. Nicola Sturgeon is now the second longest serving party leader in the UK, at a mere 2 years and 3 months.

Current UK Party Leaders and their time in power

Note: This table only covers parties that have representatives in devolved assemblies and Westminster and doesn’t include separate or semi-autonomous leaders of parties in other parts of the UK e.g. Scotland or Wales and so excludes all sorts of capable leaders like Ruth Davidson.

The combination of a General Election in 2015, other elections and Brexit seems to have taken a heavy toll on party leaders across the UK. What the table doesn’t tell us how many of them who are still there have rather shaky positions: Paul Nuttall of UKIP and Arlene Foster of the DUP have both recently lost elections they probably needed to win, and both currently have the ‘full confidence’ of their party- a sure sign of trouble. This brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, winner of two huge leadership mandates in 2015 and 2016 but who is behaving as if he is under siege and hanging on by a thread. Whether this is because of a crypto Tory plot between Blair, Mandelson and Ivanka Trump or because of a toxic combination of Brexit, Copeland and those polls rather depends on your viewpoint.

The sobering thought is that we are now embarking on the huge and complex task of Brexit with inexperienced party leaders, some of whom are unsafe or wobbly. These will be testing times for political parties as new divisions and politics de or re-align in a bewildering way.

Just to make things even less certain, the two most secure leaders, the Prime Minister and First Minister of Scotland, are on a collision course. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s strengths can be seen in the fact that Scotland is a virtual one party state, though the SNP may have reached its high point in the Scottish Parliament. Theresa May’s strong position is less easily explained. Despite tension with number 11, she is far ahead of where we would expect as a takeover Prime Minister with no mandate and dealing with an issue that has split her party since the 1980s. Both Sturgeon and May came to power because ‘their’ side lost a referendum. Both seem to have now manoeuvred themselves into a corner to have another.

Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck University of London. He tweets @BenWorthy1.
Mark Bennister is Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He tweets @MarkBennister.

This post first appeared on 10 March 2017 on Political Insight Plus, the digital arm of the members’ magazine of the Political Studies Association (PSA).

Jeremy Corbyn shuffles the deck chairs

Dr Mark Bennister, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, assesses the success of the recent Labour shadow cabinet reshuffle by leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is perhaps the hardest job in politics. You have to look electable, be in control and exude credibility. Meanwhile, straight after an election the recriminations continue and you have very limited opportunities to actually do anything than resonates with the electorate.

Continue reading “Jeremy Corbyn shuffles the deck chairs”

Has Labour’s internal strife let Cameron off the hook over Syria vote?

At 11.30am, MPs will begin debating whether the UK should join its allies in bombing ISIL targets in Syria in a torn House of Commons.

Dr Mark Bennister, Senior Lecturer in Politics, explores the debate and the vote expected to conclude around 10pm today:

At the precise time when all eyes should be on Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt to persuade a cautious public that bombing Syria is the right thing to do, the Labour party has managed to tie itself in knots over its own position. The decks have been cleared for a day long parliamentary debate and vote today, even cancelling Prime Minister’s Questions. It is somewhat odd that the airwaves have had more of Jeremy Corbyn and Hilary Benn on Syria than government ministers. Continue reading “Has Labour’s internal strife let Cameron off the hook over Syria vote?”