There were experiments done to investigate the emergence of ‘superstition’ type behaviour among animals. Mice were put in a cage where they had to press a button to receive food.
After a while, when the mice had learned that pressing the button equals more food, the scientists changed the button, so that it would only randomly dispense food on a button press.
The mice were incapable of understanding that the food dispenser was now random and instead attempted to replicate the behaviour that they believed had triggered the food drop.
So the mice twisted and contorted and rubbed themselves, each time adding and memorising more elaborate behaviour that they believed was triggering their reward. Every successful reward prompted an even more tortured ritual dance, as the mice attempted to appease the button with performance.
This is how the modern Labour party and its cheerleaders among the media are now behaving.
Removed from the cage of the 90s political system, they are still attempting to placate the button gods and wondering why they’re not getting any food.
The Blairite toolset to win elections – deregulation, globalisation, ‘social reform’ and media savvy – isn’t the heady mix that it was in the heyday. The Labour party can’t look ‘competent’ and ‘professional’ by default, by only turning out beige men in suits who have memorised talking points. That’s the norm now. They had first mover advantage, but David Cameron has (had?) successfully purged the more awful of the Tory dinosaurs and presented a manicured image of a modern party. Labour can no longer win just by seeming groomed.
The rest, the ‘third way’ stuff, is where the nub of the matter is. Labour has to own up to the damage it caused with its policies.
Financial deregulation led to the financial crash, globalisation led to the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs offshore, tax cuts transferred wealth to the elite (that has only accelerated since the Tories took over), the Iraq war killed millions and led to a regional instability that continues today, and a swathe of social programmes instituted by Labour alienated marginalised communities up and down the country, leading to the racial and cultural tensions that exist in modern Britain. That’s Blairism’s legacy.
So in the material and historical conditions that exist today, merely updating the Blairite handbook isn’t going to cut it. And yet the Blairites continue with their ritual dance. Through the 90s and early 2000s, merely inching a little more rightward was the key to electoral success. But that has a necessary limit both in that by constantly drifting rightward you lose your base (as is currently happening) and also the more politically contested (but nonetheless true) fact that right wing policies are destructive and short sighted.
So then, we’ve arrived at a point of introspection for the Labour party. After the crash of ’08, politics as usual was disrupted. Financial fraud and the consequences of it changed the political reality forever. But the problem with such a paradigm shift in political reality is that the political parties struggle to keep up the pace. Public mood and sentiment is vastly different from the relatively consensus policy positions that were common before the crash. Society was put under severe pressure and fractured, along racial lines, class lines, gender lines.
But the reality is that to become an MP (or really to advance in any political party) it generally takes time. The generation forged in this melting pot of material circumstances are able to vote and feel the effects of policy, but the assembly line of politicians that was created under Blair is still producing factory fresh centrist automatons. So there is a disconnect there. Add to this the fact that the Blairite machine was perfectly happy to pad seats with nonthreatening nonentities, the current parliamentary Labour party is out of step with public mood, both by virtue of being dull and of being politically illiterate.
This is why it has fallen to Jeremy Corbyn (and Bernie Sanders in the US) to be the vehicle for youth aspiration. Both men are long serving politicians, who flew under the radar as fringe candidates, until their moment came. Since the time simply wasn’t there for a new breed of radical politician to climb into the system and give people what they want, men who’d simply just managed to hang around became the avatar for the hope of the youth.
Both men have faced the wrath of the party institutions for their insurgent campaigns, but Corbyn seems to be hanging on for the moment. But as his PLP opponents attempt to oust him with seemingly no plan and increasingly less ability, it goes back to the idea of ritual.
Like a cargo cult, building runways out of scrub that no planes will ever land on, the Labour right seem to think that by having carefully media controlled press releases to pet journalists they will summon forth an alternative. As the Melanesian Islanders did, the neo-Blairites think that by chanting ‘electability’, ‘leadership’ and ‘common sense’ that they will manifest a candidate that will reunite the party and sweep the general election.
But the rogues gallery of mediocrity the Labour right are touting as an alternative won’t win a general election. It’s hard to build your case as being the side of ‘winners’ when you’re facing down the fact that Corbyn would comfortably get at least 55% of any leadership first preferences. The Labour right are ideologically bankrupt, with no ideas beyond ‘a progressive case for getting rid of freedom of movement’, keeping Trident, letting McDonald’s flout labour laws and fund trade union conferences, and bombing Syria. Those are the issues they’ve tried to depose Corbyn over.
They’re so out of touch and egg-headed they just pander to an imaginary idea of what the working class is, a twisted horrific caricature of the most base elements of the British id. They’re nerds and dweebs who don’t have any connection with real people, but their arch-nerd friends in the London media say that their clumsy football analogies are brilliant and that they’re so much better than that awful Jeremy, who doesn’t even pretend not to be a complete geek.
They’re incompetent ‘competents’, unelectable ‘electable’ serial losers. But they will continue to twist and turn, and dance and hop, as they peck at the button, waiting for Blairism to return. And they’ll kill the Labour party doing it, without ever looking at why they’re not winning.
Because their ‘common sense’ – and the ‘common sense’ peddled by their allies in the media – isn’t based on talking to people, or what’s going on in reality. It’s based on slavish devotion to an ideology. But unlike leftists, who they often decry for their devotion to ideology, this ideology is so pernicious because it’s so invisible. It’s not an ideology built on principle, or theory, or morals. It’s an ideology based on slavish devotion to maintaining things that succeeded in the past. It’s Conservatism writ large.
So if they do decide to cut and run, perhaps joining with the Remain segments of the Conservative party, and as they construct their cargo cult of Blairism, waving improvised flares made from saplings, they’ll test some far-right slogans in their mouths and realise they feel more familiar than they should.
And the creatures outside will look from Blairite to Tory, and from Tory to Blairite, and from Blairite to Tory again; but already it will be impossible to say which was which. And then they can all slowly drift more right wing together.