If the left cannot win elections, what is the point of the left?

red dawn

The debate sparked by the Corbyn bid for the Labour leadership has focused on the electability of a left candidate. If Labour moves to the left, it is almost certain that it will not win the election in 2020 because the British electorate has moved (at least in 2015) to the right. If we accept this to be true (it probably is) what is the point of Labour being led by a leader so obviously to the left of ‘Red’ Ed?

We might as well ask ourselves, what is the point of the left in general, if it is not wrapped up in a ‘party of government’? Britain is not Greece. A fringe left party in the UK cannot take power under ‘normal’ circumstances like Syriza did in Greece. In any event Syriza wrapped itself around PASOK, the old left party of power and under extraordinary circumstances. Let us return to the key question therefore.

What is the point of the existence of a Corbyn Labour party that espouses views loved by the Greens and the SNP, but derided by the City, the establishment and the majority of the British public?

It is simple.

The role of the left is to speak the truth, or in any case to challenge orthodoxy. The point of a Corbyn Labour will not be to win a general election, but to raise awareness of different possible balances in the market-state relationship from a Cameron/Osborne ‘neoliberalism for the 21st century’.

How can this be done (enlightening the public) without actually being in government? Some support for the power of ideas to influence real-life outcomes comes from studies into the effects of what are called epistemic communities. An epistemic community can be defined as a knowledge-based group of experts and specialists who share common beliefs about the cause-and-effect relationships in the world and have common political values concerning the ends to which policies should be addressed. Epistemic communities can help popularise ideas and make them guides to change.

Epistemic communities are most important during periods of uncertainty when they are able to influence a key politician by providing a road-map to a politically salient solution.

It is important to note here that while epistemic communities are conduits of ideas to political formations that can put them to the electoral test, they are not the authors of policies themselves. An epistemic community therefore is not to be equated with a technocracy that directly determines issues of economic governance, something that this blog has argued against.

Ideas are most important during periods of uncertainty or in complex and technical areas. The reason for this is that fluid situations obscure the distributional effects of a given institutional arrangement or policy choice, making it difficult for interest groups to identify where their interests lie. When a policy cross-cuts prevailing material interests and party lines, interest groups find it difficult to adopt a position one way or the other. While uncertainty may obscure distributional effects, it provides politicians with greater room to manoeuvre due to the difficulty in monitoring policy results under these conditions. In these circumstances, ideas are important precisely because they reduce uncertainty, give content to interests, and make institutional construction possible. There are three distinct phases that allow ideas to shape events. First, a period of policy failure leads to the collapse of the old paradigm and the search for new solutions. While this policy failure may be accompanied by a crisis, the main feature is a period of greater uncertainty. Second, a new paradigm emerges offering a clear policy solution that is advocated by an epistemic community and implemented by politicians in a few states. Politicians in other states monitor the results of these test-cases to judge whether the policy is effective or not. Third, politicians in other states proceed to emulate this policy, embedding the new paradigm in their own institutional framework.

The economic crisis has created an environment of uncertainty, which still prevails. Austerity has failed significant proportions of the population and this failure calls for policy redesign.

There are contemporary examples of the power of epistemic communities to effect change. One such example are pension reforms in Sweden. There a significant change came about, not as a result of Sweden’s corporatist structures, but as a result of the penetration of ideas onto the policy space through the creation of an epistemic community comprised of academics and politicians. This epistemic community provided a pathway through a multitude of barriers to change. According to this analysis, barriers to the transition of ideas from academia to policy include entrenched interests and pre-existing institutional arrangements, a type of path-dependency in other words that results in national institutions being unwelcome to new ideas. Bureaucracies, for example, are inherently conservative with an entrenched organisational culture. For instance, the lack of substantive pension reform in Greece since the country’s entry to the EMU and prior to the policy reversals brought about by impending bankruptcy in 2010, illustrates these difficulties. In the case of Greece, the governing party had difficulty proposing reforms in an intelligible way, because, in part, it faced a complex and inefficient state apparatus and it could not circumvent powerful interests, which benefited greatly from the status quo.

Further, the technical nature of a policy problem also plays a key role in the level of influence an epistemic community is likely to have on domestic jurisdictions. This suggests that when a policy problem is highly technical (like the role of the Central Bank), experts tend to dominate the policy process making it difficult for political actors to play a potent role. However, regardless of the nature of policy issues, they ‘are seldom purely technical or purely political’ and ‘scientists’ -if one can call economists scientists- cannot really avoid the politicisation of ‘science’. It is a belief in the power of technocracy however that can lead epistemic communities to determine policy responses. A successful epistemic community is likely to integrate politicians if it wants to have tangible policy results.

Corbyn offers a unique opportunity as a political carrier of a well developed academic critique of financialised capitalism.

Even though I think, as I said before, that the time for a revolt against capitalism in the ballot box (Scotland aside) has passed and that Corbyn could never become PM, his leadership of Labour may be beneficial to country and party anyway.

scientist

@iGlinavos

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11 thoughts on “If the left cannot win elections, what is the point of the left?

  1. I disagree with your analysis. Leave the office and get out onto the streets and you will find that there is a new dialogue. The topic of the dialogue is Jeremy Corbyn, the owners of the dialogue are the youth, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the dispossessed, the protest voters, the not registered to vote-voters, the Greens, the Ukippers, and yes even the soft Tories. All are engaged and enthralled, so the question has to be why? A number of explanations exist, one is that finally Labour have a candidate who has the common touch. This can be equated to to the same sort of plain speaking that personifies Nigel Farage. Another reason is that JC has stood by his ideals, when so many other politicians have not. This is perceived to be an excellent trait in a politician. A lot of people think that JC is honest, humble and sincere, all excellent qualities in a politician. When such traits are taken together, they can make for a formidable candidate. Moreover, there was little by way of analysis as to what the Tories are about to impose upon the electorate in your analysis, all of which is going to make JC look like a saint by the time of the next GE. So my money is upon JC and what is more, my money is on him to win us the next GE. Concentrating upon 2 million soft Tory votes is not going to give Labour the next GE, it is the other 25 million who didn’t vote for the Tories, or the Labour party at the last GE that will.

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    • Thanks for your comment. I think what is going on outside my office was demonstrated in May. If there was such wide support for left policies the Greens would have done better. I think Labour is set to lose in 2020 regardless of who is the leader. They might as well then make a contribution on the ideas front with Corbyn.

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  2. “An epistemic community can be defined as a knowledge-based group of experts and specialists who share common beliefs about the cause-and-effect relationships in the world and have common political values concerning the ends to which policies should be addressed. Epistemic communities can help popularize ideas and make them guides to change.“

    Well, if you would want to start a movement whose intentions can only be understood by those who had higher education, you are on the right track here.
    As far as I’m concerned the objective of the left should be, trying to achieve a better distribution of income, knowledge and power.
    By democratic means that is. I don’t care much about revolutions.

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    • ” Well, if you would want to start a movement whose intentions can only be understood by those who had higher education, you are on the right track here.”

      The left I respect was always about learning, even historically, Pim. Especially historically. Matters changed slightly since then. Not about movement for movements sake. About change, no doubt, but not necessarily about dictates and a simple change-of-the-governor-versus-the-governed. Matters are much more complex since then.

      “trying to achieve a better distribution of income, knowledge and power.”

      The first two were classic social democratic positions, when I was a teen. Are they still, sufficiently? But there is no doubt a basic awareness that the trickle down process has failed to work, maybe always did within certain limits only. …

      Power? What side of the pole, if I put the larger Niccolò Machiavelli scenario, or the power to control the life of others no-matter-how* on one side? * the pattern seems to be pretty similar over the ages.

      Power Social and Political

      ********
      Yes, no doubt 2008 was a watershed, on the other hand it feels the post 2001 era necessarily led to more serious discussions on all layers of society what our democracy is really about. Beyond voting once in a while. And weren’t there at the time the US went to war already warning voices in the air about the US economy and it’s heavily financialized parts?

      Wasn’t a discussion about our own democracy the necessary result of the idea of bringing Western type freedom and thus democracy everywhere at the point of a gun? No matter by what means?

      Is there still a chance for democracy, considering the dominance of exchange and market forces with all the more and more specialized gambling and its supposedly self-regulating forces? …

      I am a bit pessimist. The social democrats at one point may have been partly forced, based on its bad-for-the-economy-image, to shift towards: “it’s the economy stupid”, the Blair third-way-variant copied by Schroeder over here.

      I don’t see any easy way out in this context. But without any doubt it would need cooperation over the borders of the respective field or areas of knowledge. …

      The idea of simply printing more money so that the not so well off get what they need anyway–and yes I have serious problems to understand the discussion about banks or the related EU institutional frame in Iannos articles, just as Yanis “Modest Proposal”–but it seems to be the neo-Keysian or democratic approach may well be to simply print more money, to the extend I understand it now.

      Thus, without any doubt, I would need to be educated in many ways, not only in the banking context. 😉

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      • @ LeaNder,

        Indeed “trying to achieve a better distribution of income, knowledge and power.” all three were classic positions of the social democracy and as far as I’m concerned, they still should be to-day.

        At least I can understand the goals, whereas I haven’t a clue what an epistemic community is about.

        Why should the left only consist of people that can talk (and pretend they can understand) gobbledygook.

        There are some old age old wisdoms, If you make a promise, you keep it, if you borrow money, you pay it back and it is sensible to save some money, so you can use it if your earning powers are declined.

        But in my quest to understand the troubles Greece is in, I have read many articles written by people with high education, holding high positions who are trying to tell me these wisdoms no longer apply.

        We shouldn’t keep promises, we shouldn’t payback and we shouldn’t save and they always seem to have some statistics that prove them right.

        So therefore. Life is like beer. It’s the froth that goes to the top.

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      • Pim, “high education” I studied for way more years then it needs to advance your career. And I can tell you it basically means from my perception: “repeat after me”, with very, very few exceptions. I have to carry the burden that, ironically enough the ones that were curious about challenges either didn’t return from their don’t bother me with wandering off my given reading list, since that means more work, and may have results in your paper grades.

        Not that all scholars are like that, quite the opposite … but it can still be considered a basic rule. On my long journey I got more and more aware of the tricks.

        My niece did quite well, although she was basically as badly organized as I was. Education, maybe has never been about learning but reaching higher areas of respectability or better pay-grades. The problem is to what extend they loose a the grasp of whomever they want to govern and how.;)

        ******
        but it no doubt is interesting to watch to what extend the Anglo-Saxon world versus Europe in the Greek crisis and it’s respective experts surfaces in the Greek crisis, considering that the the UK, a) never entered the Eurozone, b) may well be on its way out.

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      • “I have to carry the burden that, ironically enough the ones that were curious about challenges either didn’t return from their don’t bother me with wandering off my given reading list, since that means more work, and may have results in your paper grades.”

        Ok, that’s a really hard bit, thus I get incoherent. I wanted to insert something here, but it is really a heavy burden:

        “ironically enough the ones that were curious about challenges either didn’t return ”

        from their journey to the Alps, or killed themselves before I got back to them.

        Sadly enough, true.

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    • I do not think that Corbyn’s intention is to create a party of radical intellectuals (neither is mine). The problem is however that the right in the UK dominates the narrative, and the ideas behind it. In order to build solid base for challenging austerity therefore an intellectual preparation (on the ideas level) is needed before popular mobilisation. This sounds a bit Marxist, but it is the reality of UK politics at the moment. If we are after Leninism, UKIP has done that already in the contemporary context.

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  3. Iannos, somewhere you linked to an expert on institutions. I should have saved his name. Economical historian, if I recall correctly.

    Yes, I wondered in one specific case too, if they don’t necessarily get more and more conservative over time. Maybe to the extend they are solidly backed by money. Mostly obsessed with defending rigid politics, their positions and the reputation the respective institutions afford.

    How strong are social democratic or left leaning institutions in the UK anyway? And how are they funded? …

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