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.