Saturday, 23 January 2016

The real question: might we have got it all wrong?


One of big advantage that should help academics in their chosen tasks is the fact that they are professionally required to keep asking themselves: am I wrong? Might I be mistaken? On what grounds might my error rest? How can I test, and keep on looking over, my potential errors? That's the point of peer review, presentations, seminars, even informal discussions over a coffee: any scholarly process at all is not worthy of the name if it lacks the vital element of self-scrutiny.

Anyone who doesn't do this - who doesn't admit to doubt, imprecision, contingency - is a fraud. No-one knows exactly what has just happened, let alone what is going to happen. Nothing is as clear as politicians, newspaper columnists, banks, betting markets, even commercial economists want you to think it is. Everything is uncertain.

So that's what we want to look at today. Recently we've been very, very clear that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is not only headed for a bad defeat in 2020, but a crushing rout and humiliation that might make the party electorally uncompetitive for a generation or more. But what - horror of horrors - if we've got it all wrong?

Historians of all people ought to be alive to this danger, because they are aware how quickly things can change. One of Winston Churchill's best speeches was about just this phenomenon, when he gave the following House of Commons tribute to his old adversary Neville Chamberlain on the latter's death in 1940:

It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.

Everything changes. There weren't many voices raised prophesying the immediate end of the Soviet Union's Eastern European empire in 1989. No-one seems to have imagined Saddam Hussein was going to invade Kuwait in 1990. Not that many people foresaw John Major's remarkable against-the-odds election victory in 1992. Who thought, early on in the campaign, that a hitherto obscure Illinois Senator named Barack Obama would seize the Presidency from Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008? Did anyone predict the recent oil rout? Some thought the price would fall - but perhaps not so far. What did the commentariat say about the 2015 British General Election? That it would be a Hung Parliament. Well, it wasn't. Even on this blog, though we knew Labour would lose, we were very surprised to see a Conservative majority administration emerge from the morass. We could go on and on (we tend to do that sometimes).

So we can look back and see that, in Churchill's words, 'history with its flickering lamp' can only stumble 'along the trail of the past' - and, even more so, of the future. We can also see the long view and wait to form our judgements, as our fellow UCL alumnus Charlotte Riley has recently reminded us in the New Statesman:

The most a historian can say confidently about Corbyn at this moment is that he is a polarising figure. The historical narrative will be shaped by how long he holds on to the leadership, and whether he contests a general election... [as well as] the result: Gordon Brown’s first hundred days as leader, when he enjoyed support from media and public alike, are now a footnote to the election loss in 2010. If Corbyn leads the Labour party to victory, these last few months will be pored over far less than his first hundred days as Prime Minister.

If Churchill's career had ended in the late 1930s, it would have been considered a failure. Michael Foot's best years were probably thought behind him when he was elevated to the leadership of the Labour Party in the early 1980s. Harold Wilson's reputation was in the mud for years, but following Ben Pimlott's remarkable 1992 biography his stock has risen and risen. Write Corbyn off? Maybe it's too early to tell - something historians are well equipped to tell us.

Statistics are complex things - a mix of raw information, perception, judgement and skill. The polls might still be misleading us (though it's much more likely that they're still overstating Labour). More seriously, the Conservative Party might be split wide open by a vote to leave the European Union, not overwhelmingly likely but still possible this year. There might be a deep recession that seems once more to challenge Chancellor George Osborne's reliance on spending restraint in the public sector. Perhaps the United Kingdom Independence Party will fall apart after a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, and many of those voters will return to choosing Labour. We doubt it very much, given what we know about UKIP voters' views and preferences. But still. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is immutable. We have to make predictions, in order in part to understand the information we're seeing and what it might mean; and also, as the political scientist Colin Hay has recently pointed out, to try to affect future events, to head them off or bring them about - to see the trends and likely outcomes so that they can be altered or avoided.

Let us give you an example of what we mean. It has long been a claim, though in our view endlessly and comprehensively rebuffed, that non-voters and ex-voters might come back to the Labour fold now that something apparently 'honest' and 'straightforward' has come back into British politics. We believe also of course that the Corbyn phenomenon is nothing of the sort, but let's leave that to one side for a moment. Two elections have produced straws in the wind that Corbynites might clutch at. The first, in Canada and ending in a remarkable majority for the Liberals under Justin Trudeau (above), did indeed see the turnout rise when a reformist platform built around 'honesty' was put to Canadian voters. Not only did Mr Trudeau manage to raise the turnout, but he seems to have pushed it up the most where the Liberals did best, strongly suggesting that he was able to mobilise the disengaged, the apathetic and the previously disenfranchised. The Spanish Leftist Party Podemos has just done very, very well (given its only recent creation) after turnout in Spain went up by a few points on the previous contest. And who thought that Mr Trudeau would win a majority when he took up the leadership of his party? Who thought that Podemos could come from nowhere and contend to be a serious party of government? Almost no-one.

Now Mr Corbyn is no Trudeau - no good-looking, young, media-savvy fresh face who can ride to power on the back of a very unpopular, lacklustre and tired Conservative administration. Though hardly popular, Britain's Conservatives have attracted nothing like the opprobrium brought forth by ex-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's rather nasty and unattractive last few years in power. And the economic situation in Britain, though not exactly sunny, is nothing like that in Spain, enduring a decade of enormously high (especially youth) unemployment, falling wages and painful credit contraction. Even so, there is enough of a hint here that things might not be quite so cut and dried that we should be cautious about reaching utterly settled conclusions. Don't believe us? Well, Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh's indispensable The British General Election of 2015 (available from all good bookshops) ends with a similar conclusion:

Almost all psephological analysis of Labour's support bbetween 2010 and 2015, as well as what we know about non-voters, the UKIP vote or indeed the nature of support for the SNP, would indicate that the Corbyn strategy is a route to an electoral brick wall. Yet psephological analysis had not predicted a Conservative victory in 2015... Similarly, at the beginning of the 2010 Parliament, few people - however eminent - predicted that the SNP would win a majority in the Scottish Parliament and secure a referendum that they would come (relatively) close to winning. Even by early 2014, almost no one predicted that the SNP would do well in the following year's general election, let alone achieve a near-clean sweep. And almost no one - least of all the man himself - predicted that Jeremy Corbyn would become leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. It is therefore perhaps better to approach the road to 2020 with a more open mind.

We do still expect to see Labour crushed, perhaps irrevocably, in the next General Election. But we don't know that: perhaps Mr Corbyn will do slightly better than expected, and avoid a really bad defeat. It's unlikely, especially after four months of disastrous errors; but it's still just about possible. We will constantly be on the lookout for evidence that contradicts our established prejudice. We've said as much before. Maybe no such new data will emerge. But the academic, the historian - and the realist - should always be scanning the horizon for their own impending mistakes.

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