Owning the future not splitting the difference - RSA

Owning the future not splitting the difference

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  • Leadership

Danny Finklestein argued yesterday morning in The Times that Jeremy Corbyn is hostile to Parliament and instead favours a model of political change and rule based on grassroots mobilisation. This may be right, but I think what some people in the Labour Party are rejecting is not just Parliament but politics itself.

A trilemma is a problem in which it is possible to achieve two out of three objectives but intractably hard to achieve all three. In public policy the classic example is the welfare trilemma comprising the goals of, first, helping the most disadvantaged, second, incentivising work and saving and, third, bearing down on public expenditure*.

For the leaders of political parties the trilemma is keeping the Party faithful happy, winning elections and choosing the wisest policy options. Arguably, this trilemma has got worse now as the electorate is more fickle, mainstream political parties are more unrepresentative of voters and getting policy right has become even harder. No wonder politicians as a class are so widely despised and – from what I can see – so often personally troubled and unhappy.

Matthew D’Ancona was one of the first to spot that the Corbyn project has sidestepped this trilemma. Not, I think, as some of Labour’s critics argue because his policies are inherently unreasonable. In fact, from economic policy to defence, there are serious experts - and not even all on the left – who can be found to support just about every Corbyn position. Rather the trilemma is avoided because – as D’Ancona said – Corbyn’s team don’t seem that interested in winning elections. Or, to put it more positively, they maintain that the way to win elections is not to adapt to what voters want but to establish a principled approach and then persuade the voters to come round to it.

The fact that Labour’s high command is apparently relaxed about the growing polarisation between what Labour members think of Corbyn (positive and growing more so) and what the voters think (negative and growing more so) is evidence that they aren’t interested in solving the political trilemma.

For many people - and again this doesn’t just mean left wing people – this is commendable. Shouldn’t politics be all about principle? Isn’t it great to move beyond the ghastly combination of technocracy and focus group triangulation that has so alienated people from the political process? 

This implicit separation between good motivations (sticking to principles) and bad (winning elections) is not only facile, it simply misunderstands the nature of politics. If politics is about making change then, in a democracy, a commitment to trying to win elections is a principle.

Radicals on the left and right see the political trilemma as a trade-off between values and opportunism. It is instead a trade-off between three principles: Parties should try to represent the aspirations and values of their members; Parties should try to make change happen by winning elections; Parties should try over the long run do what citizens as a whole believe is in their best interests. Rather than politics in a democracy being only the second of these three (as those who disparage it say) or being only the first and third (as radicals imply) it has to be all three. If you have no commitment or plan to achieve all three goals together you are simply abandoning politics in favour of something less difficult.

Too often Corbyn’s Labour critics sound like they the only reason they want to challenge left wing ideas is that they are a barrier to electability. But the most important problem for Labour is this: The true aim of leadership is not choosing the relative position for the Party on the trilemma trade off curve (trading principle for votes, or Party enthusiasm for public interest) but shifting the trade off point on to a different, more positive, curve.

This is all about owning the future. The most powerful political message says ‘our principles (the ones that enthuse our activists) are the ones most suited to tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities’. Those emerging challenges are huge and difficult; martialling technological innovation to human ends, responding to greater global interdependency, managing and shaping new public appetites and expectations, renewing our failing institutions, to name but four.  

Behind all the infighting and incompetence Labour’s biggest problem today is the same one it had under the sorry tenure of Ed Miliband and the same one besetting social democrats across Europe – it lacks a credible and positive story about the future or about why progressive politics and policy is most suited to that future.

* The RSA's proposals for a basic income are a radically different (and better) way of working with this welfare trilemma.

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  • I think Matthew D'Ancona has made a good point. Perhaps the present Labour leadership is not looking to govern. Perhaps they are experiencing and enjoying the sensation of having their theories and principles in the public eye. Making a statement, as it were, a living tableau of alternative representation. It's very interesting even for a pragmatic activist, but  perhaps as Matthew Taylor says, 'it lacks a credible and positive story about the future.' I looked up Michael Foot's biography later and it was much as remembered.

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