It’s easy to confuse democracy with democracy. Having a party’s members elect its leader is clearly more democratic than leaving the decision up to MPs or union bosses. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for democracy. When the Tories first moved to a one-member-one-vote system in 2001, they plumped for Iain Duncan Smith over Kenneth Clarke. The result was that Britain had a weak and ineffectual parliamentary opposition at the most hubristic phase of Tony Blair’s premiership, during the run-up to the Iraq War. The situation was only remedied two years later when the parliamentary Conservative Party effectively staged a coup, installing Michael Howard as the sole candidate without consulting the membership. In 2007, Lib Dem members chose Nick Clegg over Chris Huhne as their leader by the narrowest of margins. Given that Huhne was to end up in jail in 2013 you might think this was the wise choice. But none of the voters (bar two) could have known Huhne’s vulnerability on that score. By choosing Clegg they went with a comfortable politician under whose leadership the party would be chewed up and spat out by the Tories, rather than with a more rebarbative one who might have kept them at arm’s length – and his party alive. It’s hard to argue that British democracy is better off as a result.
Now the Labour Party, putting the decision entirely in the hands of its members for the first time, may elect Jeremy Corbyn. It’s tempting to see this as another IDS moment. But it’s something more than that. The election of IDS was wishful, whereas this looks much more wilful. Deluded Tory members seemed genuinely to believe that Duncan Smith was a widely appealing politician whose virtues, so apparent to them, needed only to be brought to the attention of the general public to win them over. Corbyn’s supporters are under few illusions that he fits the mould of a mainstream party leader. They know he’s at best an acquired taste and unlikely to be the man to win back voters lost to the Tories in the key marginals. A recent YouGov poll found that barely a quarter of Labour members believed that understanding how to win an election was one of the key qualities needed in a Labour leader (62 per cent wanted him or her to be ‘in touch with the concerns of ordinary people’). Corbynites realise that they are not playing the game by the rulebook. They don’t care.
One way to understand this is as a manifestation of what political scientists call the expressive, as opposed to the instrumental, theory of voting. If voting is instrumental then it’s presumed that voters are primarily motivated by the results they hope to achieve: leaders and parties who can deliver real benefits. If it’s expressive then voters are more interested in signalling who they are and what they value. The case for expressive voting is partly driven by the thought that instrumental voting is a waste of time, since in any significant election no one’s vote ever decides the outcome (if your candidate wins or loses it is always by more than one vote, making your contribution incidental). But it also seems to chime with the world of social media and online communication, where self-expression rules and echo chambers proliferate. The internet is much more effective as a vehicle for expressing disgust with mainstream politics than it is for organising pragmatic reconfigurations of it. Corbyn might be a reminder of the 1980s in some of his policy prescriptions, but his is still very much a candidacy of the internet age.
Nonetheless, there is something unpersuasive about the idea that voting is simply a way of striking an attitude. Casting a ballot is an odd way to signal anything to anyone, given that no one is actually watching you do it. Most voters do seem to want their personal contribution to make a difference and believe that it can. I’m not convinced that support for Corbyn is just gesture politics. As well as being the era of self-expression this is also the era of disruption. Yes, a Corbyn victory would mean going against all the conventional wisdom about how to win an election. But conventional wisdom is a devalued currency these days. Whole industries that believed the world was a certain way have found the rug pulled out from under them. Things that seemed impossible become inevitable with barely time to pass through a phase of being merely improbable (and if Corbyn does win his campaign will conform to that pattern – a few weeks ago he was a 100/1 outsider; as I write this he has just been installed as the bookmakers’ favourite). A few years ago Uber didn’t exist. Now it’s taking over the world. Not playing the game by the rulebook can pay off in the most dramatic and unexpected ways. Why should political parties be immune to this expanded range of possibilities? The shake-up is happening across Europe. Why not here?
If I’m right that this is part of what lies behind the Corbyn surge, then his supporters are making a mistake. The Labour Party is not a start-up. Disruption is almost certainly not what it needs. Indeed, disruption is more likely to destroy it than to revitalise it. The job for which Corbyn is standing has many different facets, of which the most important remains leading his party’s MPs in Parliament. This is the bit of the job it is nearly impossible to imagine him doing successfully. It is not just that the parliamentary party is liable to be both split and demoralised by his election. He also lacks the experience. Corbyn at PMQs? Corbyn handling the press lobby? Corbyn managing the shadow cabinet? To see these as relics of the old way of doing politics is to mistake the range of policy possibilities for the range of institutional ones. It may well be true that much of what Corbyn stands for – including a fairer tax system, greater public ownership of key services and more support for the low-paid – is popular with a surprisingly wide swathe of the public. But it won’t make any difference if the news never gets beyond a divided and dysfunctional parliamentary party. Voters don’t elect parties that are split. Those rules are not going to change.
In this respect, the examples of Syriza and Podemos are a distraction. Both those parties are start-ups. Britain may well be crying out for new political parties (especially in Scotland) and the thought of someone like Corbyn at the head of one makes sense, though under Britain’s first-past-the-post system it might not make much difference. But that isn’t what he’s offering. His popularity has been compared to the baffling levels of support currently being enjoyed by Donald Trump in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. That too is probably a reflection of the fact that voters are no longer content to take at face value the limited range of acceptable options presented to them. But Trump’s case is also very different. The length of the US contest means there is plenty of time for the old rules to reassert themselves. And when that happens, Trump has the option of running as an independent, which is what a disruptor would do (though the likely consequence is that he would help usher Hillary into the White House). Corbyn is an intransigent independent trying to take over an established player. It rarely works in politics, just as it rarely works in business. You don’t disrupt corporate behemoths like IBM from the inside. You have to break away.
There is still time for the Corbyn bubble to burst. The opinion polling that has him far ahead is more likely to be expressive than the casting of ballots will be. Polling in previous Labour leadership elections has shown a tendency to overstate support for the more radical candidates (the final YouGov poll of party members in 2010 had Ed Miliband winning by 4 per cent when in fact his brother, David, won that section of the electorate by nearly 9 per cent). If Corbyn does win, there is talk of a swift coup to replace him, but the Labour Party is not the Conservative Party and kneejerk anti-democratic moves are a much harder sell. Ed Miliband must take some of the blame for where the party finds itself. Even Syriza, we now discover, had some contingency plans for exiting the euro. Miliband seems to have done nothing to prepare for defeat, presumably on the grounds that it would damage morale. When it happened he simply walked away. Michael Howard stayed on in 2005 to ensure that the election of his successor could be steered in his preferred direction. Miliband was probably too damaged by the scale of his failure to do that (and who knows what his preferred direction would be), but he could have done more to try to ensure a better range of options than the party is currently faced with: unsustainable inspiration or uninspired continuity. It pains me to say it, but if ever an election needed a bit of fixing it was this one.