Oldham West and media narratives: JezWeCan


The Economist’s current Bagehot fantasises over a rebellion of moderate liberals; local government in the form of Jim McMahon taking centre stage.

You quickly become aware that is it politics as usual when the Corbynites come out in full swing in the wake of the Oldham by-election. Apparently, under Corbyn’s influence, the constituency increased its Labour vote and is further proof (alongside his leadership bid) that Corbyn isn’t unelectable. There are a couple of things that are in equal measure both wrong and amusing about this analysis.

The most obvious and superficial is that McMahon is part of the 4.5% that supported Kendall. I’m not sure he can get any more centrist or Blairite than that. Until of course you realise that the Economist is complimentary towards him while scathing about Corbyn. See, e.g., article linked to in image caption. Another is that the campaign was apparently local-issue-focused with little mention of the grandiose, national visions espoused by the chosen one. Let alone his name or that many in Oldham even knew it to begin with. Corbyn wasn’t standing in this election. A local and well-loved Blairite was.

Related to this are the obvious traits of this constituency, most notably its demographics, the fact that is a tribally safe Labour seat and that the less than 20k or so that voted for McMahon (or “Corbyn” if we’re being generous) are representative of seats across the country (but especially marginals). It is quite odd to consider winning a safe seat as an achievement of the leadership. In sum, a grand total of <0.01% of the British electorate might be said to have “voted for Corbyn” here, but only, of course, if we chose to ignore a number of other factors and data. Or I guess simply if we like Corbyn and just believe hard enough that his (our?) dreams will come true.

The second is what making the argument that it was “Corbyn wot won it” involves on a more analytical level. As a reminder this is a movement that has a lot of resentment towards the media and its misleading narratives (though how could we forget given that most issues for them come back to this; astutely referred to in another blog as “The Worst Meme in Politics“). With Oldham, they claim that Corbyn, contrary to the (false) media narratives they decry, has actually risen above those falsehoods to demonstrate how electable he truly is.

If you think about it, this amounts to using a false media narrative to make their case because it is only relative to that pseudo-narrative that their argument makes any material sense. It was only on account of hype and media punditry that anyone seriously (and mistakenly) thought Oldham, with its excellent local candidate, was actually at risk to an outsider Kipper on account of the Corbyn brand. Now those false perceptions with regards the seat are being used to set up a contrast to make claims of electability. A contrast with a false narrative to put forward another one. Bizarro-world indeed.

Now, had it turned out to be a (really) bad day for Labour, losing an incredibly safe seat, this would definitely have been more attributable to Corbyn. Emphasis on the “more” because this is a hypothetical and a number of other factors would need to be looked at had that event occurred. Naturally to the partisan this may seem hypocritical — if Corbyn can be held to have lost it, he can be held to have won it. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t quite follow in the circumstances here.

For those looking for bit more information, there’s a more detailed analysis on the implications (or rather, lack there of) of this result here.

NB Oldham was a few weeks ago, but I have only just gotten around to fleshing this out now over the holiday season.


Populism: rational political ignorance or will of the people?


Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, ponders some economic conundrums

This post was inspired by one over at Sam Glover’s blog, which also sparked a decent discussion over on /r/ukpolitics. Well, I say “inspired” — really it’s a topic I have been touching on in my essays here, but one which I find fascinating enough to continue exploring.

There’s a lot of texture to the interface between populism and rational political ignorance because it branches off into a number of different subjects. Economics, law and social psychology are all relevant here. But let’s start at the top level, looking at what rational political ignorance is and how this relates to populism generally.

Rational ignorance is an economic concept that links the cost of acquiring knowledge with neoclassical notions of the quintessential rational actor, homo economicus. Economic man is a utilitarian being who’s assumed to be (at least) mostly rational in his endeavours. Rational ignorance is the idea that in some situations, it makes perfect sense not to become informed on a topic because the costs/benefit analysis of doing so is effectively prohibitive.

Modern society is so complex that Adam Smith’s adage comes to mind. The division of labour would lead to such degrees of specialisation that you’d be unlikely to understand what someone at a party does for a living merely by them giving you their job title. What hope, then, is there for the average voter to not only be able to understand macro-economics, but be willing to invest the time to do so for elections that occur every 5 years?

Not much. But ordinarily this isn’t really a problem, and it’s a big part of the rationale behind representative democracy — we elect (i.e. delegate) to professional politicians to become informed on these issues and argue our side(s) for a living so we don’t have to. [Tangential point: it’s worth bearing in mind that representing someone’s interests is not the same thing as mirroring their views on every (or even most) issues.] MPs don’t make around £70k plus expenses for their time and service to the communities and nation they represent for no reason. This is a difficult and demanding job that I think many of the public underestimate.

However, I think that with the surge in populist politicians across the western world the issue warrants some scrutiny.

Populism is closely linked with demagoguery, which I’ve written about here before. Because in a democracy power is ultimately vested in the people, there is nothing to stop the people giving power to someone who panders to the lowest common denominator, – that is to say your average, rationally ignorant voter. There’s a great post by a classics professor on populism and demagoguery here.

In the words of Plato:

Popular acclaim will attend on the man who tells the people what they want to hear rather than what truly benefits them.

Naturally I found this quote in The Economist, which, as a newspaper that sees itself as the citadel of Enlightenment rationalism, is understandably rather disapproving of pitchfork, anti-establishment populism. It’s a good article, available here.

I don’t have a concrete answer to the title of this post, but it is important to think about. If forced to give a conclusion, I’d say that I think the current balance is wrong — we are hearing a bit too much about “people power” and how people need to have more influence, typically supported by arguments of how the internet changes everything and allows people to become better informed. It’s presented almost as if people are currently irrelevant to the democratic process, which is false, and only really forms a cornerstone of populist rhetoric. The public are constantly consulted (in, well, “public consultations”) before an authority implements almost any policy of major significance.

I know because on a law degree you get to read the reports on these open consultations as relevant to the area of the law you are studying. How else does one analyse the efficacy of a measure or law? Academic papers and theories, too, of course, but law isn’t 100% moral and political philosophy. It’s a bit more practical in general (though it is also a rich source of inquiry into those areas as well).

Issue is that in this rhetorical framework all elites are the same. Intellectuals with academic backgrounds are not entirely safe from being classed as elites, proponents of the status quo or whatever rhetoric desired — particularly if they have insights that don’t accord to the popular narrative being peddled by the “anti-elites” — and there are close ties between populism and anti-intellectualism. Somewhat incoherently though, some have formed panels of elite economic advisers to suggest policy. That’s not quite the democratic populism proposed, but rather a more technocratic approach.

Further, one only has to take a quick look at the policy statements and manifestos produced by the Green party to realise what direct democracy and excessive “people power” leads to: an incoherent and rambling set of proposals that would mostly be self-defeating and not achieve their stated aims. Policy seems generated off the back of headlines, and young left wing forms of identity politics. A set of proposals that are heavy on rhetoric and “doing what you believe” is the necessary result rather than what might actually work. It’s pretty clear people don’t have the time or interest to go through party political policy statements. Easier to just go off whatever nice-sounding vision is being proposed and shared by likeminded people in their internet networks.

To wrap up, I highly recommend this short piece by Cas Mudde, a political scientist who focuses on populism. In short, populism is a narrow and insular view of modern democracy that necessarily rejects more favourable conceptions such as pluralism (even if it claims to be of the “open” “left-wing” or “multicultural” variant it palpably isn’t — it’s only open and accepting to views it sympathises with, and rejects anything else as “neoliberal” “corporate” “elite” “media” or similar). I leave the question of whether it is an accurate expression of the will of the people or just rational ignorance manifest (or maybe a bit of both?) up to you.



When proportional representation goes awry


If there’s one thing proportional electoral systems are great at representing is a fragmented and unstable political situation. This isn’t a necessary result of such systems, but the current woes of Spain are a good example of certain tendencies attributable to them.

The Spanish constitution requires a majority of 176 representatives to form a government – a bar not met in the latest national elections. Few coalitions seem particularly viable as the nature of the current political climate has spawned a variety of (new) parties, each with their own hot-button and often irreconcilably niche issues.

Spain also possess a relatively combative approach to negotiations. The last incumbent PM was recently assaulted, albeit by a teenager, during the campaign. The example isn’t wholly representative on its own, though tempers are clearly high. But as an Argentine familiar with Spanish culture it’s also clear there is a confrontational slant to how interactions take place in these countries regardless.

Combine this with being the Eurozone’s 4th largest economy in a fragile state, and it is almost certain political risk analysts will be watching subsequent developments closely.

Let’s hope the Spanish economy can stomach the political instability of this result, never mind whatever manner of coalition (that no one explicitly voted for) emerges.

Is Zwarte Piet racism?


Great Economist article summarising this current Dutch debate.

I’d suggest the resolution to the issue comes down to the intention of the costume/tradition/wearer. We can test this by asking how a white person would react to a black person approaching them with genuine concerns about the tradition.

If the instinct is to dismiss those views entirely, with no room for compromise (or modification of the tradition) then I’d suggest we have the beginnings of an argument that at least that person is racist, and that (maybe) the tradition is the root of that or a significant cause of it. We can then try to extrapolate upwards to see if this kind of approach is shared widely across Dutch society, and, if it is, more readily conclude that indeed the tradition is racist.

Arguments that because the tradition was borne out of colonialism, is a still practised tradition and that therefore it is a racist tradition are superficial and wrong-headed. Something that began 100+ years ago in a wildly different context says little to nothing about whether the it is currently racist, even if it is still practised as a fancy dress exercise.

Some have, however, reacted badly and somewhat dismissively. Nevertheless, this only goes some way to making the argument. Some is not the same as all; it’s not the same as society. This comment from the article sums it up quite well, in my view:

It should be noted that the current discussion was provoked by a researcher posing as an independent UN investigator, who basically told an entire country to throw out one of its most loved traditions. That doesn’t excuse the racists now showing themselves in these discussions, but it does lump all the non-racists in with them.

From my perspective, as silly as it may sound to some, the ‘soot-covered’ argument sounds fine. Indeed, the stereotypical Zwarte Piet image is a man with *blue eyes*. As a child, I never once associated Zwarte Pieten with black people – they were a supernatural phenomenon, just like Sinterklaas himself. Does that mean it can’t be construed as racist? No. And maybe there’s something to be said for allowing more hairstyles, at least, considering it adds to the stereotype.

But the point is, for most people there’s no racist *intent* here. Having someone tell you that you’re being racist is offensive if you’re not aware of any harm – it should be fine to suggest changing the tradition in some minor way to be more politically correct, but it doesn’t surprise me that people go on the defensive considering the way those against the practice have gone about it.

Ultimately I’d submit that, on balance, Zwarte Piet isn’t a racist tradition. It may have been the product of an era we now regard as racist, but if anything, I think that if you ask any Dutch person, of any race, few will say they treat Zwarte Piet as an assertion of colonial racism manifest in modern Dutch society. The only ones that seem to be suggesting it is are, somewhat ironically, the currently staunch opponents to the tradition – much like those who take a wholly dismissive view of the issue while labelling an entire society as prejudiced and discriminatory.

Perhaps there is an argument that regardless of the practice’s affect on conscious racism, it may form the basis for a less overt form of subconscious racism. I don’t, however, see how such an argument can adequately be shown empirically, absent widespread racial discrimination and racist attitudes within the society or similar.

Indeed the tradition may even form the basis of reminder of the nation’s past, – a past few would honestly believe is worth returning to, let alone remotely close to what modern life in the Netherlands is like.

Modern debate and political discourse

Social media seems to cater to a rather limited conception of debate. People argue as means to “win” and “show off” to an audience of spectators.

But this is easy, – and sadly misses the point. Argument is much more valuable for its own sake and much more distasteful when linked to things like egotism and social competition.

This clipping from an article in BloombergView seems to sum up the issue quite well:

In the end, I think people overreact to the “stupid” insult because, as a society, we use arguments the wrong way. We tend to treat arguments like debate competitions — two people argue in front of a crowd, and whoever wins gets the love and adoration of the crowd, and whoever loses goes home defeated and shamed. I guess that’s better than seeing arguments as threats of physical violence, but I still prefer the idea of arguing as a way to learn, to bounce ideas off of other people. Proving you’re smart is a pointless endeavor (unless you’re looking for a job), and is an example of what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” As the band Sparks once sang, “Everybody’s stupid — that’s for sure.” What matters is going in the right direction — becoming less stupid, little by little.