Since the general election has been called, the turgid slogan of strong and stable has been trotted out by the Conservatives, supposedly contrasting with a ‘coalition of chaos’ represented by Jeremy Corbyn. In this regard, Corbyn is seen as a useless and failed opposition leader. Such a view seems to be widely held by other elements of the political and media classes, as a quick Google search shows. Thus every political proposal in this election, despite their innate popularity, is kept within this narrative of uselessness. Even with internal party disparity, the lack of an electoral infrastructure and a young, inexperienced base, every electoral problem and Labour Party debacle is firmly placed on Corbyn’s shoulders. This seeming uniformity of opinion can cause concern amongst Corbyn’s supporters, posing the question: why is Corbyn consistently portrayed in this manner? Is it a rational perspective, or are there other narratives that belie this view.
While such a uniformity of opinion may suggest a sincere critique, this fails to see the ideological premises that lie beneath much of their analysis. The major element of this premise is what can be called a narrow dialogic democracy. A dialogic democracy as understood by Giddens is a form of democratic engagement that encourages debate and dialogue within a wide range of policies and ideas. In modern politics, where representation through adversarial political parties and debate through an ‘objective’ media are seen as the prevailing norms, a dialogic democracy is presented as representative of the democratic systems in the UK. However, the wider neoliberal reality of modern politics does not encourage such debate and critical thinking.
Instead a neoliberal narrative of TINA (there is no alternative) acts as the framework through which a narrow dialogic democracy acts. Political “attention now focuses on the ‘reforms’ needed to increase national ‘competitiveness’” and push forth globalisation. “Distributional conflict was replaced by a technocratic search for the economically necessary and uniquely possible”. In this regard, the processes of globalisation and marketisation are made to be unquestionable. They are the natural reality, producing the best possible outcomes. The same narrative is present in foreign policy and security debates, where the main aim is to expand Western society and the capitalist market. It is about ‘spreading democracy’ and providing the means to achieve it. This, however, is not just the Overton window of accepted opinion that much of modern politics revolves around, but is instead narrower. Take for example the popularity of rail and energy company nationalisation amongst the British public, seeing 66% support for the former and 68% for the latter. Until Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, no major political party had supported these policies since the 1980s. This suggests that narrow dialogic democracy is limited not by public acceptability, but instead an ideological narrative that disparages nationalisation of any kind, and sees markets and the profit motive as the main aim of economic policy. Narrow dialogic democracy receives its legitimacy from a neoliberal ideology that pushes privatisation and the rollback of an interventionist state.
Neoliberal governance limits debate and critique, presenting neoliberal political choices as historical inevitabilities. Thus to bridge this gap between presentation and reality, new understandings of things like truth and leadership have grown. Truth becomes synonymous with objectivity and balance. Here “balance means ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round”. Thus particular ideological beliefs are accorded an objective stance, producing a form of truth that legitimates the TINA narrative. Leadership means being a leader for the median voter, an apolitical consumer of representative democracy, who is there to passively accept politics are a part of their own self-interest.
Adversarial politics become irrelevant when chasing this centre-ground. Instead it is the projection of strength, stability and the maintenance of the status quo that become the important variables. Strength is accorded with the neoliberal narrative of security and economics. This is the reason Theresa May can call her leadership ‘strong and stable’ during this election cycle, despite the massive economic problems the UK currently faces and a Brexit strategy that seems to involve shooting from the hip. Productivity and wage growth have been anaemic since the 2008 crisis. There has also been a massive accumulation of private debt, showing that much of UK growth has relied on consumer spending and inflated asset prices. Yet in the narrow dialogic democracy, such things are the norm so long as stable markets are maintained and international movements of capital can continue unabated. In a similar sense, Theresa May’s stance on security issues, which tend toward further military intervention in line with Trump, are another sign of her strength. Bombing airbases in Syria are accorded a form of normal leadership that can face up to ‘tyranny’.
Thus the disparagement of Jeremy Corbyn in this election cycle by political leaders and the media cannot be viewed as rational analysis, but is instead borne of Corbyn’s desire to question the status quo surrounding neoliberal policies. In the narrowed dialogic democracy of the UK, Corbyn’s non-interventionist stance is beyond the pale, as is the questioning of UK economic policy that sees the market as the central arbiter of the economy. The rather moderate reforms that Corbyn proposes, such as the renationalisation of energy and rail companies and the development of an economically interventionist industrial policy, and moving away from militaristic escalation, are painted as “far-left” fantasies that are beyond debate, despite their electoral popularity. The extent of dialogue is narrowed in political and media institutions, reproducing a neoliberal orthodoxy. The fact that Corbyn has chosen to question it in the mild manner that he has shows how affected this general election is by the TINA narrative. Thus he is painted as an extremist, who is part of an unelectable ‘coalition of chaos’.