The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing. In the brief moment of its freedom, the English people makes such a use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it. – Rousseau
Well, Rousseau isn’t bloody right anymore. I don’t know about you, but in this increasingly terrifying age I am sick of being asked to make decisions. For the third year in a row, we in the UK find ourselves having a major national vote, to say nothing of the amount of times I’ve been asked to decide who should be the leader of the Labour Party. This country has broken out in a severe case of democracy and nearing the “oh god kill me now do anything to stop the pain” phase.
One thing the election has brought to my attention is that my journey towards cynicism is complete: I am completely calm this time. I have no hope, and therefore minimal chance of disappointment. This leaves me with little enthusiasm for it. I’m not even sure I want to play my now-traditional election night coverage cliché drinking game. In 2015, I was obsessive about every news story and blogging about it all. In 2017, so convinced am I that Labour are going to lose, I have no drive to argue or even pay attention.
Certainty is, however, something to be careful of. I have usually been wrong when I was certain about the outcome of an election. Indeed, most of us have been wrong about the outcome of elections throughout this decade. This gives credence to a counter-narrative to my cynicism. The pollsters and the pundits were wrong about 2015, Brexit, and Trump, why can’t they be wrong about 2017 as well? Do not these successive analytical mistakes bespeak an ongoing paradigm shift where the grassroots have moved away from the westminister commentariat, neoliberalism has failed, and the outsider and underdog becomes the victor? Not a chance. But then, if I am wrong that we are facing electoral annihilation and I’m actually about to have my historical rug pulled from under my ideological feet, then I would a fortiori believe that I am right, absolutely, without any chance of being convinced otherwise. This means that there’s as much ideological evidence for me being right as being wrong (remember an important part of Corbynism is ignoring scientific evidence). I find this dichotomy interesting.
Two Possible Narratives for this Election
There are two established and likely possibilities for this election and, at least academically speaking, no one knows what is going to happen, and I think this is a phenomenon worth dwelling on. On the one hand (and what I expect to happen), the Tories will win a landslide and the only question is whether Corbyn will actually resign. On the other, a Labour victory is one more failure of the centre to recognise how far the ground has shifted (not that I’m conceding that I am a centrist).
An interesting way of looking at this is found in the work of David Eddings, a fantasy author I’ve been slowly working my way through in my spare time. He wrote and co-wrote a lot of books in several fantasy universes, each with interesting philosophical points to make. In the universe found in the two book series called The Belgariad and The Mallorean, the philosophical issue at stake is destiny, necessity and possibility. Minor spoilers ahead.
In the lore of The Belgariad, there was once one destiny according to which everything happened by necessity. But, at one point in the past (it is never explained how), something happened that “was not supposed to happen”, splitting this destiny in two. This left the universe with two destinies, one light and one dark who went at war with each other. The light destiny fights to bring about one history while the dark destiny fights to bring about another.
Both were sentient, active beings who worked hard to manipulate gods and humans to bring their version of events about through prophesies. These prophesies align for the most part, but come intro contradictions at events of decision. The story of The Belgariad and The Mallorean is of these events of decision, where the human “pawns of prophecy” fight a proxy war to decide which destiny will win in wars, battles and duels. What is interesting and, I think relevant to thinking of elections, is the truth status of these prophecies. Until the event happens, both prophecies are considered potentially true. Up until the moment of the event itself, both narratives are equally possible. The event, however, absolutely settles the issue and the prophecy that wins utterly invalidates the other, meaning that it was always wrong all along.
Elections as Deciding the Truth
I might just have read too much fantasy for my own good, but I think this is an interesting way of looking at elections. We have in an election a series of happenings leading towards a fundamental event of decision, election day. Up until that point, all we can do is construct naratives to explain what is going on, all of which are equally valid. What is interesting and irritating, is that becuase the election is in the future, this truth is unsettlable until the results come in. At this point, history is (re)written according to the narrative that won.
For example, in 2015 I was convinced—not by fantasy, but by evidence—that Labour would increase its seats and Miliband would be prime minister, leading a minority Labour government, even though the Tories would be the biggest party. There was as much evidence for that as there was for the Tories winning again (and, incidentally, almost no evidence for the Tories having a majority). Equally, there was plenty of evidence for the narrative that had Clinton be unpopular, but ultimately show up Trump and win on the day. Election day decided the truth of these theories, and now we “know” what happened. The polls were wrong and failed to capture a significant shift in voter intention.
This is where we stand today. Either this shift in voter intention is, like Brexit and Trump and 2015, only explicable as a decisive shift to the political Right, or it must be read alongside Corbyn’s two victories in the Labour party and as a grassroots movement away from the centrist establishment. We will know which of these destinies is true, but only on 8th June 2017. #GE2017 will either be the end of a long line of polling errors and a Conservative victory or the end of (official) neoliberalism in this country. These two narratives are as true or false as each other at the moment, and whichever narrative you already find yourself in is the one you will find convincing on ideological grounds. This means three things.
1. The reason (some) Corbynites think they’re going to win is not that they’re stupid. Rather, it means that they’re ideologically committed to one way of interpreting what minimal evidence is available, to a conspiratorial narrative involving MSM deception and poll-rigging. As such, appeals to evidence are not going to change their mind even if one were inclined to try. The fact is, I hope they are right and their expectation has, epistemologically, as much truthiness as mine does. I’ll be voting Labour no matter what anyway.
2. The election is winnable, at least in principle. The academic point that no one knows the future is correct, but hides the fundamental truth that Rousseau stated above: on 8th June 2017 the british public are free and powerful. The truth of an election is not an inevitability but one that we as a country make happen. The choice of which narrative will-have-been-true is in our hands. This means the country have to take responsibility for the outcome: who gets in power and what they do with it is our fault, no matter how many lies they tell.
3. The truth will have been demonstrated on election day. This is the time for Corbyn to prove himself. And, should he lose, we all have to acknowledge that it was wrong to think he would ever win. The truth of Corbyn’s electability will have been established in the ballot on 8th June 2017, and there can be no attempt to cry foul. If he wins, the cynics need to get back in their box. If he loses, he absolutely must resign and his supporters need to recognise that their narrative was wrong, and the game is over.