What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason,
How infinite in faculty? In form and moving how express and admirable!
In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a God!
The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals.
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights me not.
Shakespeare. Hamlet. Act 11 Scene 2
‘People get the government they deserve,’ is a well-known saying, but it’s never the whole story. Governments get elected on fears and feelings or aspirations and ideals. Politicians will talk of manifestoes and policies from dawn to dusk, assiduously attend the hustings from one end of the country to the other, but what they’re always doing is playing on people’s emotions: either evoking atavistic fears or appealing to higher social ideals. Both approaches are based on a particular view of humanity. As Hamlet says, either humanity is something wondrous, embodying beauty, intelligence, nobility and imagination; a being of the greatest worth. Or it’s nothing but dust, containing no qualities, values or delight; a being that has no worth.
If a government has been elected out of fear, those elected politicians will always be stoking fear, barricading behind fear, trading on fear. If a government has been elected from aspiration, those elected politicians will be increasing aspiration, removing obstacles to aspiration, acting with aspiration. (I’m using aspiration in the philosophical sense, meaning those qualities which are progressive, idealistic, pioneering and developmental.) Not just government elections but elections for the leaders of political parties also embody this dichotomy. As is currently happening in the election for leader of the Labour Party.
Each choice naturally reveals how the electorate perceive themselves and therefore what they consider to be the nature of existence. If a people are voting out of fear then they see themselves as prey to predators, the nature of existence to be adversarial and combative, and their personal needs and survival to be ensured at all costs. If a people are voting out of aspiration then they see themselves as part of a greater whole, the nature of existence to be a common endeavour dependent on mutual responsibility, and their personal needs and survival to be of equal value to the needs and survival of others.
The actual election process is always more complex, as political parties vie for power and design ‘electable’ policies, but the fundamental split of fear versus aspiration remains. Unless, that is, the main contenders in an election begin to trade on, and offer only one of these – as happened in the General election of 2015 in Britain, with Tories and Labour.
English politics has for decades been defined by the Tory and the Labour parties. The Tories sowing fear and offering protection, creating a citadel and siege mentality, i.e. they declare that society is under attack from within and without, and if the voters give them the keys to the citadel- governmental power – they’ll protect them. In the last two general elections, the Tories brilliantly capitalised on the fears of the electorate (I acknowledge the part played by the media and other interests). The Labour party has traditionally been the party that offered an alternative view of society and humanity with policies that recognised entrenched inequalities and endeavoured to create processes to change them. However, from the time of Margaret Thatcher, and after losing the 2010 general election, the Labour party also began to sup at the table of fear. By 2015, it had become so fearful of the Tories winning another election that it took on their fears.
If an electorate’s votes are going to be based on fear it may as well vote for the Masters of Fear rather than the new pretenders to the title, and thus, in the 2015 election, the Tories stormed home to electoral victory. The Labour Party got mauled, battered and beaten.
Those who would have voted for an aspirational government, traditionally the Labour Party, had been left without anyone to vote for. They became disillusioned, disappointed and wearily discouraged; many even began to consider the unthinkable, joining other parties which might embody at least some of their aspirational values.
In the meantime, as often happens with defeat, a quiet bloodletting had occurred, heads had rolled – the Labour Party leader had resigned and a leadership election had begun. The appropriate candidates began to talk of ‘electable policies,’ and all was proceeding predictably and smoothly: everyone was in their comfort zone. When a little earthquake started to rumble, rise, and crack the status quo!
A new candidate had entered the arena. A softly spoken, 66 year old of rather rumpled appearance: Jeremy Corbyn, MP, who’s served on the backbenches for 32 years. Suddenly, the leadership contest was hi-jacked by excitement, passion, enthusiasm and fervour. Thousands of people joined the Labour party particularly to vote for him. The aspirational and disheartened, who had been cast adrift, were magnetised, engaged and galvanised! People travelled by train, car, bike or bus to listen to speeches. Halls and conference centres were packed to overflowing and social media buzzed with energy and enthusiasm.
And what’s caused this exhilaration? What new, glittering and alluring promises has Jeremy Corbyn offered? None actually. He’s done the opposite. He’s offered something old and forgotten – Labour’s own policies. A reclamation of Labour’s traditional aims: a reclamation of aspiration. The tremendous support that’s catalysed demonstrates there is significant strength for the idea that man cannot live by fear alone.
Sadly, the fearful Labour Party has fearfully lined up to rubbish Corbyn; denounce his proposals and warn of doom and disaster if he’s elected. Sublimely disregarding the fact that the party has already suffered doom and disaster on the very policies they’re still espousing. And sublimely forgetting this is the age of the internet, YouTube, statistics and information. Jeremy Corbyn’s record of 32 years has been examined, his speeches have been read, his YouTube clips have been watched; his integrity and consistency have been examined and evaluated. People have made up their own minds and deduced that Corbyn works from Labour’s intrinsic aims – as they wish to. That his view of humanity synchronises with theirs.
A routine, party leadership contest has turned into a national and philosophical event; ignited soul-searching and discussion about what individuals want for themselves, for society, and from their politicians. It appears to me, to a lesser or greater degree, there is a rejection of the citadel-siege mentality, the predatory Darwinian view, and an articulation of the aspiring view of humanity, which deems human beings to be of worth, entitled to dignity, equality and opportunity; to have moral duties and responsibilities not only to the self and family, but the wider social body.
“We are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain, good and great purpose…’ (Michael Foot, leader of the Labour Party 1980-83, quoted by Norman Mailer.)*
“We need leaders who understand that governing means uniting and building coalitions, not dividing and conquering…. Leaders who will use discretion and good judgment. We need elected officials that do not represent the status quo. ….
“… passion and an ability to consider views that you may not agree with. … We’re in a global world where diversity is an asset not a threat.”
(‘We don’t need politicians – we need leaders.’ Ritch K. Eich. Article published in ‘The Hill.’)
* Requoted by Euan Ferguson. The Observer. 16. 08. 2015.)