Corbyn and New Labour: Don’t take the electorate for a hippopotamus

There is no doubt that Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall believe themselves to be in the appropriate political party. They would like to use it to introduce all sorts of radical changes in society. The problem, as they appear to see it, is the voting public. Ordinary people are, to put it bluntly, considerably more stupid and right-wing than they themselves are. They will not vote for progressive social and economic measures. The best that can be hoped for is that they can be nudged, like grumpy cantankerous hippopotamuses, in the right direction. They must be moved gently, without ever appearing to threaten their sense of security and comfort, as the electorate, if riled, will simply lash out, always in the wrong direction. Ordinary people are very susceptible to messages which appeal to their most base instincts, which trigger the sensitive defense mechanisms which surround their senses of identity and security, and appealing to those instincts remains the only proven way to get them to move in the direction you want them to — but only so far, because no matter how gently you try to persuade them, they will never step outside of their comfort zone.

This is New Labour electoral dogma. It is written through the DNA spirals of leadership candidates like a stick of rock. It dictated Harriet Harman’s admonition that Labour must not fall into Osbourne’s trap of being seen to oppose profoundly radical changes to the Welfare State. It is in right there marking the beat of the thoughts of each candidate as they voice their euphemisms about ‘economic credibility’. What has happened over the last few weeks is that it has been shown to be, as it were, hippopotamus shit. Ordinary people are, it transpires, infinitely more politically agile than their aspiring leaders. The effect of this revelation has been deeply traumatic for New Labour. Not only does it fundamentally challenge their view of the electorate and the world in general, it detonates a highly explosive package at the very core of their political identity. And so they are now exploding in all directions, turning in panic to the right-wing media and their emergency weapons of character assasination, trying even to dismantle at whatever cost the electoral apparatus they themselves established in the complacent certainty that voters would never have the courage or the wherewithal to consciously use it to further their own genuine interests.

They must now be aware that even if they managed to successfully rig the election, their shoehorned-in new leader would lack credibility to the extent that Labour would face a historic wipe-out in England similar to the one it has experienced in Scotland, with millions of voters lost to electoral apathy, the far-right and (hopefully) some sort of meaningful left alternative. They must know those things at some level, but the depth of the trauma occasioned by Corbyn’s imminent storming to victory is so great that they appear to have lost all sense of what they are doing and what it is destined to achieve. While the smears against Corbyn are designed to trigger the famous don’t-think-of-an-elephant effect, perhaps a fitting epitaph for New Labour could be: don’t take the electorate for a hippopotamus.

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