Thursday 13 August 2015

On 'principled' politics

The political scientist Samuel Finer once noticed a simple truth about French political parties. Their names were inversely related to their actual position on the political spectrum. The 'Radical Party' was nothing like radical and the Socialist Party was anything but socialist.

I was reminded of this observation when listening to supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, the Jesus Christ superstar of the New Left in the UK. The tenor of their answer when asked why they support Corbyn is that he is a man of principles, standing up for what he believes in.

The implication is that the other candidates (and politicians in general) are not principled and that this makes for bad politics. I disagree. Politics is the art of the possible and good politicians are those that can jettison their principles at the right moment. So why are Corbyn's supporters so enamoured with 'principled politics'?

I believe there are two aspects of modern politics that have always been difficult to accept for the wider public. The first one is pluralism and diversity of opinions, the second is the notion of the public good as a result of bargaining or negotiation between collective interests.

The first aspect is underpinned by the popular belief that everybody must have the same views as me. Political psychologists call this confirmation bias and it manifests itself in the way we select which TV News we listen to just as much as who we choose as our friends. We prefer having our own opinions validated by others. And, saturated by views similar to our own, we start to believe that there are only people like us in the world. Dianne Abbott's support for Jeremy Corbyn is a good example. Only a few weeks ago she still believed that Corbyn could never win an election. Having attended (too many?) meetings of his supporters she is now adamant that he will sweep to victory in 2020.

Incidentally, the issue of a pluralist society containing a range of diverse views does not bother anybody of socialist conviction. Those on the extreme left have a simple retort to those disagreeing with them. Dissenters are simply mistaken and taken in by bourgeois propaganda, espousing a 'false consciousness'.

The second, more complex, issue is the fact that in a society with differing views and interests, any consensus about the public good is inevitably a result of negotiation and bargaining, with painful compromises for all sides. This is anathema for purists of the political process. They deplore principles being the bargaining tools in the political process. As uncomfortable as this may sound to any advocate of principled politics, this second aspect of modern politics flows naturally from the first, if you throw in the only principle that cannot be jettisoned in any modern society: the freedom to make up your own mind and to express it in public. This is why, to Corbyn's supporters, confirmation bias, plurality of opinions and negotiations are non-sensical. For them, freedom to think differently is just an awkward logical error on the way to a future where we naturally all think the same. So when Corbyn's supporters praise his principled stance, what they actually rail against is the freedom to have your own mind.

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