Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Expressive and Instrumental

One of the persistent, thematic criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party, and the motivation of his supporters among the membership, has been that it is expressive rather than instrumental. In other words, it is about striking intellectually-satisfying poses rather than knuckling down to the hard work - and by implication compromises and securing power - needed to get things done. This was kicked off back in August by Peter Kellner, who ironically trades in the expressive at YouGov, but is obviously a much older trope in politics and one that has been used to attack progressive or reformist policies since the 18th century. It's a false dichotomy. Policy is usually a combination of the two, rather than exclusively one or the other. For example, the abolition of the slave trade was pursued instrumentally (minimising both the economic losses to slave-owners and the empowerment of freed slaves) but publicised expressively.

To paint an individual, let alone a faction or party, as committed to one or the other is simply to dismiss their credibility: you don't care about power because you're a dilettante; you have no ethical scruples so everything you do is suspect. It is far more useful to dissect a policy via these two dimensions. The chief criticism of David Cameron's plan to bomb Daesh in Syria is that it is insufficiently instrumental. Indeed, the evidence of the current bombing campaign in Iraq, which has failed to significantly degrade ISIS, is that the government is attracted to extending the area of operations precisely because it is largely expressive. To take another example in the realm of national security, many senior members of the armed forces consider Trident to be wholly expressive, having no real instrumental value.

The charge of expressive self-indulgence has been taken up by "Bagehot" in the Economist, who reckons that Labour "is increasingly two parties: a moderate, instrumental one and a hard-left, expressive one". What is significant about this analysis is the equivalence of these impulses with positions on the political spectrum, thus continuing the "leftist dreamers" versus "moderate realists" trope of Kellner, which can ultimately be traced all the way back to Edmund Burke. This immediately becomes a source of mirth when Bagehot tries to imagine a positive future: "Mr Corbyn is rapidly ousted; Mr Benn replaces him as a caretaker; the membership churns in moderates' favour; Mr Benn is replaced by a younger, more dynamic and more centrist leader. Labour chance of winning the 2020 election: 40-50%".

The suggestion of a Bennite coup (a meme launched at the weekend by John McTernan in the Telegraph) is funny in itself, but what elevates this scenario to the realm of the surreal is the idea that it would give "Labour’s moderates time and space to recruit thousands of middle-ground members". This conjures up an army that is no less a fantasy than David Cameron's 70,000 Syrian democrats. It also prompts an obvious question: if the policies of the "moderates" in Labour were so attractive, why did party membership halve between 1997 and 2008? The real dichotomy here (i.e. a clear division, not just contrasting tendencies) is between Corbyn's preference for a mass-membership party versus the Blairites preference for a managerialist party in which a self-perpetuating and entitled elite exclude the membership from policy formation.

Tony Blair oversaw a successful recruitment drive in the mid-90s to win power, but that went into reverse due to a combination of neglect once in office and the disappointment of many members at "moderate" policies in action, notably the failure to reverse the marketisation of the NHS and the Tories's anti-union legislation, and the embrace of workfare. The current fear being expressed by the Labour right in the PLP at the bogey of Momentum is not about the return of early-80s entryism and aggressive deselection, but the devolution of power to the CLPs. For all the media coverage of union influence in candidate selection battles, the real change that occurred during the Blair years was the increasing centralisation of the selection process and the parachuting of metropolitan "stars" into safe Labour seats in the North.

The farce of the Oldham West by-election is that a genuinely "moderate" and local candidate is being undermined by the party right through the media in an attempt to damage Corbyn. Bagehot in the Economist talks hopefully of "a by-election that could see Labour's huge majority slashed by the UK Independence Party, which is storming ahead among nationalist, working-class voters horrified by Mr Corbyn's pacifism and unorthodox views on national security". The Guardian has been particularly active on this front, to the point of deliberately trying to revive UKIP's political fortunes. For the increasingly bitter Rafael Behr, "Jeremy Corbyn is just another face of  'poncified' Labour", which just goes to show that an attack on the expressive is usually expressive itself. In trying to paint Corbyn as a centraliser - "another iteration of tin-eared disregard for local sensibilities" - he is not advocating more power to the CLPs, but patronising the constituents of Oldham West as ignorant, parochial bigots who have no common interests with the constituents of Islington North.

The historical irony is that the current Labour leadership is more deserving of the adjective "moderate" than a belligerent, neoliberal right that is still banging on about the need to be business-friendly and to export a narrow interpretation of democracy and western civilisation to other countries. To put it into international perspective, Corbyn and McDonnell's economic policy is Icelandic, their social policy Canadian, and their foreign policy Japanese. It is a measure of how far the Labour party has swung to the right that this social democracy tribute should be seen as radical rather than moderate. What struck me about the backbench response to John McDonnell's ill-judged little red book prop was not the frustration at an advantage literally thrown away, but the visceral hatred. For all the tactical errors of the leadership, there is a noticeable lack of strategic calculation and coolness by the rest of the PLP, which bubbles up in the frothing madness of McTernan and the contempt of Behr.

If we think about this in dynamic terms - the shifting tides of sentiment that flow one way and then the other - the Labour right would be advised to allow the party to tack to the "moderate left" until it could rebuild its own intellectual momentum, but the defining characteristic of the "resistance" to Corbyn has been its intransigence, which has been the chief source of the "chaos" eagerly broadcast by the media. A more rational position would hold party unity to be of greater value than back-seat participation in a Tory-organised drive-by shooting. While this implacability is not quite at the level of Daesh, it is sufficiently disruptive to cause Labour unnecessary problems and give the impression that the right would happily countenance electoral defeat just to be able to say "I told you so". In other words, they are anything but instrumental.


  1. You've hit the bullseye again here.

    It was only a matter of time before a huge chunk of the PLP signed up fully to There Is No Alternative. Like MacDonald I'm afraid someone is going to have to ask them to leave, because they haven't got the decency to get out and join the National Government themselves.

  2. Rather like many supporters of air strikes, wrt Corbyn the PLP doesn't seem to have considered what comes next. Even if they could manoeuvre a coup against him, where does it leave them? They don't have a credible candidate (in the real meaning of the word). You can tell that because their friendly media is quick to punt anybody who makes a third decent fist of a single speech at the latest new successor (viz Hilary Benn). But they have no real support in the party, indeed the party will be furious. But they are narcissistic enough at the moment not to care. It's all about them. Because (apparently) they think they're worth it.

  3. One other thing - how come McTernan keeps getting the gigs on TV? His record is appalling, having been intrinsically involved in the Scottish referendum and general election campaigns. And he is transparently somebody who goes into the bathroom to have an argument with himself.

  4. The entertaining ironies of the instrumental / expressive analysis which you set out could be extended further to an analysis of the entire macro economy. Osborne's idiotic fiscal stance, which is blind to stock/flow constraints and willfully uses an empirically refuted low multiplier value, is presented by the media as instrumental (TINA) but is entirely expressive, while the monetary side is wholly expressive in terms of expectations management, but is rationalised as instrumental in the DSGE framework.

  5. Herbie Kills Children3 December 2015 at 17:50

    Corbyn has backed himself into a corner with this Mr nice guy shtick.

    Hilary Benn should not be tolerated, i am still throwing up over his speech. How can the foreign secretary of a party hold views that are in direct contradiction to the members of the party and the leader! This is madness! Dissent is acceptable from the backbenches only! You keep a few dissenters to keep up the appearance of plurality. Page one stuff guys.

  6. They are not called Daesh. They are called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. I don't like them anymore than you, but that's what they're called.

    1. Daesh is an Arabic acronym: Al Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham, which means Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. The last bit is a traditional moniker for Syria and Lebanon.

      As a word, Daesh is also a close homophone of "daw’aish", which essentially means bigots who impose their views or sow discord. In other words, Daesh has become the popular term among Arabs who oppose the group and wish to show their contempt.

      It's a bit like Spurs fans referring to their traditional rivals as "the Arse". Of course, Arsenal fans have rehabilitated the word ("we're all going up the Arse" etc). Daesh have yet to do likewise because they lack a sense of humour.

    2. Do music journalists now have to refer to 'so-called 808-State'?

    3. David Cameron wants me to call them Daesh, so ISIS it is then.