Political leaders and popular choices
There seems to be an interesting analogy between certain political developments in the UK and the USA.
After the last UK general election in May 2014 the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, resigned because the party had fared badly at the polls and a Conservative government had been elected. Election of a new leader was opened to the entire Labour Party membership, including newly-recruited members. The result was a landslide victory for Jeremy Corbyn. Many observers had suggested that the party had failed under Mr Miliband because his views were too far left of centre. Mr Corbyn’s views are considerably to the left of Mr Miliband’s, but because he seemed unconventional, by no means cut from the same professional-political cloth as his opponents, he appealed to an electorate who were jaded by what many of them regarded as mass-produced leadership contenders. However, Mr Corbyn is not at all popular with his fellow Labour MPs because they believe their party will be unelectable with him as leader, and ipso facto his position seems continually under threat.
In the USA, both major parties have been seeking nominations for new presidential candidates. Among Republican voters, the controversial Mr Trump has attracted the most votes; he is very much the popular choice, not least because of his outspoken views on many issues – which more conventional politicians would hesitate to express. As in the UK, a major party is on the verge of putting forward a leader who (to repeat my previous line) appeals to an electorate who have become jaded by what many of them regard as mass-produced leadership contenders. But Mr Trump is not at all popular with many Republican members of Congress, and several leading Republicans have expressed reservations about endorsing his nomination. They fear he will make their party unelectable.
Of course there are huge differences between Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn. One is brash and colourful and is happy to insult and offend his competitors; the other is quiet and apparently gentle, not given to aggression in debate. And of course, the two men stand more or less at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Yet both have appealed to large sections of the public because neither is a conventional twenty-first century political leader, and both are unpopular with their elected fellow party members.
This is not a comfortable situation for either country. If there is no effective opposition to the Conservative government in Westminster, and the Democrats are likely to enjoy at least four more years of power in Washington with a divided Republican party, then the effective functioning of representative democracy is handicapped. I have no idea how the problem can be solved, or its worst effects evaded, but if we can (conjecturally) extrapolate from the UK’s current experience, we can predict attempts to undermine Mr Trump’s position – not necessarily by clean or fair methods.
During the past week or two there have been accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour party, and Mr Corbyn seemed initially slow to accept the seriousness of those accusations and to take action to combat any hint of racism among party members. (He himself has an unimpeachable record as an anti-racist.) One of his young MPs, Naz Shah, who supports the cause of the Palastinian people, had posted a suggestion – before she was elected to parliament – that the state of Israel should be uprooted and transplanted to the USA, where it enjoys most support. This regrettable posting was discovered and made public in a transparent attempt to destabilise Mr Corbyn’s position. She made an unreserved, and I believe sincere, apology in the House of Commons, but to no avail: she was suspended from the party. Mr Corbyn’s hand had been forced. Other party members, including local councillors, who had made similar comments in the past were likewise exposed and suspended.
Worse was to follow. The former Labour Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, attempting to defend Naz Shah, tried to remind us that before the horrific death camps of the Second World War were instigated, Hitler had promoted the expulsion of Jewish people from Europe to what was then Palastine – to join the many Jewish people from around the world who were flocking to their ancestral homeland. Unfortunately, Mr Livingstone’s wording was badly chosen; he described Hitler as a “Zionist”. The fury of Jewish citizens (many of them Labour voters) was predictable and understandable. Mr Livingstone, a staunch supporter of Mr Corbyn, has now been suspended from the Labour Party, accused of anti-Semitism. He blames Mr Corbyn’s opponents in the party for deliberately misinterpreting him.
In my previous blog I commented on the value of simplicity and the danger of the simplistic. Opposition to Israel’s policies and support for the Palastinians, whether you agree with it or not, is by no means tantamount to anti-Semitism and should not be construed as such. But for those intent on the simplistic, it is too easy to level that accusation against Ms Shah, Mr Livingstone and others of similar mind; and there is little doubt that the motive has been to remove Mr Corbyn from the labour Party leadership.
Does it not seem likely that this kind of low-grade apology for thinking might also be turned against Mr Trump in the months or years to come?