Those who backed Corbyn from the start feel they have been vindicated—but if they were right, they were right by accident. That won't doby Alex Dean / June 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Those who study philosophy are often accused of having their heads in the clouds, happier pondering arcane points of logic than thinking about the world as we actually experience it. There is some truth to this. But reflecting on the shock general election result a week or so ago, it occurs to me that one particular philosophical argument can shed light on an actual, real-world event. It is an argument found in epistemology, or the study of knowledge, and concerns something called “justified, true belief.” As far as I can make out it is, unusually for a philosophical argument, erm, useful.
First, the politics. Jeremy Corbyn, we must admit, delivered a breathtaking result on 8th June. He can, as veteran psephologist David Butler put it to me last week, “take great heart” from his party’s performance. Under Corbyn’s stewardship, the Labour Party improved on its 2015 result on almost every measure: it gained 30 seats, winning 262 in total, and won 40 per cent of the vote—that’s up 10 per cent on the last time, its biggest increase in one go since Attlee.
Corbyn’s success appears most remarkable when set against the low expectations held for him, but even in absolute terms his party has come out in exceptional shape.
Those in Labour’s ranks who backed Corbyn from the start—when he ran for the leadership in 2015—are, predictably, jubilant. We can permit them this: all the think pieces which argued the Labour leader was wholly unelectable (and I am guilty of writing a few of those) have been disproved. As understandable as this Corbynite jubilation are the apologies from Labour’s moderate commentators, who have conceded defeat.
Understandable is one thing; justified is another. Corbynites who maintained their leader’s relative electability were right; Corbynsceptics who disagreed were wrong. Yet this is only half the picture: just as important are the reasons that these respective beliefs were held by each camp. The latter had plenty of good ones, the former had few. (This is where the philosophy will come in.)
“There is a long history of young people telling pollsters they will vote and then doing no such thing”
Consider, to begin with, Labour’s poor position in the polls throughout most of the campaign. When Theresa May called the election in April, the Tories had a 20-point lead over Corbyn’s party: the result of a dismal poll slide over many months.
Many—indeed, most Labour members continued to support him at this low-point. Knowing what we do now, were they right to? It seems clear that they were not. No matter what the result turned out to be, at the time there was little evidence that Corbynism could win anyone over, and a lot of evidence—20 points’ worth of evidence—that it couldn’t. There was no sign of the improvement in Corbyn’s performance that came later.
Nor were Corbyn’s supporters justified in arguing that high turnout among the young would save him. After the election was called, many insisted that 18-25 year olds would rally to their man. We know now that 59 per cent of them cast a ballot last week—15 per cent up on 2015.
Were the Corbynites, who were proven right, justified in making their argument? Again, not really. There is a long history of young people telling pollsters they will vote and then doing no such thing. Moderates were right to treat the promise of youth turnout with the deepest suspicion—even though, this time, it proved correct.
Consider a final point. Last month, Labour recorded some dire local election results, losing 142 council seats while in opposition. Opposition parties tend to substantially underperform their local election performances in subsequent general elections. Those who maintained the Labour leader would buck the trend didn’t have privileged access to some numbers the rest of us didn’t; frankly, they took a shot in the dark. It happened to pay off, but that’s besides the point.
“Remember: the Corbynites were right by accident, and in spite of the evidence”
This is where that argument from epistemology comes in. For millennia, philosophers have argued over the definition of knowledge, and one account has been particularly popular: the “justified, true belief” account. This is thought by many to have originated with Plato, though the experts can’t quite make up their minds. The argument is this: for a belief to qualify as knowledge, it must first be true: you cannot know something which isn’t the case. But crucially, it must also be justified, with convincing reasons for it being held.
The problem for the Corbynite is the second half of the definition. Sure, Corbyn is electable, or at least a lot more electable than many thought—but how could anyone be said to have known that in advance when the available evidence so suggested the opposite? (Philosophers differ on the philosophical merit of this account, but as a first pass at something which captures our basic understanding of what knowledge is, it does a fair job.)
In drawing lessons for the future, Labourites must exercise the utmost caution. The party must now come together—and it seems that it will. Butler told me he thinks Corbyn is “secure for quite a while now in his leadership.” One Labour grandee told me that “Corbyn is safe”—at least, as he put it, “for the time being.”
If all members and MPs unite behind Corbyn, Labour is in with a real shot at the next election. But remember: the Corbynites were right by accident, and in spite of the evidence.
In one sense this bolsters their achievement: they defied not just the Blairites but the numbers too. And some humility from the moderates is in order. But as the party’s left makes suggestions going forward, be wary. Philosophically speaking, they are in dodgy territory. They don’t always know what they think they know.