What happened to the politics of principle?

We are told by politicians and political experts not to trust the polls. Yet, the panicking behaviour of a number of Labour party members in light of a recent poll suggests many do not heed this advice. According to the latest YouGov poll, in the first round of the Labour leadership contest Jeremy Corbyn is set to win 43% of the vote – 17% more than his closest rival.

Corbyn’s ascent in the Labour leadership contest has bemused commentators on both sides of the political spectrum. He is politically and physically speaking not what you’d expect a modern day Labour leader to be. For example, unlike Miliband, Brown and Blair, Corbyn wants to end Britain’s nuclear weapons programme and perhaps even more controversially, the monarchy. His views have been derided by some as Marxist and although not true, his outlook is more to the left than many in the Labour party are comfortable with. He’s also old enough to withdraw a state pension and if he were to become Prime Minister in 2020 and would be the oldest British Prime Minister since Lord Palmerston in 1845. Given these factors, his current position as favourite to succeed Miliband as leader seems almost implausible.

Yet is Corbyn’s s success really that surprising? Perhaps not. The three alternative candidates- Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall-have all so far failed to provide the party with both a credible and desirable vision. On the one hand Burnham and Cooper appear content to continue with Miliband’s failed strategy whilst on the other Liz Kendall seemingly wants a return to an equally unappealing Blairite ideology. Character-wise the latest polls suggest that none of the candidates are Prime Ministerial either. At least with Corbyn it could be argued you are getting a man who has views and principles which amount to more than just soundbites.

As we can now infer, many Labour MPs-such as Margaret Beckett-only selected Corbyn in the leadership contest to widen the debate, not to provide a platform for him to win it. It would seem their motives came from a desire to ridicule the left and to rid the Labour party once and for all of any of its remaining socialist tendencies. Yet such a plan has seemingly failed and now even Blair -who could be regarded as the figurehead of the anti left movement – has himself waded into the debate; underlining further the sense of panic and division within the party.  The Conservatives have unsurprisingly watched these developments with glee; the Daily Telegraph has even started a campaign to get Corbyn elected as they believe it would not only serve to divide the Labour party but keep it out of power for a generation.

As a keen political onlooker I do not share the Tories’ excitement nor the Labour party’s obsessive concern to find the ‘electable candidate’. In fact I find both reactions to be deeply disturbing. Politics should be about a battle of ideas. Politicians should be there to argue over principles and ideology. Instead, as symbolised by this leadership contest, today’s politician appears to be more concerned with staying in tune with public opinion than putting forward an agenda which they believe in. What has happened to the politics of principle?  Where are the conviction politicians? Where are today’s Churchill and Thatcher?

Tony Blair’s government’s reliance on focus groups as part of the policy formulating process has often been seen as the trigger for this new style of politics with similar strategies being carried on by both Brown and Cameron. In listening more closely to people’s concerns, it could be argued that even though Westminster is still largely made up of an Oxbridge elite,  MPs are now far more in touch with issues that matter to ordinary people. This is of course in itself a positive development, yet I can’t help but think that in focussing so much on giving the public what they want, the role of a politician is increasingly being reduced to mere rubber stamping and the differences between political parties reduced in everything but name. It is no wonder that the electorate feels disenfranchised – political parties no longer provide people with a real choice.

Of course, it is important that politicians remain aware of how the public sits on issues, after all MPs are there to represent the views of the electorate; for them to constantly act deaf-eared even if it is done so on the basis of principle is irresponsible. Yet having politicians who all seem to speak from the same script is unlikely to spark widespread interest in many important matters, nor entice the average voter into engaging in political debate.  If politicians are to prevent the public from sleepwalking into apathy, the Westminster script needs to be torn up and a fresh approach to politics installed. To engage the public, politicians need to stop listening to polls and start using their own voice. That way, real debates can be initiated and real alternatives over who to vote for provided.

Jeremy Corbyn is a man who isn’t afraid to use his own voice and subsequently people are taking note. Unlike his rivals, Corbyn is interested first not in what other people think of him but rather providing his vision for the country. Whether you agree with him or not, in this day and age where more and more people are becoming politically disengaged, Corbyn’s approach to politics is both refreshing and admirable. Unfortunately though, the political elite seem keen to stick to focus group philosophy and this is endangering the UK democratic process. For the health of British politics let’s hope that Corbyn’s success can initiate changes to the way politics is conducted so that politicians of all persuasions can provide the electorate with a real choice as to how the country will be managed and governed in the future.