Peter Bye

Ed Miliband resigned the leadership of the British Labour Party immediately following the party’s unexpectedly heavy defeat in the May 2015 general election. The resignation triggered a contest for leadership of the party.

Nominations for leadership candidates are made by members of the parliamentary party – the MPs. Each successful candidate requires the support of at least 15% (currently 35 members) of the MPs. Three candidates – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendal – quickly cleared this number. A fourth candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, only just made it before the time ran out for nominations. Mr Corbyn, who has been MP for the London Islington North constituency since 1983, holds views to the left, even well to the left, of the other candidates. Some of those who proposed him did so simply on the grounds that a wide spectrum of views should be debated. He was given little chance of becoming leader.

To general surprise, Mr Corbyn’s campaign has taken off: he is the current favourite to win. His meetings have been well-attended and lively, with support coming in particular from young people, not just others with similar left position. Comments are made on the sincerity and consistency of his views and proposed policies, and how he differs in style and policies from the rest of the political establishment.

While I have opinions about Mr Corbyn’s policy proposals, I don’t intend to discuss them here. Rather, I am interested in why it is that significant policy differences between parties should be seen as good. Indeed, a reason often given for the relatively low turnout at elections today is that the parties all have similar policies. Yet various senior politicians, including former Labour Party grandees, believe that elections are won in the centre. The evidence of election results points in that direction: when parties in Britain have moved away from the centre, they lose elections.

Could it be that the centre ground, combined with a relatively cautious approach, is a reasonable way to govern? It may not be exciting, but there is no reason why effective government has to set the world on fire. Utopian visions of a new millennium have frequently led to disaster: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ was followed by the Terror.

Governing Britain, and other democracies for that matter, is difficult. (I doubt it has ever been easy!). Round the clock news coverage and aggressive media put intense pressure on governments. They have to be seen constantly to be doing something, respond instantly to questions and take care not to make a gaffe which goes viral on social media.

Hence the importance of a cautious, pragmatic approach. Policies should be based on evidence, not, as I argued in an earlier piece, the other way round. A complicating factor is that circumstances may change and, with the best will in the world, things may not go as expected; the law of unintended consequences is powerful. Policies should be implemented in stages, reviewing what happens and making changes if required. Karl Popper argued for this approach vastly more eloquently than I could ever do.

One particular factor emphasising the importance of a considered, step-wise approach is that governments must somehow bridge conflicts between incompatible goods, a key theme of Isaiah Berlin, another great 20th century thinker. An example very much in the news is the need to reconcile security with privacy. Both are valuable but increasing security may have consequences for privacy. Another example is the right to free speech versus the promotion of extreme, often violent views expressed by ideological fanatics. Managing these conflicts is difficult, so caution is required.

Perhaps the goal governments should aim for, and citizens accept, is incremental improvement based on evidence. It may be rather boring but is likely to be effective.

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