Political science, punditry, and the Corbyn problem

Abstract

Jeremy Corbyn’s continued leadership of the Labour party has been contrary to the publicly stated expectations of many pundits and political scientists. This punditry has underpinned coverage of Corbyn and his Labour party that continually plays out in print, broadcast and social media. My claim is that the manner in which Corbyn and his supporters were discussed by prominent political scientists and pundits was reflective of a dismissive underlying attitude towards the political dynamics that his candidacy and subsequent leadership represent. In this paper, I do three things. First, I identify a group of intensely politically involved individuals who collectively hold the power to shape shared political meanings and understandings and locate some British political scientists within it. Second, I outline five points of opposition that this group had to Corbyn, demonstrating that although these maintain an appearance of objectivity, they are nonetheless normative in nature and largely conform to a dominant ideological standpoint seemingly shared among the group. Third, I reflect on the role of British political science in this context, raising concerns that our inculcation into this group might be affecting our academic endeavours as well as how we present ourselves and our work to the wider public.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    https://www.psa.ac.uk/psa/news/expert-predictions-2017-general-election-survey-stephen-fisher-chris-hanretty-and-will; https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/24/labour-facing-election-wipeout-polls-suggest-tory-majority-150/; https://www.independent.co.uk/News/uk/politics/election-poll-latest-tory-win-results-corbyn-theresa-may-a7777781.html [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  2. 2.

    https://twitter.com/jg_ccpress; https://twitter.com/theobertram; https://twitter.com/hopisen; https://twitter.com/markpack [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  3. 3.

    I am not attacking anyone for doing any of these things—indeed, I have done all of them myself.

  4. 4.

    https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/05/stupid-stupid-votes/ [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  5. 5.

    https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/amis-on-corbyn-undereducated-humourless-third-rate-dhvgj99fjxv [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  6. 6.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/Jeremy_Corbyn/11957216/Jeremy-Corbyn-is-too-thick-to-be-Prime-Minister.html [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  7. 7.

    https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/03/corbyns-celebrity-supporters-arent-just-wrong-theyre-wrong-for-the-wrong-reasons [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  8. 8.

    https://www.economist.com/news/britain/21724827-labours-leader-will-badly-disappoint-his-young-supporters-jeremy-corbyn-and-bourgeois-dream [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  9. 9.

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/18/momentum-activists-labour-jeremy-corbyn-feature [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  10. 10.

    https://twitter.com/MarinaHyde/status/938038534459609090 [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  11. 11.

    It is also worth noting that Hyde invokes a sporting metaphor to describe politics, a hallmark of this genre of political commentary.

  12. 12.

    See this example from Hyde herself - https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/16/always-be-donald-trump-truth-politics-post-fact-world [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  13. 13.

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/Jeremy_Corbyn/11818430/Jeremy-Corbyns-young-fans-are-fools-they-dont-know-how-lucky-they-are.html [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  14. 14.

    https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/margaret-beckett-attacks-jeremy-corbyn-fan-club_uk_57b17c40e4b01ec53b3fa198 [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  15. 15.

    https://news.sky.com/story/jeremy-corbyn-professional-protester-turned-leader-10862865 [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  16. 16.

    https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2015/10/arnie-graf-corbynmania-feels-like-student-politics-not-people-trying-to-form-a-government/ [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  17. 17.

    https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/june2017/2017/04/theresa-may-s-stage-managed-election-campaign-keeps-public-bay [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  18. 18.

    https://www.economist.com/britain/2017/06/01/labours-surge-is-giving-the-tories-a-fright [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  19. 19.

    https://twitter.com/estwebber/status/871813522128338954 [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  20. 20.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-andrew-crines/jeremy-corbyn_b_16528038.html [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  21. 21.

    https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/other/labour-has-moved-outside-the-zone-of-acceptability [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  22. 22.

    Indeed, some political scientists explicitly invoke Downs while discussing Corbyn in public, e.g. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/is-labour-really-too-left-wing-to-win-an-election/. [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  23. 23.

    https://www.ft.com/content/dfe26fea-300b-11e7-9555-23ef563ecf9a [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  24. 24.

    Tony Blair (2010, p.70) writes in his memoir, ‘The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long … For most normal people, politics is a distant, occasionally irritating fog. Failure to comprehend this is a fatal flaw in most politicians.’

  25. 25.

    If we examine the winners of various PSA Awards relating to communication and public understanding of politics, it is notable that the winners are primarily drawn from sections of the discipline focusing on elections to, the workings of, and opinion about formal political institutions. Full lists of winners are available at https://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/PSA%20Awards%20Winners%20by%20Category%20up%20to%202016.pdf [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  26. 26.

    http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2017/05/09/brexit-wasn-t-enough-they-re-trying-to-make-this-an-election [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  27. 27.

    https://twitter.com/gsoh31/status/926782141505069057. [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  28. 28.

    https://twitter.com/gsoh31/status/873975872054865921; https://medium.com/@youngvulgarian/some-thoughts-on-the-past-two-years-dce3c1968de7 and https://twitter.com/youngvulgarian/status/873567700483747841. [last accessed 02-06-2018].

  29. 29.

    https://twitter.com/philipjcowley/status/873126227103457280. [last accessed 02-06-2018].

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Acknowledgements

Thanks are offered to Nick Clarke, Jonathan Dean and David S. Moon for providing written comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks are also due to audiences at the University of Bath, University of Leeds, the John W Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, and the 2018 American Political Science Association Annual Meeting for comments on various presented versions of these ideas.

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Allen, P. Political science, punditry, and the Corbyn problem. Br Polit 15, 69–87 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-019-00115-6

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Keywords

  • Political science
  • Jeremy Corbyn
  • British politics
  • Power
  • Epistemic snobbery
  • Political punditry