Featured image courtesy the Huffington Post
“It’s all about conventional wisdom: The powers that be decide early on who is going to win, and they don’t want their narrative disturbed.”- Koenen
The idea of a plucky underdog fighting his way to victory is common in stories, but that’s not true in war; in the real world. In an actual setting, a bunch of plucky heroes trying to make up for a lack of numbers and equipment with sheer heart and determination, tend to get brutally ripped apart by the well trained guys who have resources, tanks and guns. And that’s how it always happens- this includes the world of politics where vested interests and ‘cut-throatism’ rules the roost. According to a study, co-authored by University of South Florida associate professor of psychology Joseph Vandello, ‘People intuitively appreciate the appeal of an underdog. But there has been little research on how the underdog label in politics impacts voter attitudes, preferences and voting behavior.”
However, there are good examples. It happened in the case of US President Barack Obama and of President Maithripala Sirisena in Sri Lanka. Barack Obama winning the primaries in the US was a good example. The chatter in the corridors of power before the elections would have run thus ‘The day a black man becomes president, hogs will fly.’ They must have therefore felt pretty silly on Inauguration Day. The same sentiments would have been expressed when the underdog Maithripala Sirisena offered to stand up against the mighty Rajapaksa whom everyone thought was invincible. But the people of Sri Lanka voted the reigning King away to wilderness against all predictions both scientific and horoscopic, when the underdog had a clear message to the electorate that his ways of governance will be more democratic and people friendly.
The UK Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s story of how he surmounted the enormous relentless challenges to his leadership will provide an apt case study for political scientists, on how political underdogs fare in actual life. Corbyn has always been something of an underdog in British politics . He was the underdog in last year’s Labour leadership election, yet he defeated the odds with 60% of the vote. He was the underdog even thereafter, with many of his critics believing he was not electable. After a near savage and an exhausting contest, Jeremy Corbyn however won the UK’s Labour Leader’s election a week ago for the second time in two years by a landslide, securing 62% of the votes cast against his rival Owen Smith’s 38% . True, Corbyn hasn’t won the mantle of State power yet; but it is foolhardy for the Tories and his Labour critics to underestimate this indefatigable character.
The result itself was not surprising to most political observers, but certainly confounded his critics, against the backdrop of a highly charged but negative campaign launched against him by many of his parliamentary colleagues as well as the powerful Media. It is difficult to think of a greater defiance of political odds in modern times. The reasoning of the Labour MPs attempting to remove him was that he is incapable of leading them effectively (citing his lack of active campaigning in favour of “Remain” in the Brexit Referendum) , and more pertinently therefore unable to win a General Election and become Prime Minister. Labour MPs attempted to turf him out of his office in a botched coup at a time of national crisis, and 172 members of the parliamentary Labour party voted no-confidence in his leadership. This was despite the fact that in the post- election period, the Labour membership almost trebled , making Labour the largest social-democratic party in the Western world. In this backdrop, his enormous victory was not just a fluke or an accident , but rather a swim against the high-tide- Not surprisingly an inspiration to the underdogs who face similar challenges to seek fairness and social justice in a world virtually ‘owned’ and ruled by a select few, not just in Britain but beyond as well.
According to an exclusive study from The Media Reform Coalition and Birkbeck, University of London, ‘The online and television media showed “clear and consistent bias” against Jeremy Corbyn at the start of the Labour leadership coup, and accusing the BBC of giving twice as much airtime to Corbyn’s critics than to his supporters on some programmes during the crisis. The results of another study undertaken by the LSE’s Media and Communications Department, also showed that Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press though a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy. He was also systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been. Even more problematic, the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK. The result has been a failure to give the newspaper reading public a fair opportunity to form their own judgements about the leader of the country’s main opposition.
According to Media observers, the overall conclusion from this is that , UK journalism played an attack-dog, rather than a watchdog role in the case of Corbyn. This is unhealthy from a democratic point of view and poses serious ethical questions as to the role of the media in democracy. Thus, ironically even in Britain, which claims to be a bastion of democratic ideals of free speech, concentration of media ownership in the hands of three companies allows for a tiny clique in Britain to effectively control the flow of information to 65 million people. Their power to do so is not held to any meaningful account, and their willingness to use their position to subvert the democratic will should not be doubted.
Why is this hurricane antipathy towards Corbyn? Jeremy Corbyn is an unconventional party leader in a British context, more left-wing than previous leaders of the Labour Party, contesting the neoliberal common sense and promoting an anti-austerity and anti-war agenda. Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party was an earthquake in politics which reflected a deep disillusionment in the political and economic system. His tenure in that position has been shaped by a media environment which is no less in need of such an earthquake. The political, media and business establishment has been working to bring him down as leader of the opposition. It was about more than immolating Labour under Corbyn in the hope of removing him. It was about squeezing out of political life the new political surge he represents, and in the backdrop of the Post-Brexit atmosphere of greater politicisation, his expanding reach especially among the less privileged, became a potent threat to the establishment.
As Corbyn’s main ally, his shadow Chancellor McDonnell said ‘The establishment was trying to use the media to “destroy” the Labour leadership through the “denigration of individuals” on a regular basis. Sometimes we have to swim against the stream and stand up to vitriol’. The new leadership wanted to transform the way the economy worked, redistribute wealth and power and create a new society. “That frightens the establishment so they’re throwing everything at us. It isn’t just the City of London or the Tories, it’s part of the establishment in our own political party as well . . . the whole establishment is coming against us,” he said. “I know this sounds paranoid but some of this is organised by the establishment to undermine us.”
It was interesting that even after this massive victory, the anti-Corbyn plotters’ lobby was trying to dictate terms of how the Labour party should forge ahead. As Mark Steel says in ‘Independent’ UK, ‘Even more impressive was the way the plotters all agreed, after the result, that “this shows the lessons Jeremy needs to learn, and he has to reach out”. This is an exciting development in democracy, that the side who won the least number of votes decides what the lessons are that have to be learned. Maybe this is how the anti-Corbyn section of Labour hopes to govern after a general election’. Do we see a parallel in Sri Lanka too, when even after Rajapakse was defeated convincingly by the underdog Sirisena in 2015, Rajapaksa lobby despite being the vanquished continued to act as the victor laying down the terms on which SLFP and the government should be governed?
This does not suggest that Corbyn is faultless and beyond reproach; but the fact has been that his critics have been unfair in their criticism and have failed to see the emerging trends of change in people aspirations. At a time when almost inhuman austerity measures are in full swing strangling the poor and middle class in the UK, it seems not to have occurred to the Tory government as well as indeed to the Labour detractors – that the public may be showing clear signs that Corbyn as a rather welcome change. Unspun and homespun, he’s genuine and without any pretensions. He has articulated an alternative to neoliberal economics, that has been the only game in town for so long. Do voters really object to his quiet courtesy or do they mind that he doesn’t patronise them by pretending to like celebrity culturel? Do they dislike the fact he doesn’t pander to the press? Instinctively on the side of the underdog, what the fair-minded British public dislike are braying bullies, which was in the case of Corbyn, where his critics pounced on him rather savagely.
The re-election of Britain’s very own ‘Bernie Sanders’ as Labour’s leader last week was therefore a wake-up call to his critics and opponents and a favourable change to the British electorate which has been weary of past hypocritical governments trying to assume a ‘holier than thou’ image abroad while their own people getting squeezed under the perils of capitalism, are being denied social justice. Who would have thought Bernie Sanders, who defined himself as a democratic socialist, would come to within a whisker of winning the Democratic Party nomination in the US? The country where describing someone as a socialist is used as an insult. In fact, many commentators and pollsters believe that if Bernie Sanders and not Hillary Clinton were running against Donald Trump, he would be doing much better than her.
The scores of people who are inspired by Jeremy Corbyn are thus not aliens from another planet; rather they are ordinary people who are living through the insecurities that are blighting their lives. Thousands of young people crippled by debt, and older people most in need of our NHS seeing it being starved of funds and being privatised by stealth. Establishment politicians have failed to realise changing trends and aspirations. This provides a vital lesson to the establishment and governments around the world that political underdogs armed with a clear vision and departure from a political agenda out of tune with the times , can pose a real threat to their own existence and continuity. Of course, a real inspiration to those fighting the tyranny of majoritarianism, state hegemony and dictatorships – Sri Lanka included.
Editor’s note: If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy “Brexit through the eyes of a new British citizen,” “The International Community Weighs in for Peace: the Case Study of Colombia” and “Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Trend since 2015: some critical thoughts“.