The Measurement of Success

A vitally important remark appeared in a recent piece by the guys from the usually-excellent Media Lens. Their article was about media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for leadership of the Labour Party, and it opened with a reference to a recent column in The Times by Rachael Sylvester. Sylvester suggests that a victory by Jeremy Corbyn will render the Labour Party unelectable – a fairly common theme in Britain’s right-wing press, and a not uncommon opinion of many Labour Party supporters – especially the vociferous aristocracy of the so-called “new” Labour faction, anti-Corbynites such as – Blair, “Two Jags” Prescott, Mandelson and the like, all of whom should rightly be fearing the spectre of possible war crimes tribunals.

But back to Sylvester. The particular remark that caught my eye was,

[T]he Labour party is threatening its survival by abandoning electoral victory as a definition of success.

This raises a point that cuts to the very heart of politics: how do you measure political success?

A friend of mine, a Labour Party activist and supporter for many years, thinks along very similar lines to Sylvester. I’ll call him Rob. We had a conversation recently about the leadership contest. He said his heart wants Corbyn to win but his head tells him it should be Burnham (or Cooper – I forget – one of the closet-Tories anyway). When I asked him to explain, he said the most important thing was for the Labour Party to win an election and kick out the Tories, and that if Corbyn was leading it, victory would be impossible.

We had had this kind of conversation before, in more general terms. Rob is something of a cynic – as am I, albeit a different type of cynic. Rob’s cynicism is about the 99%, most of whom he regards with some contempt (whereas my cynicism is reserved for the 1%, whom I regard with emotions ranging from contempt to hatred). Rob thinks that most of the 99% are stupid and routinely make choices that are bad for them. I acknowledge that people often make choices that are bad for them but I know this is because of ignorance, not stupidity – two very different things.

But back to Sylvester’s quote. She suggests that the Labour Party had a strategy wholly aimed at electoral victory, and that strategy has now been abandoned. I don’t know if such a strategy ever existed. It may have done; I used to be a member of the Green Party and that seemed to be the way they operated too – which is largely why I left the Greens. If this strategy does indeed drive these parties, it’s a highly questionable tactic. Rob, who has been an elected councillor before, once said that you should say anything at all if it will help to get you elected. So is electoral victory really the measurement of political success?

If you’re a person like Tony Blair, the answer must surely be that it is. I mean, here we have someone who became British prime minister by tricking millions of Labour Party voters to support him in the belief that he would end almost twenty years of Tory misrule. Blair stayed in power for ten years. That’s pretty successful. He became a multi-millionaire, possibly even a billionaire now — who knows? That’s pretty successful.

But politics is not just about achieving personal fame and wealth – or at least I don’t think it should be. A fairly old definition of the word “politics” from my fairly old dictionary reads,

The art or science of government, dealing with the form, organization and administration of a State or part of a State, and the regulation of its relations with other States.1

But it’s interesting, because when I did a Google search for a definition of the word “politics”, one presumably much newer definition read, “activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organisation”. So are Rob and Tony Blair and Rachael Sylvester right? Is the only thing that matters now in politics getting yourself elected?

Many years ago I was a medical student. I lasted one year. After some years of struggle and hardship to get into medical school I relaxed. I thought that’s it. I’ve done the hard bit. I succeeded in getting in.  It’s all downhill from here. I partied and played sports and didn’t do near enough work. I failed my first year exams and got kicked out. Just getting into medical school was not a very good measurement of success. Even staying and getting qualified would not have been a good measure of success. What would have been a good measure of success would have been to get qualified and then go on to work in the NHS for many years helping ill people to get better – free of charge.

Ever since the terrible years of Thatcher and Reagan society has slowly been reverting to the monstrous values of the nineteenth century, where “greed is good”, and we should “look out for number one”. Today success is measured by the size of someone’s bank account, houses, cars, yachts… These things are not only shallow values, they’re not values at all. They’re symbols of complicity in a monstrous crime – the crime of destroying human society together with the fragile planet that sustains it.

Jeremy Corbyn is attacked daily for trying to “turn back the clock”, to return the Labour Party to the values that created the welfare state and the once-wonderful NHS. This line of attack relies on a clever deception. It relies on linking the incredible technological advances of the last century to advances in society. It relies on tricking people into thinking that because the material things we now have at our fingertips are so mind-bendingly advanced compared with just one generation ago, then politics must have also vastly improved too. It’s a trick. It’s a lie: politics has not improved; it’s gone backwards. Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right to try to turn back the political clock to a time when some things mattered more than the sizes of your bank account, etc.

The wonderful journalist John Pilger writes about another journalist, TD Allman. Allman, says Pilger, had the right idea when it came to defining journalistic success. It was, he said:

… that which ‘not only gets the facts right, it gets the meaning of events right. Objective journalism is compelling not only today. It stands the test of time. It is validated not only by “reliable sources” but by the unfolding of history. It is reporting that which not only seems right the day it is published. It is journalism that ten, twenty, fifty years after the fact still holds up a true and intelligent mirror to events. (My emphasis)2

The point here is that although political success may indeed be measured by some as electoral victory, real success is not so shallow. Real political success can only be measured in time – in decades or centuries. Blair’s ephemeral political success is already shot. It was shot shortly after his electoral victory, when he started to betray those who voted for him by turning the once-quite-noble Labour Party into a left-of-centre faction of the Tory Party, and continued plundering public services. And his political “success” was permanently destroyed on the day he became a war criminal.

The Jeremy Corbyn campaign is the most uplifting political event Britain has seen in many, many years. The huge groundswell of support he is getting from all over the country is really quite breathtaking. It shows that no matter how hard they try – and they’re trying really, really hard – the right-wing press has failed. The people know they cannot be trusted. As for a Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership being “unelectable”… I bet they also said that before the general election in 1946 when Clement Attlee led the Labour Party against the “greatest ever” Briton, Winston Churchill, immediately after Churchill’s finest hour. Attlee, proudly standing for the most radical political changes Britain had ever seen, summed up in the Beveridge Report, led the “unelectable” Labour Party to a crushing defeat of the “greatest ever” Briton. But, more importantly, success for Attlee was not measured by his electoral victory, it was measured by the changes his government then went on to introduce – massive reforms of the welfare system and pensions, the miraculous NHS, vast social housing projects and full employment. This all done in a bankrupt, war-torn country. That’s real political success for you.

Even if Jeremy Corbyn does not win the leadership contest on Saturday it will round off an almost faultless political career. He will have succeeded, because apart from seldom putting a foot wrong in his time as an MP he has re-energised political debate in Britain, re-invigorated the left more than anyone else in many decades. He will not have failed and, even more importantly, he will not have betrayed true Labour values… or become a war criminal. Success for Jeremy Corbyn will be measured by a lifetime of doing the right thing. Ironically, if he does win the leadership contest success will not yet be his, failure and even treachery will still be a possibility for him; because the real fight will then just be starting, to firstly securing electoral victory, and then going on to achieving real political reform like Attlee did before him. Then and only then could he be judged to have been really successful.

  1. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993 edition). []
  2. John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, p. 525 []
John Andrews is a writer and political activist based in England. His latest booklet is entitled EnMo Economics. Other Non-Fiction books by John are: The People's Constitution (2018 Edition); and The School of Kindness (2018 Edition); and his historical novel The Road to Emily Bay Read other articles by John.