We need lessons in losing elections

The Conservative routing of Labour was among the results pollsters thought likely in the general election last Thursday, but it was still a crushing end to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (if not his politics) and the campaign to remain in the EU.

Despite not voting for the Tories, I had partly hoped they would get enough of a majority to take the UK out of the EU, fulfilling the moral and democratic obligations of the referendum. I am likewise glad that the anti-democratic remainers have lost, putting an end to their parliamentary and legal attempts to overrule the referendum.

The Tory gloating in these circumstances is natural, and other partisans would have been as gleeful had the result gone the other way. Such bad winners do little to encourage the acquiescence of losers, but bad losing is the bigger problem in our democracy right now.

The source of this is arrogance, which is replete within our politics. This can take the form of overconfident predictions, for instance that voters would not back Brexit as a policy or Donald Trump as a president. 

(I thought both outcomes less likely than the alternative, but possible. This was a simple reading of the polling rather than deep insight on my part.)

Such confident but misplaced predictions give the impression that the world is out of control, rather than drawing attention to our difficulty understanding it. They also amplify the disappointment as campaigners fail to set reasonable expectations, an expected loss usually being less painful than an unexpected one.

Recently this inept forecasting has been paired with another common type of arrogance: the moral sort. People are too confident that their candidate and policies are good, and that the other side’s are bad. Sometimes this is a confusion of intention and effect, and other times a muddle of theory and practice. 

Generally politics is too hard for us to understand fully. There are more variables than humans can handle, and unexpected events happen constantly, even when your forecasting is good. Even our certainty about moral goods is often unjustified or more compromised than we admit.

The moral hectoring based on arrogance is present in both sides, but my impression is it’s worse on the left, and on the remain side. The best known gauge for this is that lefties are less tolerant of their relatives marrying rightwingers (ditto remainers assessing leave suitors). Lefties often think their opponents are selfish, evil or otherwise malign. Rightwingers are more likely to label their opponents stupid or naive, and stupidity is a more tolerable failing than malevolence.

Some political conflicts are fundamental debates about right and wrong. The abortion debate, for instance, concerns who counts as a “person”, and what counts as murder. Many questions of identity hinge on personhood in a similar sense, or adjacent questions of status. It is inevitable that these debates generate heat.

However, there are activists who turn every topic into a febrile confrontation, refuse to grant any legitimacy for other views, and are too assured of their righteousness. They just know; they’re so sure. And why? We’re storytelling apes who evolved to stay alive long enough to pass on our genes, not to understand complex systems driven by intangible factors.

There are many things that make improving people’s lives difficult (to take a more wholesome goal for politics than a mere contest of interests). While it’s plausible to argue the arc of history bends towards justice, it’s overconfident to know you’re pushing it the right way. 

The lack of a simple acknowledgement of our own ignorance is what has made many of us such bad losers over the past few years. When every election is treated as a fight to the death between good and evil it’s hard to lose with grace. When you accept much is uncertain it’s easy to shrug it off.

I had reservations about Corbyn and Boris Johnson’s characters, their parties and their manifestos before this election, but neither government was an existential threat to Britain. Countries are unwieldy things scarcely controlled by their governments, and while a week might be a long time in politics, it is a short time in the life of most polities. Five years is not much longer.

Johnson will doubtless do bad and good over the course of his premiership, and people should remain engaged to steer him towards the latter. The same would have been true of Corbyn had he won. Neither will fundamentally alter Britain’s character, because governments control far less than what they don’t control.

Those who feel they lost the general election should reflect on why. But they should stop portraying their opponents as evil. The word “fascist” should be reserved for actual fascists. And those who want to change things should go back to making their case in a way that persuades voters, rather than chastising them, and be open to the possibility they are mistaken.

Jimmy Nicholls
Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *