Is this the political age of easy answers?

(Originally published by the Guardian)

Jeremy Corbyn's victory has shaken up the political landscape
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election on Saturday confirmed what many have suspected for some time: the political landscape is changing. Corbyn’s rapid rise from backbench obscurity to Leader of the Opposition is consistent with a global trend. From Podemos in Spain to Bernie Sanders in the US, all around the world mass movements are forming around leaders with political messages which are radically different from the status quo. 

Yet not everyone is convinced by ‘the new politics’ with some observers arguing that populist leaders are selling the public oversimplified slogans rather than providing proper solutions to complex problems. An enthusiastic debate in Manchester Central Library brought together four politically diverse panellists to debate for and against the motion:  This is the age of political easy answers.


Vanda Murray, business leader: Public faith in politicians has fallen to an all-time low. According to one MORI poll more than 80% of voters say they can’t trust their leaders to tell the truth – a lower score than real estate agents and even bankers. This, Murray says, has caused large numbers of people to turn to ‘soundbite politics’ from leaders who appear more genuine than their centrist rivals yet offer only empty promises. While it’s easy for them to reel off thumping soundbites the people trying to find actual answers to national problems in a global context are ploughing a tougher furrow,” she warned.

While Murray acknowledged that Corbyn has managed to capture the nation’s attention, she questioned what his radical approach would mean for the business world. “The business community is unsure how all of this will pan out,” she said. “Politicians and business leaders should work in collaboration; we need a strong economy creating good jobs. The politics of easy answers and business bashing rhetoric for the sake of a shock newspaper headline doesn’t do anyone any good.”

Tristram Hunt, Labour MP: Last week Tristam Hunt ruled himself out of serving in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet citing irreconcilable policy differences with his leader. So it was perhaps unsurprising to hear the MP for Stoke express some scepticism of ‘Corbynmania’ and other similar movements.  History, Hunt argued, is littered with populist eras in which leaders sell simple slogans amid a wave of public hysteria before succumbing to the complex reality of business as usual politics.

“This history of complexity and populism, from black and white to grey, has a long history on the left and we are, I would suggest to you, in one of those black and white moments,” he said. One audience member, who described herself as an ‘Anyone but Corbyn’ Labour activist echoed the sentiment: “There’s nothing new about the new politics, I’ve heard it millions of times in my lifetime, never mind before,” she said, “Isn’t it just another form of easy answers and anti-politics?”


Seumas Milne, Guardian writer: According to Milne, the rise of the likes of Corbyn, Sanders and Podemos must be understood within the context of a global backlash against established economics. “For 30 years we have had neoliberal economic policies of deregulation, privatisation, low taxes on the rich and unrestrained corporate power,” he explained.

Seen in the light of growing inequality, job insecurity and the financial crash of 2008, Milne contended it is reductive and patronising to dismiss progressive movements as merely disgruntled people seeking easy answers. Instead they should be seen as a justified reaction to austerity and economic policies which punish the poor for the mistakes of the rich: “Outsourcing, privatisation and these core policies that are continuing to drive the austerity period simply don’t work for the majority of people,” he insisted.  

Douglas Carswell, UKIP MP: Milne found an unusual ally in Douglas Carswell, who agreed that the mood of “political insurgency” running throughout the west had deeper roots than their rival panellists would allow. “Something profound is going on and those in Westminster can’t understand it because they’re part of the problem...We ought to ask why it is that people feel disaffected not what is wrong with the people who feel this disaffection.”

Much of this political malaise was channelled into four million votes for Carswell’s party at the general elections. However, the MP said these voters were not seeking easy answers rather they were angry that mainstream politics has become “a cartel run for vested interests.” He argued the new found enthusiasm for politics should be welcomed, but warned it should not descend into blaming sections of the population - whether migrants or rich people – for the ills of society.  

“Political insurgency must not be about blaming the other, it needs to be optimistic. This country is getting better in so many ways but the one way in which it hasn’t got better is the way we do politics.”