The return of ideology

Tired of being fed the same bland diet in different forms, voters in the U.K., unlike in India, are demanding clearer choices, and there is a clamour for more ideological politics

Updated - March 29, 2016 01:09 pm IST

Published - August 04, 2015 03:10 am IST

Jeremy Corbyn, regarded until a few weeks ago as an outcast and ridiculedfor his antediluvian views, is set to become the Labour party’s leader. Picture shows Mr. Corbyn (right) on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in London late in July.

Jeremy Corbyn, regarded until a few weeks ago as an outcast and ridiculedfor his antediluvian views, is set to become the Labour party’s leader. Picture shows Mr. Corbyn (right) on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in London late in July.

If Indian voters were to be asked about their ideological preferences, there is a good chance that an overwhelming majority would describe themselves as political atheists — neither on the Right nor the Left — but pragmatic, broadly liberal or centrist. Even those who voted for Narendra Modi are likely to offer non-ideological reasons (his development agenda, anti-corruption pledge etc.) for their support. Anecdotal evidence suggests that India, once home to strong political beliefs, appears to have fallen out of love with ideology.

Yet, elsewhere in the world, ideology is fighting its way back, signalling an end to a decade of Tweedledum and Tweedledee style of politics that saw ideological labels shunned in favour of the so-called “middle ground”, which became the holy grail of mainstream parties as they scrambled to broaden their appeal. Now, the “empire” is striking back. Tired of being fed the same bland diet in different forms, voters are demanding more choice, and there is a clamour for more competitive politics.

Distinct choices There is a hankering for an era when voters knew what a party stood for and offered them distinct choices. In Britain, both Labour and the Tories are being torn apart by an ideological struggle. Their traditional supporters and grassroots activists believe these parties have moved too far from their old ideological positions in the name of “modernisation” and simply to win elections.

Labour is facing a civil war, reminiscent of the 1980s split. In an extraordinary move, a man regarded until a few weeks ago as an “outcast” and ridiculed for his “antediluvian” views, is set to become the party’s leader. Remember the radical Left-wing Jeremy Corbyn from the CND era? Banished to the margins by New Labour and mocked for championing “lost” causes, he is now leading the four-strong leadership race to replace Ed Miliband, who quit after the party’s humiliation in the May election. Mr. Corbyn came to the contest late and was universally dismissed as a bit of a joke who would crash out at the first hurdle. Instead, to everyone’s astonishment including his own, he is leading the pack that consists of two Blairites and one who is even Right of Blairism.

The development has plunged Labour leadership into a panic, and already strategies are being discussed to get rid of him at the first opportunity in case he gets elected. But it has also sent shockwaves through the wider Westminster political establishment amid fears of a domino effect of a Corbyn victory on other “centrist” parties. The Liberal Democrats have already elected a Left-wing leader to replace Nick Clegg, associated with the party’s Right. Tim Farron, the new leader, has vowed to return it to its radical agenda after paying a heavy electoral price (reduced to just eight seats in the Commons) for cohabiting with the Tories for five years.

Return to roots The yearning for the good old ideological days is also brewing among the Tories, who distrust David Cameron’s modernising tendencies. Thus, both on the Left and the Right, there is a desire to return to old roots with clear blue water between them and their rivals. Winning elections is seen as secondary to ideological purity.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that the same commentators who once hailed Tony Blair for making Labour re-electable, by dressing it up in “Tory-lite” clothes, are now calling him a “false prophet”. Suddenly, pundits are arguing about the “purpose” of politics, saying it is not simply about winning power, but about believing in something: ideology trumps power.

Similar debates are taking place elswhere, including the U.S., where both Republicans and Democrats are being challenged by ideologically-driven factions. Bernie Sanders, who is challenging Hillary Clinton for presidential nomination from the Left, may not ultimately win but the fact that he has come as far as he has on a Left-ish agenda speaks for itself. Europe is swarming with far-Right and far-Left groups. Syriza, of course, has become internationally famous because of its controversial handling of the Greek bailout negotiations but it is not the only one. Almost every European country — Italy, Spain, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands — has its own “Syriza”. Some are already in government either on their own or in coalition with others, and some hoping to get there.

People have become suspicious of mechanical, smooth-talking, on-message politicians and are looking for “authentic” figures, not afraid to go off-message and speak their mind. Donkey jacket is in; Saville Row suit is out. There is also distrust of what a Labour Party figure described as “soggy, drab Centrism and spin”.

It is possible that this could just be a passing phase brought on by public anger over the devastating effects of austerity measures imposed in the wake of the economic crisis. Yet it all feels so different from the 1990s when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair invented the so-called “Third Way” politics — neither Left nor Right but anchored in the Centre and pitched at the new “aspirational” middle class, that did not care whether the cat was red, blue or saffron so long as it caught the mice for them.

And it worked well for a while, thanks to a booming economy, until the bust came. The hardships sparked by the 2008 crash, costing millions of people their livelihoods, shook their faith in a promiscuous political and economic culture in which nobody was around to hold their hand when the chips were down.

But did ideology really ever go away?

George W. Bush was one of the most ideological U.S. Presidents in recent history; and his political soulmate Blair may have rejected the Old Labour ideology but had his own deep-seated beliefs that led him — among other things — to support the American invasion of Iraq. Moreover, people seem to have forgotten the mushrooming of far-Right groups across Europe, as it was swept by the post-9/11 wave of Islamophobia.

Even the Left did not quite go out of fashion but took on a different form. But there was a pretence that with the collapse of the “evil” Soviet empire, ideology had died and, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, it was “end of history” as we had known it. What we are witnessing now is that bluff being called.

( Hasan Suroor is a London-based columnist.Making Sense of Modi’s India, a book edited by him, will be published in the autumn. E-mail:

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