I’ve two beefs with the word.
One is that it presumes that elections are predictable. But they are sometimes not. Remember the old adage, “oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them”? What if we were to have another recession? Or if the Tories were to split themselves over Europe? Corbyn wouldn’t look so “unelectable” then. As Anne Perkins and Jacques Peretti have pointed out, Thatcher was regarded as “unelectable” in the 70s, by both Tory wets and the Labour party. Look how that turned out. Public tastes are unpredictable – especially given today’s anti-establishment attitudes. As Adam Kotsko says, “electability is a “purely speculative property.”
What I especially hate here is the pretence to knowledge, even in the face of contrary evidence. People who never foresaw a Tory majority or the rise of Corbyn continue to pretend that they have the foresight to declare Corbyn “unelectable”: I don’t know whether Tim Bale’s self-awareness of his “arrogance” in doing this is admirable or not. What such people are ignoring is the wise warning of thehistorian:
Anyone who doesn't… admit to doubt, imprecision, contingency - is a fraud. No-one knows exactly what has just happened, let alone what is going to happen. Nothing is as clear as politicians, newspaper columnists, banks, betting markets, even commercial economists want you to think it is. Everything is uncertain.
My second problem with talk of “unelectability” is that it betokens a sense of entitlement. It is usually outsiders who are “unelectable” – Thatcher, Corbyn, Sanders, whoever – and only rarely Establishment figures. There’s a presumption here that elections can only be won by particular types: youngish good-lookers who went to the right schools and universities and who don’t unsettle the Very Serious People. “Unelectable” can be used to close off debate, to shift discussion away from policy and towards pseudo-technocratic psephology. Too often, it is used by the Labour right to cover up their intellectual vacuum. As Peter Ryley says, all they’re offering is “grisly managerialism.”
Now, I don’t say this to defend Corbyn at all. By all means attack his policies or association with the “regressive left”: at least we can then have a debate. Just drop the word “unelectable” – unless, that is, you want to be seen as an over-entitled arrogant charlatan.