Guest blog by Charles Leadbeater
At first sight it might seem strange to think that a politician who has not changed his views since the late 1970s might be a radical innovator. Yet that is what Jeremy Corbyn has managed to become while appearing blissfully – and to some charmingly – uninquisitive about the changing world around him.
Yet as businesses and brands scratch their heads trying to work out what Corbynism means – not to mention the surge of support for Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination in the US – it might be worth reflecting on some of the lessons it provides about how modern day innovation happens and how the world changes.
Radical change rarely comes from the mainstream and usually starts in easily overlooked and dismissed margins. Ryan Air’s challenge to the mainstream European airline industry started with a 12 seater flight between Galway and Paris, not the most obvious route from which to start an airline revolution. Corbyn started in the long forgotten margins of the refusenik Labour left, among organisations like the Campaign for Labour Democracy which had their heyday with Tony Benn in the early 1980s.
When organisations seek to renew themselves they often have to reach into sub-cultures with alternative values to find something refreshing. Ben & Jerry’s started their challenge to the mainstream food industry from a ramshackle Vermont store, espousing a self-consciously hippy outlook. In retrospect it should be no surprise that in the age of hipster culture which glorifies in retro style Jeremy Corbyn, wearing hand knitted woollen jumpers, should be so popular among young people. He is Atari politics.
At times his movement has echoed the storyline of the Ealing comedy the Titchfield Thunderbolt, in which a group of Pro-Am rail enthusiasts, cut off down the branch line of history, disconnected from modernity, stage an inspiring come back, by pressing an ageing steam train back into service. Corbyn is that stream train. There is something very English about the idea of a man giving up his summer on his allotment to lead a political revolution.
One doubts Corbyn has ever read Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation but in some respects his movement comes straight from that playbook: a nimble, cheaper, inferior and less sophisticated product outmanoeuvring a tired, conservative, uninspiring incumbent in the form of the generation schooled in the Blair-Brown leadership of Labour.
Yet disruptive innovation, in which the new entirely sweeps away the old, is largely a myth. New Labour, it turns out, did not extinguish Old. Corbyn will fail if he tries to do the same. Instead Corbynism is proof that innovation produces mutants, hybrids and oxymorons, as the old and the new, get mixed together in weird ways. One of the best ways to have what appears to be a new idea is to recuperate an old, discarded idea and introduce it in a new context. (The disposable diaper started life as a failed luxury product in the 1930s before being successfully reintroduced in the 1960s as a mass market product.)
Innovation is a bit like stand-up comedy: timing is everything and this has proved to be Corbyn’s moment. Here is a politician who represents new politics by virtue of not having had a new idea for 30 years. He won thanks to the old style backing of the trade unions mixed up with a peer-to-peer social movement of young people. The fact that Corbynism is a hybrid mutant should not surprise us; that kind of odd mix is increasingly commonplace. (Angela Merkel is in the midst of another remarkable and riskier mutation: a mainstream politician, seeking to reposition an entire country by welcoming thousands of refugees and in the process throwing the nature of Europe into doubt.)
One of the big divides in politics is between what Neal Lawson calls the Black Cabs and the Ubers. The Black Cabs are the mainstream, establishment who are used to enjoying the deference which comes from years in power. Licensed cab politics is controlled and slow to change. The Ubers are the horizontal movements of on demand politics, mixing direct action, protest and social media.
Yet the point is that Uber style, fluid, networked politics is not just a form of organisation, it only works when people have an animating, compelling sense of purpose, to mobilise them into a movement. That is what mainstream politics cannot provide because it is not prepared to ask the kind of fundamental, uncomfortable and existential questions that come from challengers, outsiders and mavericks. The biggest new divide in politics is not just about the mode of organisation but about purpose. Mainstream politics is technocratic and managerial, making the best of what is possible amidst calculations of electoral advantage. Challenger politics, whether nationalist, leftist or fundamentalist, thrives on asking big, existential questions, of a kind that more of the electorate now seem inclined to ask themselves, at least some of the time.
Why don’t we open our borders and homes to thousands more refugees from wars we have a hand in? What is the point of the EU? Could we survive as an independent nation? Is there an alternative to a capitalism that seems to deliver crisis, irresponsibility, inequality and limited wage growth?
All exciting innovation starts by people daring to ask questions which more worldly people are inclined to dismiss as naive. Corbyn has excited so many young people because he dared to ask questions about the nature of the good society that his more cautious opponents shied away from.
Over the past few weeks Corbyn has created what Roberto Unger, the Brazilian political philosopher, calls a “high energy” politics: tumultuous, passionate, participative, dynamic, and unfolding. That kind of movement politics is only possible if new tools and technologies of political organisation are matched to a dynamic sense of purpose. If New Labour wants to renew itself it has to start there by asking some big, open questions.
In the next few days Corbyn will provide some salutary lessons about what happens when a lateral, open, democratic movement takes over a deeply conservative, hierarchical organisation, which operates in a viciously competitive market. The toing and froing over the make up of the shadow cabinet look more like football’s Transfer Deadline Day than a political movement sweeping all before it. Corbyn’s hopeful supporters are about to find out that inside every apparently open, lateral, participative movement lurks an old fashioned hierarchy ready to flex its muscle. None of this tends to go well.
Having mobilised an army of avid early adopters, Corbyn will only succeed if he finds a way to appeal to swing voters in English marginals, who currently do not seem the slightest bit interested in joining a left-wing crusade. Unless Corbyn and his allies can find a tone, style and language to reach the disaffected, grumpy, middle class they will fall headlong into the very deep and wide chasm that business writer Geoffrey Moore identified long ago, the chasm that stands between geeky early adopters and mainstream consumers, who want simple, easy to use and attractive products which make their lives better.
Yet before we let schadenfreude set in it is worth remembering this dilemma, how hierarchies work in a world of movements and networks, is one that most organisations now face, usually uneasily. And it’s just possible that some of what Corbyn and his young team might try – open sourcing questions for PMQs, involving the party in constant rolling debate and local experimentalism – might work by being more participative than old style politics. Many companies are trying more open, frugal forms of user driven innovation; in some senses Corbyn will be trying to do the same thing.
Nor let us forget that Corbyn’s rise is a reflection of New Labour’s ossification into a conservative incumbent. Despite making an appetite for innovation and change core to its positioning New Labour has become peculiarly unwilling to adapt, experiment and learn, a tendency that set in sometime in June 1997. And recently it has behaved exactly as Christensen says incumbents do when challenged. It has attempted to change the rules to protect its position while deriding its challenger as illegal and dangerous (think the music industry and Napster.)
If this is the age of mutants and oxymorons, my prediction is that Corbyn will be both a success and a failure. He will have a truly dreadful time leading a fractious party and dealing with a hostile media. He will almost certainly fail to reach out beyond his core, albeit young and expanded, support.
Yet Corbyn could yet change the terms of political possibility on the left. He started as an outsider and challenger. That is the only way he can succeed by continuing to open up questions that other retreat from, in search of finding a popular resonance through strait talking. Why do we have GCSEs and a ridiculous regime of high stress, high stakes testing in schools? How can we shape the markets for housing and jobs to reign in prices in the south east while building up the economies elsewhere in the UK? Can we make the UK secure and a creative force in the world without nuclear weapons? How can more decisions be taken more locally?
If Corbyn continues to open up these rather obvious yet apparently radical questions then even as he fails he may open up new ground for the next generation of Labour politicians – Stella Creasy, Dan Jarvis, David Lammy – to move into. Corbyn will be a failed experiment and yet the long term legacy could be creative. The lesson in all of this is above all not to be sniffy, not to turn our noses up and not to make assumptions, but to learn, and fast, about what Corbyn, the unlikely innovator is telling us about the world.
Charles Leadbeater is a leading authority on innovation and creativity. He has advised companies, cities and governments around the world on innovation strategy and drew on that experience in writing his latest book We-think: the power of mass creativity, which charts the rise of mass, participative approaches to innovation from science and open source software, to computer games and political campaigning.
Photo credit: Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in Margate, 5 September 2015 – Chris Beckett