The newest trend in politics? Losing to win

The newest trend in politics? Losing to win

Americans who deem their presidential primary politics a bit wacky this year have a point.

The leading candidates include a loud-mouthed mogul who excels at the insult, two would-be heirs to modern political dynasties and an avowed socialist from one of America’s smallest states.

But America has nothing on its “mother country,” the United Kingdom. In the U.K., over the past year, rejection at the polls has become, it seems, a necessary prelude to victory.  

A year ago, for example, Scotland’s independence referendum, the results of which the British government had vowed to honor, was rejected handily by Scottish voters. The result? In Britain’s national parliamentary election last May, the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party swept to an overwhelming victory, winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the Westminster parliament and all but wiping out the once-dominant Scottish Labour Party. 

In that same national election, the Conservatives confounded the pollsters by winning an absolute majority in parliament and routing a Labour Party led by a candidate from the party’s left wing. So what happened?
Just Saturday Labour elected a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who’s even further to the left. An avowed admirer of Marx (Karl, not Groucho), his ideas include nationalizing key industries, pulling out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and discarding Britain’s nuclear arsenal unilaterally. That’s just for starters.  
Improbably, Corbyn barely made it into the leadership contest. He got just over the minimum number of votes from Labour’s MPs, just minutes before the nominating deadline. One MP who said she voted for him to add zest to the contest confessed that she never wanted him to win and now deems herself a “moron.” London bookies put the initial odds against him at 200-1.

Pundits have been scrambling to explain Corbyn’s improbable success. Having sat in parliament for 32 years, he’s hardly a fresh political face. Some commentators say the 66-year-old Corbyn is nonetheless authentic and unscripted, in contrast to conventional politicians. Others say Britons are just fed up with politics as usual. Still others cite changes to the voting rules in Labour’s leadership contest. 

So what does the Corbyn victory in the wake of Labour’s loss really mean?

As a London-based American journalist, I have no special insight. But it’s clear that if this “losing to win” phenomenon spreads, it could become Britain’s hottest export since the Beatles.  

American presidential hopefuls could vie to lose next year’s first two state contests - the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary - to assure winning their party’s nomination for the White House.  Corporate managers will hope to be passed over for promotion to give their careers a boost.

Students will try to flunk tests and blow college-entrance exams to attend Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or MIT. Political pundits will make wrong predictions so they’ll eventually get one right (actually, that is happening already).  Kim Kardashian will duck TV cameras to get more publicity (okay, that’s unlikely).

There’s no end to where this might lead. Companies trying to lose money so their stock price will soar? Self-help books titled “The Art of Losing?” Hollywood directors hoping for box-office busts?

To be sure, the Scottish Nationalists and the Corbynistas haven’t yet won their ultimate goals. Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, at least for now, and Corbyn is the opposition leader instead of Britain’s prime minister. Still, both the Nationalists and Corbyn already have won improbable victories.

I wish I could explain it, but there’s no time. I have to run out to buy a losing lottery ticket.

Paul Ingrassia is a Reuters columnist