In Elizabethan England, a black swan was a metaphor for an impossibility. Europeans had only ever seen white swans. Then explorers reached Australia, and discovered that they did indeed exist.
Nassim Taleb’s famous ‘black swan theory’ posits that humans struggle to account for the risk of rare, unpredictable, high-impact events that challenge existing orthodoxies.
Corbyn as statistical outlier
There is no doubt that, in the context of British politics, Corbyn is a statistical outlier. The bookmakers’ original 200/1 odds of his becoming Labour leader translated to an implied probability of just 0.5%.
Few politicians have ascended to the leadership of a major party without any frontbench experience. And no one has surged from a position of such anonymity, lack of parliamentary backing, and such long odds. Even his beard and sartorial choices are out of kilter with our expectations of a modern politician.
Corbyn as black swan
According to Taleb’s theory, a black swan must be more than a statistical outlier, though. It must make a lasting impact.
We cannot yet quantify Corbyn’s future impact on British politics, but we can at least get a sense of the impact he has so far made.
At the 2015 General Election, only four months ago, the Conservatives beat Labour by 1,955,631 votes. Polls estimate that around 70,000 of the 251,417 people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour selection had not voted Labour in the recent General Election.
So we have some empirical evidence that Jeremy Corbyn has converted 70,000 voters out of his total deficit of 1,955,631: just under four per cent.
Surprising things happen all the time. To genuinely be the ‘black swan’ event which changes everything, Jeremy Corbyn’s win would need to have upturned our existing understanding of the laws, trends and averages of British electoral politics. For now, his main achievement is catching people off-guard, but there is little evidence that he has dramatically changed the way voters think about politics.
Until that evidence emerges, his success serves as a cautionary tale to the Labour Party of how changing selection rules can change the dynamics of the contest, and how lending support to ‘broaden the debate’ can have unforeseen consequences for those who dabble in such practices.
Corbyn as sitting duck
Indeed, the public opinion data so far suggest that Corbyn is highly unlikely to win a significant proportion of voters to the Labour Party:
Many of his views are not especially popular. A majority of people support Britain’s membership of Nato, reluctantly back austerity, and approve of the reign of the most famous swan keeper in the world, Queen Elizabeth II.
Rather than being the black swan himself, Corbyn may be in need of a black swan event – one that changes the way people see the world. Voters tend only to make radical choices after their countries change in radical ways – a war, an economic disaster, or a dramatic change in the makeup of the electorate.
It is not entirely out of the question. The global economy is fragile. Just beyond Europe’s borders are some of the bloodiest, most nihilistic conflicts in world history. Technology is making many jobs obsolete.
But until something really momentous happens, the Conservatives will look through their sights at Labour’s front bench today, and make out a row of sitting ducks. As my colleague Tom Mludzinski has said, they are shooting at them immediately, aggressively, on the grounds that they pose a threat to the security of political orthodoxy.
It might seem like overkill, but they don’t want to let any of them spread their wings.