The Left Will Only Win the Argument When It Takes Back Control of the ConversationAugust 5, 2016 12:00 am Leave your thoughts
The aftershock of the EU Referendum still hums up and down the British Isles, rippling out of the Westminster bubble as day after day the drama unfolds in the corridors of power. The events of this summer were so dramatic – the public opting to leave the economic union (albeit by a slim margin), the Prime Minister to resign, the backstabbing by high-profile right wing characters of their close allies, and the resignations of others following victory.
The country hangs in limbo, unable to confidently act upon the referendum result by a complete lack of pre-planning for the outcome and petrified that we’ll come out of all the imminent negotiations worse off than we were before. At the same time, the country is divided, bitterly, upon fault lines that are as numerous as they are convoluted: race, religion, wealth, patriotism, nationalism, multiculturalism, and so on.
Perhaps the most irritating consequence of Brexit was the immediate civil war that has consumed the Labour Party. With a popular leader in Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit was the time for the opposition, and the left as a whole, to wreak havoc on the Tories. Instead, centrist MPs led by Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle launched a coup, in an attempt to bring the party back to what they saw as an electable middle ground.
As David Cameron pointed out in his last PMQ’s, the Conservative Party got its affairs in order sharpish, installing the hawkish Theresa May as leader (and subsequently our new unelected PM), while Labour was smothered by infighting that still distracts it even today.
The result? The Tories remain in power, despite six years of austerity fails and the systematic dismantling of the public sector. But more than that, it’s not even the “middle-ground” Conservatives like Cameron that now hold the reigns, but more extreme figures, like Chris Grayling, Jeremy Hunt, and Andrea Leadsom. And despite his current unemployed status, few would argue that Nigel Farage isn’t one of the most influential people in Britain today.
How did they do it? Simple. They took control of the conversation. They told the traditionally left-voting working classes sweet things they wanted to hear. They seized control of the “middle ground” in a Blitzkrieg that left progressives holding our heads in despair.
Across the pond in the US, a similar story has emerged. Shocking, unbelievable at times, but true nonetheless. Extreme right-wing billionaire Donald Trump is winning over the working classes with the same tactic. Make them afraid, and then promise to protect them. It’s the oldest political trick in the book, and where Farage and friends built a campaign over the last ten years or so to a triumphant crescendo this summer, Trump is likewise playing it to absolute perfection.
It doesn’t matter if the boogie man is immigrants, foreigners, bureaucrats, big government or their own neighbours. Scare people enough and you can make them do anything. Pretend to offer them a solution, and you can make them do even more.
But where is common sense in all of this? Where is the opposition to such lunacy? Instead of facing down the extreme right of the party, Cameron’s party had the luxury of squabbling over Europe, to the point where the former PM promised a referendum to keep them quiet. All because the opposition was weak and ineffective.
But that’s the Left for you, I suppose. I’ve been to rallies and marches and demonstrations and pickets, and seen dozens of tiny left-leaning groups unite for a singular cause, only to dissipate again into their own little bubbles when it’s all over. This might be the nature of liberally-minded people for you, to think over things so hard that they find tighter and tighter pigeon-holes to climb into. But while it is a fractured mess of small organisations, the Right is largely united under the broad church of the Conservative Party.
Labour, which should be the banner which the left unite behind in a similar way, is littered with MPs obsessed with getting back into government. They strain the party towards the holy middle ground in an effort to battle the Tories there.
But this isn’t the way to victory. Watering down Progressive or Left principles to appeal to a wider majority of voters isn’t the way to lead the country into a better future. Labour flounders around the middle, trying to appeal to voters there, instead of doing what it should be doing, convincing voters that “middle ground” ideas are wrong.
Before the last election, commentators were excited by the idea of smaller parties such as UKIP and the Greens gaining support, and taking the country away from its current two-party state system. As election day neared, and the results were close, talk all came to a future coalition government. Would it be Tory-UKIP-DUP, or would it be Labour-Green-SNP-Plaid Cymru?
That Left coalition led by Labour would have had the potential to compete with the dominant broad church of the Right. Despite the offer from progressive female politicians Natalie Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood, centrist Ed Miliband refused to consider such a coalition. In his view, the Left should vote Labour, and the party should be strong enough to govern alone.
But this tumultuous summer may not be the disaster for the Left that it appears to be. Perhaps we have simply reached a tipping point between the majority of the country being conservatively-minded, and the majority being socialist-minded. Think about it. Progressive politics always wins in the end.
Don’t believe me? Then compare the Conservative Party of today to the Conservative Party of 100 years ago. Theresa May’s government looks positively communist in comparison. In 1791, when William Wilberforce first pushed for the abolition of the slave trade, it was defeated by conservative parliamentarians who considered the idea tosh. Today not even the most extreme Tory MP with tendencies towards lunacy would argue in favour of slavery. Why? Because two hundred years later the moral zeitgeist of the country has shifted to the left, step by tiny step.
From the end of slavery, to the Emancipation Proclamation, to universal suffrage, to the Civil Rights Act, to the Clean Air bill, to the criminalising of cruelty to animals, to the legalisation of gay marriage… These are all milestones dreamed up first by Progressive minds of their day, and enacted when the national mood had swung in their favour, be it through moral outrage or a slow enlightenment. In other words, the ideas of the Left are forward thinking, the ideas of the Right are outdated, and will eventually be proven to be unwelcome.
At the last election more than one million people voted Green, more than ever before. This last year, the activist group Momentum has attracted more and more supporters from Progressives that otherwise had no mainstream representation. This is what progressive democracy looks like.
But the obligation of the Progressives now is not to simply close ranks around Jeremy Corbyn and fight against the centrists. This would be a bitter and costly battle which would ultimately do nothing for the long term.
Instead, those of this new vibrant movement need to reach out to voters and begin a conversation about the key issues affecting the country: immigration, integration, nationalisation and so on. Their obligation to the movement is to convince voters to see the light, if you will – not just doorstep canvassing in the weeks before an election, but all year round, for the next five years at least. Let’s see community activism up and down the country, with talks, debates, coffee mornings, community events… Let’s sit down smiling, next to a sign that simply reads “Let me Convince You that We Are Right!”
The Left needs to take the fight deep into the heartlands of the Right, away from urban, multicultural areas and into rural constituencies that always vote blue. Taking the fight to Parliament means nothing if the public are not convinced by you.
It will be arduous but not impossible. Through simple conversation and reasoning, the arguments can always be won. UKIP have stolen Labour voters in poorer communities by appealing to their fears and blaming their disenfranchisement on immigrants and lying politicians. Progressives know full well the reason poorer communities are disenfranchised, and that the “blame the foreigner” trick is a lousy, cheap lie. So why not go out there and tell them the truth? Why not point the finger of blame where it really lies, upon the Philip Greens of the world, on the Old Etonians and Oxbridge graduates that run the country, completely out touch with the needs of the poor.
At the moment the Labour Party looks irreparable. If Jeremy Corbyn retains the leadership, will he be able to gather enough votes from the reluctant centre to win? If he goes, will the hundreds of thousands of his supporters ditch the party (and perhaps politics) in protest?
Labour is essentially two parties now: the reluctant centrists, still holding out for a new Tony Blair to take them back towards the middle ground, and the frustrated progressives, desperately trying to drag the party back towards socialist values. While it may be a crisis now, trying to patch the party up and make it work isn’t the best thing for the long term.
Let it die. Let the transition happen. Voters should vote on their principles and beliefs, never tactically. If you have more in common with the Green Party then vote Green, don’t be afraid of letting Labour crash.
Arguably the best politician our country has at the moment is Caroline Lucas, who has repeatedly called for Left unity, and a broader Progressive coalition.
Alternatively, and perhaps more realistically, Labour itself should embrace the Left under Corbyn. Afterall, Corbyn always brings the conversation back to poorer communities and the dis-enfranchised – even in parliament when Cameron and now May avoid question after question with sound bites and point-scoring jibes that do nothing but make their bloated back benches guffaw like the ridiculous fat cats of nineteenth century satire. Corbyn is finely tuned to the real issues affecting the working and middle classes. He is actually, despite the unpolished persona, an ideal leader for the Left at this time.
In the chaos following the EU Referendum, the perfect opportunity has presented itself for Progressives to take control from the bottom up, but it can only do so by allowing itself to fracture, and then come together in a coalition broader than the Conservative Party. But it must also begin the arduous task of convincing everyday voters why Left values are better.
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This post was written by Oliver Lewis Thompson