Election focus: how can the Left re-engage the people?


Simon Winlow

In the second of our blog pieces focusing on the fast-approaching General Election, Simon Winlow, co-author of The rise of the right asks how it can be that, against a background of social, financial and environmental catastrophe, a political party dedicated to the neoliberalism seem set to secure a large majority. How can the Left get the people on side again?

There’s a terrible air of nihilism, cynicism and acceptance about the upcoming election. The Conservatives have made huge gains in the local council elections, and UKIP and Labour have lost quite badly. Of course, the general election could be very different. More people will vote, and the local issues that can sway council elections tend to be forgotten as the big issues of the day take precedence.

Theresa May has clearly timed the election to take advantage of disarray in the Labour Party, and in the hope carrying a large mandate into the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Pollsters are predicting a landslide for the Tory party, with UKIP disappearing as an electoral force and Labour continuing its slide toward oblivion.

The fact that the Conservatives look like winning a significant majority at the next election should prompt us all to cogitate on the present decrepitude and fate of our political system. We live in an epoch defined by a staggering array of titanic problems: climate change, mass migration, declining living standards for the majority, what looks like being a long-running period of low or no growth, the loss of democratic control of the economy, a growing gap between the abstract, financialised economy and the real economy in which most people find work, growing antagonisms on the field of culture and the fundamental failure of our global political economy. People know about these systemic problems, but these problems appear so big, so off-putting, that it is easy to ignore them.

In Britain, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, and we can now talk seriously about entering a new feudal age. The financial elite now possess huge wealth, control huge expanses of the economy and the media, and enjoy the ability to shape and reshape the political agenda to suit their interests. Most striking is the ability of this elite to ignore its responsibility to pay tax, an issue that, since 2008, our politicians have treated with remarkable timidity. At the other end of the social scale, we have growing poverty and a dearth of reasonably remunerative forms of employment. Our industrial base no longer exists. Most jobs fall within the service sector these days. While the service sector is quite diverse, the majority of its jobs are poorly paid, insecure and possess little of the positive symbolism once associated with traditional working-class work.

Against this background, its seems remarkable that a political party dedicated to the neoliberal political model seem set to secure a large majority. It is even predicted that the Conservatives will pick up seats in Scotland, Wales, and other areas once considered the ‘Labour Heartlands’. The Conservative party devastated these areas during the 1980s, and many of these areas, in truth, have yet to recover. Why would people vote against their interests in this way? Why vote for a political party that will make you and those you love poorer, and the neighbourhoods you live in less hospitable and secure?

“Why vote for a political party that will make you and those you love poorer, and the neighbourhoods you live in less hospitable and secure?”

The Conservatives’ commitment to austerity is not only cruel, it is counterproductive to economic growth. A new Conservative government promises tax cuts for the rich, a further decline in living standards for the majority, the continued diminishment of our welfare system and our national infrastructure, and crushing poverty at the margins.

Of course, the Tories are smart enough to realise that Brexit is for most people the principal issue at stake. May seems like a leader who will negotiate hard with EU leaders, a leader who won’t backslide and capitulate to those who predict economic catastrophe if Britain leaves the EU without trade deals in place, and a leader who knows that it is her responsibility to enact the will of the people. And this view of May as a determined leader who will do what needs to be done contrasts sharply with the popular view of Jeremy Corbyn, May’s principal adversary.

Make no mistake: some of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies have the potential to take Britain in a different – and better – direction. He seems dedicated to taxing wealth at a higher level. He wants to narrow the gap between rich and poor. He wants to secure what remains of the modern welfare system. He has even suggested the establishment of national and regional investment banks. This policy no doubt appears quite dull to most voters, but it has the capacity to wrench significant power away from the ‘profit at all costs’ investment banks of the City. It also has the capacity to bring back meaningful work to Britain’s decaying deindustrialised zones. To the titans of the City, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Huddersfield and Swansea look like bad places to invest cash, and so no cash is invested, and no jobs are created. A national investment bank, a bank with the national interests – rather than short-term profit – at its core, has the ability to change things significantly.

The problem for Labour – aside from the mainstream media’s obvious ideological bias – is that Corbyn’s policies have not been connected to the economic interests of the working class in an obvious way.

“Corbyn’s policies have not been connected to the economic interests of the working class in an obvious way.”

Corbyn is a ‘change candidate’. All the other candidates promise only continuity; the continuity of a system that reallocates wealth and power upwards. But Corbyn is not recognised as a ‘change candidate’ by those who – consciously or unconsciously – are desperate for change. Instead, many ordinary working-class people see Corbyn as a weak pacifist dedicated to helping migrants and refugees and totally ignorant about the plight of the working class. For them Corbyn exemplifies middle-class liberal metropolitanism, a cossetted cultural environment totally divorced from the suffering of the world. He doesn’t speak to their world and their interests, and this perception of Corbyn is reinforced daily by supposedly impartial media outlets.
All of this seems very unfair on Corbyn. Sure, he could’ve done a better job of connecting with ordinary voters, and sure, he could’ve offered a more dynamic critique of the present Conservative government.

But Corbyn’s failure is inextricably bound up with Blair’s desire to turn the Labour party into a party for investment bankers. Under Blair, and those that carried forward his legacy, the mainstream left blithely disregarded its core support and became totally disconnected from the lives, interests and troubles of ordinary working-class men and women. Huge numbers of people living in Britain’s deindustrialised zones feel ignored and unrepresented, and, in the past decade especially, it is the political right who have taken advantage of the dissatisfaction and anger that exists in such abundance in the heartlands.

It makes no sense for those on the left today – especially the academic left – to say that this shift to the right results principally from a right-wing media that peddles anxiety and racist propaganda. We need to ask searching questions about why so many ordinary people – who have not and will not benefit from the neoliberal economic model – are voting for right-wing political parties. What do they see in these parties that is attractive? What is it that repels these voters from the parties of the left?

In The rise of the right, we have begun the process of wrestling with these thorny issues, but it is a process that must continue. If we are to re-engage the people, we must embark upon this process with a commitment to honestly, a willingness to change, and in a spirit of self-criticism.

“The left need to begin from the beginning again.”

But the sad fact is this: the left need to begin from the beginning again. If the left is to win and begin the process of addressing the fundamental problems of our time, it must shed its skin and become something else.

the-rise-of-the-right-updated-fc-4webThe rise of the right: English nationalism and the transformation of working-class politics by Simon Winlow, Steve Hall and James Treadwell can be ordered here for £10.39.

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2 Responses to “Election focus: how can the Left re-engage the people?”

  1. 1 Carl Lee (@geoeverything) June 4, 2017 at 11:28 am

    Nearly 10 years on from the first 21st century major crisis of capitalism and the left continues to struggle. It is interesting though that the left doesn’t look more at themselves more. So much of the left agenda is framed against working class communities who are rooted in a specific place – identity politics passes them by, global opportunities pass them by, liberal social values do not particularly motivate them, tradition, continuity and stability remain key elements of their political discourse. Furthermore so many on the left now demonstrate out-right hostility to the working class, their culture and proclivities.

    Looking forward to reading your book and to hold it up against Goodhart’s anywhere – somewhere thesis and see where the connections are

  2. 2 David Walker June 7, 2017 at 10:28 am

    ‘Blair’s desire to turn the Labour party into a party for investment bankers’ is low level cant. Academic analysis of Labour’s predicament surely has to rise above slogans

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