Those of us on the left have had real cause to do serious soul searching in recent months, and the past week in particular. The election of Donald Trump, although in a distant, and some might say crazy, land, reverberates across the Atlantic and on to our sceptred shores. I have been trying to think about what is happening in the world and why those of us who call ourselves progressives, are losing the battle for hearts and minds. Clearly it’s not an easy thing to work out and my own thoughts will barely scrape the surface, but for those interested; here they are.
The left are terrible at emotive political messages. We think everyone will be of the mind to fact-check everything they read, listen to reasoned argument and come to a logical and critical conclusion. Most people don’t have the time, or the will to do this. I’ve read Phillippe Legrain’s book “Immigrants: Why Your Country Needs Them” – it sets out in great detail, empirically detailed as to why immigrants are on overwhelmingly good thing for every nation that accepts them, historically, presently and in the future if trends are to be trusted. It is a brilliant and perceptive piece of writing and incredibly hard to refute. So what do the political right do? They don’t refute it, they just don’t mention it at all. Instead they point at an area of high immigration and say that public services in this area are under strain – they don’t tell you how under strain they are in relation to neighbouring areas, they don’t tell you what level of strain was on them prior to recent immigration, they don’t tell you how local levels of funding have dropped despite an increase in users, they just explicitly say that there are more people here and not enough school places, correlation equals causation in their book – this is emotive, it works; people buy in to fear much more than they buy in to unity thanks to millennia of evolutionary protectionism. I’m not saying man is inherently selfish, but nor are we inherently self-less either and we will look to protect our own quicker than newer people we know less about. The facts of it are neither here nor there, it’s a gut reaction not a coherent one and the gut will win 99 times out of 100.
On the left we are too fact-based; pragmatic research, theory, statistics, peer-review, tables, graphs; it’s great and someone needs to do it to back up what should be, first and foremost an emotive response to hate. Every now and then we will hear a heart-warming story about how a community has got together to support an immigrant in their area who is facing an unjust deportation by the home office. His or her supporters aren’t natural left-wingers or progressives, not even political animals at all half the time, but they are moved to action by a story of common humanity. They didn’t look at how many people the home office sends back to war-torn or unsafe countries for the people in question, they just know the person they are trying to help is a nice person whom they respect and have to come to know. We need to be more like this when discussing mental health services, the NHS break-up and sale, immigration generally, benefits and welfare, our public services etc. etc. We can back up our argument with statistics but statistics in and of themselves never won an argument.
We need to be less shy about taking pages from the right-wing play-book, including attacking those who oppose us with vehemence. The right seem to have ownership of playing the man and not the ball; it’s unpleasant but plays well with the public. David Cameron was allowed to get away scot-free when he left his daughter in a pub, when he pretended to support two separate football teams and even when he was accused of shoving his tally-whacker in a dead pig. The left find it unsavoury to utilise such personal flaws, but do you think, if Jeremy Corbyn had made any one of these errors we would have been allowed to forget it so quickly? If a left-wing figure fails to wear a poppy in early November they are cast as enemy of the state right through to January – I’m afraid we must start using these sorts of tactics if we are to combat them in the longer term. Jeremy Corbyn may want a kinder, gentler politics but frankly he is clearly the only one who does.
I remember being in a bar in Leeds and listening to two people have a discussion about a seminar we’d all been on regarding the “future of the left”. The event was positive, filled with lots of messages of solidarity and unity; the two chaps stood at the bar in the Fenton pub were having a right old natter, until one of them hypothesised that Leon Trotsky in fact was not a true revolutionary, at which point his interlocutor slammed his glass down and stormed off; up until this point they had agreed on everything! It illustrated perfectly to me the problem with many people who are considered left wing that we would often prefer to fight potential friends than confirmed enemies, and usually over some random esoteric and marginal element of Marxist theory.
One only needs to look at the recent machinations within the labour party, which now seems to have more segments than a chocolate orange. Instead of uniting around a common goal, the party backbenchers appear to prefer attacking their party leader, front benchers and paty lay-members interchangeably. If not they turn their ire towards minor left wing groups such as the Socialist Worker Party. Similarly, trade unionists often reserve their strongest hatred not for bosses or HR managers, but members and reps of other unions, when the unifying goal of all unions should be the emancipation of the toiling classes. We must challenge this factionalism that has gone on for far too long on the left; there is far more that unites than divides us; in the US many Bernie Sanders supporters said they would vote for Trump because they felt Hillary Clinton stole the Primaries vote from their candidate – this is akin to being in a pub and asking for salt and vinegar crisps, the barman then hands you ready salted and instead of eating them anyway you set your face on fire.
Shutting down debate
The left have lost the art of debating. We no longer know how to win an argument without shouting down the person holding the opposing view. I hold my hands up here and admit that I have dismissed those who have disagreed with me in the past as either stupid or racists because I didn’t like what they were saying. It’s a short step from this to the “re-education” of high Maoism. How many of us have blocked a family member on social media, or given up a friendship because they have said something abhorrent on Facebook or Twitter? This is tragic and entirely the wrong response. If you don’t listen to their arguments, how can you expect to convince others that their way is something to be opposed, and if you don’t challenge hatred, how to expect to rid society of it? There are racists out there; bigots, fascists even, but even they will have their argument heard one way or another. Ignoring it, or no-platforming won’t make it go away.
There is a legitimate argument to say public service broadcasters shouldn’t be fuelling hate, and should be stronger in challenging the pedlars of spiteful stereotypes and lies, but dismissing anyone who disagrees with you is wrong on so many levels; and as we have seen with Trump does not work. We need to re-engage with oratory and push back the boundaries of acceptable discourse. If someone is telling lies about a particular minority to further their political career, don’t shout “arsehole” and walk away thinking you’ve told them what’s what; challenge it calmly and try to work out why they are saying what they are saying; talk to the people listening and tell them why you believe something different. MPs will tell you often that they encounter difficult viewpoints on the doorstep when they are campaigning, or in their surgeries. Once you get down to it, the person complaining about “Polish people coming over here” are really complaining about a lack of investment in their local services and a paucity of job opportunities for their kids. At face value it can sound unpleasant but there is usually a legitimate and burning concern that pushes people towards the politics of division.
When political correctness first reared its head it was a healthy, positive thing, and if nothing else it was funny watching the Conservatives being forced into articulating their inherent racism in to a more acceptable form of expression. However, it has now got to the stage where people are scared to say what they feel. Words such as “nigger” or “puff” remain unpleasant and broadly unacceptable outside of the realms of societal reclamation, however we have enabled those who would otherwise use such words to escape opprobrium via their skilled use of dialectic obfuscation. As a result the truly nefarious elements in our politics such as Nigel Farage can eschew the disdain of the many by hiding their true feelings. Prior to the age of political correctness the Farages and Le Pens would have had minority support from fellow racists because it would be clear from the beginning who their constituency was. Now instead of talking of black people they talk of “gangland thugs”; we all know what this means, but they didn’t use a bad word so it’s OK. Instead of Jews they talk of “global financial elite” – they can still get away with being directly derogatory about Muslims since every age has to have its go-to scapegoat. Lack of morals is usually far-right parlance for a critique of gay people. Political correctness only aids the agendas of the unpleasant – let everyone come out and say what they think, then we’ll see who has the public’s support.
I go on demonstrations and marches from time to time about causes I feel strongly about. I write things such as this and watch other self-organised groups from a friendly distance who are protesting one such thing or other. The atmosphere after these things is a heady mix of adrenaline and confidence. It’s great to be surrounded by like-minded people and know that you’re not alone when protesting disability cuts or foreign policy for example. However we all go away then and think “we really showed them today, bloody government”, and we convince ourselves we’ve done something amazing. We didn’t begin a revolution, we didn’t bring down a corrupt leader, we just shouted, blew whistles and repeated some inane rhyming couplet behind a man with green hair because he happens to have brought a megaphone.
We have to stop this intellectual onanism and accept that such things don’t change anything in the short term, only continuous, concerted, inventive and wide-ranging pressure can change things. Every little victory – The Sun being removed from sale by a national news outlet, the government been found guilty of discriminatory practices are small, small beer. If you have one goal, you can win that specifically but don’t win and think society’s shitty edifice has suddenly been scrubbed clean. We will still wake up in the morning surrounded by the same little Englanders as before, they just might have to go somewhere else for their daily newspaper. Don’t spin our own victories like New Labour spun theirs; spin is the enemy of change and makes you search for success among the losses, makes you accept the intolerable and makes you blind to the achievements you could reach if you accepted defeat with more grace, and more determination.