Two weeks after the 1992 general election I could scarcely drag myself out of bed. So how come, two short weeks after another heart-sinking election victory for the radical right, a large group of assorted radicals of the left managed to assemble in Birmingham to discuss the way forward for forms of politics that challenge the narrative of austerity? What’s the difference between now, and then?
For the radical right, probably not a lot. The language changes. Thatcherism and Reaganomics are terms that belong to a sepia coloured past, when there were four TV channels and WH Smith sold a magazine called Marxism Today. But today’s neoliberalism might have swapped double breasted Armani suits for hipster homespun, but it is essentially the same old same old. George Osborne is Nigel Lawson on the 5:2 diet. They believe in shrinking the state, cutting taxes, flexible labour (easier to sack, with fewer rights), and carrots for the big guys and sticks for the rest.
The left, however, is almost unrecognisable. Across Europe the old parties of the left, with their roots in the 19th Century, have been disintegrating. The experience of a particular kind of work – selling one’s labour for cash – has ceased to have the salience it once did. We’re more aware of the value of unpaid labour, or our weaknesses and potential power as consumers, or our vulnerability in the face of climate change. The radicalism of the left has no choice but to address the lack of security we face in everything from where we live, how we work, how we are educated, whether our food is fit to eat. Big questions, but real questions.
So why wasn’t the Labour Party able to frame those questions within ‘a narrative’ that people recognised and understood?
Ruth Lister began by describing the Compass Radical Hope event in London last Saturday. The participants there ranged across the spectrum of the left, from Caroline Lucas to Yuan Yang, from Jon Cruddas to Victor Adebowale. These are serious figures whose participation in a common debate is something that would have appeared remarkable (and very niche – like Charter 88) twenty years ago. It’s a measure of the state we’re in. It’s also a measure of a political renewal on the left that is genuine cause for hope.
The discussion in the room last night was also tentatively hopeful. The ‘tentative’ thing matters. Several contributors spoke as though they expected to be challenged, or sneeringly dismissed for their views, but no one was. (I felt a bit guilty at one point for challenging someone who has wondered aloud about whether the election had been rigged. I’ve seen a lot of this talk on social media, over-spill from the Scottish referendum, and its a distraction from the real issues, but as a naive current in oppositional politics it perhaps needs more gentle de-bunking.) Most people modelled politics as listening, courteous.
Which is not to say that there wasn’t passion. Real people are being hurt by this government and their world view, and more will now be hurt, and often very badly indeed. In any case, as one contributor said, one of the few moments in the election campaign which put party leaders on the spot was the Question Time from Leeds Town Hall. I happen to think that some of those clashes were ill-tempered and misdirected, but the point was nonetheless well made – we have political leaders who are so insulated from voters that they recoil in fear when confronted by people from outside their bubble. Our politics can’t afford to replicate that isolation, comfortable as it might be only to talk with those we find sympathetic.
What emerged last night was a shared sense that we can’t afford to let politics be a luxury we enjoy every five years or so, like a sort of geeks’ Olympics. We need to engage politically all the time, in ways which flow from our own positions as citizens, as men and women, as young and old, as parents, or carers, or passengers on the bus. We ‘own the narrative’ when we live it, and make it explicit.
But three (of many) things we didn’t really discuss are these:
1. The local and regional dimension. Our city, the biggest outside the mega-city of London, has had quite a kicking from this government, and it is set to continue. Perhaps being the youngest, most-diverse city in Europe is not to Tory tastes? ‘English votes for English laws’-style non-devolution will only exacerbate our problems. Some of our regional leadership is of poor quality II’m thinking of the MEPs, especially here). We do need to focus on the city-region in this, the home of municipal socialism.
2. Social media and political communication. If 2015 wasn’t quite a ‘social media election’, it is of rising importance. The Tories didn’t spend a fortune on Facebook without a purpose. How do we make better, more strategic use of social media?
3. How, specifically, do we take politics to people who’ve stopped listening, who’ve lost hope, and can see no point in using their votes?
Compass and Equality West Midlands have done good work in making a space for those engagements to happen. Let’s keep the momentum going!