It is a difficult time for ‘us on the left’. I know I am not alone in nowadays often feeling politically dispirited, overwhelmed and even homeless. We have watched whilst Johnson’s criminal cabal climbs in the polls, increasing its grip even in the face of extraordinary incompetence and dishonesty.
For me, the most egregious government tactics to stomach are their demonization of the EU to disguise the errors of Brexit and their use of the vaccine success to gloss over the horrors of their prior pandemic mismanagement. We are already seeing the effect – like a doting grandma, the UK is ‘forgiving’ the government their 100,000+ deaths, their hopeless Test and Trace programme, their PPE procurement scandals and rampant cronyism, because ‘the blond lad’ has ‘come good in the end’ (like grandma always predicted). The ‘Perfidious Haystack’ might be a scruffy bloke with scruffy morals and his feet up on the desk but, true to his Etonian and Oxfordian form, he has nevertheless swung it by lurching into action at the last minute. Like Batman, he shot out of that phone box to save Britannia’s day and it would be deeply, deeply unpatriotic to do anything other than doff our caps and tug our forelocks, in gratitude to our ‘supercharged champion’ for rescuing us in a near world beating way from the jaws of further Covid. Grandma is positively swooning with delight and is content with the the obscene 1% pay rise for the Covid nurse who saved her life because, after all, ‘the lass chose that vocation, didn’t she?’
‘We on the left’ are repulsed by Johnson’s government. But many of us are also disenchanted both with Starmer’s centrism and the seeming tribalism and fanaticism of the extreme far left. New leaders should be given the benefit of the doubt, but Starmer has made a series of questionable policy decisions including not supporting teaching unions on safe school return, whipping for Johnson’s skinny Brexit Deal and his ‘bluer than blue’ opposition to corporation tax increases. He is thus in danger of alienating large swathes of the Labour support base including ethnic minorities, educationalists, the youth vote and much of the ‘further left’. However, the alternative for the disenchanted left appears to be the self-destructive tribalism, purism and sheer un-electability of far left extremism. For this reason many of us feel not only despairing but also politically homeless or at sea.
This predicament is aggravated by Johnson’s pre-Victorian de-coupling of political leadership from the truth, the result of which is that, alarmingly, the UK is now not obviously a democracy –
After a brutal plague year in which Johnson has led Britain to one of the highest death rates per capita in the world, the Conservatives are still comfortable favourites to win the next election. Britain has lost nearly 120,000 lives to the virus so far … and faces the worst economic forecasts of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development bar Argentina. The government’s blunders have been blatant, repetitive, and devastating.The New Republic
And yet … The Conservative Party marches on … rarely has a political party wielded so much power, for so long, and with so little accountability.”
What makes the enemy so unassailable?
How are they pulling off this trick? The answer is by a range of complementary tactics designed to preserve Tory hegemony.
Changes are being planned to the 650 electoral constituency boundaries. This means, according to the Electoral Calculus, that Labour seats will be reduced to just 200. Tory support will be further boosted by the planned introduction of measures such as voter ID which deters traditionally non Tory groups such as ethnic minorities from voting.
In addition, Johnson’s government is launching an attack on parliamentary scrutiny, judicial review and on the civil service as an impartial state body – “It became obvious that Johnson was determined to dismantle the administrative integrity of the civil service” (Oborne, The Assault on Truth). Thus, following Sir Phillip Rutnam and Mark Sedwill, by Sept 2020, six of Whitehall’s most senior civil servants, were either gone or about to leave because they were deemed to be at significant odds with the cabinet.
The new ‘free speech’ regulations also play their insidious part in strengthening Johnson’s coup. For example, universities can now be sued for ‘no platforming’ speakers with anti-progressive (e.g. racist, xenophobic, homophobic) views – a new dictatorial move designed to suppress opposition.
Tactics such as these are being consolidated by the expansion of media control. Our mainstream media (MSM) is already predominantly owned by billionaires (Murdoch, Rothermere, Barclay) with close ties to the Tory Party. But the MSM is getting a massive right-wing boost through the recent appointment of the Tory donor, Richard Sharp, as the new BBC chairman. In addition, Paul Dacre, former right wing editor of the Mail, famous for his objection to the statutory regulation of journalists, is to run Ofcom. Also two new right wing television channels are soon to be introduced. Furthermore the government plans to subsidize the ‘legacy press industry’ (wealthy members of the News Media Association with turnovers exceeding £100 million and supportive of right wing ideology) whilst small independent media groups are left to sink.
“[The MSM] strained every muscle to ensure the election of Boris Johnson’s Government, often publishing propaganda of astonishing dishonesty. And now, while they promote a cult of personality worthy of an Idi Amin or a Mugabe …, they are also working overtime to gaslight the country into believing that the pandemic has been brilliantly handled – The corruption involved here is so brazen it takes the breath away … “Byline Times
The MSM apparatus is being used to articulate Johnson’s right wing vision by means of defence, omission and collusion as applied to, for example, Brexit, Test and Trace, Tory funding and PPE sourcing. (For a detailed list of examples see Peter Oborne’s book, ‘The Assault on Truth’.) This ‘false reality’ is then reinforced by the MSMs:
“… daily drip-feed of Toryphilia, xenophobia, left-baiting, and jingoism …[this] lets the Conservative Party convincingly claim to reflect—rather than shape—the national mood. Laying blame for society’s ills elsewhere—immigrants, minorities, welfare cheats, the unpatriotic left … serves a common purpose: stopping ‘the radicals’ from taking power”The New Republic
The upshot is that the UK is under various enchanted hypnotic spells – imperial nostalgia, deference to privileged wealth and fear of ‘aliens and radicals’.
The internet is, of course, also being harnessed – 88% of the 7,000 internet ads used in the Tory election campaign had already been denounced as false or misleading by independent fact checking organisations (Oborne). The internet abounds with pro government manipulations, from the doctoring of a video making Starmer, then shadow secretary, seem unable to answer a key question, to renaming one of the government’s Twitter accounts as ‘AtFactCheckUK’ in order to lend seeming veracity to essentially partisan claims.
The key feature of the processes described is that they are underpinned by a culture of systemic dishonesty in which a shared, public reference point for truth has disappeared. As a duplicitous shape shifter and systematic liar, Johnson is “the embodiment of a new conservatism” (The New Republic) which is not democracy as we or the Victorians knew it and which makes democratic socialism feel virtually impossible to accomplish. Whereas pre Johnson we talked of ‘strengthening’ our democracy, now we have to consider ‘reclaiming’ it.
Whichever brand of socialism one endorses, the Tory grip just described is bleakly daunting. If the UK is currently not a genuine democracy but instead soft clay being shaped into full compliance with the new government’s vision, then it isn’t clear how we can even begin to work towards a democratic socialist position. To use a Tolkein metaphor, the left’s chances of success feel smaller right now than Frodo’s in Mordor. Worse still, whilst Frodo is stuck with Tory-lite centrism, Sam is on the other side of a chasm lost in the corridors of militant purism and they can’t even hear each other.
Faced with such mountainous obstacles I lurch between fantasies of protest, moving abroad or opting out to some nether community that politics left behind.
Reasons for optimism
So, I’ve done the (relatively) easy bit – the gnashing of teeth on how difficult change is and major obstacles. Now for the trickier positives. Here I can only suggest some humble pointers which together might offer ballast against cynicism and despair and beef up our incentive to fight on.
A galvanizing reason for not throwing in the towel is that giving up is precisely what Johnson’s government wants us to do because our disillusionment gives them an easier ride. Fascist techniques of social control have two effects – they remove the individual’s rights and freedoms but also engineer a sense of paralyzed helplessness. To stop ourselves from being corralled into this political wasteland we have to fight our own cynicism.
Thus emboldened, we could then take heart from simple demographics. The over 55’s had a significant role in the Tories 2019 election win. However, the younger generation are less vulnerable to Tory manipulations because they already dance to a different piper. Their poor prospects and a desire for better racial policies and a greener future gives them a more progressive outlook and an appetite for nationalisation and public investment. So, some progressive change may come simply from their replacing the elderly in the polling booths.
Whilst waiting for demographics to do its work we could also celebrate that the iron grip of the UK’s right-wing dominated media is now being stealthily but steadily counteracted by the spread of grass roots activist organisations and alternative news platforms such as the Bylines network itself. These incursions are to Johnson’s government as the vaccine is to the virus. They will hopefully keep expanding beyond their base and gain a wider following before they can be overcome by those social control measures. Social media platforms are decreasingly porous echo chambers that provide a safe catharsis for rage and this suits the government very well. But these platforms could be far more weaponized in our favour. The internet is still a public resource even in this Land of Mordor. So if Johnson’s government can use it to grab power, then the opposition can use it to grab power back. But it is a race against time.
Having arm-wrestled cynicism to the ground and found hope in the growing strength of the opposition voices, we should acknowledge that the left’s war with itself also suits Johnson’s government very well. So we must persuade the purists and tribalists to recognise the need for cooperation and alliances. The recent lesson from the US is that populist nationalism can be defeated, even under a First Past the Post system – but only through unified action by all progressives of the centre and left.
By for example targeting the blue Suburbia vote (Suburban England) and by joining forces with the Green Party and LibDems, Labour could win 351 seats. If this kind of co-ordination is the only route out of Mordor, then squabbling hobbits of all opposition colours – red, green, orange and mauve – should attend to the far greater threat to us all and collaborate on our escape.
Finally, the shift to a more progressive political orientation could be supported by Covid itself. Covid has made us hyperaware of our vulnerability. It has been the first experience for many that nature and politics are not just matters debated remotely by the media but impinge directly on the very core of our lives. We have been confronted with our own mortality and the removal of our liberty and our financial (in)security. This has forced fundamental lifestyle changes on us and has highlighted our responsibility to others. For once in the 21st century, we have had to set aside our usual material benefits and act as a community. Lockdowns, masks, self-isolation are for the protection of all of us. Covid has also sharply reminded us how entirely reliant we are on the infrastructure of key and other low paid, essential workers.
So perhaps these Covid insights might also help to trigger a more communitarian, less individualistic culture more aligned with socialist values than current Tory ideology.
Perversely, Covid might also be lighting our way out of Mordor.