WORDS: Luke Cooper
Disastrous. Abominable. Cataclysmic. Soul-destroying. Devastating. And perhaps most of all… shocking. Amidst all the rage, grief and despair we’ve been collectively overwhelmed by over the last few days, it’s sometimes felt like there aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to describe the results of Thursday’s general election. Unpredicted by pretty much everyone – with the notable exceptions of Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb and Shaun Lawson at Open Democracy – it was the shock of the result that most bedevilled the collective psyche of British leftists.
It’s not like we had high hopes. But it felt like we’d turned up at the police station to pay a speeding ticket only to receive a summary execution. The exit polls were truly awful. Eight hours later the results were even worse. Not content with killing us, a cop car seemed to be driving over our dead body repeatedly to make sure the job was well and truly accomplished. A huge caveat is needed before we get too carried away. Because this is, of course, a story about English and Welsh dismayed radicals. North of the border an insurgent SNP won an absolute landslide, pitching itself as the radical anti-austerity party that the austerity-lite Labour Party had refused to be.
What happened? Of course, it’s complicated but we have to start by recognising the simple fact that a large majority of English and Welsh voters either backed coalition parties or parties to the right of them. The left – however we define that term – lost this election: we lost the battle of ideas and we lost the battle for votes.
So the right won. And even taking into account the gross injustices of our electoral system, the fact is they still would have won, and won big, in a proportional system.
We could blame the pollsters for our shock. But there’s more to it than that. Social media allows us to be around like-minded people virtually twenty-four hours a day.
Get into an argument with an EDL-member on Twitter then there’s an easy solution: you hit the block button and just shoot the breeze with your friendly followers.
This isn’t a special quality of the internet either. “In real life” the same logic applies. Whether you’re sipping a chai latte in Brixton market. Or joining the Reclaim Brixton protests against gentrification. You probably don’t look around you and think that the three constituencies that divide up Brixton are home to over 35,000 Tory voters.
So 35,000 people in “cosmopolitan” Lambeth voted for a party committed to abolishing the Human Rights Act – 35,000 votes for less rights! –, closing Britain’s borders with Europe, huge welfare cuts; zero hour contracts, large cuts for education budgets, university fees of £9,000, and to add new anti-union laws to what are already the most draconian anti-labour codes that exist in the developed world.
We don’t see these voters because we don’t look for them. So us Londoners – who have twice elected Boris Johnson mayor remember – would do well not to gloat that we voted against the Tories in 2015. This election wasn’t about London versus the rest. It just throws a shocking light on how marginal left wing ideas have become.
The bitter conclusion is that the Tories’ arguments, appealing to a lowest common denominator worldview, resonated with many voters in the marginal constituencies of England and Wales and beyond. The “living within our means” argument of the Tory austerians was accepted. As was the utter fantasy that the problems working people face everyday are due to immigration and a “loss of sovereignty to Brussels”.
This was all added to by a vicious campaign of scaremongering about the rise of the SNP in Scotland stoking the reactionary fires of English nationalism. So the civic nationalism of the SNP – with its support for European integration, its advocacy of increased immigration, its opposition to austerity, and commitment to public ownership and social justice – and their rise to power, conversely encouraged a growth in a decidedly nastier, anti-immigrant ethnic nationalism in England. This isn’t, of course, the fault of the vibrant Scottish movement, but represents a severe indictment of the state of progressive and leftist politics south of the border.
There’s a lesson here about all too easily falling into the comfort zone of cultural leftism. We can surround ourselves – both virtually and in-real-life – with “our people”, culturally, socially and politically. We can then rage indignant when – shock horror – the society we’ve incubated ourselves from turns out to be pretty ugly. Whatever you say about elections, they force us out of the comfort zone and into our communities. They brutally remind us of our marginalisation. And they underline the enormity of the challenge; the years of work needed to put our society right.
So the catastrophe didn’t happen on Thursday. It happened over decades. With that wonderful thing – hindsight – the election result was predictable, even if it wasn’t inevitable. So what’s to be done? I would humbly suggest a few steps. Number one, be sceptical of anyone who claims to have all the answers. Number two, recognise the reality: our society has shifted sharply to the right and things will get worse before they get better. Number three, try and find a way out of the bubble to have any hope of arresting the formidable avalanche of reaction that’s about to befall us.