….for the 31% of the public who voted for Labour, they may not ring absolutely true. Those people may feel, as they haven’t for a generation, like aliens in their own land. Promised that social justice was a cause that would ultimately resonate with the whole country, they have instead been reminded that to vast numbers of people, their beliefs seem peculiar, their cause an unholy alliance of the snooty and the feckless. They could live with the disapproval of the newspapers they didn’t like. But now they must admit that the Mail was not a mouthpiece, but an amplifier.
I was fortunate enough to be on holiday when the dreadful election results were announced so that perhaps played a role in why this description of the aftermath, taken from here, so resonated with me. It’s really not over-stating things to say that the UK really does currently feel like an alien land. It was relatively easy to remain optimistic in the face of the cruelties and traumas of the past five years, as the Tories hadn’t been able to win a majority, no-one had actually voted for much of what the coalition did and it seemed certain that we would (at the very least) face an even wider (and thus more diluted) coalition after this election. I went off on holiday with a bounce in my step, creating a playlist called ‘All Things Seem Possible in May’ to mark May Day and my sense of optimism that better days were near. Yet it wasn’t to be: enough people voted for the horrors offered by the Tories to give them a full majority, free from even the moderately palliative influence of the Liberal Democrats.
The real kick in the teeth is that this didn’t happen, I believe, because most people are just unabashed dickheads. I could parse that and feed strength from my sense of righteousness. No, rather this result underlines the state of unreality our politics exists in, the sense that we are all wading through bullshit. As I mentioned in that piece most people, whatever their political identification (if they have one), have no idea of the reality of welfare, immigration, spending etc. It doesn’t seem to me that most people in this election chose a party because they felt they could support its policies; rather it was about emotional identification. This is, of course, always an important factor but the role of nationalism in this election has certainly been stronger than any in my adult life. The Tories pulled off their victory because they spent the last 3 weeks of their campaign not discussing their policies or articulating a vision for the country but rather invoking the spectre of a hobbled Labour government beholden to the SNP. Again, the easy and self-righteous interpretation here would be to believe that ‘England’ was terrified of the SNP dragging Labour to the left. A more honest one, I think, is to acknowledge that the SNP spent their campaign invoking the spectre of a hobbled Labour government at ‘Westmonster’ which they could exert influence on to amplify ‘Scotland’s voice’. There is, of course, no such thing as ‘Scotland’s voice’ and that rhetoric, along with digs about ‘writing the Labour manifesto’ and ‘making Labour bolder’ were aimed at appealing to Scottish nationalist ideas of ‘us vs them down there’ while equally inflaming a reactionary English nationalism which could only ever serve the Tories.
While on the left it’s been (and remains) easy to attack the Tories and Labour, casting a critical eye over the SNP remains a (very controversial) niche pursuit. The responses have been predictable: the left in Scotland largely keep telling themselves that Scotland is ‘different’, they are not nationalist and the Tory government is England’s fault; the left in England largely indulge this and keep fighting about how inadequate Labour is; the right swiftly gets on with things like removing the Human Rights Act which underline how facile the ‘they’re both the same’ or ‘Red Tories’ lines are. When I wrote about the #indyref I predicted that it would (further) divide the UK left, that the SNP would almost entirely mop up the spoils with the ‘Green Yes’ and RIC campaigns largely irrelevant and that we would disappear down the rabbit hole of nationalism. I think all these things have come to pass and, as I wrote in March, I think we’re going to be here for some time (as does Patrick Cockburn in this good piece placing nationalism in context). Certainly the fact that we now face the actual Tories means there will be no further parsing of Scottish nationalism, the myths of difference which sustain it or the fact that Scottish politics exists in a same-but-different state of unreality as the rest of the UK (a state brilliantly demolished in this blog). This is a particularly egregious example of what we can expect, portraying the SNP vote as against ‘colonial nationalism’ and explicitly mentioning Libya, clearly utterly oblivious to the fact that the SNP supported the ‘intervention’ there (as it did in Afghanistan and in the first Gulf War). I do, incidentally, think Scottish independence is far more likely – I don’t however think this will change the above situation for at least a decade. This piece shows why. Even after a surge in SNP support which literally started the week of the referendum result and has led to an almost one-party state in Scotland, prominent ‘Green Yes’ supporters are still arguing that this ‘isn’t about nationalism’, the Greens polling 1.3% in Scotland (less than UKIP) is a good thing and a ‘real left’ will emerge at some point in the future. The absolute need for these ‘progressives’ to feel dissociated from nationalism has completely blunted their critical faculties. They are forehead deep in the unreal bullshit.
The state of unreality trundled on as soon as Labour’s defeat became obvious and we’re already seeing the right of the party trying to capitalise on it. Make no mistake about it, speaking as a socialist the Labour Party manifesto was inadequate in many ways, sometimes indefensibly so. Yet there was also much to be excited about and it was in some aspects the most left-wing manifesto Labour has had in decades. This manifesto saw the Labour vote increase in England and Wales – not enough, clearly, but it’s important to remember this in the face of instant rhetoric about how this was a disaster comparable to 1983.
Nonetheless, just as the unreality of ‘Labour spent too much and wrecked the economy’ became quickly accepted as truth after the 2010 election (something Labour clearly has large responsibility for) we can already see the bullshit we will be wading through for the foreseeable future: on the right it will be cemented that Labour were too left-wing, that austerity is working, that the coalition’s legacy has to be accepted. The left will prove more fractious, as ever, but it will be cemented that Labour were too right-wing and that ‘Scotland’ voted for a more radical left-wing party and nationalism played little role. There will also be an increase in despair and the notion that electoral politics is a busted flush for the left, something which overwhelmingly manifests itself in attacks on the electorally-minded left-wing.
I feel despair too, of a kind I have rarely known politically. It does cause an existential questioning of what we’re doing here, exactly. Yet there are things I still firmly believe: that you can argue for and fight for a better government than the Tories without believing that it’s the be all and end all of politics or, indeed, abandoning opposition to much of a Labour government platform; that electoral reform is an absolutely crucial goal for the left; that the past five years have shown the power and brilliance of people joining together, whether locally or across the UK, to fight the Tories.
I also believe that it’s always easier to appeal to people’s base instincts and apportion blame to ‘others’ in politics and I believe that we (and I) on the left do this in our own ways, which we remain largely blind to. If the UK currently feels like an alien country, we need to start fighting against the bullshit unreality which dominates and get back to what kind of society we live in, what kind of one we want to live in and how we take ourselves there. It’s only with a keen understanding of now that we can begin to fight back. The fact we need to fight back now rather than indulge in hand-wringing doesn’t make this any less possible or necessary. That is the one thing I still believe which is keeping me sane: people largely do not vote any way in particular because they are intrinsically anything. They’re all just wading through the same bullshit as the rest of us and joining together to build movements is the one sure fire way to begin to change that.