I got an e-mail from someone regarding people who were planning on voting Liberal Democrat and some of the standard anti-Corbyn talking points you hear wheeled out: that he’s ‘weak’, that he ‘hasn’t done anything’, that Labour would be doing better under a different leader and all the rest. I started to write a paragraph in response and it turned into something a bit longer, so I thought I may as well post a slightly modified version of it here.
Tomorrow there are local elections across England, the first since Theresa May called her disastrous General Election in the arrogant assumption that her putrid brand of racist, xenophobic nationalism would see her sweep aside all opposition. She was, thankfully, proved wrong. Yet we still live in a Tory England.
We still live in the Tory England where over 71 people can burn to death in their own homes in the context of a tangible contempt for social housing tenants, the deregulation of the building industry in order to place profits above people and ideologically-motivated cuts to local authority budgets, the fire service and legal aid. The Tory England where, almost a year on, people continue to wait to be rehoused in a way they would not be if they were wealthy, and if they were largely white.
We still live in the Tory England where people can lose their jobs, their homes, their right to healthcare, even their right to stay in this country because the government perceives that fuelling ignorant racism is worth more to its survival than basic human decency. So hateful and self-defeating is this perception that the government seeks to deny doctors, nurses and students the ability to live here if they happen to have been born somewhere else.
We still live in the Tory England where people die waiting for ambulances, die in the back of ambulances, die in hospital beds sitting in corridors, because the government places its ideological drive to destroy the public sector above the enduring (just) dream of good healthcare, free for everyone. After a decade of increases, NHS funding has declined steadily since 2010 just as an ageing population sees it facing its biggest challenges. The British Medical Journal has linked these cuts to at least 120,000 excess deaths in England, “with the over 60s and care home residents bearing the brunt”.
We still live in the Tory England where the number of people sleeping on our streets has increased every year since 2010 and the number of these homeless people dying has more than doubled in the past five years.
We still live in the Tory England where the number of children living in poverty has soared since 2010, with just under a third of children currently living in poverty and almost two-fifths forecast to be so by 2022. A majority of teachers report that child poverty is noticeably worse in their schools, with children attempting to steal food because they’re hungry or even turning up with no shoes because their families can’t afford new ones. This is a Tory England where foodbank use is at record levels, as families turn to the kindness of strangers just to eat. Tory economic policies, meanwhile, continue to hit the poorest the hardest – an analysis made by the government’s own economists.
We still live in the Tory England where austerity has led to a lost decade, with economists suggesting a cost to GDP equivalent to over £10,000 per household. Wages have stagnated for a decade and living standards have faced their most sustained and deepest decline in over 60 years. Young people have been particularly hit by this, facing low wages, precarious employment and soaring housing costs. After a rapid decline following the economic crash, personal debt has soared in the past few years as people turn to loans and credit cards just to live.
We still live in the Tory England where Theresa May clings desperately to the DUP for survival, refusing to take forward equal marriage in Northern Ireland to satisfy her bigoted pals.
We still live in the Tory England where Theresa May cosies up to the brutal regime in Saudi Arabia, ramping up arms sales as it murders people indiscriminately in Yemen while professing to care about ‘humanitarian concerns’. In Tory England’s glorious ‘Brexit Britain’, the UK cosies up to the UAE, Indonesia, Kuwait, Bahrain – no regime is beyond the pale when there’s money to be made.
We still live in the Tory England where the new Home Secretary can be a documented tax evader, moving within a cabinet flush with multi-millionaires who slash and burn public services in order to ‘outsource’ them to their pals (or themselves), talking tough on people funnelling their money offshore while doing everything possible to avoid doing much about it.
The UK is an enormously wealthy country. It will remain an enormously wealthy country even if and when Brexit hits our economy. There is nothing inevitable about any of the above. Soaring child poverty is a political choice. A crumbling NHS is a political choice. Councils going bankrupt and ramping up council tax to cope with slashed central government funding is a political choice.
Tory England is a political choice and one which I don’t believe most people in England actively want.
Labour is far from perfect and it falls on everyone who cares about social justice to maintain pressure on them to do better. Yet Corbyn’s Labour is not only a clear and present difference to Tory England, the General Election of 2017 underlines that it’s a viable one. Things can be better. We just have to want it. Just before GE2017 I wrote a blog which began with words from Eugene V. Debs – words I wrote with what felt at the time like hopeless optimism. Now that optimism doesn’t feel hopeless. Reject Tory England and vote Labour.
“Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning – Eugene V. Debs
Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning – Eugene V. Debs
‘And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain.
‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
Unless there is a major upset, the Tories are going to win the election on Thursday. They certainly don’t deserve to – their election campaign has been dismal and contemptuous, demonstrating an arrogant sense of entitlement and appealing to the very worst in us. May called this election solely for her own advantage and clearly didn’t expect to have to do much beyond stoke crude nationalism, inflame petty xenophobia and rely on a largely prostrate media to hammer home that she was The Only Serious Option. Her efforts to avoid interacting with the public and refusal to debate her opponents have exemplified this galling hubris and it’s depressing that she’ll probably still win despite it.
Yet there can be no doubt that May has gotten more than she bargained for in this election. Something remarkable has happened, with the Tory lead in some polls crashing from over 20 points to only 1 to 3. Some of this owes a lot to May’s aforementioned contemptuousness inspiring a backlash, a refusal to be taken for granted; much of it, however, is due to Jeremy Corbyn having the kind of campaign which political wisdom has told us for two years was impossible. Corbyn has been, in stark contrast to May, warm, open, compassionate and reasonable: qualities which have no doubt resonated even more with many people given they’ve been told repeatedly that he is a dangerous, unhinged extremist. His approval ratings have soared over the course of the past few weeks and suddenly all those months of Very Wise People sneering at the notion of ‘media bias’ against him seem very silly indeed. It turns out that when they see and hear him themselves, folk quite like him.
There are, of course, many ‘sensible moderates’ who still refuse to countenance this fact and scramble around for excuses as to why Labour has had such a good campaign. They tell us it’s the manifesto (ignoring the fact that such a manifesto would never have happened without Corbyn), that it’s May’s unpopularity (after spending months telling us she was a safe pair of hands parking tanks on Labour’s lawn), that if Labour had some other leader it would be soaring ahead in the polls (the only other options being uninspiring technocrats whose response to Ed Miliband’s defeat was to argue for a shift right, particularly on immigration). Indeed, some of these ‘sensible moderates’ clearly still want Corbyn’s Labour to do badly so that they can be proved right, to the point that they have shifted the goals as the poll numbers have improved. It is very clear, if it wasn’t already, that all of the talk about how ‘principle without power is useless, we want to win’ has been self-serving drivel – they just hate the left and still can’t emerge from their petulant strop at not being in control of the party.
If Corbyn’s Labour were to win this election, these people would either have to put up or shut up – get behind him and his manifesto, or go elsewhere. That in itself would be a positive development. As it is, however, even if he is defeated Corbyn has changed the game in a way few were anticipating. He has drawn a much-needed line in the sand and shown his critics that yes, left-wing ideas can be very popular when presented by someone who clearly believes them, that a ‘social movement’ is not something to be mocked, that ‘move right, move right’ doesn’t have to be the received political wisdom on how to appeal and that yes, class and ideology still matter as many of us always knew it did.
The odds may be against Corbyn winning but, as far as my words have any value, I implore everyone and anyone who cares about solidarity and social justice to vote Labour on Thursday. I’m sure no-one reading this would be voting Tory but I’m sure some are contemplating voting Liberal Democrat or SNP. My views on both are well-documented (my most recent blog was about the astonishing hypocrisy of the Lib Dems under Farron) but it’s given me no pleasure to witness the self-serving contortions of so-called ‘progressives’ trying to justify not voting for the kind of Labour Party policies they’ve apparently demanded for years. Suffice to say, if you can’t vote for Corbyn’s Labour because of Scottish independence, you need to face up to the fact that you’re a nationalist before you are a socialist. If you can’t vote for Corbyn’s Labour because ‘Scottish Labour attacked Corbyn’ but can happily vote SNP when it has repeatedly done the same, you probably have to face the same thing. If you ‘want to vote Labour in Scotland but don’t want to split the vote and let the Tories in’, you should ask why splitting the vote wasn’t much of a concern in 2015 when the polls suggested a dead-heat between Labour and the Tories in the UK.
Corbyn and Labour are far from perfect and few would claim that of either – we are electing politicians, after all. Nonetheless, Corbyn has offered a tangible sense of hope. Far from being an unelectable ‘loony left’ faction, Corbyn’s Labour has found its policies on the economy praised by mainstream economists, its policies on housing praised by housing experts, its policies on education applauded by headteachers and is now finding its warnings about police and security cuts, and the UK’s disastrous foreign policy, being widely agreed with in the mainstream media. More than this, however, Corbyn’s Labour has offered hope in ourselves. I realise that sounds trite but as the left has suffered defeat after defeat in recent years, it has been immensely powerful and very moving to see people responding to a platform based on solidarity, on those seen as weak, vulnerable and unvalued coming together and standing up against the powerful. When Corbyn won the Labour leadership, he ended his acceptance speech by saying:
I say thank you in advance to us all working together to achieve great victories, not just electorally for Labour, but emotionally for the whole of our society to show we don’t have to be unequal. It doesn’t have to be unfair, poverty isn’t inevitable, things can, and they will, change.
The emotional victory described her has already happened – people who have spent most of recent political memory being told they were out of touch, crazy, selfish, unreasonable are now on the offensive, strong in the knowledge that their message can resonate and that appealing to fear and resentment is not the only, or even the most effective, way to do things. Such is the audacity of hope and its importance cannot be overstated. This is not going to go away on Friday morning, whatever the result. If Labour were to defy all expectation and win, we would immediately have to get to work. If we lose, however, we do not sit desolate in defeat but rather embrace each other even closer, moving forward with hope, hope, hope, knowing with certainty that together we can make things better and, as a result, with a renewed understanding that we must.
That comes on Friday. For now – vote Labour.
A half-hearted nation will want to hold fast to its grievances, and in that sense Scotland has done well. The nation’s brickwork is cemented with resentments, from ruined monastery to erupting towerblock: blame, fear, bigotry and delusion, their fragments powder the common air – and always the fault is seen to lie elsewhere, with other nations, other lives. Scotland is a place where cultural artefacts and past battles – the Stone of Destiny, Robert Burns, Braveheart, Bannockburn – have more impact on people’s sense of moral action than politics does. The people have no real commitment to the public sphere, and are not helped towards any such commitment by the dead rhetoric of the young Parliament. Yet the problem is not the Parliament, it’s the people, and the people’s drowsy addiction to imagined injury – their belief in a paralysing historical distress – which makes the country assert itself not as a modern nation open to progress on all fronts, but as a delinquent, spoiled, bawling child, tight in its tartan babygro, addled with punitive needs and false memory syndrome.
I have quoted this piece before and return to it often. Although written in 2002, I find it astonishingly prescient with regards to Scottish politics over a decade later. Yesterday’s Holyrood election underlines that ‘nationalist’ vs ‘unionist’, or competing versions of nationalism if you like, has become the dominant division in Scottish politics. It gives me no pleasure to be proved right in my assertions that this is a disastrous state of affairs for the left. Let’s be clear here: the Scottish electorate has elected two parties who advocate low tax and spending cuts as their government and its opposition. It has done this due to at best misguided, at worst deeply stupid battle over rearranging the chairs of government; many of those who voted SNP have supported conservatism in the belief that an imagined future radicalism is worth inaction now. The myths of Scottish exceptionalism, particularly that it is more left-wing than rUK, have never looked so facile. With a turnout of 55% we can also lay to rest the notion that Scotland is in the midst of some ‘carnival of democracy’. It’s deeply ironic that many loud voices have spent the past few years demanding more powers for Holyrood and pointing the finger at Westminster, yet when it comes to it the just-over-half of the electorate who bother to vote go for parties who don’t actually want to do much with the new powers (it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge the SNP’s proposed Air Passenger Duty cut, which I’m sure will usher in a golden age).
I’ve seen some people wondering how on earth Scottish Labour could move clearly to the left of the SNP and still come third. As I’ve been arguing for some time, much of the hatred for Labour in Scotland has become pathological and owes little to policy or even its record. It’s for this reason that Labour achievements in office are ignored, distorted or claimed for the SNP. This goes hand in hand with nationalists wanting the Tories to do better than Labour and celebrating this as a ‘good result for Yes’:
The Tories pose no existential threat to Scottish nationalism. Indeed, the existence of the Tories as a party of government, to the right of the SNP, is absolutely essential to feeding the myths of Scottish exceptionalism, enabling nationalists to argue that fault lies elsewhere and portraying independence as the only way to achieve ‘progressive values’. A left-wing Labour party, led by an unabashed socialist in the UK and advocating old-fashioned tax and spend policies in Scotland, does pose an existential threat to nationalism. We caught a glimpse of this when Owen Jones asked Mhairi Black if she would rather have a UK governed by a socialist government or an independent Scotland. She of course chose the latter and the reality behind her assertion that ‘Labour left me’ (which already made no sense given she was 3 when Blair came to power) was laid bare. Whether it be Black, RISE or even to a large extent the Green Party, the ‘it’s not nationalism, it’s socialism’ advocates tend to favour and/or provide cover for the former when push comes to shove. The opposition to the SNP provided by the latter two parties has been woeful (the Greens voting against a tax rise to offset cuts, in the hope of some vague future radicalism, was a particular low point) and it has been clear that they hoped to ride the SNP’s coattails into power on second preferences. RISE in particular has unthinkingly bought into nationalism while insisting it’s actually socialist:
You would think that ‘socialists’ would be willing to work with other socialists whatever their view of the constitution, rather than dismissing them as ‘unionist’. This dreck was never going to fly and it’s why RISE polled a woeful 0.5% in the election.
Now, it’s interesting that the SNP have fallen just short of an overall majority as this poses a challenge for the party. If it replicates its strategy of the 2007 strategy and does deals with the Tories, much of its rhetoric of grievance will fall apart. Yet if it relies on the Greens (or even Lib Dems) you would (hopefully) expect that the latter parties would push for the kind of tax rises, extensive land reform and radicalism elsewhere which the SNP has avoided in its clear desire not to scare the horses. It could be argued that if this second route is taken the SNP’s constant fixation on what it can’t do would be greatly undermined; on the other hand, with the constitutional question looking set to remain the defining issue for the foreseeable future, you could also argue that conservative Yes voters don’t really have anywhere else to go.
One thing which is clear is that Scottish Labour’s manifesto has exposed the lie of SNP ‘progressiveness’ and Scottish exceptionalism. ‘Red Tory’ has never sounded so hollow. This is why it was an important strategic move in an election Labour were never going to win (if Thomas Docherty‘s view that a more right-wing manifesto would have helped matters is remotely typical of opinion in the party then I despair – it would instead only have provided fuel to the ‘Red Tory’ fire). I see some Scottish Labour figures are already arguing that Full Fiscal Autonomy is the only way to save the party. Perhaps this is true but, if so, it’s an acknowledgement that left-wing values cannot defeat popular nationalism (though there are thoughtful left-wing voices who are discussing how to ensure a federal UK can be progressive).
We also see that it’s in Scotland where the Tory vote has surged most in the UK – an over 10% increase on 2011 in the list vote – whereas Labour in England seems to have avoided the catastrophe expected under its beleaguered socialist leader, has done surprisingly well in the south of England and is almost certain to win back London City Hall. In Wales, meanwhile, Labour will remain the largest party but UKIP have surged by 12% in the constituency vote, an interesting if bleak indicator of the kind of nationalism which is dominating there. Myths have been shattered, certainties have crumbled and the politics of the UK has rarely looked more regional and dominated by competing nationalisms. If, as expected, Sadiq Khan becomes London Mayor later today I will celebrate. I will celebrate because being a socialist who loathes nationalism offers few moments of satisfaction and the future doesn’t exactly inspire.
Sadiq Khan romped to victory in Labour’s mayoral selection contest due, in large part, to the same wave of restless dissatisfaction which saw Corbyn elected Labour leader. Khan positioned himself as the left-wing candidate most likely to defeat Tessa Jowell, the Blairite candidate clearly favoured by the Labour machine, and reaped the benefit. One of his aides was quoted as saying:
Almost all Jeremy Corbyn voters are voting for Sadiq Khan. There is a 90 per cent crossover. Most of these new people joined for a reason, and that was to vote for Corbyn.
It was disappointing, then, when Khan immediately veered right and began feeding tabloid attacks on Corbyn. Since then he has run a deeply conservative and uninspiring campaign strongly resembling Labour’s ‘35% strategy’, which Khan allegedly masterminded for the 2015 General Election. The focus has been on laying low, not rocking the boat and assuring everyone that Khan would be a safe and steady hand rather than a radical, transformative Mayor.
Speaking now, I would argue, it’s difficult for any but the most dogmatic of observers not to see that this strategy might have had more to it than conservativism or a lack of boldness. Zac Goldsmith and the Tories have ran one of the most shameful and nakedly racist campaigns in modern political memory. The increasingly hysterical attempts to link Khan with ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalism’, either directly or via Jeremy Corbyn, culminated in the disagrace of yesterday’s PMQs where David Cameron ignored questions on his government’s policy to instead opportunistically raise remarks Corbyn had made about Hamas and Hezbollah. Whatever you think of Corbyn’s remarks, let’s recall that only a few months ago Cameron was rejecting his criticisms of the UK government’s support of the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia and trying to evade the matter of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr’s proposed execution. Let’s also recall that Cameron and the UK government have gone well beyond calling violent extremists ‘friends’ and have actively enabled them:
If the cynical opportunism should be clear, Goldsmith and Cameron’s deliberate attempt to exploit racial tensions, perceived or otherwise, was an attempt to weaponise Khan’s status as a Muslim and a British Pakistani. This is inexcusable and unforgiveable in any context but in the race to lead one of the most diverse cities in the world, it is also extraordinarily stupid.
Khan’s rather insipid campaign, then, can be said to have served some purpose in neutralising much of these attacks. While his programme doesn’t get the blood racing, the Tories deserve to be smashed for their campaign alone. If, as expected, Khan is victorious, the left-wing Labour members who elected him must work to hold him to account and push for the radical policies which most people in London need.
The ‘divide and rule’ strategy pursued by the Tories has been typical of their period in government. Whether it be painting the poor as people “sleeping off a life on benefits”, continually othering Muslims and linking them to ‘extremism’ or blaming immigration for people’s economic woes, the Tory government appeals to the basest and most uninformed prejudices in people. The assertion of the Scottish Conservatives, that they would offer the ‘best opposition’ to the SNP, is laughable when it is the Tories’ calculated inflaming of English nationalism that has so fed the dramatic rise of its Scottish counterpart.
Such tactics are necessary when you are unable to defend your record in government. Tory policy on housing, schools, universities, the justice system, the economy, immigration, poverty and, of course, health are all disingenuous and disastrous, driven by an extreme right-wing ideology. To support the Conservative Party is to support unabashed racism, misogyny and a concerted attack on the most vulnerable people in our society (of which the tax credit and personal independence payments debacles were but small glimpses).
You cannot support the Conservatives and say ‘but I don’t like the bad things they do’. You either actively opposite or you are complicit. The party deserves to lose.
There is, of course, another party of government which has been using divide and rule nationalism to distract from the paucity of its record: the SNP. No-one who reads my blogs or Twitter could fail to notice my feelings for the SNP and what has happened to Scottish politics. As I wrote here:
My disdain for the SNP is clear: I find its use of populist nationalist rhetoric (‘Scotland’s voice’, ‘standing up for Scotland’, ‘the Scottish lion’) to frame the important divide as ‘Scotland/England’ rather than class and economic power to be hugely damaging and not a little embarrassing. I find its eagerness to turn everything into a matter of grievance against Scotland, while dismissing criticisms as ‘talking down Scotland’ to be tragic. Yet even I remain shocked at just how mendacious the party continues to be in its ditching of ‘progressive’ policies (council tax reform, higher rate of tax) while pointing the finger at ‘unionists’ with flat-out lies which rely on people taking its word and not doing any fact-checking.
Yesterday Nicola Sturgeon encouraged supporters to tweet why they were supporting the SNP using the hashtag #SNPBecause. The tag was a fascinating glimpse into the ‘twilight world of unreality‘ which is both fed by, and feeds, nationalism. There were many references to the meaningless stance of ‘standing up/speaking for Scotland’. There were many of the now-typical assertions that independence would make things better, just because. There was the now-standard accrediting of everything and anything viewed as ‘progressive’ to the SNP (including quite explicitly non-SNP achievements like free bus travel for the elderly and/or disabled, abolishing tuition fees or free personal and nursing care). Perhaps most dishearteningly, there was the pathologised hatred of Labour (the ‘Red Tories’) and ‘unionists’ which has become commonplace since September 2014.
The SNP’s record in government has been poor to say the least. It has cut relative spending on health and education in Scotland, with achievements against key NHS targets such as A&E or cancer waiting times worsening and both literacy and numeracy levels declining. Its fixation on ‘free education’ (as issue of ‘Scottish/English distinction’ above all else) masks the fact that poor students in Scotland are less likely to go to university than in any of the other countries of the UK, that “in Scotland, the arrangements for student funding are unique in the UK in assuming the highest levels of student debt amongst the poorest students” or that Further Education in Scotland has been cut. Those ‘free’ tuition fees have been paid for by cutting support for the poorest students and cutting funding for colleges. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation noted that under the evil Red Tory/Lib Dem coalition, Scotland had some of the lowest levels of poverty in the UK, a trend which levelled off in 2007:
The centralisation of policing and of local government have been plagued with problems and belie the SNP’s claims to favour ’empowering’ people. The party has similarly pursued centralisation in higher/further education, health and even the arts.
Recent events, meanwhile, have exposed the lie behind SNP rhetoric that oil was a ‘bonus’ for the Scottish economy. Its decline and Scotland’s higher public spending (than rUK) has led to Scotland’s financial situation worsening.Such is the SNP’s mendacity regarding this that they actually trumpet the fiscal framework agreement as them defeating the dastardly Tories (it features prominently in the SNP manifesto) when the First Minister actually acknowledged that Scotland’s demographics meant that more financial responsibility would lead to far more financial risk (compared to the current set-up and to rUK). Yet rather than acknowledge that Scotland has higher public spending, a bigger deficit and benefits disproportionately from Barnett, the SNP prefers to push the politics of grievance and point the finger at dastardly Westminster.
It is because of this latter point that the SNP’s record will make little difference to its support today. As this article puts it:
The SNP enjoys strong support in large part because identity politics have become the defining currency of discourse in Scotland. The governing party has eclipsed the once mighty Scottish Labour movement, stealing many of its left-leaning policies while also rejecting Labour’s commitment to unionism.
The constitution has become the defining issue in Scottish politics and support for the SNP (and for independence) has become synonymous with both a love for ‘Scotland’ as an abstract concept and for ‘progressiveness’. Yet the latter is so taken as a given that SNP supporters don’t actually expect anything to be done to pursue social justice now, telling themselves it may interfere with the independent valhalla which lies just over the hill. The SNP aren’t going to deliver social justice by freezing income tax, tinkering with council tax and cutting air passenger duty yet the furious response which greets even pro-independence critics of the party is instructive as to what’s really important here: the identity, not the doing.
Of course, many of those who have decided independence is the path to social justice furiously deny being nationalist any sense. They furiously deny this while engaging in rhetoric which portrays ‘unionists’, ‘Tories’ and ‘Red Tories’ as bodies foreign to Scotland. I had noticed this long ago in pieces by ‘socialists’ like Alan Bissett, which led to this exchange on Twitter this week:
This is rhetoric which is frequently deployed by the SNP and will be recognised, I would bet, by most Scots who criticise the party and independence. Yet it’s dismissed by a ‘socialist’ as ‘inelegant phrasing’. It is this mindset which leads to an inability to see the nationalism which is integral to the SNP’s appeal. “STRONGER FOR SCOTLAND. Standing up for Scotland is what we do’. This dreck leads the SNP manifesto. It devotes pages to documenting the SNP battle with ‘Tories’ and ‘UK parties’ while its intro begins “All of us who live here in Scotland love our country.” The message is barely even implicit: the SNP love Scotland. The UK parties do not. Leaving aside the issue that whether or not someone ‘loves’ the idea of their country should be a total irrelevance, it’s actually pretty insidious. It’s this underlying narrative which has led both RISE and the Scottish Greens to mute their criticism of the Scottish government, hoping to ride the coattails of nationalism to a list vote.
This year’s Scottish Labour manifesto, on the other hand, takes giant steps away from Jim Murphy’s ‘ultra-nationalist’ horrors of last year to commendably focus on social justice. Its intro begins, “We want to create a Scotland where it is a young person’s potential, ambition and work rate that determine how far they get on in life – not where they were born.” The only references to ‘standing up’ for anything are with regards to women’s equality and against “hate crime and exploitation”. This is a manifesto which recognise that people do not have common interests because they share the same country. It is because of this that the policies it contains are manifestly to the left of the SNP, notably including the 50p tax rate on the wealthiest which the SNP have now ditched and proposing higher taxes to pay for some of Scotland’s higher public spending.
Yet Scottish Labour are battling to avoid coming third, due to the nationalist pathologising of the party. This is nothing to do with an interest in a ‘fairer’ society and everything to do with a facile imagined identity.
We see, then, that nationalism and attempts to divide are at work in various ways on this election day. I support Jeremy Corbyn because I believe he offers something more; something better. He is not appealing to our basest instincts nor is he telling us that we are exceptional because of where we live. The Labour election poster unveiled last week explicitly acknowledges the divisions within society in a way which saw some attack it as ‘class war’:
They are right. There is a class war and currently the wealthiest are winning, with the support of the Tories and the SNP. In word and deed Labour recognise that the interests of a single parent living in social housing are not the same as those of a millionaire landlord, even if they only live one mile apart. It’s no secret that the Labour machine remains against Corbyn and that the Labour right is constantly seeking to undermine him. These forces are eagerly hoping that Labour does badly today, in the naive hope that losses will enable them to reclaim the party and reinstate their ‘it’s not racist to be worried about immigration’ dreck. Corbyn is something different. He deserves the support of anyone who believes in socialism. That is why I voted Labour today and why I hope anyone who professes to care about social justice will reject the Tories and the SNP.
….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.