It's been a tough 18 months. First, defying all the polls (a common theme of late) we were handed a Conservative majority that barely skipped a beat in continuing austerity, pulling immigration rhetoric downward and increasing marketisation of universities and privatisation of health care. Then, against the odds, we had Brexit, and then witnessed the pound tumble, hate crime explode and Nigel Farage grin from ear to ear, joining a chorus of far-right groups across Europe in proclaiming the start of a global revolution. Now, after one of the most divisive and frankly surreal elections in recent history, Donald J Trump is set to soon take up residence in the White House.
Once, you can roll with the punches and keep going. Twice, it gets harder and makes some of us falter but we keep ploughing on. But thrice? Even the most dedicated activists must be questioning if there's much hope left in fighting on, after continually seeing those that stand for hate and exclusion win, at a time when we face so many other, very real threats. This isn't self-indulgent hyperbole: the events of the past 18 months demarcate a right-wing again in ascendancy, with everything from minority rights to environmental stability in jeopardy.
Yet we cannot give in, retreat or allow this to feed growing disdain with formal politics in the Western world and we certainly can't allow these defeats to disillusion those voices that are making the case for a more tolerant, equal and just world: too much is at stake for that. What we can (and must) do, is ask serious, probing questions as to why it is the right, the regressive and the reactionary that has managed to capture the deeply held fury of millions instead of the progressive left. We must, as a movement, fractured and not always singing from the same hymn sheet but a movement bonded by a desire for equality and democracy nonetheless, realise where we are going wrong, and quickly.
Firstly, moderates an inch to the left of centre need to recognise this as the latest painful lesson in a course that began when Miliband failed in 2015 and continued when the other contenders in the Labour leadership race (both times) couldn't come close to Corbyn: moderation isn't going to cut it anymore. When the fury at the political elite and the status quo that in part fed Brexit and now Trump is taken into account along with the wider disenfranchisement from party politics that it is part of, along with the diminishing time frame to deal with climate change and the growing moral absurdities of wealth and income inequality, it's painfully clear we need to be offering radical agendas, not playing it safe. The primary attraction of trying to occupying the centre ground, it's electability, is no longer valid.
The public are smarter than the elite that keep getting confounded by shock election results, because they sense a truth those in the halls of Westminster and Congress cannot: something is deeply, deeply wrong with a system that fails to deliver stable economies, secure and fulfilling jobs and a narrowing of the gulf between rich and poor. It is those of us on the left, retreating into insular communities, or dragging social democratic parties to the centre in a vain attempt to secure votes that have ceded this wide-ranging anger and disillusionment with the status quo to demagogues and charlatans.
The Right were never under any illusions that this was the case. The Conservatives have been pursuing a brutal economic policy of austerity for six years, far beyond the attempts of Thatcher, offering large doses of privatisation and deregulation to boot. UKIP has soared in the polls and put Brexit on the agenda along with vicious right-wing rhetoric, matched across Europe by other far-right groups in ascendancy. And now Trump, perhaps the antithesis of moderation, has achieved the mantle of leader of the free world. No, the right haven't won by occupying the centre-ground and abandoning their hopes and dreams- they've won by framing their policies in coherent, compelling narratives.
Herein lies our second lesson: communication. These simple narratives- of immigrants stealing jobs and scroungers sucking money from the state and unbalancing the economy- are easy to grasp and are communicated in emotional and moralistic terms. Anger at immigrants or welfare claimants is driven by a sense of fairness, a universal and ancient moral drive in humans: the Tories have appealed to this drive and aimed it at those that stand in the way of a neoliberal agenda. The left must reorient this drive and instead bring its attention to those who are really to blame, namely, the bankers, the oil tycoons, the politicians and the other elite that promulgate a system that robs the poor, destabilises the economy and damages the environment.
Nationalism too, must be come to terms with, with the left being unafraid to engage with and shape it, shape it into a more positive vision that takes pride in our strong history of multiculturalism, parliamentary democracy and welfare, whilst also being unafraid to critique the darker parts of our past too. Refusing to engage in such nuanced and difficult debates retains our ideological purity, but also dooms us to continued irrelevance as far as large chunks of the public are concerned. This isn't about sacrificing our values, it's about the left finding a way to channel the anger so many in our country feel, directing it at those individuals and systemic failures that genuinely have led us to our current predicament in a relatable, powerful way, rather than fabricating enemies for political gain as the right have done.
Finally, armed with an ambitious and radical agenda and a better way of communicating it, we need to be active like never before. The standard method of door-knocking and leafleting in the months building up the election is painfully outdated and dangerously arrogant: why should someone vote for a party when the only contact they have with them is around election time? We need to launch a full-frontal assault on the assumptions of the neoliberal elite, through the arts, academia, community activism, student politics, trade unions and NGO's: we are at war. Political parties should learn to embed themselves in communities and be fighting for change whether in power or not, but the fight lies not just with them: it's up to all of us, party members or not.
Certain political moments see a paradigm shift in politics, when current ways of thinking increasingly come to be seen as stale and inadequate and a genuine sea-change occurs in how the public and political parties think about key issues. Atlee's post-war government was one such moment, Thatcher's reign another. We stand on the precipice of yet another of these moments, but risk it being defined by the Trumps, Farages and Le Pens of the world.
Some of us still need time to grieve-take that time, absorb lessons and build yourself. But then come back. If you write, write. If you pray, pray. If you agitate, agitate. If you sing, dance, paint, petition, campaign, teach or occupy, do it and do it quickly. Whatever you do, do it for love, tolerance, equality and hope: the fight isn't over, we aren't finished and we can have a better world than this, but only if we fight for it.
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