“Chav-bashing draws on a long, ignoble tradition of class hatred” – Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization Of The Working Class
Less than three weeks ago, fifty thousand people marched through central London almost entirely unnoticed. They came to protest the coalition government’s so-called “austerity” policies and to “demand the alternative”, but their message was lost in a fog of confusion about the undefined alternative they wanted to bring about. Was it the rose-tinted stroll back to the 1970s advocated by Owen Jones, or the peaceful, effortless and joyful revolution promised by Russell Brand? We still don’t know, because they still can’t decide.
Today, Britain observed what was hailed as the largest coordinated industrial action since the general strike of 1926 – but apart from some inconvenienced parents who had to endure the closure of their children’s schools, nobody seemed to notice that anything much was different. And what little serious press attention the strikes garnered was focused mainly on Ed Miliband’s untenable balancing act of supporting the strikers but deploring the strike, and the eyebrow-raising fact that the National Union of Teachers was legally permitted to use a 2012 vote by a fraction of its membership to hold a strike in 2014.
There is a lot of frustration on the British activist Left that they are not being listened to or taken seriously – by the public, the media, the Labour Party, anyone at all. But at some point soon, those people hawking conspiracy theories about a right-wing media cover-up or the dead hand of Ed Balls will have to turn the accusing gaze back in on themselves.
The Left has been shrieking about austerity for four years now, but have utterly failed to convince the electorate that they have a workable alternative. Indeed no alternative has been suggested – save for pumping pre-2010 (or even higher) levels of taxpayer money into the same unreformed government programmes, which is as patronising a suggestion as it is lazy. Worse still, the Left’s level of empathy or willingness to understand the viewpoints of others who do not agree with the “Down With Austerity” mantra is almost non-existent.
Big government apologists on the Left forever accuse the Conservative Party, UKIP and others on the right of stoking fears and indulging in emotional manipulation. Cases of grotesque welfare fraud are cherry-picked and non-representative, they insist, while questioning Britain’s immigration policy and relationship with the European Union is narrow minded at best, but more often a sign of shocking, premeditated race-baiting. But the left use these same techniques freely and often, and they do so in a way that hampers their ability to think of bold new policies to connect with middle Britain.
The bankers. David Cameron’s cabinet of millionaires. Billionaire non-doms. Tory scum. According to many on the Left, this motley crew of villains are not only deliberately rigging the system in their favour (arguably true), they actively delight in hurting the poor at every turn. Michael Gove is an arrogant bully and persecutor of teachers, Iain Duncan Smith is a virtual psychopath in his hounding of the destitute and David Cameron is the evil mastermind at the top, answerable only to Rupert Murdoch. It’s the age-old divide: those on the right think that Left-wingers are well-meaning but misguided, while those on the Left seem to sincerely believe that their right-wing opposites are actually evil.
The anti-Tory slogans and bitter invective have always had their place in Britain’s left-wing grass roots, but when this stubborn inability to empathise with or think like the other side starts to infect people who are supposedly the Labour movement’s greatest minds and political leaders, they have a real problem. The British Left, from Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet on downwards, can’t seem to get past the mistaken notion – perhaps sincerely believed after so many years of constant, mindless repetition – that those on the right really do hate the poor and long to trample them underfoot.
But the anti-austerity protesters, the public sector strikers and their sympathisers on the Left are fighting a bitter battle against a straw man, a distorted vision of the real spectrum of right-wing thinking. While the British right generates ideas and (albeit limited by coalition) implements them in government, the Left rail against a cartoon foe of their own imagining, and almost completely fail to engage with the substance. Voters are able to discern this disconnect – the British left’s gradual conscious uncoupling from reality – which is one of the reasons why the Labour Party is making so little traction in what should be very fair political weather.
Attacking the usual left wing bogeymen – the bankers, toffs and Tory scum – is not an exciting, compelling pitch for an alternative to our present course. It’s the equivalent of a child’s temper tantrum. And whatever truth there is in the insults does not make up for the yawning chasm that exists where viable alternative left-wing policies should be.
In fact, such is the degree of hysteria and inability to comprehend the attitudes of others on the British Left, it is becoming comparable to the worst excesses of the Tea Party in America, where die-hard “patriots” can see no other motive for Barack Obama’s actions than the deliberate, treasonous undermining of the United States by a foreign-born, illegitimate president.
The hardcore US tea partiers have their hallucination of a Kenyan-born, Marxist stooge sent to make America collapse from within, while the British activist Left have their two-dimensional cartoon of the Bullingdon-bred, Eton-educated aristocrat who wants nothing less than the total dismantling of the social safety net and the subjugation of the poor in permanent poverty to be a source of cheap, expendable labour for his friends and benefactors in big business.
In America, the Republican Party tried to ride the Tea Party tiger, but ended up being eaten. The GOP is now completely beholden to its extremist base, and as a result is entirely unable to propose meaningful, workable legislation on anything from deficit reduction to healthcare to immigration reform. In Britain, the Labour Party is perilously close to suffering the same fate – willingly believing its own hyperbole about the callous Tories, and trying to convince itself (and us, the voters) that everything will be okay if only we start pumping more money into existing government programmes and taxing “the bankers” to pay for it all.
This is a depressing state of affairs on both sides of the Atlantic. To self-identify as a Republican in America today is increasingly akin to admitting that you are a reactionary, bigoted nincompoop, either beholden to corporate special interests or too stupid to realise that you are being manipulated by them. And unless something changes very soon, to self identify as a Labour supporter in Britain will proclaim to the world that you are a success-fearing simpleton who would rather see everyone dragged down to the same level of mediocrity than permit spectacular achievement at the expense of government-enforced equality of outcome.
The infinite monkey theorem states that a chimp sat in front of a typewriter will, given infinite time, at some point be bound to unthinkingly hit upon the long and complex sequence of keys that reproduces the complete works of William Shakespeare. By the same logic, if the British Left continue to hold strikes and mass rallies against austerity, probability dictates that eventually they will quite accidentally come up with a politically viable alternative to the coalition government’s spending plans. But unlike the monkeys, they and the Labour Party do not have infinite time.
The 2015 general election is less than ten months away.