Conservatives should not feel smug about the hard left takeover of the Labour Party. History shows us that these people are tenacious and capable of inflicting real damage on people and communities in pursuit of their warped ideology, from the lowest seats of power
What would Jeremy Corbyn and the hard left of the Labour Party do if they actually gained political power? It is a question we tend not to ask ourselves or discuss, the possibility seeming so laughably remote that we naturally fixate more on what the Conservative Party is likely to do, given a small majority in government but no real organised opposition.
But it is a question that we should ask ourselves. This blog has been unashamedly supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, not because I agree with his ideology or any Corbynite political positions but because Corbyn represents (together now with Brexit) one of the only agents for breaking British politics out of its current stale, centrist consensus.
The managerial, technocratic politics of the last twenty years has alienated people and drives them away from political discussion, essentially boring them to death while the two main parties squabble over relatively trivial differences in attitude toward taxation, regulation, culture and foreign policy. The 2010 general election, taking place at the height of the Great Recession at a time when bold and original thinking was most needed, hinged on a puny £6bn difference in big spending commitments between Labour and the Conservatives. And though the EU referendum and the subject of Brexit divided the country in half, every political party but one came down hard on the side of remaining in that sclerotic and anti-democratic union.
There is not nearly enough choice in British politics. Being a centrist Labour MP today means broadly accepting the status quo on nearly all fronts while droning on continuously and sanctimoniously about “equality” and “fairness” to anyone who will listen, while being a typical Tory means waxing lyrical about personal freedom and responsibility while doing nothing to shrink the state or bring an end to government paternalism. Even the third parties, so long a pressure release valve, tend to fall in line with the consensus. The SNP is nothing but a slightly more authoritarian and social democrat-leaning Labour Party with a sprinkle of anti-English resentment, while UKIP seems to have betrayed its roots as a radical right-wing party in favour of appealing to disaffected left-wing Labour voters.
In this bland, homogenised context, anything which offers people real choice – a real varied palette of political colours to choose from – can only be a good thing, if for no other reason than that bad ideas will fester and grow out of sight of the country at large unless they are regularly expressed, challenged and defeated. So for all of these reasons, having a genuinely left-wing leader of the Labour Party again is not only jaw-droppingly obvious, it is also essential for the renewal of our democracy.
One must also consider what ideologues actually do when they are in power. The Left in particular love to use the Thatcher government as a bogeyman and an emblem of everything evil about conservatism as an ideology, while conveniently glossing over the fact that Britain was a terminal patient receiving half-hearted palliative care before Margaret Thatcher gave the economy and the country some painful, revolutionary but absolutely necessary shock treatment.
But what do the ideological Left do when they are in power? Well, thankfully they have never grasped the reins of national government – the suffocating bipartisan post-war consensus was bad enough. But the hard left do have a track record in local government, and it is not a pretty one.
And that’s where this video comes in – kindly shared with me on Twitter by @eddiecoke. It is about fifteen minutes long, and well worth your time. The video is an excerpt from a 1980s American documentary about the behaviour of the hard, ideological (or “loony”) left in British local government. And some of what you see is quite shocking.
Of course, I knew about all of this in theory. Writing daily about politics, one hears about Red Ken and the GLC, or Derek Hatton and Liverpool City Council. But for early millennials like me, born when Thatcher was already in power and coming of age during late Blairism, the antics of the loony left are often now understood only in theory, while it takes seeing them in practice for the mind to recoil.
What do we see?
Council censorship committees literally going through library books and purging those which do not convey a Social Justice message (in one case a picture book is banned because a white girl character has the temerity to tame a black horse with the aid of sugar cubes).
Snow White and Dr. Doolittle similarly banned.
Beauty and the Beast, Rupert Bear and Thomas the Tank Engine, too.
Replaced by books which go far beyond encouraging tolerance and equal rights, with one book for five-year-olds featuring a section entitled “Masturbation (Touching Yourself to Feel Good”.
The phasing out of competitive sports at school, replaced with open-ended games in which there are no rules, no score is kept and everybody “wins”.
Emboldened Marxist history teachers indoctrinating children with unashamedly pro-communist, anti-American diatribes.
The Brent African Women’s Council being invited to suggest changes to the school lunch menus, and then filibustering a meeting when okra soup and plantain were found not on the menu every single day.
A school governor bragging that he has effectively banned the police from setting foot on his school campus by threatening the headteacher’s job.
Social Justice pantomimes, with the traditional stories modified to shoehorn in messages of liberation and equality (because leftists can’t leave a good story unmolested).
Efforts to get schoolchildren to draw comparisons between the introduction of legislation to crack down on militant trade unionism and the Holocaust.
Viewing this litany of crazy, authoritarian leftist social engineering programmes run amok is quite sobering. And it does make one reconsider whether supporting Jeremy Corbyn and the ascendancy of the Labour Left is the right thing to do. After all, they have unleashed horrors like this on ordinary citizens while controlling only local authorities – how much more harm could they do if unleashed again, or (heaven forfend) on national government?
The answer: a lot. They could do a lot of harm. But that is no reason to recoil in horror at a democratic decision made by ideologically fervent members of the Labour Party. The correct reaction is to ensure that conservative thinking is similarly renewed and emboldened so that it presents an attractive alternative to voters.
Conventional wisdom says that this is already the case – that the UK electorate would pick Theresa May to stay on as prime minister over Jeremy Corbyn in a heartbeat, and that all the Tories need to do is remain as blandly inoffensive / desperately boring and unambitious as possible, so as not to spook voters into reconsidering.
I think this is dangerous complacency. After the past year in politics (on both sides of the Atlantic), nobody has any business making confident predictions about what will or will not happen, or to declare the status quo to be a cast iron certainty forever. Politics at its inclusive and inspiring best is about convincing people to consider new or different ideas, including ones which they had previously rejected. The Leave campaign would never have prevailed in the EU referendum had many people who were ambivalent or even warmly disposed towards the EU persuaded that Britain’s future would be brighter outside. Jeremy Corbyn is asking the British people to consider a radically different political settlement too, and while it is highly likely that the people will tell him to take a hike, it cannot be guaranteed.
Smug right-wing columnists may chortle that Jeremy Corbyn will never see electoral success, but they don’t know what economic or geopolitical shocks lie in await around the corner, or how those will impact British politics. Neither can they guarantee that the British political Right will not undergo a similar schism as is now taking place on the Left, instantly making everything competitive again.
It is not enough for small and large-C conservatives to sit back complacently and laugh at the Labour Party’s turmoil, while doing absolutely nothing to revitalise our own thinking and policymaking. It is not enough to assume that the country knows that conservative solutions are inherently better and more in tune with human nature than socialist dogmas.
If we really are about to enter a new political age where ideology actually starts to matter again, then conservatives should be worried, because we have been caught by surprise. The left’s answer was clearly to re-awaken the socialism of the 1980s and the GLC. What is our answer to be?
Hopefully Theresa May will spell out some broad strokes during the upcoming Conservative Party Conference. But I wouldn’t hold out much hope – the government has its hands full trying to deal with Brexit, and Theresa May’s reputation is that of an authoritarian traditionalist, not a small government, pro-market radical.
And until we conservatives can come up with a coherent and appealing vision for what small government conservatism should look like in 2016 (rather than the post-Cameron fudge we are currently presenting to the public) then our best defence – our only defence, really – against the Corbynites will be their own appalling record in government, going back some thirty years.
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