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The Abject Failure of the Left
There is no Tory triumph without an absentee opposition.
Three mandates from the UK electorate have come to define the metamorphoses of the Conservative Party from “small ‘c’ conservatism” to the hard-Right. The first was Thatcher’s 1979 victory giving the Tories a 44 seat majority (339 total seats) with 43.9% of the vote. This signalled the beginning of the end for British social democracy, the end of the concept of society itself as the sum of the parts, and the realignment of the ontological view of the individual in economics that removed reciprocal responsibility between corporate actors (where each individual was viewed as a unit of production, self-sufficient and self-reliant).
This era redefined the role of the State in relation to labour and corporate power, removing any moral or social obligations from the corporate pursuit of self-interest, creating a market unimpeded by organised labour. But the Thatcherite dismantling of the fabric of society was incomplete as long as Britain remained with the European Union, with its pesky directives on workers rights. The full deregulatory quagmire could never be achieved so long as workers in the UK could rely on direct effect of EU regulations on working time, wages, working conditions, environmental standards, or industry regulations. To quote G.A. Cohen, this was conservatism defined by politicians who “blather on about warm beer and old maids cycling to church then hand Walmart the keys to the kingdom”.
Removing these restrictions was always the real Tory fantasy of Brexit, however it was packaged to the electorate, evident in the continuing rhetoric of “Brexit dividends” and “unleashing Brexit” (where all that is being “unleashed” is corporate interest with zero regulatory inhibitions). Thus, Brexit itself was the second mandate. A whopping 33.5 million people voted on the Brexit referendum, with ~17.4 million votes for Leave and 16.1 million votes for Remain; a 51.8% to 48.1% narrow vote for Leave. The Brexit cult continually point to the 17.4 million votes for Leave as the biggest mandate in UK political history which, while certainly true in an absolute sense, overlooks the tightness of the vote and portrays the mandate of the result in the crudest majoritarian terms.
But there was a price to pay for this referendum success and the subsequent three year clusterfuck of clowning around the Brexit negotiations. While the Thatcherite revolution had moved the party farther to the Right, the real hard-Right Brexit political movement in the UK found expression in UKIP and the Brexit Party. That is, until the 2016-2019 period when the Conservatives swallowed UKIP and the Brexit Party, and the hard-Right authoritarian-libertarianism that came with it. Tory Right-wing policy prior to this period was defined primarily in terms of free-market fundamentalism and fostering policies like deregulation that erode the very way of life the Conservatives purport to represent and protect. The metamorphosis of the Tories in the period between Brexit and the 2019 election began, however, to resemble more the authoritarian-libertarianism of the Republican Party in the U.S., championing a rhetoric of libertarian social “freedoms” while simultaneously engaging in authoritarian assaults on democratic institutions and on social counter-movements. It was in this period that the last Conservatives with any shred of integrity, Rory Stewart in particular, resigned from the party, leaving the party as the derelict relic of degeneracy and deregulatory lunacy that it now is.
The final mandate, with Brexit the dominant electoral issue and by orders of magnitude the most emphatic, was the 2019 general election in which the Conservatives secured a landslide 80 seat majority, 365 out of 650 total seats, and 43.6% of the vote. The most telling aspect of this vote was the rejection of Labour from traditional stronghold seats for that party, and a swing of working class votes to the Conservatives in areas that Thatcher had decimated in the 1980's. This swing represented an ardent rejection of the electoral ineptitude of Labour; a party with no real identity, even less inspiration, and a realignment to a core voting base of educated cosmopolitan Londoners, the farthest from a party of labour it could ever get.
And it is this 2019 mandate and term of government that we remain under. Except the landscape now, in nearly three short years, has undergone such seismic convulsions that only the most disingenuous framing could suggest that the 2019 election remains a valid mandate for governing now. A mishandled infectious disease pandemic further exacerbated by the Bullingdon Club behaviour of the Tory toffs at the helm of the carnage, the full extent of the Russian oligarch influence on the Conservatives revealed with the invasion of Ukraine, a country with sewage pumping into its waterways, poverty and food banks as a fact of life, now plunging its citizens further into hunger and cold dressed up in the empty euphemism of a “cost of living crisis”. The 2019 Brexit mandate is ancient history in three short, tumultuous years.
Despite this total failure of leadership and governance, the Conservatives march on to the beat of the drum of its ~180,000 grassroots members, undeterred by reality and unperturbed by their lack of moral decency. Nothing better represents how divorced the Tories are now from the integrity of British parliamentary democracy than the fact that the next Prime Minister was chosen by the select elite of the Conservative Party’s members: 0.2% of the UK population. In fact, nothing represents the new Tory party and its embrace of authoritarianism more than this leadership contest; they didn’t need a mandate from the people, only a mandate from the faithful.
And yet, throughout this 40-year trajectory of the Conservative Party, there is one glaring reality that allowed for it to happen; the abdication of the Left. Almost every issue now that British society faces has its roots in Right-wing policy over the past four decades. But for everything that happens in history, we must ask what didn’t happen; what counterfactual may have altered course from the omnishambles in which we currently find ourselves. And what didn’t happen was the Left presenting an attractive, inclusive, politically viable and economically sensible alternative, when it has had every opportunity since 1979 to do so. From globalisation and free market orthodoxy, to destructive cuts in public spending, to facilitating gross capital accumulation in the corporate class, all exacerbated by the lie of austerity, the Left has had an open goal for 40 years and couldn't even see the net, let alone score.
Nothing makes me more despondent, because whatever people refer to as “the Left” these days is, to me, anything but a progressive movement for social change. The futile vacuity of yuppie neoliberalism and identity politics, a noxious combination that acts as mosquito repellent to vast swathes of the electorate. The policing of thought and language, a censorious and vindictive culture of enforcing homogeneity in worldview. The narcissistic indifference to the economic hardships that have given rise to Right-wing populism. A movement that spends more time refining its lexicon to keep pace with the latest social justice zeitgeist, rather than on refining effective policies that could arrest and reverse the social injustices in society. This is the endgame of what happens when to be political is not to care about politics or policy, but to perform and express individual identity as the act of politics itself.
A movement of cultural rather than political opposition, where the losers get to console themselves with yet another electoral defeat by claiming a moral high-ground over the Right. So while society burns on the policies of the Right, the yuppie neoliberals of the identitarian Left can default to the only heuristics they have to explain their political incompetence; “white supremacy”, “-ist”, and “-phobe”. The utter conceited cynicism that summarily dismisses and delegitimises the valid grievances of people shattered by 40 years of economic stagnation and austerity, tarnishing a majority of the electorate as a crowd of angry racists with antiquated pride in the nation. A performative and confused movement that abandoned class politics, where to be “liberal” is a middle class cultural imperative, not a political necessity. A movement that, paradoxically for its emphasis on individual identity, removes agency from entire population groups and purports, in its typical middle class educated hubris, to speak on their behalf.
The shift toward Tory populism in Britain has been defined by the Conservatives speaking to the very issues, impacting the very people, that parties like Labour used to represent: employment, security, healthcare, family values, community, and a sense of dignity in labour. These are all territory owned and occupied by the Tories, at least for now, even if they are a Trojan horse for the more nefarious authoritarian predilections of the Conservatives. To rub salt in the wound, the reality is that it is the Tories who had the most LGBTQ MP’s elected in the last election, and recently presented a far more ethnically diverse representation of candidates for the current leadership contest. What an indictment of the Left in Britain, such that even on the identitarian issues which the Left lays claim to a moral high ground on, the Conservatives still outperform Labour at their own apparent game.
This is why, as much as British liberals want to complain about the current selection process for a new Tory Prime Minister, they cannot escape one important reality: that Labour have been dismantled in the ballot box. This is democracy, and the dismantling of Labour reflects the rejection of Labour by voters who felt besieged by a rhetoric of exclusion, and the feeling of being left out in the cold by a party that long ago lost itself and stopped serving their needs. When I think of the abdication of the Left, a quote from a Left-wing academic, Alan Sokal, whose writing has had a strong influence on my own perspectives, comes to mind:
“Politically, I'm angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We’re witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful -- not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. I'm a leftist (and feminist) because of evidence and logic, not in spite of it. Why should the right wing be allowed to monopolize the intellectual high ground?”
While I wouldn't say there is anything intellectual or high about the ground the Tory Right stands on, the reality is that they certainly monopolise the political turf. And society lies at their mercy, for at least another two years. In charting the 40 year trajectory of the Conservatives, nothing - in the darkest possible way - represents the coming full circle of the Tory race to the Right more than Thatcher to Truss. In the post-Brexit wastescape, the Tories under Truss can truly twist the knife of Thatcherite ideology into the remnant heart of society. And “the Left” will watch, lost in the no-man’s land of its political voyeurism, convincing itself that it is a virtue to hold the moral high-ground while the Right runs roughshod over society.
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