ZOE WILLIAMS on missteps made by the left since Gordon Brown’s departure from Downing Street
An anniversary passed quietly on May 6, which I feel would have got more attention if we weren’t in the crisis we’re in – 10 years since Gordon Brown left Downing Street, 10 years of Conservative or semi-Conservative government, or should that be, government or semi-government?
With accelerating regularity over the past four years, the decade has been strewn with ominous phrases, ‘unprecedenteds’ and ‘never-before-in-peace-times’.
It would be a poor day’s work just to list all the bad things that have happened – unless your job is to depress the hell out of your fellow citizen, for kicks.
Yet it feels important, even urgent, to reflect on the mistakes that have been made, not necessarily by any particular party, but by – let’s call us the left.
Or the broad-spectrum left. Or the progressive internationalists. Hell, that’s our first mistake, right there: the right never calls itself the right. It calls itself common sense.
So let’s rephrase that: what mistakes have been made by ordinary, common-sensical people, who care about one another and the environment, who prefer cooperation to in-fighting, who favour the rule of law and rules-based systems in general, who value competence, justice, equality and truthfulness, in life and especially in politics? What could we have done differently?
There was a sense in 2010 that the Labour government had simply run its course, taken all its chances.
It was partly still an overhang from the Iraq War, and the crisis of legitimacy that came after it (who were we to call ourselves the progressives? To think of ourselves as moral leaders on the world stage?). Perhaps it had to do with specific problems with Gordon Brown’s leadership, his slightly remote bearing, though that seems ridiculous now, given the leaders who have since passed muster.
Mostly, I think, we’d simply forgotten what a Conservative government was like. The jeopardy didn’t seem real, because the differences between one party and another seemed cosmetic.
I remember being on a panel at the Labour conference the year previously, and saying, ‘I just think you should sit this one out, regroup, rediscover your political purpose, come back for 2015’. Ed Balls went bananas. Didn’t I realise the threat posed by a Conservative government to ordinary people? Well, not really, no: David Cameron at the time was merrily espousing a broadly soft-left agenda. Memorably, he wanted the whole party to be more like Polly Toynbee. He wanted to hug a hoodie and canoodle with a husky. His plan for the social safety net came cloaked in talk of a Big Society, and who doesn’t want one of those?
The big beasts of the Labour party, meanwhile, were still fighting yesterday’s war, trying to persuade the hostile tabloid media that they weren’t socialists, they were just regular, likeable people who treasured democracy above all, and wanted things to be nice. So you had two parties, one actively concealing its agenda, the other still coy about its roots and values, and that made them look disconcertingly similar.
Many old-school Labour figures are now scathing about this view, as though we all should have known instinctively that a modern Conservative party would be brutal, while a modern Labour party, for all its embarrassment around the topic, would always be fundamentally redistributive, caring.
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I do not think this was a given, 10 years ago. When the benefits sanction regime came in, when food banks became the norm, when disabled people were suddenly cut adrift from care by the faceless, apparently a-medical companies to whom that job had been outsourced, it was genuinely shocking.
Really basic principles – that people should be treated with dignity in their interactions with state, no, even more basic than that, children shouldn’t be hungry – seemed so baked in to the system, but were torched overnight.
Which brings us to error number two: for those five years of the coalition, we curated injustices, presented them in debate as though appealing to the government’s collective conscience, or alternatively, its pragmatism: how can you impose a benefit sanction against Jobseeker A, who missed his appointment because his wife was having a miscarriage? Are you aware that terminally-ill person B died three days after failing to qualify for their disability benefit? What about person C, evicted for bedroom-tax arrears because the son who used to live in that ‘spare room’ recently died? Why are you creating all this suffering, when the sanctions regime is costing more than it saves?
Again, I’d say there is a defence: the Liberal Democrats gave the Tories a lot of moral cover during this period, and many still insist that they prevented some of the worst excesses.
But the dominant party in the partnership was quite frank by this point – nothing mattered but austerity. Money, or saving it, was the highest moral good. Human cost arguments cut no ice.
I think energy would have been much better spent building solidarity, turning food banks into sites of political activism, joining unions, building networks between sectors and pressure groups, changing the weather.
Probably the most effective campaign organisation in this period was UK Uncut, which overtly repudiated the whole agenda of austerity. It didn’t bother itself with the case studies of where austerity went bad.
Then, 2015 saw a different kind of complacency – since the last government had been a coalition, and since nobody voiced much enthusiasm for any of the political parties, surely the next would be one? And surely, since so much havoc had already been wreaked, that next hung parliament would be dominated by a party that was a bit less destructive?
We had forgotten how very unusual coalitions are in British politics; forgotten that first-past-the-post tends to deliver majority governments which is, after all, the point of it. (Side error: that very technical referendum on voting systems could have delivered one that was more representative. But I mainly blame Nick Clegg for that).
The memorable line on the EU referendum came from Peter Hitchens – ‘I overestimated the prime minister – a difficult thing for me to do since my opinion of him was so low’.
To blunder into such a critical vote with so little preparation, so little thought, so little war-gaming, such a complete lack of contingency planning for what would happen if the vote went the way he didn’t expect… it’s hard to see how we could have foreseen this giant lacuna where the prime minister’s care for the nation should have been.
But really, the mistake went deeper: we didn’t realise we were in a culture war. We thought we were in a debate about Europe, and wouldn’t stop talking about it. The other side scarcely mentioned Europe, and only wanted to talk about the NHS. That should have been a sign.
And this continued all the way into the 2019 election, a blank failure among progressives to understand what the debate was about. Do you really want this liar in charge of the most important offices of state, we asked? Do you really want this buffoon speaking for you in the most critical negotiations for a generation, at least? But he wasn’t offering competent, honest politics; he was offering the chance to make politics go away. Another error was a huge misconception around Theresa May: many of us thought, because she was so unpopular, her majority so slim and tenuous, her agenda would be overturned by, I don’t know, gravity, or the passage of time. We know now that those are not the decisive forces in Westminster.
The punishment has not been deserved: it is just a freak of happenstance that the most incompetent government in living memory should be faced with the worst crisis.
None of this is meant in the spirit of recrimination against our combined forces of common sense. And none of it yields any easy answers, unless you count ‘go back in time and elect Gordon Brown, warts and all’. Yet as the parties of opposition rebuild themselves, at varying speeds, they would do better to reflect on their failures than their past successes.