This week, the liberal papers are full of chipper editorials all called something like ‘reasons to be cheerful’ that try and pick some positives out of Thursday’s electoral cataclysm. But there aren’t any.
Yes, Nick Clegg’s gone. Nigel Farage didn’t get in. Esther McVey, Danny Alexander, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Mark Reckless all lost. Caroline Lucas kept her seat. Aside from Katy Clark, the one really regrettable casualty of the SNP surge, Labour’s few remaining left-wingers were re-elected, often with increased support.
And the Tories might have a parliamentary majority, but it’s one of the smallest in history. Bigger leads have dwindled to nothing in the past, as MPs died or stood down. Rebellious Tory backbenchers could make Cameron’s life a misery, as they did to John Major in the early ‘90s.
But that’s all pitiful up against the tsunami of human misery a Tory majority government will go on to unleash – “five more years of pure evil”, as Ken Livingstone aptly put it.
Let’s be clear – the crimes the Tories managed to commit without a majority would be enough to warrant storming Downing Street with pitchforks and skewering the Cabinet, if the modern state didn’t have the most unshakable monopoly on force in human history. Cameron, Obsorne, Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, are criminals, guilty of the most grievous social violence, and deserve to spend the rest of their lives living off stale bread and tap water in Belmarsh.
Instead, we’re looking at the longest period of unbroken Tory hegemony since the Thatcher era. Cameron will probably stand down in 2020, by which stage hospital beds will have debit card readers and people earning under £50,000 a year will be euthanized at 60. And then he’ll be replaced by Boris Johnson, who’ll inevitably win by a landslide, because British society is stunningly, stunningly shallow, morally sick and dominated by selfishness, greed and galumphing idiocy.
Since the ‘80s, it’s become obvious that the British political set-up only produces governments that fit within a very narrow band of the political spectrum – essentially, various shades of neoliberalism. But this election raises the possibility that the range of choices we’re offered at election time might be even more limited than that already-pessimistic assessment would suggest.
Labour didn’t lose because it was too left-wing for the public. One of the main reasons it lost was because it was too “left-wing” – by which you can read: moved an inch away from the centre-right economics of the Blair years – for the corporate establishment.
The media arm of that establishment used its immense, terrifying clout to run a sustained negative propaganda campaign against Labour, pillorying Ed Miliband, whipping up English racism against the Scots and the SNP, and cementing the economic myth that Labour caused the crash and the Tories are clearing it up.
It seems that in the prevailing ideological climate – one policed by the corporate press, and in which the interests of big capitalism are sacrosanct – there’s even less leeway to deviate from that basic Thatcherite blueprint than a lot of left-wingers might’ve thought.
Tony Blair now stands as the leftmost (!) bookend of the narrow spread of political positions the media won’t automatically butcher. Which, given the crushing extent of inequality in this country, the ecological Armageddon lurking just around the corner, and the radicalism needed to address both, is terrible.
This has fairly massive implications for left-wing strategy. The most promising post-war roadmaps to radicalism have involved taking power through conventional channels. Winning an election, becoming the government, and using the power of the state.
For decades, the Communist Party’s ‘British Road to Socialism’ has advocated a sort of institutional revolution – getting a radical left-wing government elected to Westminster, backed /by a grand anti-establishment alliance on the ground.
Similarly, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Labour left wanted to make the machinery of the state genuinely accountable to the Labour Party in power, the party leadership genuinely accountable to the party membership, and transform the party itself into a broad, radical social movement that people with all kinds of agendas could join and use it to improve their lives – all part of the ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families’.
Benn and friends had fundamentally the right idea. A mix of sustained, organised popular dissent – a sort of peaceful ‘revolution’ – and more conventional electoral politics still looks like the least worst way of trying to bring socialism about. But what this election has ably demonstrated is just how far we have to go, and how much groundwork needs doing, before we get to a situation where that strategy has any chance of succeeding.
If someone as timid and middle-as-the-road as Miliband gets battered off the airwaves and out of the political arena, what chance does anything genuinely transformative have? The Left was smashed in the ‘80s. Since then, it and the labour movement have got much weaker – it no longer includes much of the Labour Party, for one thing. And the corporate media is more powerful than ever.
That doesn’t mean a part-electoral approach can’t ever work and we should all give up on it. Just because it’s laughably unlikely to work in 2015 doesn’t mean it always will be. Strategically-minded left-wingers have to get to work trying to ensure it’s a bit more likely to succeed in 2020, or 2025, or 2030.The inevitable death of the print media and the rise of social media as a source of unfiltered news might help somewhat along the way.
But in the meantime, we need to be doing something else as well. Especially now we’re looking at a decade-plus of Tory rule, we need to go a bit anarch-ish.
Anarchists believe that government is inherently evil. It’s always about rich, powerful people oppressing and exploiting everyone else. A lot of socialists think that while most governments are like that, they can also improve people’s lives, and, at a push, make society far more democratic, equal and humane.
But those of us in the socialist camp have to concede that at times like these, the difference is fairly academic. The government we have now is about rich, powerful people oppressing and exploiting everyone else, it has been for about four decades, and it’s unlikely to change any year soon. So, we need to do politics a bit more like the anarchists.
British ‘democracy’ has become so toxic that we should stop expecting anything substantially positive to come out of the Westminster system at all. Apart from cynically and defensively voting to try and minimise the damage governments can do to us and our society – and, in the rare instances where it’s a viable option, nurture genuine alternatives like the Greens, the Labour left etc – we should seek to achieve our objectives outside of it.
Government is becoming increasingly hostile to the people it supposedly represents – the vast majority. To defend ourselves, and the most vulnerable people in society, the Left needs to have a go at starting new kinds of political organisation – extending, or even replacing the traditional workplace union with something far broader.
Imagine a situation in which politically-conscious people pooled their resources to support each other and those less fortunate than themselves. They’d regularly pay a proportion of their earnings into a pot – with the amount based on their ability to pay – and then collectively, democratically decide what they were going to do with it.
They could use the money to offset the deterioration of the welfare state, providing unofficial pension and benefit payments to members who needed it. They could subsidise members’ rent payments. Or they could cover members’ medical bills when the NHS inevitably became pay-as-you-go after ten-plus years under the Tories. They could help support homeless people, the unemployed, and other in crisis, too. The bigger they got, the more they could achieve.
Whatever you called them, they’d be a bit like a cross between secular churches and the community unionism practiced by organisations like UNITE, the UK’s biggest trade union. Imagine what unions could achieve if they invested their resources in these kinds of initiatives rather than just giving it all to the Labour Party and having Chuka Umunna slag them off in the papers.
And if that doesn’t sound enough like starry-eyed lunacy for you, they could eventually go even further – investing resources to be able to sustainably grow their own food and generate their own carbon-free electricity outside a corporate-capitalist system seemingly determined to maintain current patterns of consumption and waste until the eco-system falls apart.
Maybe this kind of defensive, anarchist-inspired political turn – a temporary short-to-medium term strategy whereby the Left holes up with the most vulnerable and waits for a time when it can take power via the Benn-style route identified above – could even spiral off into a completely different, unexpected, pleasant direction. Maybe as these solidarity groups got bigger, assumed responsibility for more and more social functions, became more and more established, they could become the basis of a entirely new kind of decentralised, sustainable, sociable society – anarchism by accident.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The fundamental issue is that Britain is now faced with a government with no regard for the vast majority of the population. It will immiserate, demonise and abuse literally millions of human beings to benefit a few thousand, with the only thing distinguishing the former group from the latter being the number of zeros on the end of their bank balance.
As much as the population as can possibly be chivvied into action needs to oppose this government, vocally, physically, on the internet and protesting on the street. There’s a remote chance that, collectively, even if we can’t replace it with anything substantially better, we can kick up enough of a fuss to bring it down. But if we can’t smash it, upend it, undermine it and bring everyone responsible for it to justice, the next best thing is to protect each other from it.