Who is right?
The Tories have just trounced Labour at the polls. Amid the political point scoring, finger pointing, character assassination and messianic zealotry, I wonder if it might come down to this.
Labour’s message is “we are right”
Conservative’s message is “you are right”
This might seem fatuous and simplistic, but bear with me.
First of all a note on my own position(s). Checked against manifesto policies my polling came out as 50% Labour. 25% Green. 25% Liberal Democrat. (I wonder how many other people also had a clear majority, but difference as well…)
“We are right” is virtuous, but extremely difficult to hold together. The “we” is constantly up for redefinition and inevitably a collection of different views, ethics, dimensions even. If you are not sure whether you are always one of the many, not the few, because that’s not a universal divide that you recognise then is the “we” for you? What if successive governments have failed to deliver good things for you and you are offered a direct choice via referendum – not for a party, but for a question: do you want to be part of “we” – with its contradictions, compromises and differences; or what if we make “we” as close to “you” as possible? Still a “we”, but as much like “you” as we can get it…
“You are right” doesn’t purport to be virtuous, nor does it have to try and negotiate who “we” might be with all its complexities. It allows a multiplicity of difference, albeit with privilege inbuilt, but it doesn’t seek to judge. It doesn’t concern itself with “truth”, because everyone has their own truth. “You are right” allows for such a broad church that it can include opposites. It distrusts ideology and sees “we” as exclusive, not inclusive. It says: “don’t treat me as either stupid or inferior just because you disagree with me.” “You are right” means that individual Tory politicians may be sacrificed at any point, but then reborn – either as Lords or following a period out of the limelight. There is no counter-narrative to contest this sacrifice (as with labour in-fighting) as this might imply a “we” being fought out. The ERG would be vocal while the Tories are in power, but once it came to election time, they vanished…
Imagine a Left – Right Axis. Now create an intersecting axis of libertarian – authoritarian. This gives you a quadrant with 4 squares. Labour voters now largely sit in the one marked authoritarian/left. Many more people than ever before are now in this quadrant. A fantastic achievement. Truly, the building of a movement. However – to win an election – Labour will need to speak to many people in each of the other three quadrants – if they are (almost) all now voting Tory. This need will be accentuated by the planned Tory boundary changes.
Encourage identity politics as the assertion of one kind of “we are right” over another. Tie enough people up in determining who “we” are by giving them the space to compete with each other, and they are so busy working out how to sit in that one quadrant that they stop even seeing the other three…
Thatcher decreed that “there is no such thing as society”. Or in other words, there is no “we”. “Getting Brexit done” is the mechanism by which the shift from “we are right” to “you are right” is delivered.
Think about the sliding shift in vote with age. Young people making their way in the world need to build their social capital (their networks); their accumulated economic capital (money / assets) will typically take much longer to accrue. They are naturally drawn to the “we”. Old people are not looking to grow their social capital, rather to consolidate their economic: so not to add, rather to avoid having taken away. It is much more about “you”, rather than “we”.
So what does this mean as a look to the future?
The default government in the UK is Tory. There have only been 3 non-Tory administrations since WW2, 3 generations ago (Atlee, Wilson/Callahan, Blair/Brown). So on this basis it is reasonable to expect a Labour government once a generation.
Labour might usefully look at the quadrants and move away from either a simple Left -Right Axis or attempting to maintain a monopoly on the “we.”
Labour may have to beat the Tories at their own game by being better at working out what “you are right” could actually mean. I don’t think this is Blue Labour, but I do think the Tories are not always especially competent, once they have been in power for some time – which is why, despite retro-fitting narratives to the contrary, John Smith was able to present a more competent alternative to John Major’s corrupt and decaying Tory government – until his untimely death in 1994, thereby paving the way for a Blair victory 3 years later.
I do think Labour must embrace Electoral Reform which eschews first-past-the post to enable a non-monopoly that moves from “we are right” to an alliance of different “we may be rights” that in turn decisively outnumbers the “you are rights”.
A federal future abandons the moral high grounding of who gets to define the dominant “we”. It accepts that there will be differences, but doesn’t go all out to attempt resolution. The task is curating this diversity and allowing federalism to flourish.
“We” must explore what it means to move away from essentialist positions of “we know best”. This means thinking very carefully about nationalisms, about identity politics and all forms of we that close, rather than open. Privilege might be both more acknowledged, but also much more nuanced. Better inhabiting paradox and contradiction, with curiosity and humility and less defensiveness might be tough, but necessary.
This does not mean, however, that anything goes. Quite the reverse. Efforts need to be redoubled – especially in the face of increasingly brazen insults and even assaults – to resist abuse of all kinds. The new solidarity is reaching across silos and moving beyond the tribal.
This might produce unlikely bedfellows and different discourses. If this federalism means Labour throwing in the first-past-the-post towel, but getting some new bed linen and better night time conversation, so much the better.
Happy New Year!