…Seriously? I mean, how did we get to a stage where millions of people in a first world country rely on food banks, where our current incumbent government is planning on scrapping the Human Rights Act, something which would leave us in the same boat as Kazakhstan and Belarus, places known for being models of how democracy works, and at the same times as this, the top 1% of society is now richer than ever, and, more to the point, the country which invented the welfare state is now the most unequal in Europe?
Seriously, what the fuck, guys?
If you’re a lefty, you’d be forgiven for repeatedly bashing your head against a brick wall for want of a better political strategy. Public political discourse has suddenly become more right-leaning than a man who’s just had his right leg blown off. Dark jokes about the possibility of a Tory-UKIP coalition have suddenly become a worrying reality. Labour is now doing its best to being all tough and hopping into bed with the Tories on issues like Scottish Independence. So, as a leftist, where do you go? When did our public political world suddenly become something out of Jeremy Clarkson’s wet dream?
Since when did everyone become so right-wing?
The fact of the matter is, people haven’t. A recent YouGov survey found that members of the public are significantly to the left of Ed Milliband. 56% of those polled want a 75% tax on income over £1 million. Similar numbers want a ban on zero hour contracts, 66% of voters from across the political spectrum want the railways to be nationalised. Another YouGov poll found that 60% of British people want a Robin Hood tax to be brought in on financial transactions. The statistics showing a leftwards sway in the public. The Yes Campaign in the Scottish Referendum argued (at least in significant part) for principles which are definitely of the left – safeguarding the NHS against privatisation, a state without a wasteful and rather useless nuclear deterrent, and so on. The Yes Campaign may have lost, but it was a mere 5% off achieving victory (and, in all honesty, its not a huge leap of logic to suggest that the reason No won was due to really quite pathetic but effective scare tactics on the part of Better Together). The organised left may be a fucking mess (the disintegration of the SWP – a good thing – has left a power vacuum which has yet to be filled – a bad thing. The SWP were awful rape apologists, but they did know how to mobilise people), but left-leaning ideas are still alive and well. And yet the political parties, at least those in Westminster, are all playing a daft game of political tag to see who can make it furthest to the right before they all fall off the edge of the political spectrum and end up plummeting into the mouth of the lord Cthulhu, who, frankly, I secretly hope will rise and devour humanity, only so I don’t have to see Nigel Farage’s absurd stoned meerkat impression of a face every time I turn on the news.
UKIP – a madness driven by media, or why there won’t be a “UKIP of the Left”
Which of course, brings us to UKIP, the new big thing in British politics. I miss the days when the only time UKIP got any exposure was because Godfrey Bloom had said something offensive and we could all have a chuckle about what a daft bunch of closet racists and weirdo little England types those UKIPpers (which I believe is the correct term) were. And now, all of a sudden, UKIP is a thing. They won the European Elections! Nigel Farage might as well keep a toothbrush and a change of clothes in the Question Time studio. Tory MPs and donors are suddenly flocking to UKIP, having taken a good hard look at the likes of Cameron, May and Grayling and gone, “Hmm, bit too left-wing for me!”
But the thing is, if you pause and have a closer look, you realise that…UKIPs rise doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. How does a party almost everyone appreciates is a bit a racist and previously meandered around the fringes for the far right looking a bit lost and wondering if it was in over its head suddenly appear to be the fourth party in UK politics? The answer, from where I am standing, is because of the media. By this I mean two things; firstly, that UKIP are riding on a wave that has been built up over the past decade in the right-wing press: it’s a narrative wave that tells us that immigration is out of control, that our power and sovereignty is being held hostage by faceless Eurocrats in Brussels, and that what little power is left in the UK is being squandered by a self-interested, self-serving political elite. In that picture is a grain of truth, at least in the last point, but this narrative has found its hero in the form of the supposedly “anti-establishment” right wing UKIP. Here, we find the second role of the media in the rise of UKIP; that at some point in the last 18 months, it was decided that the way to continue the next chapter of the story was to fixate on a fairly insignificant party of right-wing Eurosceptics. This process did not take place over night – since 2009, Nigel Farage was on Question Time 14 times (as of 2013), more than any other politician, but it was only really in the last few year that UKIP suddenly dominated the press. In 2003, UKIP was cited in the press a mere 600 times, less than the Socialist Workers Party. In 2012, that went up to 10185. Last year, it was 23,159 times. The media suddenly had a darling in the form of Farage – perhaps, one might argue, as a replacement for the brief media flurry about Nick Clegg in 2009 when people briefly remembered that the Lib Dems were a thing and then thoroughly regretted doing so. The difference, between Farage and Clegg, though, is that Farage and his party stand for exactly the kind of principles that the ownership of the majority of this countries media would benefit from.
A significant proportion of the media is owned by private interests who have rightist sympathies. Rupert Murdoch, everyone’s least favourite supremely powerful wrinkled dark lord, owns the Times, the Sunday Times, the Sun and did own the News of the World, until it took an unhealthy interest in other people’s voice mail messages. Paul Dacre is the owner of the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, and also the free Metro – three of Britain’s most read newspapers. Both men fall very firmly on the right of the political spectrum, and the former has shown a sudden and rather worrying interest in Farage. The latter runs two papers which populate the kind of myths that UKIP feeds on. Murdoch’s interest in Farage is particularly worrying – it’s a sad reflection on British politics that if someone wins an election, is usually because Murdoch was backing them – Blair in 2007 with New Labour, which was subsequently abandoned in dramatic and vitriolic style for the Tories under Cameron in the run up to 2010. Should Murdoch and his papers suddenly back UKIP, or at least tacitly endorse its stance as a new force in British politics, we’ll be seeing a lot purple in the Commons.
In his excellent new book, “The Establishment: How they get away with it,” Owen Jones makes the point that in contemporary Britain, the media functions in a similar way to religion earlier epochs of society – it becomes a tool by which the powerful can exert influence on popular opinion, but also win support for their ideas. Where once we might agree with the government because the Church told us that it was God’s will that we go and invade the Middle East (come to think of it, I’m sure Blair pulled that one) we now find people agreeing with Farage because they read about it in the Mail. Where Marx once wrote that capitalist exploitation was “veiled by political and religious illusions,” he might well have suggested today that exploitation is hidden because the Sun blamed it on Muslims. Now, I’m not saying here that people are stupid, incapable of thinking for themselves to the extent that they’ll vote for whoever the Mail on Sunday happens to be fond off come election day – what I’m saying is that the media, by fixating on Farage and by, in parts at least, concocting the grand myth of the evil EU and a country full to bursting with illegal immigrants living on benefits, it set up everything needed for UKIP to suddenly become popular. Think of its role as kind of like the techies who set up the stage for Nigel Farage to walk on and kick of his solo hour, “How I learned to stop thinking critically and blame everyone who wasn’t from round these parts.”
Even the left-leaning media (including my darling Guardian, which, as my girlfriend will attest, I spend far to much of my life reading and grumbling about) in covering the rise of UKIP in a kind of awed horror, contributed to its presence in the common imagination. By critiquing the idiocy of supposed popularity, they helped to contribute to it. And now Nigel Farage’s face is bloody everywhere.
One thing is clear – people are fed up with the homogeneity of the three main political parties. You used to be able to vote Lib Dem if you didn’t like Labour or the Tories, but then Nick Clegg failed to understand the concept of a promise and thus those of us who were on the left suddenly found ourselves in a bit of pickle. We could either do what I’ve done to this point (and have firmly decided never to do again) which was vote Labour while tutting and hoping to God Ed Milliband took a note from his late, great father’s book, or you were disenfranchised, effectively. You drew a little none of the above option on the ballot paper and then went home and read Laurie Penny articles until you felt better.
And then, people started talking, rather desperately, of a “UKIP of the Left.” You know, a popularist left party to counter the horrible rightward tilt politics had taken on. Most of these arguments were a bit crap – I remember reading one by horrible quasi-feminist transphobe Caitlin Moran where she spent a lot of time saying we needed a UKIP of the Left but didn’t for a moment consider what that movement might look like, or what it might stand for. Russell Brand came at it from a different angle, told everyone not to vote, and then ended up as an unofficial spokesman for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, a movement I’d be fond up until that point (I ended up in a depressing argument on Facebook a few weeks ago, where I suggested to someone singing the praises of Mr Brand that there was a serious, feminist concern with having a ‘leader’ in our movement who had unapologetically sexually harassed women, only to be told, confusingly, that I was a Zionist. My movement will be intersectional and feminist or it will be bullshit). More nuanced, “UKIP of the Left” looked to SYRIZA in Greece, now the main opposition, which made a principled stand against austerity, racism and big business. And more than a few people pointed out that the Green Party was still knocking about, and they had the capacity to be an alternative, left voice. I’ll probably vote Green at the next election. They are certainly a party with faults, but of the manifestos of political parties, I agree with the most in the Greens. However, I doubt it will come to anything. A “UKIP of the Left” would require sudden media support in building a narrative against austerity and suddenly promote a party which advocated against its interests. How likely, really, is it that this would happen?
“Common sense vs. total reactionary bollocks” – the Overton Window in contemporary Britain.
I want to talk a bit about something called the Overton Window. The Overton Window is a political theory which sees what the public will accept as sensible political ideas as part of a narrow ‘window’. This window contains the policies, ideas and principles which appear to be common-sense at any given time; ideas, principles that fall outside of that window are deemed to be extremist, too radical or just absurd. Joseph Overton, a member of the American Free Market thinktank Mackinac Centre for Public Policy, originally conceived of the theory to look at government intervention from a free market perspective, in other words, that the more government intervention in any given state, the less free that state was. Much as I certainly wouldn’t agree with Overton’s own politics, the Window is an interesting, and helpful way of thinking about politics on both a national and a personal level.
I would suggest that each individual has their own Overton Window, that shifts or remains static over the course of their lives. In my case, when I was a child, my Overton Window was in a very different place to where it is now – as part of being homeschooled by Conservative Christians for most of my life, the idea that, say, abortion was not murder and was part of a woman’s right to her body, would have been extremist. Now, having grown up and thought for myself a little, the idea that anyone has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body in any way is absurd, extremist, and fascistic. Some people’s Overton Windows shift in more extreme ways, some in more subtle ways. On an individual level, the ideas and principles which we consider to be commonsense tend to be based on our life experience, perhaps particular political ideologies that individuals feel most inclined to. But how do you determine where the public Overton Window lies? Certainly, the YouGov surveys I cited at the beginning of this blog post would suggest that the public’s Overton Window is narrowed and broadly centre left ideas; yet, the apparent popularity of UKIP would suggest that we’re all looking at the politics of the right and saying that it’s just common sense. Think about the language which politicians use to justify measures such as benefit sanctions, cuts to welfare and education and so on “The right thing to do,” “the sensible thing to do,”, phrases such as “balancing the books,” in the interest of “hard working people,” all cast the rightists putting forward this ideas as sober, rational statesman, using common sense and sound political logic to work out what was best for the country – the role of ideology, and the ideological groundings of political parties like the Tories, is lost in the myth of their reasonable actions.
An interesting example of how the Overton Window can be applied to the same situation in two very different ways comes from the recent Independence referendum in Scotland. A significant part of Better Together’s strategy was to argue that Scottish Independence was full of unknowns. Viewed through their Overton Window, Scotland breaking away from the UK would be a world where, to paraphrase the Labour party’s propaganda on the issue, your pension was in doubt, your NHS was in doubt, and your pound was in doubt. All of those things might well have been true. But let’s look at the same window from a different angle – from a progressive, leftist perspective, staying in the UK came with all sorts of uncertainty. What would the NHS look like a few years down the line, assuming continued Tory rule and continued privatisation? Would the UK remain in the EU (something Scottish people clearly wanted, given the way debates were framed) given the rightist popularism of UKIP driven political discussion? What will the UK be like if the Tories are successful in abolishing the Human Rights act, their latest big (probably bad thing)? When framed in those terms, Scottish Independence seemed like less of a shot in the dark, when compared to the equal shot in the dark of remaining in the UK.
In short: fuck this, I’m moving to Scotland.
I’m not Scottish, but the Yes Campaign did give me hope for the future in the sense that it was a sudden resurgence of left ideas in mainstream politics. The case for Independence was framed in terms of progressivism, and a break from the status quo – not the kind of socialist utopia it was often portrayed to be, but simply a society which was fairer and was, for want of a better phrase, based on “common sense.” The fact that the Yes Campaign continues, even after the referendum was lost is a sign that such ideas might take root and might lead to some sort of sea change. I think I’ll move there someday.
Actually, you know what, who am I kidding? Fuck being a leftist. I’ve already lost. The world will go on, the revolution isn’t going to happen and ultimately everything that is good and supportive about society will collapse, the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer, the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will become more powerful than we could imagine and frankly my writing this will achieve sweet bugger all apart from a retweet or two, if I’m lucky, though bear in mind have the people who follow me on Twitter aren’t real, and the other half all have unicorns for profile pictures and list their interests as “cats, MDMA and Hagrid slash fiction.” Who am I kidding? Maybe everyone is just crap.