by Jonathan Todd
Ben Watt recently won best “difficult” second album at the AIM Independent Music awards. In the chorus to the album’s closing song he sings that “the heart is a mirror where it’s easy to just see yourself”. One of the verses tells of a redundant man undertaking childcare and domestic responsibilities, while his wife is the bread winner. All this man can see in his heart is the pain of redundancy, which distorts his relationship with his wife, causing him to see her as a threat to his sense of himself.
We are awash with pain: the economic pain of unemployment, struggling to get by and dead end jobs; the social pain of loneliness, dislocation and addiction; and much else besides. All of which breeds anger and takes potent form in the politics of grievance.
This fits snugly and powerfully within the essential political narrative. The elements of this narrative are a critique of the status quo, a vision of a better alternative and a route map for moving from the status quo to this alternative, often accompanied by identification and condemnation of those who frustrate this transition.
Grievance politics trades on anger with those supposedly forestalling a better world: the EU that denies the ale sodden, sunny uplands of UKIP; the English oppressors of the Scottish. UKIP and the SNP, though, converge on a shared enemy: Westminster and the political class. The faraway elite chain us to the Brussels cabal; conspire against the Scottish.
These claims are ridiculous and are mocked. Daily Mash reports on a UKIP councillor being proud to announce “that Doncaster will be freed from the yoke of EU membership with immediate effect” and on a film called 12 Years a Scot, “the brutal but uplifting story of Brian Northup, a free man who at no point is forced to work on a plantation”.
When trust in Westminster is at an unprecedented low and the pain of everyday lives feels unending, unendurable and beyond the capacity of these mendacious leaders to eradicate, what is absurd – that the EU is an oppression, that the Scots are oppressed by the UK – gains traction. These kind of all encompassing narratives are not alien to Labour’s history.
Clause 4 socialism, for example, explained all our problems in terms of private ownership and saw all our solutions in its elimination. In the belly of the Labour Party, we always knew that this violated what David Mitchell later proposed as a liberal tenet: the instinct to offer, “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”. Tony Blair’s revision of Clause 4 communicated to the wider electorate recognition of this.