by Nick McDonald
It does feel like we’ve entered a new Dark Ages doesn’t it? It’s sobering (and I use that term loosely) to conclude that, as 2016 draws to a close, we live in a world dominated by racists and bigots who want to spend their time hating each other and driving each other off their land. Snarling & sneering, rather than embracing each other.
That in the 21st century a person can be elected President of the United States of America on the back of policies that include preventing people entering the country because of their religion, and building a great wall across the border with Mexico like some ancient dynasty is truly terrifying.
More terrifying still is that these are the only two substantive Trump policies most of us can name. His website barely describes his economic ‘positions’ (a more accurate description than ‘policies’). He never really knew what he wanted to do, other than win big.
And win big he did. Hate triumphed over hope this time, for sure. But we shouldn’t accept that it’s forever, or that it’s truly who we are. The narrow majority of people who voted for division and hate this year in both the US and UK (actually, in the US, a narrow minority) did so because they are frightened, not because they are intrinsically bad people.
After the crash of 2007, across the world we’ve seen our standards of living plummet, and for many the world they thought they understood and were part of has moved on and left them behind. And no one has explained it to them, and it doesn’t feel like anyone is fighting for them.
In that febrile environment demagogues thrive. But Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and the other lunatics that have taken over the asylum this year won’t fight for the disenfranchised, and people will see that in time. And to some degree we now have to let that happen. Perhaps people occasionally need reminding that a world run by people like Trump offers less justice, less fairness and less happiness than a world of progress. And of course the spectacle of watching a billionaire who inherited his father’s property company (Trump), a former city banker (Farage) and an Old Etonian (Johnson) emerge as this year’s ‘voices of the people’ is beyond parody.
It will play out, and the damage and division will be immeasurable, but play out it must. In the meantime, the Left has got to regroup, rethink, and reorganise.
The answer is not the far left model of digging up lost causes from decades previous, dusting them down and re-presenting them as fresh thinking and leftwing radicalism. Of course there is nothing wrong with spending time passionately arguing for the non-renewal of Trident, or even supporting the cause of Venezuelan democracy. These are deeply important issues. But these issues are not reasons why angry voters in northern urban areas of the UK will vote Labour again. Less still are they reasons why voters in electorally necessary marginal constituencies will vote Labour again.
And that’s not because political upsets cannot happen and political norms cannot be flipped upside down (I think we all now accept they can), but because that world view is a million miles away from the current political zeitgeist we’re witnessing. A few hundred thousand honest, passionate, leftwing activists feels pretty powerful at a rally. It feels like a movement. But a few hundred thousand activists does not make a general election victory. Not even close.
That said, I do understand why Labour members keep voting for Jeremy Corbyn, because nor is the answer to the Party’s search for a new and radical progressive model the semi-warmed-up, insincere, positional, politics-by-numbers approach of centrist Labour politics of the last few years. The view that says we should ‘listen to voters’ on issues like immigration is basically just a way of saying we should pander to a view we don’t actually agree with because there might be votes in it, and our last focus group told us votes will be lost if we don’t.
Actually, it’s never been more vital that those of us who believe in an open, accepting, diverse, multi-cultural society loudly articulate our case.
So, no. I don’t think we should be arguing for stronger immigration controls, and for denying access to skilled workers from overseas, just because we think that might win us a few votes, when all the analysis shows immigration brings economic growth, cultural enrichment and is actually also necessary to maintain important public services.
Nor should we be shy about articulating the case that there is an international responsibility and a moral imperative to house refugees fleeing from conflict and that we should work together with other cities, regions & nations to do that, nor should we be shy about fiercely criticising those who think it’s acceptable to question their entitlement to seek refuge within our borders because of their age, or god forbid subject them to compulsory dental checks to establish it.
Of course, the issue of immigration has been at the heart of all the major political upsets this year. More importantly, the issue of immigration is at the heart of the fundamental question about what kind of society we want to live in. Do we want to welcome and embrace people around us? Or do we want to sneer at them and attack them and check their teeth?
This year a majority voted to sneer. Again, they did so not because they are inherently bad people. They did it because the Left has not offered them an alternative they can believe in and vote for.
I was emotional too watching Anthony Van Jones angrily rail against a ‘whitelash’ on election night. But whilst he was justified in his anger, anger upon anger is not the answer. We have to understand this anger first. Understand the anger and the fear.
So whilst we should all be a bit angry and frightened now that the world is being run by people like Donald Trump, on the Left we should also take this moment to study what has happened this year. And then to develop new ideas and thinking. And then make the case for a genuinely radical progressive alternative, and fight for it.
So firstly, let’s think. What common issues explain Brexit and the US election? Globalisation? Technological change? Social media? Inequality? The credit crunch? In truth, all of these things, but they are words and phrases easily thrown around.
At their heart, they are all about change. More pertinently, they are all reasons people feel vulnerable and powerless in the face of change. We see that change like never before. On our phones and screens and laptops and tablets. And the change we see looks ever further removed from the lives we live.
Most people don’t like change, and naturally the people who like it least are those who feel less able to face it. Those of us who feel that we will lose out if it happens. That we are ill-equipped to handle it. That we will be left behind as the train of progress steams off into the distance.
And that issue lies at the heart of how and why the Left must fight back in 2017 and beyond. Because the rightwing answer to that fear of change is to promise to resist it. ‘Make America Great Again’ really means making it more like it used to be. More industrial. More military. More powerful. More white. For some that is the American Dream simply because the alternative is a modern America in which they feel sidelined and impotent.
In the UK the Right similarly won the day in the Brexit referendum with the promise to make British communities and British society more like they used to be. A bit more independent. A bit less diverse. A bit more British Bulldog. A bit more Rule Britannia. A bit less Entente Cordiale.
But of course, our rightwing rulers can no more resist change than can you or I. Bolting the door and shutting the curtains won’t work. Emerging nations and economies are out-growing nations like the US and UK, and the gap will continue to widen. In China, there is ever growing confidence within a dynamic, monster economy that has ever greater international leverage and ambition. In India, something remarkable is happening under the leadership of Narendra Modi and his bold ideal of a growing, smart, and technologically & culturally rich nation. Look to emerging economies across the globe and you will see good and bad examples of leadership & governance, but in all of them you will see rapid change, and what’s more you will see it being embraced.
Change is not only happening, it’s quickening & accelerating exponentially and new technologies and new realities will continue to hit us with ever more terrifying speed. The Left has to develop policies that equip people better to handle a changing world.
So rather than espousing watered-down faux-right-wing policies on immigration, or focusing on the passionate but misplaced articulation of worthy middle-class causes, the Left needs policies that are not – as a hero of mine once put it – ‘irrelevant to the real needs’.
And that means embracing modernity and convincing others to do the same.
There is no silver bullet. Progressive politics at its best is about bold, but sophisticated and well-worked programmes and governance.
The Left should argue for much greater investment in education & skills. Our children and young people should not only be taught in better-funded schools run with properly joined-up governance, underpinned by proper national and regional strategies, and held to account by their cities and regions, we should make them the best prepared kids in the world to deal with globalisation by teaching them Mandarin and Hindi as well as European languages. Every school should have a code club. Every child should have their career & life guidance start at 5 not 15.
The Left should argue for proper, serious investment in economic sectors that offer people the chance to build careers and futures doing things that are useful and relevant in the 21st century, in science, technology, and innovation. That’s what’s happening in fast growing economies, and that’s in part why they’re growing fast. It’s high time we lost patience with our status as an 80% service-sector economy.
We should make the case for proper investment in regeneration and infrastructure, not just in our great cities (although that too) but in our broken and undernourished communities. All of our cities should be high-tech. You should be able to get instant, super-fast wifi connection anywhere and everywhere you go in our major cities, whether you’re sat on a tram or in a city park. Our cities should be beacons of smart, green technology, with radical transport policies and improving air quality, driven by empowered local leadership with devolved powers.
But our communities should feel that drive towards modernity too, through technological investment in our villages and estates that is not only egalitarian, but is local, so that people not only see technological change happening but feel personally empowered by it in their own communities and homes.
And all this should sit alongside proper investment in community-level work on social cohesion, so that as we become more diverse we continue to talk to each other and understand each other’s similarities and differences.
A national solution needs to be found to our growing adult social care problem. I respect the smart, valiant attempts of local areas to integrate health and social care, but we have a National Health Service. And as uninsured Americans will soon discover, we are lucky to do so. Make it a National Health & Care Service. Deliver it locally sure, but underpinned by national policy and strategy. We can’t wait any longer.
And for the love of god let’s get serious about our creaking transport infrastructure. HS2? Where is HS3, HS4 and HS5?
And then we will need to go deeper. New policies need to be underpinned by a deeper structural revolution of our institutions, systems, laws, and societal norms.
In the U.K., constitutional reform is needed, to move beyond government by implied Royal assent, and to enshrine our rights in a written constitution that guarantees those rights, and guarantees the dissemination of power and powers to a local level within a fully federated system of government, with the dog’s dinner of multi-tier local government rationalised and simplified, and with major functions of the State moved out of London and into the regions.
Our banking institutions and investment vehicles need to be overhauled. It is way too difficult to get money into the system. Too difficult to make things happen and grow. Reform it. Localise banking. Let’s make our financial institutions work for us, rather than have us work for them. Models of ownership need to change. Private ownership & capital is vital for growth, but it can sit alongside cooperative and public forms of ownership. There’s actually nothing Right or Left about recognising the value of all these models. It’s just smarter economics. But the underlining principle needs to be that our economy should reward and incentivise more people than it does currently.
Further, a major overhaul is needed of the UK’s tax system, both to make it more redistributive, where it’s appropriate to make it more competitive internationally, to leverage tax at all levels and to get it through the system and into the frontline more directly – at one end enabling international tax regimes that stop multi-nationals acting above the law of nations and at the other gives local areas the power to make decisions about directly raising taxes and investing in their communities.
And that’s just for starters.
And before someone comes back with ‘how do we pay for all this?’ You pay for it with the growth you generate through investment, through the additional taxes that flow thereafter, through inefficiencies you drive our via localisation & devolution of money and powers. By making institutions drive our agenda not theirs.
We should argue for these things. They are the policies that will help people face and feel confident about change. But we need to figure out HOW to argue for these things. We have to learn how to deliver that message simply in a way that allows people to understand what’s in it for them. All the great politicians of the Left have understood that: Attlee, Bevin, Wilson, Benn, Blair, Truman, Kennedy, Clinton, Obama. It’s not because voters are stupid. Just the opposite. The electorate are highly adept at smelling insincerity for a start. It’s because politics is as much emotional as it is intellectual. People want to be inspired. They would rather be inspired than be scared in fact, but the language and message, as well as the content, need to be compelling.
And that doesn’t mean being afraid of saying we want to be radical. Two great nations just voted for radicalism, just the wrong kind of radicalism. By all means call it radical. Call for a revolution if you want. Just be honest and passionate about it, and say it because you mean it and not because it plays well with Mondeo Man.
And most importantly of all, we on the Left need to join hands with each other to deliver that message. That doesn’t just mean factions within parties coming together to present a united party front, it means progressives across the spectrum coming together to articulate together what we believe in. Across party lines if necessary, through a new progressive coalition.
And we should be arguing for that coalition to be given a chance to put its case before the public through a representative political system that is fair and recognises the progressive majority that I still believe exists in the UK if the argument is sufficiently well-articulated. Our current political and electoral system was designed for a different age and we should make the case for change. Of course we will need to win under the present system to deliver that change, but we should argue for it now nonetheless.
We have to find better answers. We have no choice now. The world has Donald Trump as the US president. And he’s president because he won the most electoral college votes. And he’s going to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and attack immigrants’ rights, and attack women’s right to choose, and reduce restrictions on gun ownership. And he will start wars. He will quickly look to flex his international muscles, fuelled by control of both Houses of Congress and he will look to assert American supremacy abroad.
Meanwhile the U.K. is heading for exit from Europe and a period of splendid isolationist failure and increasing irrelevance. And we are leaving Europe because that proposition got the most votes, despite all the dire warnings of the Government, and the Bank of England, and the IMF, and every bloody economist in the land. And very nearly the Leader of the Labour Party.
If those things don’t tell us that our progressive narrative has utterly failed, nothing will.
We lost in 2016. Lost horribly. But we can start to win again in 2017 if we’re clear about what we need to do, and how we can win back the trust of the people who think we failed them.
And we have failed them. Because we failed to convince them. But now we turn it around. We think it through, we formulate new ideas, and then we go again. We fight. We organise. And next time we’re going to win.
Cllr Nick McDonald is Cabinet Member for Business, Growth & Transport on Nottingham City Council