Labour must overcome the Terrible Simplifiers

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.

This communication de-risked Labour. We gave voters permission to vote for our promised public service improvements by convincingly suing for peace with business. But the more we said “it’s a bit more complicated than that” the less we were a vessel for grievance, specifically the grievance of the workers against the oppression of the businesses.

The electoral success for Labour of this transition caused David Cameron to seek to be ‘the heir to Blair’. This meant communicating “it’s a bit more complicated than Thatcher said”. Where Thatcher cultivated grievance against public ownership and trade unions, Cameron, at least in his early days as leader, sought rapprochement. Blair and Cameron desisted in denouncing the bad guys of Clause 4 socialism and Thatcherism. In the meantime, particularly since the financial crisis of 2007/8, life got harder for many. The SNP and UKIP came along and offered new bad guys.

In suffering, our own pain is all we see in the mirror of our hearts. Wound up like a coiled spring, will jump off at anything, Watt sings. We see enemies everywhere, in the “corrupt” BBC, in HM Treasury’s confirmation of what was always inevitable. But this picture, of course, is incomplete. We have to see beyond our own pain to recognise that others have their own struggles and together we can help each other through. So open your arms tonight, Watt concludes.

Labour is about people opening up their arms. That’s what the revised Clause 4 really says. But as we open up our arms, we see virtue and vice in all, including ourselves. Terrible simplifiers abhor this complexity. It shreds their narratives, which explain all in terms of one dimensional and implausible bad guys.

These simplifiers, sadly, are not restricted to Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond. Billy Bragg, Russell Brand and Vivienne Westwood have applied the terrible simplifications of the left to the Scottish referendum and come out for Yes. All they see is a strike against an establishment that they see as being behind all problems. In so doing, they collude with the canard – exposed by Jamie Reed – that the Tories and the English are synonymous.

The path from the New York stock market crash of 1929 to the fascism of the 1930s is GCSE History. We shouldn’t really be surprised that more extreme politics follows the biggest economic calamity at least since then. The anti-immigrant far-right has just doubled their vote in Sweden, the historic citadel of social democracy.

Labour must assuage the heightened anger of our times. Reality is more complex than Farage and Salmond allow. Labour must have both the prose of solutions that work amid this reality and the poetry to undercut the terrible simplifiers.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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2 Responses to “Labour must overcome the Terrible Simplifiers”

  1. paul barker says:

    Excellent article but how is John Prescott ranting about Bullingdon Boys any different ? Or Millibands attacks on Toffs ? Or Labour claims about NHS Privatisation ? Or the attacks on LibDems as Traitors or Quislings ? The SNP & UKIP are only using Labours own methods against you.

  2. Madasafish says:

    the anti-immigrant far-right has just doubled their vote in Sweden, the historic citadel of social democracy.

    You fail to mention that as a result a Social Democrat Government is being formed in Sweden as the Right vote split..

    (See also France.. they voted Hollande in – and increased the vote of the Front National led by Marine Le Pen. And as a result Mr Hollande is the most unpopular President – ever… as the Socialist party has managed to screw up the French economy big style -not that the prior President Sarkozy was much better)

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