2016 was the year when the far right rolled over everything like a wave. The progressive foundations of our country, carefully built over decades of social struggle and reforms, are threatened by a surging tide of right-wing populism. This was the year when hope, the underpinning sentiment of every progressive, gave way to fear. And a lot of it.
There’s been a lot of talk recently on the British left about the ‘politics of hope’ counteracting the rise in toxic bigotry and pessimism that has gripped British politics. The idea put forward by many left-wing commentators and activists echoing this was that people would see the ray of light amidst the storm and hold onto that. They’d fight for it until everything was sunny. Except when there’s a storm, you run. You don’t stand and stubbornly hope and expect it to pass. The British left have for years been underestimating the social impact the financial crash of 2008 had on society. For years we have believed the politics of hope could negate any doubts people had about the rapid pace of globalisation.
What Ukip have shown us, though, is that social change can be as much stirred from fear as hope. Their performance in the 2015 General Election cut a swathe through Labour votes. And let’s face it, they spearheaded Brexit. For the past few years they have capitalised on the fears people have had about housing, jobs, wage stagnation and the NHS. They have repeatedly hammered out the argument that the British people were getting an unfair deal from the elite. They blamed Westminster and EU for creating a liberal culture that imposed immigration on a struggling society. And it worked. Ukip stole Labour’s anti-establishment, anti-elite mantra through a message of fear and it worked. They honed in on people’s basic concerns and provided a simple answer that appealed to everyone.
Why did it work? Because, when you’re trapped at the bottom of society, wages too poor to support your aspirations, dreams of buying a home turning to vapour and the NHS increasingly on its knees, you’re unlikely to have hope. What you will have plenty of is fear. The idea of some grand sweep-you-off-your-feet socialist revolution feels absurd. You deal with the daily anxieties of constantly facing eviction and hunger, unable to miss a day of work because you need the money to support yourself or your family.
This is something that Labour need to carefully address. Many people regarded Ed Miliband as too negative, but he was correct to pinpoint the issues facing the country. He just wasn’t clear and consistent enough. It almost reflects the immigration divide within the party: those who are in favour of free movement and those wishing for immigration controls. Unsurprisingly, the northern MPs tend to back the controls, while the more metropolitan-based London MPs argue against it. They believe that a strong economic message can defeat the immigration fears, even though polling evidence has repeatedly refuted them on that.
Admittedly I’m in favour of free movement but I base that on how critically dependent London has become on immigration. I’m aware that outside, the situation is different.
What this shows is two things Labour need to consider: the first is that a manner of middle class socialism has consumed the party. It’s rooted in the hope of social liberalism and often radical leftist ideas. Three quarters of Labour members are now middle class. 15% of them are in London and 32% of them across south of England. Only 28% live in the northern heartlands. For Labour, the disconnect with the northern working class base is a severe threat made worse by Ukip. Many now see the party as too metropolitan. The party simply needs a more working class feel to it, people for whom austerity is not just some abstract term, but a definition of their lives. The party does not feel at all representative working class life anymore and it’s telling how little some members appreciate the need for a Labour government. For those who, like me, are working class, we are deeply afraid and that makes us desperate for Labour to be in power. The middle class Labour members can hope for the radical politics whatever the polling evidence and survive the Tories. Others cannot. The party needs to feel like it belongs to working class people again.
The second issue to consider is, instead of rejecting the fear sweeping the country, use it. Redirect it. If people fear immigrants and Muslims, then build up years of fear about an unregulated financial system. Tax avoidance is robbing the country of hundreds of billions and the power and influence wielded by these unaccountable, wealthy figures is terrifying. It’s a threat to British democracy as much as the EU is. People can be convinced that sensible action needs to be taken against an elite benefiting hugely from a lax attitude towards financial corruption. Polls already show that people are troubled by the huge gap between the rich and poor. The issue is that they believe immigration is cementing this divide.
There are lessons to be taken from 2016 and the key one is that is fear works. The right simply uses it better. The left needs to drop the theme of hope. This isn’t Star Wars. This is reality and it’s terrifying, grim and full of uncertainty for the masses.