Where did it all go wrong?

Way back in the twentieth century, Tony Blair did for the British Labour Party what the Clintons did for the US Democrats—dragged them into the grasp of big money. The Irish Labour Party achieved a similar result by selling their souls on the cheap to Fine Gael. Blair’s New Labour and the Clintons’ Democrats unashamedly abandoned their traditional concerns—equality of rights and opportunity, social justice, consumer and environmental protection, et al—in order to cater to their corporatist sponsors. Joan Burton’s Irish Labour Party, ideologically bankrupt and nearing retirement age, sold their followers out for a TD’s pension apiece. All three—Irish Labour, British New Labour, US Democrats—assumed they would pull their core support behind them, and all ultimately lost elections because they weren’t paying attention to the whirlwind reaped by neo-liberal economics.

In Britain, New Labour support collapsed. Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband offered object lessons on how to lose an election. And Jeremy Corbyn thought he could become leader with a return to old Labour issues, the ones that mattered before Blairite New Labour began its ascent. Nobody in the political classes thought he could do it, and none of them wanted him to. Leading Labour figures—including, without apparent irony, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband—argued with the received wisdom of experienced campaigners that with Corbyn the party would be unelectable. As Gene Kerrigan put it, ‘the tired, discredited right of the Labour Party ignored all political dangers and developments—including Brexit—and focused obsessively on getting rid of Corbyn’:

The print media made up endless reasons to hate him. Broadcast media, aware that the Tories are unforgiving of those who don’t favour them, acted accordingly. . . . Massive rallies simply weren’t reported. But the thousands of people who were there knew they happened—and learned not to trust the media. (independent.ie here)

As in Ireland during the water-charge protests, social media spread the word. Corbyn won a Labour Party leadership contest with a landslide.

And he survived an attempt to unseat him less than a year later, in part because the ‘new’ old Labour Party had changed the way it elects its leader. Voting is now party-wide, with a one-member-one-vote system in which all votes—from grass-root voters as well as elected representatives and the Parliamentary Party—are weighted equally. He won that election with an increased majority.

New Labour, the Tory Party, the press, and the pundits all failed to heed what I just wrote—this sample made up of 506,438 of the people who would be counted in the ‘only-poll-that-matters’ voted overwhelmingly for Corbyn. Received wisdom, the obsessive anti-Corbyn focus of New Labour, the absolute disdain of the Tories, the venom and ridicule of the press, all still insisted that Corbyn was unelectable.

Those same New Labour ‘leaders’, Tories, press, and pundits noticed that Corbyn was mopping up the youth vote but paid no heed. I had that mansplained to me just before the UK election. Everybody knows that young people don’t vote, they tweet; old people vote, and old people are conservative. Old people are more likely to be unhappy with some of the changes British society has experienced in the last few decades, and hence more likely to be in favour, for instance, of closed borders and fewer immigrants. Corbyn was an unelectable dinosaur, the ghost of old Labour resting uneasily.

Maybe we need to rethink what everybody ‘knows’ about ‘young’ people. A good place to start would be the demographics of Corbyn’s vote. And maybe we need to rethink what everybody ‘knows’ about ‘old’ people. People now in their sixties and early seventies grew up and/or came of age in the 1960s. This cohort is now being made acutely aware of deficiencies in the NHS as the Tories strip it out—privatising by inches—and deficiencies in social care, as a consequence of which Age UK calculate that nearly 900,000 older people now have unmet needs (www.ageuk here). Findings in the Guardian’s latest ageing population survey, echo the views that ‘Tories [protect] the ‘grey vote’ at the expense of the struggling younger generation’, and that they protect the wealthy at the expense of lower income groups:

half of the 1,250 participants . . . which included carers, professionals working with older people and older people themselves, felt the outlook for older people had got worse just in the last year. As one respondent put it: ‘Older people are collectively wealthier than ever, but with growing inequality. The current situation is distorted by political pursuit of the grey vote, which is protecting wealthier people disproportionately.’ (www.theguardian.com here).

Baby boomers have changed the political dynamic since their birth. Received wisdom was never their guide. They’ve always been uppity.

Trickling economics

Here at home, for Fine Gael the recession appeared to be something of a godsend. It broke the Fianna Fáil grip on the electorate and enabled the Fine Gael/Labour coalition to use austerity politics to achieve Fine Gael’s favourite wet dream—savage cuts in spending that they believed would become the new normal, feeding into their trickle-up economic model. To steal a line from Sandy Toksvig, this is the government who put the ‘n’ in cuts.

Their claim, on this basis, of a successful recovery effectively cost them the last election. And it incidentally broke whatever tentative and provisional hold their coalition partners, Labour, had had on the electorate. Unfortunately for Fine Gael, not all their supporters are millionaires. Most of them depend on public services, in education or health, for instance, and have suffered through repeated cutbacks to those services in order to pay for a bust they didn’t cause following a boom from which they benefited, at most, marginally. While the coalition trumpeted their successful management of a ‘recovery’, they were stunned to find that those who had paid for that ‘recovery’, who had put on the green gansey and persevered through those cuts, expected to be paid back now that the good times were apparently rolling. And they were equally surprised when citizens who had watched services dwindle, trolley counts grow, and homelessness soar demanded at least a return to pre-crash levels of service and refused to accept that we can’t afford them while tax reductions are on offer.

Let’s be clear, the advantages of wealth before, during, and after the crash have not been, are not now, and will not be trickling down. In fact, more accurately, wealth is streaming up. The gap between the richest and the poorest in Ireland has increased exponentially since we started booming.

Right now, in Ireland, the spoils of society are going almost exclusively to the very rich. . . . The question is why did it happen? It happened as the direct consequence of policy. . . . We have seen a massive transfer of wealth in the recession from the middle to the very rich. This has ensured a significant wealth divide—the sort of inequality not seen in this country for over 100 years.
(David McWilliams, independent.ie here)

More than two years after David McWilliams made that point, the super-rich continue to rake it in as NAMA sells our national assets to vulture funds who then sell them to the rest of us at a massive profit. As McWilliams asked, ‘What happens when the concentration of wealth at the top becomes so extreme that there is very little left to go around? What happens when policies all over the world explicitly work to make rich people richer?’ What happens is the free-floating anger that characterises much of the electorate in Ireland, the UK, mainland Europe, and the US: the greater the gap between the rich and the poor, the greater the social unrest.

The big anger

In the UK, the extent and the depth of that free-floating anger were underestimated in the Brexit referendum. Consequently, Nigel Farage and UKIP, with their implied promise of an all-white Britain returning to its days of glory as a world power, soaked up the disaffected right with dog whistles about ‘reclaiming sovereignty’ and ‘taking back control’—that is, limiting immigration and reversing civil and human rights that took generations to put in place. With a prestidigital sleight of hand, the Brexiteers used disingenuous assurances of a return to Britain’s imperial past to gloss over the potential economic catastrophe should the UK crash out of the single market and customs union with the rest of Europe. As the mess that is Brexit unfolds and increasingly people realise that they’ve been had—among them those who hadn’t bothered to vote—the anger is spreading.

That same angry disaffection was felt across Europe. In the Netherlands, support for Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) surged on the back of his response to the European migrant crisis. The PVV topped the polls from September 2015 through to late February 2017 but, in the actual campaign, Wilders’ showed a disinclination to engage in debates or to campaign at all; his lackluster performance was blamed for the collapse of support for the PVV, and certainly contributed to it.

In 2017, Mairin Le Pen was only the second candidate from the Front National (FN), a right-wing, nationalist, economic protectionist, and anti-immigrant party, ever to reach the second round of voting in the French Presidential election; the first was her father in 2002. Jacques Chirac won the presidency with a massive majority against the father, and Emmanuel Macron won decisively against the daughter. But not before scaring a lot of people.

Even scarier was the demonstration of far-right hatred and intolerance in Poland last November 11th, Polish Independence Day. The ‘grotesque procession’ of militant nationalists, white supremacists, and radical Islamophobes ‘mutated into perhaps the ugliest international congregation of the extreme right seen in Europe in recent times’:

The old-school extreme right, unapologetic fascists among them, was on full display, emboldened by the impressive electoral showings of Europe’s national populist parties, most recently in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria. The radicals turned what could have been a civil celebration of Poland’s return to statehood in 1918 into a fierce exhibition of hatred and intolerance. (www.theatlantic.com here)

The common denominator in all that disaffection and free-floating anger is a distrust of and antipathy toward the political establishment: the politicians who preached the neo-liberal mantra that ‘those who get up early in the morning’, to borrow Varadkar’s phrase, will earn a fair share of the country’s wealth. A rising tide lifts all boats, as Reagan said, but the tide that rose with our recovery washed over vast numbers of us.

Does the progressive left have an answer to an extreme right that feeds on anger and yearns for the good old days of the 1930s and ‘40s (Nazis, scapegoats, top-down power structures, strong-man leaders . . .)?

Corbyn’s return to old Labour values is about much more than the internal dynamics of the British left. It is part of what could be a critical event for anti-authoritarian politics more generally. As ‘trickle-down’ is increasingly recognised by ‘the rest of us’ as code for ‘streaming up’ to the benefit of the already rich and powerful, it’s hard to disagree with Corbyn’s view that the neo-liberal economic model, ‘forged by Margaret Thatcher many years ago’ as he said, has not worked and is not working. His position as the anti-Thatcherite, his promise of more state intervention in housing and utilities and increased taxes on big business is winning him support.

Here in Ireland, without a Corbyn or a Sanders to attract a consolidating core support, is it possible to harvest the anger that was manifest in the water protests and redirect it toward a programme of opposition to the currently prevailing ideological worship of ‘the markets’? Can we build a coalition of dissenters, a federation of uppity feckers to challenge the raw anger that fuels the right, or are we going to carry on arguing among ourselves? I can hardly wait to find out.

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Also in this series of articles is “Interesting Times, part 1:The elections that nobody won and everybody lost,   “Interesting Times, part 2: Spinning Factoids”  and “Interesting Times, Part 4: The ground beneath our feet”

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About Dr. Jeannette Boyne

Dr. Jeannette Boyne: former out-of-work actor, former working academic and Mellon Fellow, current contributing editor of leftbucket.com, born in Ballyfermot, raised in Birmingham, educated by Columbia (the university, not the country). The old cliché says that journalism is the first draft of history; as Jeannette sees it, the job of an online journal like leftbucket is to provide its first edit. View all posts by Dr. Jeannette Boyne →