Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
During the run-up to the 2010 election, Michael Portillo claimed that whilst Conservatives think that Labour voters are misguided, Labour voters think that Conservatives are evil. I often think about this. Of course, it’s a highly-stylised generalisation, but, for me – having grown up on the centre-right in the North East – it’s always resonated.
Now, amidst the fallout of the general election, I find myself wanting to apply Portillo’s “thinking the other side is evil” claim the other way round. Throughout May and June, we were offered – as with Remain versus Leave – a Conservative resistance to the popular energy of Corbyn-power that was, at best, resoundingly dismissive. Vote Labour, and you’re a fool. Vote Labour, and you’re an idiot. Vote Labour, and yes, you’re evil. Is it sensible to denounce your potential electors like that? Is it right? How did we lose the ability to argue properly against the left?
When strong words are backed up by little but fear and loathing, it’s unsurprising if they backfire. The standard arguments we once assumed to be widespread have clearly been forgotten – or were never known by some. How many people remain aware of the historical inefficiencies of nationalised utilities? And how the very aim – and success – of nuclear deterrence is the prevention of suffering? And why people living under hard-left regimes might be unhappy? And what happened during the Troubles?
Those of us who don’t see ourselves as “on the left” – whatever we might generally take that to mean; this is not a piece about Jeremy Corbyn’s positioning – need to remake those arguments. We have to be able to explain, simply and clearly, why it’s possible for someone to vote for something aside from soft-core socialism and still – or, in part, therefore – be a good person.
If we don’t make that case positively, and criticise our opposition justifiably, then we become unable to differentiate – as Portillo implied – between “misguided” and “evil”. Is it necessary to point out here that, in a moral sense, most of the Left’s ideas are not inherently bad? And that making exaggerated claims along those lines dilutes our ability to warn people about the ideas that truly are?
Part of our problem lies in the gulf between extremes. Many see the recent election result as a return to binary pendulum politics; certainly, the Conservatives and Labour now share a bigger portion of the vote than they have for decades. For some, the preceding era was defined by its plurality: a time in which the number of political contenders ballooned. For others, it was an era of stricture: a time in which the mainstream bunched over a particular agenda.
Yet – regardless of which party they opt for – people on the Left are not all the same; neither are those on the opposing side. Often, the disagreements between those two old camps are less substantial than the disagreements erupting within each camp’s own tents. Brexit shows this better than most. As does the Conservative pledge to raise the means-tested floor for social-care payments; and Labour’s enduring support for the middle class in the fight against tuition fees. “Left” and “Right” remain, as ever, signifiers of sometime relevance.
In a modern, developed nation like Britain, there are many important things on which almost all of us agree. A failure to recognise and celebrate that does not help us. That well-intentioned people can, for instance, be persuaded that only the left cares about the poor means the responsible right is doing something seriously wrong – not necessarily in its priorities or approach, but certainly in how it communicates those.
Whatever Brexit may have taught us about division, it remains a hidden truth that we concur on the most basic social fundamentals; we need to emphasise, for instance, that the general desire to control immigration hinges on sovereignty, rather than prejudice. But, most crucial, perhaps, is to accept that most of us are in favour of capitalism. This hardly seems a controversial claim – at least in the sense of believing that we should be allowed to own and manage our own things. If it really came down to it, wouldn’t most of Labour’s supporters baulk at setting a precedent for the non-wartime requisitioning of private property?
But until both sides accept that it’s grand hyperbole to think that anyone except hardcore theoreticians might crave completely “untrammelled free markets” – not least because it’s impossible to see how these could be applied outside of a Nozickian thought experiment — it will remain difficult for us to work together in addressing the genuine exploitations of big business. Free-marketeers need to step up on this.
Similarly, most of us agree that the state should play some kind of role in the country’s key sectors – even if just in terms of providing regulation. Small-statists need to point out that they are, by definition, not anarchists; the Left needs to stop peddling the idea that private providers playing a role within such sectors is the sensationalised ‘privatisation’ they have led people to fear. Part of the reason it’s hard to argue with our opponents is that – rhetoric aside – we actually often agree. In many ways, this country works well; in some, it clearly doesn’t. Appreciating the good, and addressing the bad is essential for progress.
How to address the bad – rather than the fact that we should – is where the real disagreements creep in. And a vital part of criticising the left is making a positive case for alternative positions. For a start, we should remind people of the good that those alternatives have brought – from Disraeli’s social reforms, to the boom in living standards that market approaches have driven, across the world, over the past half century. Someone recently told me that only the Left has heroes, and I know what he means: the other side needs to point up the people and ideas they find worth celebrating, too.
That return us to differentiation. The rehabilitation of the non-Left must be led, or at least be supported, by a coalition. Politicians in the centre; those on the centre-right; the non-leftist liberals; the conservatives; the Brexiters, releavers, and those yet to be convinced of Britain’s future outside the EU; the small-statists and the paternalists – all have a duty to press for and provide proper representation for those voters who feel drawn to non-leftist politics: to help them make a positive choice.
Those of us defining ourselves as something aside from “on the left” are not all the same, but we do face the same challenge. In a week in which YouGov tells us that 43 per cent of Britons think our country would be a “better place to live” if it were run by a “genuinely socialist government”, there’s clearly work to be done.