Harnessing anger: my thoughts on the election

I’d have written this sooner, but instead spent my weekend having fun; witnessing and celebrating the wedding of two friends. It was difficult to avoid talking politics, and although my reading at the ceremony was taken from Les Misérables I was not trying to start a revolution. I’m probably not going to do that here either, but let’s see…

Few people wanted a Tory majority. Lots of people are angry. But having caught my breath after Friday’s blow, I started to see the outcome of the election in a more positive light.

How did we get here?

We only have ourselves to blame. By ‘we’ I mean those of us striving for social justice, and in particular those of us with (at least) a basic understanding of economics.

The Conservatives won because they were able to convince the electorate that the economy is in a mess thanks to a high deficit, that the only remedy is cuts, and that we have the Labour Party to thank for this. It’s a lie. Perhaps Conservatives have convinced themselves that it is true, but it is not. At a stretch, we could claim that Labour should have done more to prepare the country in the run up to the financial crisis, but this is hardly fair. Almost nobody saw it coming and opposition politicians at the time were not making any according demands. The Labour government made a relatively good start at pulling us out of the recession. It was coalition austerity that pulled us back under – until the bubbles almost stopped. We failed to communicate this message.

There is no doubt that the Tories and the press succeeded in making this lie become common knowledge. Certainly, it was mediamacro wot won it. We could be paying the price for the next five years.

So why the optimism?

There were three possible outcomes for this election: a Labour majority, a Tory majority or a progressive coalition of left-leaning parties.

If we had gotten a Labour majority it would be business as usual, politically speaking. It’s what we’ve come to expect – periodic switches between Labour and Tory. There would likely be no reform to our electoral system, which is so badly in need of overhaul.

Had a coalition or otherwise pluralistic government been established, our faulty system would have to some extent seemed justified. After all, the majority would be represented. But this would be a fortunate quirk.

Only a Tory majority, in a country where the majority of voters are probably left-leaning, highlights the ridiculousness of it all. This election has been a shambles, and it will – I am certain – lead to electoral reform. People are angry, and because many of these people support UKIP the media will pay attention. Hateful though the party is, I will happily stand side by side with the ‘kippers to demand a more representative voting system.

What now?

Well, I don’t much care for party politics. I would not lose any sleep over the Labour Party taking a shift to the centre – as they probably will – in trying to be all things to all people. They are fast becoming a lost cause. What we need to do is mobilise on the issues that we care about. We need to communicate effectively why certain changes need to be made. You need to decide what they will be for you. Personally I will be focusing on the following:

  • the need for electoral reform
  • the need for increased public investment
  • the value of immigration

I will not be doing this by trying to convince political parties (except for communication with my own MP), but by trying to steer public opinion. It won’t be easy – unless people switch off their TVs and put down their newspapers – because there is a powerhouse of vested interest pushing in the opposite direction and stoking the politics of fear.

This may reflect my own echo chamber, but I thought the run up to the election saw far more fact checking of politicians’ claims and better communication of evidence from the likes of Full Fact, The Conversation and More Or Less. These efforts are important, but it seems to have made little difference. People don’t vote based on evidence, or even on what is true. Feelings dominate, and the dominant feeling has been fear; of immigrants, of people on benefits, of Labour, of the SNP, of change.

I recently listened to an episode of This American Life. It told the story of success enjoyed by a group of campaigners in California trying to convince people to support gay marriage. Essentially, campaigners visited people who opposed gay marriage and had a conversation in which the opponent would gradually convince themselves that equal marriage is right. A key finding was that the most successful campaigners – by some margin – were those who themselves were gay.

Ukippers! You are best placed to campaign for electoral reform as your votes are the least represented in parliament. There are various ways we can all contribute, starting by signing a petition.

Public sector workers! You are best placed to explain the value that your labour brings to society.

Immigrants! You are best placed to highlight the benefits of free movement of people in Europe and beyond.

The rest of us can call in to question that which is untrue or unworthy, and elevate that which is factual and laudable.

There are of course other issues. On the question of Scottish independence I am nihilistic; the people of Scotland should be able to do whatever they want. Though I expect the Scots will be placated with devo-max. Another issue is the ‘renegotiation’ of our EU membership. Leaving the EU would be foolish. Thankfully most people would probably support EU membership right now.

If anything is able to defeat a politics of fear it is a politics of anger. Our challenge is to steer people’s anger in a pro-social direction; towards the members and mechanisms of government and away from society’s usual scapegoats.

I leave you with this:

Fear of offending has not trumped freedom of speech among today’s young people

A recent article on The Conversation UK got me a bit riled. Here’s the opening gambit:

One of the many debates generated by the recent terrorist attacks in Paris has been centred on the different ways that older and younger generations understand and support the concept of free speech.

In a recent article headlined: “We may be Charlie but our children are not”, Times journalist Alice Thomson observed that the young generation are: “far more racially and culturally sensitive than mine ever was” and while they may “wear the T-shirt in solidarity with the victims”, they recoil from imagery that they instinctively perceive as offensive.

This is particularly the case at universities, where all manner of speech and imagery finds itself banned – sometimes amid a huff of offended protest. This has become more routine now, because causing offence is deemed to be “unsafe”.

And here is my follow-up comment:

This is hogwash.

You make no distinction based on who it is that is being offended. Let’s consider the ’77 punk movement. They were offensive and exercised their right to free speech. But who were they offending? The powerful. The system. The elite. The man. Intolerance itself. White riot indeed!

Now let’s consider the prevailing movements that dominate media headlines in this country nowadays. UKIP. They exercise their right to free speech alright. And they’re offensive. But who is it that they are offending? The powerless. Marginalised and minority groups. Is their right to free speech suppressed? No. The opposite. Their offensive and intolerant ideas reverberate around the media.

This distinction is vital, and anybody who does not recognise it will conclude that political correctness and free speech are incompatible. Such a person would be a fool.

“If you want a tolerant society, went the argument, you have to suppress intolerant ideas”. You state this as if it is self-evidently untrue, but why is it? We *should* be suppressing intolerant ideas for the very fact that they are intolerant and do not contribute to the development of a fair society. We should suppress them by using tolerant ideas and exposing them as foolish. But this can only be achieved if tolerant retaliations are given a large enough audience. If outlets for tolerant ideas are few, then restricting the number of outlets for intolerant ideas seems perfectly reasonable.

The young may be afraid of offending marginalised groups; this is a triumph for the progress of good ideas and should be celebrated. But the young are not afraid to exercise their freedom of speech. It’s just that when they do speak, nobody listens.