Electoral pie charts and left recomposition

In the days since the EU election results were announced, there have emerged three distinct groups in the British left’s efforts to make sense of the dramatic rightward shift that we have witnessed.

First is the group – probably the majority – which denounces the ‘idiots’ and ‘racists’ who chose to vote UKIP. Struggling to come to terms with these ‘irrational bigots’, they claim “UKIP duped them into voting for them!” and “this is what happens when good people don’t vote!” They propose a classic liberal line: play the game fair, and justice will prevail. Their moralising is admirable, but their understanding of the problem falls woefully short of the mark.

The second group includes those who point out that UKIP, although receiving the largest number of seats, still only represent about 10% of the voting-age population. “It’s not that bad,” they aver, “we’re not all racists!” These outbursts of reassuring tones is indicative not of a political discourse of hope but of an effort to reassure themselves that the majority remain firmly on ‘our side’. Like the first group, they play by the rules of the game: if the non-voting majority were to vote, they would have political perspectives that could be shoe-horned into one of the options on the ballot box, and they would probably be liberal or left. If only.

Third are the anti-voters. They point to the same pie-chart, heavily laden with a large, non-voting majority and declare the moral high ground for refusing to participate in the alienated, undemocratic process of representation, rotten to the core with political spin, media lies and an uneducated, malleable electorate. “Who cares?” they chide, echoing the one-liner of Oscar Wilde, “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal!” Sitting smugly at a distance, they survey the wreckage of the electoral system, having extricated themselves from its muddy ‘business as usual’.

All three perspectives are decidedly lacking. In each case, they fall foul of the same old routine, with the same old relationships to the same old institutions. The ongoing woes of the left will not disappear, and the far-right will not slow its growing influence, if any of these perspectives takes hold. This is because they are fundamentally rooted in the same logic – the logic of (electoral) representation. This is the notion that elected leaders accurately reflect political preferences and opinions. Even the anti-voting group – characterised usually by the anarchists and extra-parliamentary left – links itself to the notion that representative politics is a reflection of reality by aligning itself as an alternative preference – a kind of anonymous, unofficial party. They make an electoral decision not to vote; to be represented not by a person or party but by a void. Yet they are represented nonetheless.

Representation is essentially an abstraction from everyday experience to a set of (vague, unspoken, or even clearly-defined) demands or policies. As such, we are always representing – ourselves, our peers, our class, our national culture and so on. While electoral democracy exists, we can’t escape political representation’s stark and depoliticising boundaries, but what we can do is find other ways of articulating collective interests that don’t adhere so strictly to the ballot box. This means that we need to look at the way political subjectivity (our sense of who we are, as people with political power or identity) is formed.

While I don’t want to go deep into this heavy, philosophical question, it is worth making a few observations in the aftermath of the EU elections specifically. First, UKIP did not ‘win’ anything as such, but they represent another stage in the underlying emotional and discursive ‘structures’ of British (and, to some level, European) politics. What I mean by that is the fact that UKIP are one outcome of the way we (the diverse collectivity of voting-age people in the UK) think, relate, and act.

We make sense of the world by constructing an image of what the world looks like, and making our opinions and analysis in relation to that structure. This structure is conditioned by a vast range of things, including, but not limited to: our upbringing, working arrangements, experiences of trauma, domestic situation, family and friend relationships, as well as the ‘usual suspects’ of the media, politicians, trade unions, political parties, NGOs and other institutional actors. We are not robots, however, and we do have an influence over how this structure looks to us – hence political difference – but the huge range of external factors mean that our influence is generally quite limited. So UKIP is an outcome, or an effect, of much bigger forces.

There is a somewhat lacking but standard-issue story that covers these forces, their origins and outcomes. It goes something like this. Probably the most obvious forces of change in recent years are located among the cumulative negative economic and cultural impacts of capitalist globalisation (from which, incidentally, Farage and many of his henchmen made their millions). While the left was (on one level, correctly) campaigning against the global inequalities and exploitation that corporate globalisation created through the late 1990s and early-to-mid noughties, we forgot what was happening on our front doorstep. We were so preoccupied by the need to confront the IMF, G8 and World Bank over their structural adjustment policies that brought poverty and misery to literally billions of people in the Global South, that we did not engage enough with our own communities, homes and workplaces – themselves heaving under the pressure of neoliberalisation. Housing bubbles, wage deflation, outsourcing, subcontracting, debt – all of these things created an image of prosperity and ‘growth’ but it was built on sand.

The 2008 financial crisis should have been the rallying call for the radical left to regroup and focus, but by then we had become so distanced from our communities, so specialised and professionalised in our working lives (for unions, charities, universities etc) that we had all but lost touch. It’s not that the techniques that we had developed to shut down summits and build websites were of no use, or interest, to fighting and surviving in post-crisis times, but that we had lost many of the common bonds that upheld trust and solidarity within place-based communities and workplaces.

Moreover, economic change had led generally to a much more mobile, fragmented and specialised existence… for some. Those left behind by these macroeconomic shifts towards brain work (intellectual, cultural and service economies), short-term employment, and mobility, were those on the front line of neoliberalisation. On the one hand, neither they nor their children were equipped to thrive in this Brave New World, and on the other hand, the left were no longer equipped to forge solidarities with them. The political vacuum that the left had deserted was then available for appropriation by the right. First the BNP, then they imploded through internal splits, then UKIP mopped up the rest, and a sizeable chunk of the right wing of the Tories and Labour. Easy peasy.

BUT – wait. This story makes some problematic assumptions: first, it assumes that the left is exclusively resident in the mobile, cosmopolitan world of neoliberalism; second, that those outside of this milieu are passive and uncritical recipients of political propaganda; third, that the left as it currently stands is the ‘saviour’ of these allegedly helpless, shallow, racist-fodder communities; and fourth, that all UKIP voters and activists are the put-upon working class left behind by neoliberal ‘progress’. There is some element of validity in the story, but the assumptions on which it is based are both elitist and classist, and we can’t fall into the missionary paternalism of ‘helping the uneducated and brutish poor to see the error of their ways’.

But on the whole, economic change, increased mobility, and a recent history of poor strategy on the left, have indeed affected our ability to make impacts among groups most negatively affected by capitalism and the state. Just look at the August 2011 riots and the left’s absolute failure to make any useful interventions among a huge mass of raw, visceral discontent. The underlying structures that shape political debate and subjectivities – i.e. people’s understandings of how the world works and how it should work – are not so clear-cut as the boxes on a ballot sheet, and the latter – although a very rough guide to the general mood – happily serves to mask the complexity of political subjectivity.

So what can we, the radical left, do? In lieu of a more detailed discussion of strategies, here are a few thoughts:

Listen (selectively). The grievances of those who are likely to have voted UKIP now, and the BNP before, are real, material, and they come from experience. There will always be hardened, ‘professional’ racists who require physical and ideological confrontation, as well as a number of ruling and upper class types who deserve similarly swift treatment, but the majority are not these people, and their votes and opinions are partly a reflection of our inability/refusal to take them seriously.

Confront the ideology of the liberal mainstream. They are already on the back foot, and a shift in discourse and terms of debate is doable, as the far-right have shown.

Meet people and participate in community life. This is not just going to picket lines with other lefties to support other lefties, but also participating in local events, activities, campaigns and so on over a long period of time. There is no substitute for long-term, real-life encounter.

Build solidarities. This is the one thing we’re (supposed to be) good at. Getting someone to join a union is one thing, but real solidarity at work and in the community is another, and is often linked to the point above.

Debate positively. The caricature of ‘whining lefties’ has, sadly, a strong element of truth in it. We spend our lives critiquing and complaining and demanding but rarely actually building, suggesting, inspiring. What do we want to do? How could we do it together? The right has a vision that is clear and simple: 1) restore law and order, 2) close the borders, 3) support businesses. A positive and clear message from the left – especially the extra-parliamentary or revolutionary left – may be more tricky, but needs addressing. (A very rough first stab: 1) build grassroots self-management, 2) fight for equality and real democracy, 3) dismantle structures of authority and coercion)

Judge less. ‘Calling out culture’ has become a mainstay among some left circles. We adhere to such high standards in our speech, our theoretical understanding, and our physical actions that we are prone to burning out and giving up. But with those beyond these circles, the stakes are much higher. The vast majority of people (including lefties) sometimes use non-PC, racist or sexist language from time to time, usually without any bad intentions. If the left is going to get anywhere, there is no way we can hold up unsustainable and unrealistic standards, and we have to engage with people on level terms. Listening, real active listening, (see above) requires that we go beyond our comfort zone and try to see situations from outside our ‘right-on’ elite discourse of the left-wing intelligentsia.

Be confident and remember what’s at stake. It’s literally the future of the world – let’s not mess it up because of petty squabbles, cutting corners or going for glory. but we can do it. We might not have all the right answers right now but, as Durruti poetically put it, “we have a new world in our hearts. That world is growing this minute”.

That’s enough for now. This has been very hastily written – a ‘brain vomit’ moment after listening to the buzz and the clatter of the left implosion of the last few days. Don’t read it as a manifesto but as some offerings and reflections on the current state of the left in Britain today. It’s welcome to hear about the emergence of the likes of Plan C and LCI who are trying to grapple with these kinds of questions, but there’s still a lot to do…

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