Having been wrong about the Brexit vote, and then wrong about Trump, I went into last week’s election with a sense of optimism that I knew full well verged on the perverse. I’m now trying to sort out what I based that optimism on, so here are some disjointed thoughts.
* Despite the repeated failure of Wilders, Le Pen, and Paul sodding Nuttall to do as well as we were breathlessly assured they’d do this year, the media maintained its jeremiad that we’re all helplessly caught up in a rising tide of neofascism (while continuing to give its representatives more space and airtime than they do for equivalent parties of the left). Right-wing populism’s recent success is explicable – it offers wrong answers to rightly-identified problems of late-stage capitalism – but it’s not an unstoppable collective delusion to which we can respond only by standing by and urging our supposed electoral alternatives to start being a bit more racist too. Anyway, the major European elections this year saw significant growth in support for the left as well as the far-right – whereas Labour’s counterparts in the French and Dutch elections completely collapsed electorally, having settled on a course of offering no substantial alternative to an unpopular status quo. The fact that Labour had broken away from this centrist path made me think we had at least a stab at avoiding the same fate.
* Obviously you can guess how I feel about Brexit. But one effect that Brexit had was showing that the unlikely, or indeed the ludicrous and unthinkable, was possible, and that when an opportunity to wrong-foot those in charge presented itself it could be seized, in however distasteful a fashion and however catastrophic and self-harming its end-result. Brexit also showed an obvious but unacknowledged sense of dissatisfaction-to-desperation among the electorate which, again, could surely be expressed in constructive and progressive as well as destructive ways, once any party deigned to make us a constructive and progressive offer.
* I can only assume that things like Occupy, the student protests of 2010, the spread of left ideas through these processes and then through social media, and the weird and fantastic journey of vulgar marxism into memes, prepared the ground for this result too, particularly in their energising of younger voters. Since the election was called, the level of enthusiasm for Labour (or at least against the Tories) on social media was bizarre and felt encouraging – I mean, say what you want about echo chambers, this one was the size of the Albert Hall.
* Mostly though, I was optimistic having seen the party under Corbyn grow enormously in membership; seeing local parties receive an influx of engaged and enthusiastic new blood; seeing the crossover and coalescing of Labour groups and activists with extraparliamentary campaigns against austerity; and having heard my family and friends be enthused by the party often for the first time in thirty years – or in their lives, which in some cases amounted to the same thing. (And so it was bizarre, and often enraging, to hear Corbyn’s support described as entirely made up of deluded posh kids, or 70s throwbacks, when you’d seen the people they were talking about, you knew them, and often you were them. When I tried to argue with Corbyn-sceptic friends that I’d seen Corbyn’s appeal among new or ex-supporters for myself, that there was an expanding constituency out there who were looking for an alternative and who wouldn’t necessarily discount parliamentary socialism as one of them, the dismissal or disbelief of what I was saying left me nonplussed. Faced with such a mismatch of experience, each side seemed to conclude that the other was mistaken, or mad, or out of touch, since clearly if they weren’t, then you were. Oh well.)
* The Tories were shit. To a degree that I still find astonishing. (And Tories, like velociraptors, learn quickly, so I’m not sure we’ll get that lucky next time.)
* It was notable how little expression of mass support for Corbynism was being focused on or even reported by traditional media, even though it was out there on local or independent outlets. Reports that made a point of going Beyond Westminster – seeing, after Brexit, the need to do so at last – tended to concentrate on a fatalistic (and enormously patronising) narrative of ‘left behind’ Labour voters who had no other option but UKIP, with Labour presented as metropolitan and out of touch despite the potential for its left-populist appeal and despite Corbyn drawing ludicrously big crowds across the country. The slow demise of Labour was presented as a self-fulfilling prophecy with any other angle or story being unthinkable, and was difficult to reconcile with a thousand people turning out at short notice in Cardiff or several thousand turning up in Gateshead. On a wider scale, the past few years have seen impressively big anti-austerity, pro-NHS, anti-Trump etc rallies and demos around the country, which formal politics and traditional media barely acknowledged either. This passive fatalism clearly wasn’t necessarily the whole story.
(I don’t think traditional media is suddenly bad at its job, either – more that it’s becoming out of touch almost by default. As it’s become prone to the same crisis of class representation that we see across contemporary politics and culture, so it’s become committed to holding a line that benefits the class it represents. If you can’t – or crucially, if you don’t materially experience the need to – imagine an alternative, you can’t imagine that anyone else genuinely can either. Or if they can, they must be thick, deluded, sinister, ridiculous or all four – certainly a fringe rather than a central political concern. Hopefully this presumption has now gone for a burton along with much else.)
In conclusion: I certainly didn’t expect Labour to win on June 8th, but the predicted scale of Labour defeat just didn’t seem plausible either. Really, the idea that the Tories would take a historic level of seats in Wales? While the reasons for disaffection in Welsh Labour heartlands (and its relation to Brexit) are long-term and manifold – still, if that happened, it would indicate we were living in more hopeless free-fall than even I imagined, and, for all the reasons above and more, that just didn’t feel credible. It’s easy to say this in retrospect, but this really did feel less like a state of denial on my part than miscalculation, calculated catastrophising or triumphalist hubris on the part of our opponents.
Experience suggested that hope was possible, so I hoped. Fuck knows where we go from here, but it’s something to hang on to.