The Labour Party, sporting their ‘Never Kissed a Tory’ t-shirts and armed with moral certainty, seem convinced that the Conservatives are truly, deeply wicked. That their ambitions are the total dismantling of the welfare state, selling off the NHS and slashing the living standards of half the population. After all, the Conservatives are the party of ruthless tycoons and cruel bigots who would kick your dog if you weren’t looking. Social media shows that many Labour supporters really do believe this sort of nonsense.
All political groupings can drift into fantasy. When people with similar views come together, unwelcome realities can be gently pushed aside by group-think, shared prejudices and wishful thinking. When emotion is added and the group encourages a shared sense of identity, powerful certainties can be created. No party is completely immune, but Labour seems to suffer from this syndrome particularly badly. A strident and dramatic style of politics is now on top.
Standing in a huge crowd in the Glastonbury mud, chanting ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’, gives acolytes a wonderful feeling of belonging and power. Chanting anything is antithetical to thought, which is more or less the point as you become part of something much greater than your mere self. Wrapping yourself in social media and constantly affirming your conformity to the standardised opinions around you brings the same result. Facebook or WhatsApp don’t have buttons to select ‘reasonable doubt’. Who wants to think about difficult questions for themselves when there’s an exciting and morally satisfying party line to follow?
It wasn’t always like this for all of Labour. Whatever you think of its record, it has included many decent people looking for practical solutions to problems. Whether or not they found the right ones is another thing, but they stood up against the wilder ideas and authoritarian forms of socialism coming from their left, and practised politics in the real world. But their more radical comrades always let passion and fantasy intrude with emotive language of class and struggle and their romantic symbols: the banners, anthems and clenched-fist salutes displayed at demonstrations and grand occasions. You could always satisfy your need for colour and drama.
The refusal on the Left to be held down by prosaic reality goes back to the mid-19th century and Marx’s claims to foretell history. He predicted the mass pauperisation of the workers, capitalism’s collapse and the convulsion of the industrialised world by revolutions leading to an inevitable socialist Utopia. However, he turned out to have all the prescience of a dodgy fairground fortune-teller. Capitalism boomed. The material conditions of people’s lives rocketed. Marx was wrong, but too many had no desire to understand this, then or now. If you never forgave capitalism for not imploding or history for not following instructions, you are very welcome in Labour today.
As capitalism thrived, it needed at least some political direction as it manufactured and distributed prosperity. Post-war Conservative governments oversaw cumulative and substantial increases in incomes for ordinary households – something that’s impossible for Corbynistas to acknowledge. Perhaps they can’t make comparisons, being too young to remember the 60s or 70s, or are just reluctant to read detailed accounts with statistics or books on recent history which might spoil the narrative.
The Left has had many other failures with reality. Most today probably have no interest in the old Soviet empire (assuming they are aware of it). But if you go back barely more than a generation and look at how much of the Left completely failed to see the evils of Soviet Communism, you will find another fine example of hope crowding out hard unpleasant facts.
Old Labour produced some resolute Cold War warriors. Clement Attlee and Ernie Bevin showed they perfectly understood Communism by acquiring atomic weapons and helping to found Nato. But fantasy and naivety blinded many others to obvious truths. Most weren’t secret totalitarians; they were foolish rather than evil in believing that Stalin or Brezhnev were no worse than Churchill or Kennedy. Despite considering themselves democratic socialists, they easily managed the difficult trick of ignoring the well-known Soviet record of persecuting and murdering domestic democratic socialists.
Their capacity for delusion didn’t end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their fantasies about the automatic wrongness of Western societies and automatic virtue of their opponents or of anyone claiming underdog status inside the West have taken many forms. The current fantasy is that our society today is broken, that multitudes struggle in severe hardship, while the various institutions and social services that should sustain them have been cut to near-ineffectiveness. It’s a message echoed in the Left-leaning media. The Daily Mirror excelled with a series of stories claiming we had reverted to the world of George Orwell’s classic 1936 essay The Road to Wigan Pier, where the half-starved unemployed were condemned to lives of squalor with no hope of work and only pitiful levels of state support.
Given our finite resources and the size, reach and complexity of the welfare state, there will always be gaps in provision, errors and individual injustices. You can’t abolish suffering. We also have real problems in our economy, not least our housing shortage and wage stagnation. It’s the Opposition’s job to point these out, and justifiable criticism deserves support, but the negative image of Britain we are expected to accept from the Left is unreal.
We have an employment rate most economies would envy. Our spending on health as a proportion of GDP is more or less right on average for the OECD. Statisticians argue over the calculations: some put us below, others above, but the variation is small. Our spending on ‘welfare’ is still massive. Although we are outspent by France and Spain, we beat Australia, Switzerland and Canada, despite those wicked Tories. Again, we are on the OECD average. Whatever Momentum might say, we don’t live in a bleak Dickens novel.
We are all subject to bad ideas, prejudice or sentiment. But those who wrap their identities into their convictions are far less capable of dealing with facts that contradict their opinions. Sensible politics needs to be set apart from passion. Emotion and hyperbole won’t help you establish truth. There are always different perspectives and most political viewpoints can contribute something useful. But we should be confident in standing up to the distortions and exaggerations of the Corbynistas. We have a way of life envied by much of the world. Without ignoring our problems or the difficulties some of our fellow citizens face, we should be proud of that and be proud of our country.