Hard Labour

This could be not only Labour’s last chance but, if the party doesn’t recover some courage, British democracy’s.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th February 2024

It’s as if Keir Starmer is seeking out all the positive reasons to vote Labour at the next election and deleting them. The national care service, abolishing the House of Lords, a wealth tax: one by one, the Labour party has identified its best proposals and destroyed them. The green prosperity plan, arguably its centrepiece policy, has been gutted. There’s a powerful negative reason to vote for Labour: evicting the Conservatives. But then what?

If Keir Starmer delivers frustration and disillusionment, the system we call democracy will yet again break its promise. I suspect this might be Labour’s last chance: if it cannot significantly change our lives for the better, in subsequent elections it will shrivel to a dot, as centre-left parties have done elsewhere in Europe. But I also fear this could, for a long time at least, be Britishdemocracy’s last chance. If our hopes are dashed yet again, anti-democratic forces will enter the vacuum.

You can see how it begins. While the organised far right remains small in this country, social trends are ripe for exploitation. Listen, and you will hear the great shuffling sound of people edging away from reality and towards a set of powerful conspiracy fictions. They tend to be tacked together from the same few words: WEF, Bill Gates, immigrants, globalists, George Soros, elitists, Zionists, Muslims, deep state, fighting-age men, Covid hoax, climate scam. It doesn’t seem to matter which order you arrange them in. There’s no originality, no insight behind these stories; just endless repetition. Eventually, they stick.

All such conspiracy fictions have the same effect: denying deep and complex problems while transferring blame for the crises they cause to a handful of anointed demons. In my experience, people who promote these fictions are completely uninterested in real, documented conspiracies, such as the Post Office’s treatment of its operators and subsequent cover-ups; the government’s VIP lane for procuring PPE during the pandemic; or the drafting of oppressive legislation by corporate lobbyists masquerading as thinktanks. It’s safer to blame immigrants or Muslims or Jews or women or trans people or two billionaires for the crises we face than to confront plutocratic power as a whole.

Academic research shows that people are drawn to conspiracy fictions when they feel excluded, neglected and powerless. A belief in phantom rulers is associated with a loss of trust in representative democracy and political cynicism. If you perceive that the system can’t or won’t deliver the change you seek, you are more likely to accept fictitious explanations.

Paradoxically, these fictions favour the politicians who exacerbate neglect, exclusion and powerlessness. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s demonisation of Soros and channelling of the “great replacement theory” (the fable that white, Christian populations are being deliberately replaced by immigrants) have proved highly effective at distracting voters from from financial scandals and his political failures. When Donald Trump was in office, he blamed the “deep state” – a shadowy elite – for his inability to govern. Now he justifies the dictatorial powers he intends to seize with the need to “destroy the deep state”. Demagogues use fairytales to create a sense of crisis, which only they, brutally wielding their righteous cudgels, can resolve.

Conspiracy fictions push societies towards extreme and self-destructive decisions. For instance, an academic study shows that conspiracy beliefs about the EU referendum strongly predicted whether people would vote for Brexit. We know, thanks to Carole Cadwalladr’s investigations, how these fictions were weaponised to deliver the vote. The vote, in turn, created an opening for Boris Johnson, the most demagogic prime minister we have yet suffered.

Now, I believe, we could face something even worse. Conspiracy fictions, scapegoating, the replacement of arguments with slogans and facts with wishful thinking, are not sufficient conditions for a shift to far-right politics, but they are necessary ones. If politics repeatedly fails to deliver, the shuffle could become a march; the march could become a goose step.

Starmer’s purge is billed as the erasure of “radical” policies. But there is nothing radical about a wealth tax, a national care service or an ambitious insulation programme: this is mainstream social democracy. By deleting these policies, he is not bowing to “centrism”, but to an extreme agenda of austerity, privatisation, poverty and environmental destruction. Agreeing that Israel has the right to cut off water and power from Palestinians is not centrist, but extremist.

In these ways, though it might appease the billionaire media, Labour destroys hope, trust and a sense that politics is responsive to our needs. It opens the door for conspiracy fictions and the demagoguery they favour. Starmer’s dwindling band of loyalists assures me that once Labour is in office, it will recover its courage. But if the party introduces major policies that weren’t in the manifesto, it will be relentlessly attacked – and with some justice – for lacking a public mandate.

I know Labour is trying to create as much distance as possible from the disaster of 2019. But Jeremy Corbyn’s policies were not the problem. They were highly popular, far more so than Corbyn himself. Labour was brought down by a lethal combination of the media’s ferocious assaults; sabotage by its own right wing; the party’s failure to deal quickly and efficiently with its antisemitism crisis; incoherence over Brexit; and conflicts and dysfunction within Corbyn’s own team. I saw something of the first and the last factors while working with his frontbenchers on the Land for the Many report. Shadow ministers pulled in opposite directions. When the report was published, the rightwing press published outright falsehoods about it. It is entirely possible for Labour to propose the policies that so many would like to see, without the attendant chaos.

Starmer should be just as afraid of what happened in 2015, when Ed Miliband’s Labour party seemed destined to beat a highly unpopular Tory-led coalition. But, while the country craved vision and optimism, Miliband produced instead the longest till receipt in history – a list of numbers designed to prove that the party was fiscally competent – while minimising the difference between Labour and the Conservatives. Why? Because, like Starmer, he wanted to offer the media and the Tories as small a target as possible. Result: defeat.

Starmer carries two massive responsibilities. The first is to win the election. The second is to make that victory meaningful by mending this country and restoring our faith in politics. If he fails to rise to the second challenge, I fear that an optimistic, democratic politics might never in our lifetimes rise again.