Currently, around 30% of people polled say they can’t be sure who they would vote for at the next election. Some others who declare for one party or another are regarded as ‘soft’ – meaning they cannot be guaranteed and may shift. The point of this blog is to ask just how, after the frightening lurch to right-wing extremism under the Conservatives, such indecision prevails.
The Conservative Party’s gradual drift to the extreme right with all the attendant cruelties and economic crimes seems to have happened under the radar for the electorate. Perhaps the electorate is not entirely to blame. Night after night the broadcast media – from the BBC to Channel Four News to Sky News (less so – far less so – Evan Davies’s PM Programme) – give platforms to suave-speaking extremist Conservative politicians, from George Osborne to Liz Truss, Jacob Rees-Mogg and now to Jeremy Hunt, who oversaw the deliberate decline of the NHS. Andrew Bridgen, an especially zany right-winger, has been a frequent government spokesperson on the supposedly liberal C4 News – without balance from Opposition voices on each and every occasion. But consider, too, Edward Leigh, John Redwood, Steven Baker, Andrea Leadsom, Charles Walker and other familiar TV faces who voted consistently for cutting welfare payments, the bedroom tax, NHS and school privatisation, and mass surveillance; while voting against same-sex marriage, assisted dying, taxes on bankers and the wealthy, smoking bans, climate action and so on. Opposition narratives are rarely given corresponding airtime and long ago the media cravenly submitted to ministerial demands not to be subjected to head-to-head exchanges (I have submitted a number of complaints to C4 News who once responded to me that the ‘real’ opposition to ‘Boris’ Johnson’s government came from the government’s own back-benches – so why bother interviewing Labour, Lib-Dem or Greens – C4’s weakling accession to a one-party State). The extreme right-wing have, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, been given the ‘oxygen of publicity’.
The result, of course, is to massage electorate views to be more and more yielding to false debt narratives, austerity, the re-emergence of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ – and, since there is rarely balance to be found in the broadcast media, the electorate is more and more repulsed by putative Left-wing extremism à la Jeremy Corbyn. (Personally, I searched hard there for an extremist Socialist view and never found a single one – only views destabilising of the status quo – which our pantheon of Conservative mouthpieces do regard as revolutionary!) Meanwhile, polls may show that there is a narrow majority of the electorate critical of shipping refugee families to Rwanda – but how on earth did we ever get to ask the question in the first place?! 15 years ago, a pollster would have been considered a nut-job just for asking. And as for the ‘bedroom tax’ – that insidious sliver of ‘normality’ will be ridiculed as robustly in 50 year’s time as we now ridicule the ‘window tax’. How on earth did we get here?!
As these ever-present Conservative voices have trumpeted their extremism as ‘reasonable’ and ‘the right thing’ they have simultaneously undermined Labour policies. This goes well beyond criticising alternative views to their own and has slithered into the territory of de-legitimising Labour Party policies – seeking to dissuade the electorate from even regarding Labour as a valid voting alternative. This is profoundly anti-democratic, and seeks to extend the trope of the Tories as the ‘natural party of government’ into a virtual one-party State. If you want to read a somewhat radical Labour Party manifesto go back to 1945 and 1964 – both enormously successful Labour administrations who dragged the country, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the modern age. Modern Labour manifestos, including Corbyn’s, scream ‘reasonableness’ rather than ‘revolution’, and are a disappointment to socialists desperate for substantial wealth distribution.
More worryingly than all of this, as we have all shuffled to the Right, we have been persuaded that argument, itself, is corrosive. For too long we have lived under the grim shadow of the broadcast media’s lament of a ‘divided country’. BBC, C4 and Sky journalists are sufficiently unschooled in political history and theory (and journalism?) to fear a ‘society divided’, and this is often spoken of as a pathology. But in politics and ethics, division and argument are symptoms of a robust democracy – the more, the healthier. Conservatives are the party of the ‘bedroom tax’ and cuts to child benefit. Labour is the party that lifted 500,000 children out of poverty. Since WW2 the Conservatives have never left government without significant debt; the only period of budget surplus was under Labour and Brown’s Chancellorship (Brown eliminated the deficit in 2000/1). We need division to highlight the stark choices on offer. Chantal Mouffe, leading political theorist of the Left, reminds us of the distinction between antagonism (outright rejection of difference and assertion of ‘the right way’) and agonism (respect for difference and a reliance on persuasion). We are not at all ‘in this together’. What is corrosive of democracy is the voter who complains, ‘I’m really not sure who to vote for’. Here lies the true modern pathology of politics, the miseducation of the voting citizenry. The choices are far, far starker and easier than that.