The categories 'left' and 'right' are no longer fit for purpose
People on both the left and the right like to put others into safe little boxes — Tory, Corbynite, Leaver, Remainer, racist, elite — that reaffirm their own beliefs about people they don’t understand. But the labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are becoming ever more blurred in society, and their utility as labels is declining.
It seems obvious now, for instance, that the Brexit vote wasn’t about left-right divides; of course, it was partly about shoving a couple of fingers up to the establishment, but Leave also won because of genuine working-class concerns regarding livelihoods and immigration. No more so is this evidenced than by considering the way Wales voted in both the election and the referendum.
Last June, Wales voted to Leave the European Union by a margin of 2.5 per cent. Last Thursday, they voted decisively Labour, with Corbyn winning 28 constituencies (+3) and the Conservatives winning eight (-3). UKIP won none at all, and their vote share dropped 10.8% across the UK.
Most importantly, looking at the map of the general election compared to the map of the EU referendum, these votes occurred in similar places (though interestingly, the Vale of Glamorgan was both Conservative and Remain). For all the talk of Corbyn being a secret Leaver, he campaigned to stay in the EU, and has consistently argued for the need for a good deal. Theresa May’s Hard Brexit stands at odds with this.
These numbers are indicative of a current widespread trend of people voting with their middle finger. Coupled with this, any perceived divide between the out-of-touch liberal elite (read: Remain voter) and the poor, helpless racist (read: Leave voter) has become void. Rather, this election, and the EU referendum that came before it, and the vote for Donald Trump in the US, has more to do with class and nationalism; less to do with left and right, and more to do with, as Tony Blair said in 2006, ‘open vs closed’.
Jeremy Corbyn has managed, in some ways, to bridge this new divide and do away with the old one. His whipping of his MPs to vote in favour of Article 50 was a way of appealing to voters who wanted to leave the EU; his manifesto, too, appeals to both the members of the white working-class who voted Leave and the young, liberal lefties who believe him when he says he will make society fairer and more equitable.
Corbyn’s unpolished, ‘real’ persona appeals to both: those totally disillusioned with the establishment and the raw deal they’ve been given due to globalisation and cheap immigrant labour, and those disillusioned with middle-of-the-road, soundbite politicians (though Corbyn demonstrated that he could sound like one of them during his banal interview with Jeremy Paxman).
It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook, with their mechanism to block anyone who dissents from one’s opinion at the click of a button, turn into echo chambers. Our debates turn into debates with ourselves in which we inevitably win because the people on these platforms (unless we make a concerted effort to follow those whose views we disagree with, and I would bet most don’t) broadly agree with everything we say.
Both the left and the right turn into awful caricatures of themselves: the former, high-and-mighty and self-righteous, denouncing anyone who has any qualms with immigration or votes UKIP as a racist; the latter suggesting that those who have benefited from globalisation and immigration are out-of-touch, elitist, and just don’t care.
These divides have been partially remedied by Corbyn’s semi-success in the election, but we’re a long way from any kind of resolution. The old left-right divides have become inoperative. A new language, and a new way of thinking about those lifestyles we don’t understand at all, is needed, if we are to bridge the lengthy chasms between us.
Real debate is needed, rather than meaningless insults being hurled from both sides. If we are to make progress, we on the ‘open’ side must understand that being working-class and voting against immigration doesn’t make a racist (indeed, high immigration may drive down wages for British workers).
Meanwhile, those on the ‘closed’ side of the spectrum must work hard to make sure their nationalism doesn’t descend into the hate-filled rhetoric of parties like UKIP or worse. Nationalism can work — just look at the SNP (though their track record in actually governing is sketchy at best) – but it needs a healthy, progressive outlet.
These two sides can be reconciled, but it will take time. Jeremy Corbyn has started the project and it’s time for the rest of us to get on board.
James Alston is a graduate of Cardiff University and blogs at Read his blog hereSign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.