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WHY HAS THE LEFT LOST THE PLOT?


We have to amuse ourselves during these troubled times. One of my methods must seem bizarre to all right-thinking people: to pursue some thoughts about politics.


Not politics in the sense of the normal, day-to-day, bang-bang-bang, of political debate as presented by the likes of the BBC’s Today programme. I was going to say, not party politics. But actually I do mean aspects of what we now see as party politics.


These thoughts have been prompted by the reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic. But they are also triggered by what we have seen in the United States – the support that Donald Trump seems to get from white working-class, Hispanic and black voters, to the dismay of the middle-class elites.


I am edging myself towards the point: how the political Left has, in recent years, been deserting its natural constituency – the less well off, the unemployed, the working class.


I see four examples of this. The most immediate is Covid, ever present as it now is in all our minds. But only a year or two ago the examples I had in mind were these - Immigration, Brexit and Climate Change.


Before you throw up your hands in the air at the prospect of reopening these hoary old topics, let me reassure you. I hope to avoid doing that. I want to avoid, so far as possible, expressing any view about the rights and wrongs of any of the issues. I want simply to note how the political divide (each of the issues has been, and still is, hugely divisive) has played out.


Covid


First, Covid. Here we have a common enemy in the shape of a nasty virus. The proverbial visitor from Mars might have assumed that there would have been a united front, driven by the most eminent scientific gurus. But no, we see a deep divide.


The divide is essentially between those who favour the general lockdown and those who don’t. There are respectable arguments on both sides, which I don’t need to explore, except in one respect. A lockdown harms the less well off more than the middle classes. I scarcely need to give examples as we’ve been living with the debates for so long. But to summarise: manual workers (which sounds a rather old-fashioned term, but includes those working in shops, cafes, restaurants and most of those in the travel industry) are much more likely to be thrown out of work than those in white collar and professional jobs, who can work from home; people living in flats and smaller houses suffer more than those in larger houses with gardens; children of poorer families struggle much more to keep up their education than those with more sophisticated laptops and iPads and parents who may be better at filling in for absent teachers. I need hardly go on.


All of which would be put on one side and regarded as part of the price of defeating the enemy, if the lockdown approach was the only solution. But it isn’t. There are various eminent scientists who say it is not. Three such, hailing from Harvard, Stanford and Oxford universities respectively, publicized their views in the so-called Great Barrington Declaration. Their views are supported, perhaps surprisingly, by the World Health Organization.


As indicated already, I don’t want, or need, to go into the rights and wrongs of the various arguments. The experts may be wrong. Experts often are. I only want to look at the political divide.


How do the politicians line up? To my mind surprisingly, the Left is firmly on the side of the lockdowns. One would assume that the Left would at least support scepticism, in the face of a policy that plainly does horrible damage to the lives and prospects of those they should be protecting. The attitude, sadly, goes beyond civilised support for the policies – the scientists behind the Great Barrington Declaration have suffered abuse and vilification. It is politically incorrect to be sceptical. The Labour Party apparently dares not do its job of opposition, except on the detail of the rules – not a difficult task!


So this is my first example. The Left firmly supports policies that hurt the poor more than the rich.


Immigration


My second example is Immigration. The political divide, of course, is between those who want stricter controls on immigration and those who either don’t or aren’t worried.


This divide is even more vicious, in that the arguments easily drift into accusations of racism, making civilized discussion of the issues difficult. This has been so ever since Enoch Powell’s inflammatory speech on the subject in 1968 – the speech we know as the “Rivers of Blood” speech.


Again, I don’t need (mercifully) to go into the pro’s and con’s of immigration. I’m only going to note how the concerns (or lack of them) differ among different classes in the community.


Middle class people tend to be relaxed about immigration. One would like to think that these attitudes are driven (as to a large extent they are) by an admirable concern for the plight of those who suffer deprivations where they come from and who are seeking a better life here. But less altruistic thoughts could intrude. Middle class people are happy to employ Polish builders, Filipino nannies, Spanish au pairs and Portuguese cleaners, possibly at rates of pay kept down by immigration. Working class people can be expected to have a different perspective. They are more likely to feel threatened (rightly, or indeed wrongly) by immigrants taking their jobs. They may also fear the downward pressure on rates of pay – the reverse side of what their employers enjoy.


How does the political divide play out? Again, the Left tends to be hostile to controls and, specifically, hostile to members of the public who display reactions that can be seen as xenophobic. This was famously exemplified by Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” remark.


We see, again, the Left failing to support the working classes and lining up on the side of the middle classes.


Brexit


Brexit is my third example. Again, I’m delighted not to have to revisit the arguments for and against the EU. But the same interesting political divide appears.


The point merges into the issue of immigration. Indeed, many people thought that the Leave victory was powered mainly by the hostility to immigration among the less well off.


Where did the Left stand? Pretty firmly on the side of staying in the EU. This ranged from the Liberal Left, well represented among the middle classes, right through the ranks of the Labour Party, even so as to include a reluctant Jeremy Corbyn, who must have been fearing the wrath of his mentor Tony Benn from the other side of the grave.


It was another example of the Left losing touch with swathes of their natural supporters. It was plainly a factor in causing long-time Labour supporters, who had been brought up to hate the Tories, voting in the last general election for an old-Etonian Tory.


Climate Change


My fourth example is Climate Change. Rather in the same way as with the Covid pandemic, we are faced with a possible threat to life and health, in this case on a massive global scale. There is also much scientific debate about how serious it is and what we should do about it.


The conventional wisdom is clear. The planet is getting warmer; this is caused by human beings causing increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; if we don’t control this, disaster looms, not imminently but in the decades and centuries to come. We must limit the emission of carbon dioxide by reducing our use of fossil fuels. And we must increase our use of renewable energy, such as wind power and solar energy. Interestingly, the conventional wisdom does not favour nuclear energy, even though that doesn’t involve the emission of carbon dioxide.


One of the key aspects of all this that impacts on politics is cost. At present, fossil fuels represent much the cheapest form of energy available. As a result, the Chinese are installing large numbers of coal-fired power stations. If we continue to run down our reliance on fossil fuels, this will put up the price of energy for households in the UK – hitting the poor harder than the rich.


One of the alternative sources of energy is wind power. Nigel Lawson, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher, who founded the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), refers to adopting this alternative as “heavily subsidizing wealthy landlords to have wind farms on their land, so that the poor can be supplied with one of the most expensive forms of energy known to man”.


There is an international aspect, affecting people struggling to survive in the developing world. The World Bank, influenced by environmental political pressures, decided in 2010 not to finance coal-fired power stations. This effectively denied the poor in the developing world access to the cheapest form of energy available to them. In the words of Nigel Lawson, it was “asking them to delay the conquest of malnutrition, to perpetuate the incidence of preventable disease, and to increase the numbers of premature deaths”.


These are known effects of the climate change policies. If the more extreme fears about global warming and climate change are realistic, plainly extreme measures to counteract the impending disasters are sensible. But are they? This is where political debate comes in.


On the science, there are many conflicting views. Not all scientists accept what I have described as the conventional wisdom. The GWPF refers to “the contested science of global warming”. Its Academic Advisory Council includes an array of distinguished scientists who share its open-minded objectives and who do not go along with the conventional wisdom.


There is plainly room for scepticism. What do the politicians say? Again, curiously, those on the Left tend to support the conventional wisdom. Why, at least, don’t they ask the questions?


There must be a point at which the less well off, all those struggling to pay their electricity bills, will want to hear the sceptical view and will wonder how much they are prepared to pay to avoid the long-term risks. So far they will look in vain to the political Left. Curiously, they must look to a former Tory politician.


Why is this happening?


This is the most difficult question. These issues are among the most important political issues we’ve faced in recent years. In all cases, the Left has supported the side of the argument that goes against the wishes or the interests or both of the less well off, even the poor.


On Covid, so far as the Left is concerned, the immediate risks of catching the disease outweigh the risks – sorry, the certainty – of increased unemployment, more deaths from untreated cancers, the destruction of social and cultural life.


On Climate Change, it’s rather the reverse. The long-term, somewhat uncertain, risks of global warming push aside the immediate, known benefits of a warmer climate. (The Green movements, curiously, seem to ignore the immense benefits of the increased levels of carbon dioxide to plant life around the planet.)


Immigration and Brexit? The moral imperatives of generosity to foreigners and good relations with our neighbours outweigh the concerns of social disruption, particularly among the less well off.


Is there a common thread? The only one I have so far described is the ignoring – and often the disparagement – of the views and interests of ordinary people outside the urban elites, particularly the poor. But that doesn’t explain why it happens. There is another way of looking at it that is more generous to those on the Left – and gets us a little closer to an explanation.


In each case, there is an idealistic strain behind the Leftish positions. Good relations with our continental neighbours – who could object? Saving the planet? Something we all support. Making sure that Granny doesn’t die of Covid? Not very easy to object to that.


No, the problems arise when reality starts getting a look in. Are we sure that a lockdown is really the best way of protecting anyone (let alone our grannies), when even the World Health Organization advises against it? Are we sure that wind farms are the answer when we hear about the vast amounts of fossil fuel required to build each turbine – and the number of birds killed by them as they spin around?


I was brought up to think of the Left as being the supporters of the poor and the needy. Plainly that is no longer accurate. The Left/Right division no longer reflects an updated version of the division in the French National Assembly of 1789 that gave us the expressions Left and Right Wing. Then it certainly did mean the division between the rich Aristocrats and the sans-culottes.


Now, it is rather the Idealists versus the Realists. Those on the Left are nowadays the Idealists, battling bravely for their chosen creeds in the face of disagreeable realities. It is one explanation why the young – and particularly students – are, and perhaps should be, on the Left. And why the very same people, when they get confronted by the harsh realities of finding work and supporting a family tend to take what the great Alan Bennett described as “the dreary safari from left to right which generally comes with age”.



30 November 2020

Tony Herbert






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