We live in a vastly unequal society. The utopian vision of the classless society has been mugged by the lived reality of the yawning chasm between the rich and the rest, not just in wealth, but in every area of life. The dreams our children can dream are dependent not on their talents and abilities, but on their socioeconomic status.
This suits the right wing. Their belief that this is the natural order, which must be conserved is the basis of their politics. These days, they are cuter about saying so. They festoon their language with that of freedom, entrepreneurial spirit and competition, but their policies always mean freedom for those who already have to take more, entrepreneurialism and competition always translate into a weakening of the rights of workers, a worsening of their conditions, a coarsening of their lives.
Apathy is the right wing’s greatest triumph. As fewer and fewer vote, the correlation between those who do and those who have most becomes starker. Those whose lives have been made harder and harder as a result of political choices have also become convinced that there is nothing they can do about it. Politics is an unattractive offer to those whose lives are hard enough already. What little free time they have left is unlikely to be dedicated to delivering leaflets or discussing abstract concepts in drafty church halls.
The response of the left to this apathy has been to simply adjust their structures. A ‘Field of Dreams’ approach to left wing politics has been all pervasive. Let’s set up another party, another pressure group, another movement. But comrades, you’ve built it, and they didn’t come.
Another network for those who are already politicised and angry will be fun for those involved but will do nothing to mobilise the vast swathes of people who don’t get involved. It won’t politicise the apathetic or expand the body politic. It will be another place for the same people to talk to each other about the anger they feel at the coalition. It will be another set of badges and T shirts – nothing more.
Those who are angry – like me – feel that their anger should be shared by the majority of the population. But it isn’t. And while it isn’t, it is off-putting and frightening. It makes politics a less attractive proposition than ever for those whose free time is an extremely precious resource.
So is the answer the Labour Party and the Labour Party alone? Well yes and no. The Labour Party must be the electoral vehicle, and the movement to make Labour more than that – to make it a hub of community organising up and down the country – is as necessary as it is admirable. But the Labour Party alone cannot defeat the apathy that is felt and cannot alone be the vehicle of people’s anger at the coalition.
The Labour Party’s job is to balance the needs of opposing the coalition with building a coherent, alternative that is electable in 2015. Huge changes are needed to the structure of our economy and our country to make it a more equal and better functioning system. If we become just a vehicle for opposing the coalition we will have failed – however representative of the anger of the minority we are. If we become simple custodians of the current, creaking outdated and outmoded system – promising only to manage it better than the Tories and only to mitigate its effects more justly, we will have failed – however cheered on by the pragmatist centre-right.
Huge societal changes are needed to defeat apathy and these need to be implemented at every level of society. We need vastly better political education that relates the macro world of politics to the reality of people’s daily struggles. We need vastly improved workplace democracies that are felt and understood at every level of every workplace and make a real impact on the lives of every worker and at every level. We need communities that feel invested in each others lives.
Instead of focusing on how to better represent the anger of the minority, the left needs to be asking itself difficult questions about why they have continually failed to turn that passion into a populist movement. We should make no bones about the fact that this is our failing. It is our greatest weakness and the biggest threat to progress. Unless we stop focusing on structures and start focusing on people – all the people; unless we stop competing over the best representation of the few while disregarding the many; unless we focus our energies positively outwards and talk to real people, living their real lives and find out how we can help, we will continue to fail.
The worst part is, that if we don’t seek urgently and realistically to address that apathy, those we seek to represent will barely notice how badly we have failed them.