By Chris Grezo.
In some ways, the Left is a victim of its own success. Thanks to the toil of progressives over the decades and centuries, policies that were once thought of as radical nonsense are now part of the basic consensus across the political spectrum: free education for children, state pensions, universal healthcare, votes for non-land-owners, national insurance, the weekend, social housing, sick pay and so on. The last two centuries of Western history have been marked by victory after victory for progressives.
But of course with each victory won, there is one less battle to be fought, and one less segment of society that needs the Left. A good example of this is the demise of the Liberal Party in the 20th Century. Once the largest party in the UK, it shrank and dwindled to nothing after its main goal of votes for women was achieved. The liberal men and women who had supported the party no longer needed it, as they had attained what they wanted, and the party became irrelevant.
Where once the Left was clearly aligned with the vast majority of the population, it now finds itself more frequently fighting the corner of minorities. When it comes to the simple, tangible issues, the majority have what they want out of politics. You can no longer be fired for having a working class accent, your boss isn’t allowed to pinch your bottom, you won’t starve to death if you lose your job, you don’t have to doff your cap to aristocrats, there’s a legal minimum wage, and so on.
Many of the battles that progressives have left are more nuanced than in the past, or affect less people. Take the need for better regulation of the financial sector. This is not a clear, simple issue like universal healthcare. Almost no one really knows what is meant by “better regulation”, and it’s not a very tangible issue, despite its importance. It’s very hard for an ordinary person to feel the passion about financial regulation that an ordinary person might have felt about universal healthcare in the 1930s. Or take the poor treatment of disabled people by our current right wing government: the sad fact is most people aren’t affected by this, and it won’t change their voting habits.
The reality is that in 2013, only a third of the population feel strongly about contemporary left-wing issues, about a third feel strongly right wing, and everyone in the middle doesn’t really care. In some ways, this is something the Left should celebrate. The fact that people are so comfortable that they don’t need to think about politics is a sign of how things have changed for the better over the last century. But obviously this isn’t a very satisfying state of affairs for us left-wingers who make up a third of the population. There are important goals yet to be achieved: we need more social workers to stop kids being abused, better educational opportunities for the underprivileged, better treatment of the disabled, a penal system that reforms prisoners, and many other important changes. But with so many people benefiting from previous progressive victories content to slumber in front of their TVs, it’s difficult to rally the crowds or get anyone to listen.
And so left-wingers long for days gone by, when it was the masses against the classes, the people against the elite, everyone pulling as one. This leads to the wishful thinking of the so-called “99%”. Many left-wingers use this rhetoric to try to get everyone on side, to kid themselves that “the people” all want left-wing policies. Difficult debate is avoided: it’s instructive to note the increasing use of the phrase ‘super-rich’ instead of ‘rich’. The phrase is used because arguing for more tax on the super-rich offends almost no one, because the term applies to almost no one. But that’s just a cop out; higher taxes on the 1% are not going to solve all our problems. Left-wing policies require a lot more sacrifice than pressing a magic button labelled tax-the-super-rich.
Even moderate left-wing policies require higher taxes not only on the super-rich, but on the rich, and the upper-middles classes too. If, like me for example, you would like to decrease class sizes in failing inner-city schools to give the kids there a fair chance at life, you are committed to spending a very large amount of money. And that’s just one of a huge range of policies us left-wingers want. Many of these policies require sacrifices on the part of the top half of society to help the bottom half. And that’s why a huge chunk of the population hate these policies: because they don’t want to make that sacrifice. Contemporary left-wing issues are not about surfs who make up 99% of the population battling against the oppression of the Lords in their manors – those days are gone. Contemporary left-wing issues are about the fact that a family earning £100K a year while living in the leafy suburbs don’t want to shorten the length of their skiing holiday to pay for extra teachers at a grubby inner-city school that they’ve never heard of. And it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. We are not the 99%, we are the 30%.
Chris Grezo is a Young Fabians Member.