Stephen Naulls discusses how the Left should seek to challenge opposition to vaccination.
In November 2020, when Nigel Farage resurfaced as an anti-lockdown proponent, most people mocked and dismissed him. But I was nervous. I knew he had the potential to whip up a significant movement that could endanger public health. Like him or definitely loathe him, Farage knows how to tap into the frustrations of ordinary people and encourage them to coalesce around a single issue – often, with destructive consequences.
Indeed, as December ticks on and 2020 draws to a close, the issue of Brexit, previously brushed under the carpet by the devastating effects of coronavirus, has resurfaced into public consciousness.
Autonomy played a role in driving the Brexit decision. Disenfranchisement with the political system driven by decades of poor investment and deindustrialisation helped push support for the leave campaign in working-class northern areas like my hometown, where the left was painted as out-of-touch metropolitan snobs. We were criticised not just for our policies and our support of the EU, but for the way in which we conducted our politics. We were viewed as paternalistic and patronising – incapable of understanding the concerns of the ordinary person and instead assuming we knew what was best. It is this feeling of abandonment - a collective divorce from the sense that the Labour Party is the natural home of the working-class- that went on to, in part, help secure a Tory majority with the collapse of the ‘Red Wall’ in 2019.
The Left of the 2020s knows it must concern itself with winning back voters in these areas. And the desire to do so could not be more pressing – the coronavirus crisis has entrenched inequality, exacerbating the divide between the richest and poorest areas of our nation – not just through disproportionate mortality rates, but by the socially segregating effects of the tier system, and the economic starvation brought about by successive lockdowns and job losses. The need for a progressive government focussed on social justice could not be more apparent.
The initiation of a vaccination programme should be heralded as a lifeline for the most deprived areas of the country. Despite this, there is mounting opposition to the roll out of a vaccine across the UK, with individuals concerned that safety limits or standards have been eroded in favour of speed. This could not be further from the truth. But those of us working in medicine know that those seeking to undermine the benefits of vaccination have rarely had a tendency to play by the rules – starting with Wakefield and the MMR vaccine in the late 1990s.
In challenging opposition to vaccination, the Left faces arguably a bigger challenge than even that posed by Brexit. Whereas the lies on the side of buses were manufactured artificially by Cummings behind closed doors, an anti-vaccination movement has been growing organically in western society for some years now. It is often a poisonous debate to step into, soured by a sense of vitriol that will undoubtedly be magnified by calls for mandatory vaccination, or restrictions placed upon those who refuse it. But in my experience working as a doctor, I have only ever had a positive debate about vaccination when both sides have engaged respectfully, and with a genuine desire to learn.
Contrast this with the approach being taken by many on the Left now in the dialogue surrounding a coronavirus vaccine and I fear we have not learned from our mistakes. Those reluctant to accept a vaccine are branded as stupid or irresponsible; pushed away from the debate, rather than ushered in for a conversation. It is this divisive approach – either you are with us, the righteous and enlightened, or against us, that evokes the paternalism that pushed voters away from us previously, helped drive support for Leave, and risks alienating members of communities most in need of the benefits of this vaccine. Censoring anti-vaccination posts in the spirit of public health is sensible, but does nothing to derail anger about restriction on freedoms fuelled by lockdown and the tier system.
If the Left is to support mandatory vaccination, or restrictions on movement for those who refuse it, we need to reach out into communities and do the work to bring people on board now. If we fail, a vacuum of influence will persist, waiting to be taken up yet again by people with an altogether more sinister motivation. If the Left thought the tactics employed in the EU referendum were dirty, a brief foray into the vast expanse of anti-vaccine material out there would prove shocking – just as outrageous in its dishonesty, but presented in a pseudo-scientifically literate way, and often by slick communicators.
Put simply, anybody who thinks contending with the anti-vax movement to ensure mass immunisation is going to be simple risks naivety. Meanwhile, many will attempt to portray mandatory vaccination or censorship as an affront to individual liberty – and the Left has displayed a collective struggle to confront these arguments adequately in recent years.
Our instinct to mock and dismiss these people ultimately risks alienating people and driving them away from our cause. The stakes are too high for us to get it wrong again.
Stephen Naulls is a junior doctor, born and raised in Grimsby, now working in London. He tweets from @StephenNaulls.