Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The difficulties of talking to normal people

I was reading an article in this week's New Yorker today, about the Democratic Party's difficulty in speaking to ordinary Americans in the so-called "Red" states, many of whom are part of the historic Democratic tradition, but who abandoned the party in the 1970s and 80s. What caught me about it was the feeling it gives that the issue is not so much one of policy, as of what policies are prioritised, and of the language used in expressing them. People don't like Democrats, not because they're liberal per se (most red-state voters themselves have a humanitarian side, and are certainly "liberals" in the sense that they believe the state has a role in alleviating poverty and providing education), but because of the way that some Democrats tend to talk down to people in those states. The Democrats know better. They want to improve these people's lives, and crucially, to educate them. Except the problem is, red state people, like people everywhere, don't like being patronised, especially by "liberals" who fetishise issues like abortion and gun control, just as much as the "conservatives" that they vilify do. There is a view among some liberals and left wingers that people who differ from liberal orthodoxy on these "dog whistle" issues are fit for nothing more than persona non grata status. Mark Warner, former Democratic Governor of Virginia and prospective Democrat contender for the 2008 Presidential election, put it thus:

"Sometimes the Democrats advocate tolerance, except for those that don't agree with them"

It seems to me that lessons could be learned from this in the UK as well. The UK is a far more uniformly socially liberal country than the USA, yet the Labour Party still finds itself stitching together progressively more wealthy electoral coalitions of socially liberal and economically Thatcherite voters, whilst the parties to its left flounder when trying to speak to the working class that they supposedly represent. The Greens pick up some votes in rural areas, and some in liberal bastions like Brighton and Oxford, with a message that seems to differ wildly wherever one is living at the time.

The SWP, via its "Respect Coalition" project has stitched together a coalition even weirder than Labour's, apparently consisting mainly of a nominally Trotskyite political party (the SWP), half of a Stalinist one (the minority wing of the Communist Party of Britain), and various Mosques, as well as having tepid, on-off support from the Muslim Association of Britain. And fronting up this operation, the one and only George "I invented that dance before Peter Crouch did" Galloway. Nuff said. They have had limited electoral success in areas with heavily concentrated Muslim populations, thanks largely to Galloway's long coat tails following his election as a "fighter for Muslims" during the bruising election campaign of 2005 in Bethnal Green and Bow. But they cannot seem to break out of their East London (and to an extent Birmingham) fortresses, and in any case the organised-left part of the coalition seems to have seen precious little gain for its efforts.

Finally, the most class-based of the parties, the Scottish Socialist Party, appears to be tearing itself to pieces amid recrimination between its leaders. Its English former sister organisation, the Socialist Party, holds on to scattered councillors in urban redoubts, thanks to superhuman efforts at elections on the part of its members.

And of course, members of all of the above groups waste no time having a pop at each other, on a regular basis. Now, all of this is fascinating sectariana, for sure. But haven't we forgotten something basic? I.e. that the Left has just stopped being able to speak a language that can be universally understood by ordinary people from any community in the UK? It may come as a shock to some readers, but the average UK voter, regardless of "community", will neither know nor care whether his/her prospective councillor is in favour of one or two states in Palestine, or whether that councillor supports the demand of "Troops out now" as against "End the occupation" in Iraq. He's voting either because he wants his bins cleared on time, to give the government a kicking, or because he likes you. And it's on the last point, that the left appears to have a problem. Because we preach at people. We (like all good liberal elitists) want to make people understand why they should think like us, care about the things that we do. We don't care if a person agrees with every point of our economic platform, if he has conservative views on abortion (or Zionist views on Palestine, or was pro-war on Iraq, or whatever our current hobby horse is), then he's either evil and to be sent to the depths of Hades, or else he's to be spoken to in slow and patronising tones about how wrong he is, and how much better of a person he'd be if he'd only understand. And if he doesn't like trade unions or he thinks tube drivers are really quite well paid, well then God help him if he mentions it to us on the doorstep.

It allows us to go away feeling good, and it helps to stitch together those single-issue coalitions so beloved of all today's politicians. But ultimately it's the strategy of losers who've forgotten why they got into politics.

What's the left for? What's the point of it, if it can't bring a universal message to that 70%+ of people who might not have views that are perfectly "anti-imperialist" (SWP) "pro-secularist" (AWL), but who we as the left are supposed to believe that we represent?
Why do we no longer believe that people of socially conservative but economically left wing views, have a place on the left? Why do we excoriate everyone who disagrees with us on our "dog whistle" issues as racists, pro-war crusaders, anti-abortion Savonarolas, or whatever other exclusionary put-down comes to our minds in our sense of all consuming righteousness?

By way of a slight aside, I offer an example. I've actually seen agonised discussions on left wing e-lists about whether or not it would be "right" to support England in the world cup... articles have appeared in left-wing newspapers calling for support for "anyone but England"... I mean, for Christ's sake. If you don't support the England team then fine, support someone else. But don't be so pathetically elitist as to make out that there's some kind of political point being made by you doing it. The idea that it's a bigoted act to support one's national team in a football tournament is so absurd as to defy belief. My local will not be full of students in mail order keffiyehs pulling for Iran during the world cup. But it won't be full of BNP members either. The real world doesn't work like that.

Why do we so seldom even manage to come across as people who could have a civil, down to earth chat about issues with a member of the public in a pub or cafe?

We are supposed to be about emancipation, and that means emancipation for all. We're supposed to be able to come up with a programme that can be supported by the working class, and that means concentrating on the basics. A real economic programme, simply set out, that people can understand and can see why it represents them. A commitment to decency and an end to discrimination of all kinds in the UK, so that no one community is left feeling bitter and excluded. Education and healthcare that are free and open to all. Involvement in local politics that goes beyond using council elections as a bully pulpit from which to bellow our opinions on national issues. We need the left to be a part of (it almost sounds nostalgic these days) the working class, to live and act among that class, and to take working class people as they are, not as how we would like them to be.

None of that means caving in on our real principles, but it does mean remembering what our principles are. I don't know when the left stopped being a national movement of people to care for their fellow humans, and started being about competing sectional interests and shrill demands on patchworks of issues. But what I do know is that if we don't reverse the process and learn once more to sound like the sort of people who ordinary working people can talk to and disagree with, without being patronised or vilified, then we've signed our own death warrant.


Blogger LaLaMiMi said...


It is interesting you write about this - the last antiwar (about generating support for direct action to stop the war on Iran, if that was ever to happen) meeting I went to.. there was discussion about bringing up national issues into how to encourage support from the public. By getting people to think about what they want their money to be spent on issues closer to home, than rather another war overseas.. a bit off putting.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Renegade Eye said...

I think it would be a mistake, for the left to take up garbage pickup, the new street light or other small reforms.

Iraq (war and peace), racism and sexism are important big issues. You don't have to be your neighbor, to talk with him. Ultimatly say what you mean, and mean what you say.

I'm not the person who will help the Democrats, talk to conservatives. I do care that real leftys, talk honest, and with manners.

7:42 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Sure Renegade, but you would want someone who is (say) anti-racist but conservative on abortion, to carry on talking to you, and to support you where you do agree. However, you simply won't get that if you treat all anti-abortion people as the spawn of satan. I'm not saying you do that personally, but I'm sure you've run into people who do. I know I have.

I was referring to taking out the trash in the context of local elections where yes, sorry, the Iraq War is not something that Portsmouth City Council would be in a position to abolish even if it were run by the hard left. People want councillors to do their jobs, not parade around shouting about issues over which they have no influence. And well, if we're running for the council, we kinda should have views on local issues, even if they don't have the "glamour" of international politics.

11:50 PM  
Anonymous Boogski said...

Well said, Voltaire. Sometimes it really IS about getting the garbage picked up on time or having the potholes in the street fixed without getting into some abstract discussion of how "evil imperialists" ruined the environment with internal combustion engines and careless consumerism.

7:13 PM  
Blogger El Tom said...

surely 'long cat tails'...

7:18 AM  
Blogger El Tom said...

gotta say, if the left talked more about bins and streetlights, they'd be a lot more popular, and there would be more space for their ideas.

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Janine said...

I'd have to recommend the webpage for my recent election campaign for Hackney Council.

Local stuff, Iraq, ... it's all there. I'd say that the issue is not about prioritising issues as about sticking to the one big issue - the representation of working-class interests in politics. Now that's something that can potentially unite everyone except a few mega-rich bastards and right-wing career politicians.

3:22 PM  

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