When the British election results came through, the progressive left responded with jubilation. Jeremy Corbyn, the divisive leader of the Labour party, had inspired an astonishing turnout amongst overwhelmingly Labour-leaning younger (and not that much younger) voters, and though Theresa May remains Prime Minister, some constituencies long held by the Tories were turned over to Labour MPs. The election has seriously shaken up Westminster, forcing Conservatives to take desperate measures to avoid a hung parliament and form a government. The message, the commentariat declared, was clear: hope had won out over fear and decisively proved that voters are serious about wanting a progressive legislative agenda premised on the conviction that all segments of the population can flourish simultaneously. In the wake of the election, commentators in the US inferred that Bernie Sanders, the American answer to Jeremy Corbyn, could have won the 2016 US presidential election. Sanders himself has penned a piece for the New York Times, citing the lessons to be learned from the Corbyn campaign, on the necessity for Democrats to push a more assertively progressive agenda if they expect to win votes. The outcome of Britain’s election caught a lot of people by surprise, and there are important insights to be gained if austerity and its myriad cognate policy shifts to the right are to be stopped.
The Labour party manifesto was as much an implicit accounting of the violence that austerity has done to people in Britain as it was an explicit policy platform for redressing it. It did more than that, however. It laid a claim to the political identity of Britain: unity over division. The narrative was thrown into particularly sharp relief in light of the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester in the days leading up to the vote. With Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister having been preceded by a much longer one as Home Secretary, her cuts to policing were quickly identified as responsible for facilitating both attacks, seriously undermining her ability to identify herself with the outpouring of love and solidarity that followed the violence. Nevertheless, after Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the short-lived but impactful meteoric rise of UKIP, and the ascending popularity of far-right political parties across Europe, the left were afraid to hope that the mounting evidence against austerity and the Tories would yield electoral success for Labour. The tabloid press and much of the mainstream news media consistently reinforce the conservatives’ versions of reality: The poor and working-class are parasitic on the middle class. The sick and disabled are lazy. Muslims are dangerous and violent. Migrants are stealing British jobs. Peaceful protesters are ‘domestic extremists’. ‘British people’ means ‘white people’. Conservatives have the wind at their backs here – the UK is already structurally and culturally racist, classist, misogynist, and ableist, easing the task of advancing these narratives. In the face of this almost overwhelming din of conservative media discourse, the Labour platform wasn’t just a policy manifesto – it was an unflinching entry into serious contention with Conservatives over the hegemonic meaning of what Britain stands for.
Labour’s competitors were unprepared. Amongst the Tories’ biggest mistakes in this election (other than the embarrassing spectacle of Theresa May’s furtive evasion from campaigning) was the short historical lens through which they viewed the UK. Britain doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor do its politics. The moment in which voters now find themselves creates a particular set of conditions in which a platform like that of Corbyn’s Labour was likely to achieve wide appeal. Contrary to a now-outmoded notion of political actors as emotionally disengaged rational decision makers who disinterestedly calculate costs and benefits, no policy platform can have any effect except insofar as it means something. Cultural meanings and public policy are deeply intertwined. Thatcherism, now a household term, was not merely a policy agenda, but also a cultural paradigm. The widespread uptake of the unifying message of the Labour platform has its roots in a broad range of conditions which affect voters because they’re thinking, feeling, embodied human beings who actively draw from a range of biographical experiences, media messages, broad cultural paradigms, more local and specific cultural meanings, and interpersonal relationships to make sense of reality and construct their world views and senses of self.
The backdrop of the election was laid long before Theresa May became PM, taking shape within the epoch of late capitalism. The Thatcherite neoliberal agenda has been channelled into individualist approaches to creating livable lives. Policies have been oriented toward ‘equal opportunities’, with upward mobility, living wages, and well-being increasingly placed in the hands of individuals. The responsibilities of the state are cut back, with its role being facilitator in individuals’ pursuit of self-sufficiency. To succeed in this climate requires a combination of privilege and luck, and as access to higher education has been expanded to increase individuals’ abilities to take responsibility for their own destinies, the proportion of the population with university degrees has swelled. The result was inevitable: in a pyramidal economic structure, there are necessarily a lot of people at the bottom, and more than one generation of young(-ish) people who have built their expectations and hopes on the promise of a good standard of living and a fulfilling working life are finding themselves unemployed or in work well below their skill levels. Meanwhile, the liberal democratic ethos of equality under the law has never been realised for BME people, women, and migrants, who continue, to varying degrees, to be treated as second-class citizens. The disconnection between expectation and reality has sown deep alienation, and ideological individualism has magnified post-industrial feelings of isolation and loneliness. While increasing interconnectivity through electronic communications has been a welcome distraction and solidarity-building tool for many, it has also given employers almost limitless access to workers’ time and attention, subsuming every hour of their lives under their role as employees. As the capitalist and liberal democratic myths of universal equality and flourishing have proven false for ever greater proportions of the population, Britain’s discontentment has intensified. In a milieu which prizes individuality, uniqueness, and self-actualisation, it grows more and more difficult for most people to feel that they have the control over their time, energy, and destinies that they would need to fulfil this culturally ubiquitous imperative. Engendered with the notion that they should be living the dream, many are merely hoping to make rent and endeavouring not to feel like strangers to themselves.
The 2008 economic crash collided with this historical moment. We’re now nearly a decade into the recession, and voters are weary of its brutalising toll. As ever, the costs have hit hardest for those already under disproportionate strain: people of colour, women, the ill and disabled, and migrants. The bounds of what people in Britain will tolerate are being stretched to breaking point. Out of the recession came the Occupy movement, emerging roughly in tandem with the movement for Black lives and feminism. These political projects have made a deep mark on public discourse, with their language permeating the zeitgeist. While wealthy policy makers and media barons have disproportionate power to amplify their narratives, they’re unable to altogether silence competing voices, and their strategies have been ill-considered in light of the context. The Napoleonic conquest of a population works by inscribing hostile emotions onto real people and lives: promote fear, anger, resentment, or disgust toward a particular minority, and that group will come to be seen as inherently frightening, infuriating, contemptible, or disgusting (1). But the material realities of people’s lives are a compelling source of knowledge, and when the Tories have taken aim at job seekers, the sick and disabled, BME people, Muslims, women, students, and migrants, it’s painted itself into a bit of a corner. Cultural milieu are never monolithic, and the narratives through which people make sense of the world and their place within it are multiple, complex, and internally contradictory – the people who British voters are being instructed to fear and despise are themselves. The divide-and-conquer approach only works if it’s used with sufficient selectivity, and with more and more people finding themselves in the policy cross-hairs, emotional conditions are ripe for a broad-based solidarity across the left-of-centre to emerge.
Alienation, hopelessness, and diminishing emotional returns on the avocado toast distractions that would mitigate worsening material realities have combined to create a profound unmet need for connection, affinity, compassion, and love in the national emotional climate. Tory politicians have over-played their divisive hand, having sorted the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters in their narrative such that almost no one but themselves can count as the former. Corbyn’s Labour manifesto did more than map a way out of serious structural problems: it provided voters with a future they might reasonably look forward to, and a desperately needed reprieve from daily lives dominated by a venomous array of bitter emotions. In a moment of acute pain, and one in which grassroots social movements are making an indelible cultural mark, voters are equipped with the meanings and narratives they need to construct a unified, ‘for the many’ answer to conservative hegemony.
(1) Ahmed, S. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Lisa Kalayji is a fourth-year PhD student in sociology at Edinburgh University, studying emotions, culture, and feminism. Twitter: @LisaKalayji