Rescuing the left from itself

Long-read

Rescuing the left from itself

Left-wing hobbyists and performative radicals are alienating working-class voters.

David Swift

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Topics Long-reads Politics UK

The phenomenon of political hobbyism – in which politics is pursued as, well, a hobby – has been building for some time. And it shows no signs of abating.

Although present across the political spectrum, it is less common among liberals and conservatives. They tend to hold the reins of power and hence have less need for performative but ineffective activism. It is on the left that political hobbyism has flourished. And, as I argue in my 2019 book, A Left for Itself, this is becoming a serious problem.

The hobbyist leftist is not one who lacks commitment; on the contrary, he or she usually dedicates a large amount of their life to the cause. But the hobbyist has a relation with left-wing activism more akin to that between a supporter and a sports team, or a believer and a religion. For the hobbyist, politics is as much about group identity, ritual and the public profession of certain credos, as it is about changing anything.

Left-wing hobbyism is not a harmless cultural phenomenon. It remains a real problem for the left on both sides of the Atlantic. As the recent maulings of Labour in the Hartlepool and Chesham by-elections and the desperate victory in Batley and Spen remind us, Labour (along with social-democratic parties across Europe) faces severe structural, cultural and ideological challenges. But these challenges are exacerbated by the obnoxious and unreflective behaviour of left-wing hobbyists.

The American academic Eitan Hersh analyses the development of political hobbyism in recent decades in Politics is for Power, arguing that the engagement of educated middle classes with politics has become ever more abstract and decreasingly practical. For example, when Donald Trump took the White House in 2016, the percentage of people stating they were interested in elections reached a record high; yet the rate at which people volunteered or participated directly in elections had sharply declined. So, while 17 per cent of college graduates reported doing some work actively to promote their favoured party or candidate at the 1964 presidential election, by 2016 this had fallen to just five per cent. In the same timeframe, the number of graduates saying they attended political meetings fell from 24 to just nine per cent.

In fact, according to Hersh, the overwhelming majority of those who spend hundreds of hours a year on politics claim not to take any action, other than consuming information, talking and thinking.

On the night of the UK’s 2019 General Election, when Labour recorded its worst result since 1935, one online commentator tweeted that, ‘In vote-share terms, the transition is going very well, with a good demographic outlook’. He continued: ‘The project of transition from a manual-worker base to a knowledge-worker base is working and on track. That shift was always going to cost seats in the short term. If only this election wasn’t so damn important.’

The author of those tweets is a former regulatory economist at the Bank of England and analyst for several investment banks. You’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the political hobbyist, secure in his sinecure, for whom the working class – and the broader electorate – are merely troops to be marshalled for some cause or another. These tweets epitomise what Hersh describes as the ‘snarky, aloof-from-my-community hobbyist’; and what’s ‘most pathetic’ about this kind of engagement with politics ‘is that it is most prevalent among those of us who have the least need for it’.

Despite the extent and nature of Labour’s defeat under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn (the ultimate hobbyist politician, in terms of efficacy and the prizing of consistency and idealism above all else), and the victory and unexpected ambition of Joe Biden (almost a caricature of a centrist careerist, who nonetheless seems poised to achieve more in a year than Corbyn has in a lifetime), the hobbyist left has not undergone any soul-searching around the plausibility of its strategy and tactics. Instead, it has deployed various post hoc sophistries to justify its continued performative activism.

In response to claims that the left is losing the working class, the hobbyists assert this is not so. First, they claim that university graduates paying sky-high rents are now the ‘real’ working class; and secondly, that the characterisation of working-class communities as generally conservative on non-economic issues is a false and vicious libel, reflective of the conservatism of the academics, journalists and activists who make such characterisations.

The first argument is so evidently ridiculous that I’m not going to give any space to it here, although it is worth noting the many ways in which even the poor of big cities are advantaged compared to their smalltown and rural equivalents.

The second claim is expressed well by Joe Kennedy in his 2018 book, Authentocrats. There he describes Guru, a shop in his home town of Darlington, as a ‘herbally scented warren’, which ‘speaks of an aspect of provincial life rarely registered when London papers send correspondents to the north on a metaphor hunt; namely, the way the Sixties and the Seventies were experienced beyond the big cities’.

His description of Guru reminded me of a similar place in Liverpool, called Quiggins. Its incense-scented halls housed a variety of shops, selling bongs and ethnic jewellery and so on. However, the legacy of Sixties counterculture and the existence of places, such as Quiggins in Liverpool, Guru in Darlington, and doubtless many other such establishments elsewhere, does not invalidate generalisations about working-class culture and politics.

Very often the thrust of arguments against the need for the left to recognise the cultural conservativism of many working-class and non-white electors can be reduced to the following platitude: ‘Seemingly homogenous communities are actually more complicated than we imagine.’ To which the appropriate response is, ‘So what?’. There will always be exceptions to any generalisation, but this does not mean that they are invalid.

Writing on the gentrification of Hackney in Vice, Malakaï Sargeant describes ‘cafés that cater to the palates of the avocado-devouring, latte-sipping elite’, and notes that there is ‘little crossover’ between the people who frequent the Dalston McDonald’s and the nearby Arcola Theatre. ‘[T]o generalise, those who visit the Arcola regularly would much rather buy smashed avocado on crusty sourdough for £6 than buy a cheeseburger and fries from McDonald’s.’

Sargeant is not a flat-cap-wearing, whippet-owning former miner from the north of England. He is a black millennial from Hackney and has a haircut that would make me – if I hadn’t read his essay – mark him down as the kind of hipster he so despises. And yet he still knows that there is a difference between the kind of people who prefer McDonald’s and the kind who prefer avocados and fancy coffee – even if there is some crossover between the two, and even if it’s possible for people to cross fully from one camp to the other. He knows the differences are real and have economic and political implications.

(This is not to say that the avocado munchers are invariably left-wing: in 2012, the founder of the aforementioned Quiggins, Peter Tierney, stood as a candidate in the Liverpool mayoral elections. He won 453 votes – for the National Front.)

There is nothing novel about these cultural-class distinctions. Labour leader Harold Wilson – who sadly holds the distinction of being one of only three Labour leaders to win parliamentary majorities – was certainly aware of them.

He was a grammar-school boy from the lower middle class; an Oxford graduate and academic who substituted a pipe for his preferred cigars to cultivate a more rustic image. He held no illusions about those who voted for his party. During the 1964 election he complained that the BBC was scheduling the popular comedy, Steptoe and Son, during the evening of the election, and when asked what he would prefer them to screen suggested Oedipus Rex.

This cultural disconnect between parts of today’s left and the working class is important. When people say that ‘feminism/anti-racism/LGBT rights have gone too far’, they clearly aren’t talking about the end of gender pay gaps, racist violence or LGBT teen suicides. What they are criticising is the language of online activists and the attention-seeking schemes of hobbyist leftists. Given hobbyists’ performative radicalism clearly alienates lots of people, one has to wonder why they continue to do it? I suppose a sympathetic answer is that they only want to offend the right people, whose votes they don’t need or want. If only this was the case.

This is not to say that Labour should ape some of the reactionary rhetoric of the right. In many ways the culture war is something being fought at an elite level, with partisans at both extremes fighting against phantoms. On a whole host of issues, from statues to police funding to trans rights, there is actually a great deal of consensus – the problem is that the hobbyist left is, perhaps by definition, outside this consensus.

Take, for instance, the fashionable hobbyist cause of defunding the police. As a survey from last year showed, only two per cent of black people, when asked to pick three options that would have the most positive impact on ethnic-minority lives in Britain, included decreasing police funding. Or take ISIS recruit Shamima Begum, whose forced exile from Britain has become something of a cause célèbre for hobbyists. According to polling, an overwhelming majority of all Britons (78 per cent) would revoke her citizenship.

Lazy stereotypes and generalisations are unhelpful, of course. But there clearly are many issues on which the hobbyist left finds itself wildly out of step with public opinion, including the opinion of those groups on whose behalf they claim to act.

The most important topic is immigration. The pollster Deborah Mattinson held a special focus group evenly divided between young, graduate Remain voters and older Leave voters with few educational qualifications. When asked to select their main concerns, anonymously, immigration was the second-highest priority after the NHS. This meant that lots of the urban Remainers plumped for immigration under the protection of anonymity. Everyone also agreed that there should be ‘a clampdown on illegal immigration and that there should be an ‘“Australian-style” points-based system’, based on skills.

The political scientists Robert Ford and Maria Sobolewska concur, arguing in their book Brexitland that ‘a selective migration system focused on the potential economic contribution of migrants as the main criterion for entry is consistent with the preferences of voters on both sides of the identity-politics divide’. Nor is this just the case for white voters: plenty of research has shown that ethnic-minority Brits have similar views on immigration to their white compatriots, and a majority want to see it reduced.

It is a similar story when it comes to young people. Yes, millennials and Gen Zers are more liberal than older generations on a whole host of issues, but those hobbyists claiming that they are all political radicals probably haven’t met many young people. As one academic recently joked, it is hard enough to teach students correct grammar, never mind politically indoctrinate them.

Moreover, the left cannot say, correctly, that the radicalised student body of tabloid nightmares is a fiction, and also claim that Labour should just maintain the cultural and foreign-policy priorities of the Corbyn era and wait for the electorate, soon to be dominated by one-time students, to catch up.

The hobbyist refrain of ‘educate yourself’ implies that if people would only avail themselves of the plentiful literature on key political issues they would improve their own attitudes accordingly. But any political project dependent on people having a certain level of erudition or interest in politics is doomed to fail. Imagine if the Thatcher and Reagan strategists predicated their success on a decent chunk of the population suddenly reading Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek.

Similarly, hobbyist appeals to history in order to place present problems into context may contain grains of truth, but are often beside the point. To say to a mother whose son has been stabbed to death, ‘Ah, this is nothing new – blade-wielding gangs have terrorised England’s streets since at least medieval times’, is irrelevant. As is claiming ‘the media is only focusing on this because your son and his assailants were black’.

This kind of context provision becomes yet another example of the left – in academia, in journalism, on social media – telling people not only what they don’t want to hear, but also telling them something that apparently contradicts the evidence of their own eyes and ears, and conflicts with their idea of ‘common sense’. This is self-defeating and I can think of no charitable reason why people continue with this kind of performative radicalism.

To the hobbyists, I would stress that you do not need to compromise on your beliefs or your aims; there is no need to throw any of the groups, on whose behalf you have decided to dedicate your lives, under a bus.

In fact, many of the things you want to see might even happen under a Tory government. For example, proportional representation of women, people of colour and LGBT people in politics, business, media, etc, can be achieved at no political or economic cost to the right. But the big things – more control of the economy, a more equitable distribution of wealth, a more equal society, etc – certainly won’t be forthcoming without a Labour government. In order to achieve those goals, the hobbyists will have to moderate their tone and rein in the performative activism. In short, they need to accept some messy compromises at the expense of ideological purity.

David Swift is the author of A Left for Itself. Follow him on Twitter @davidswift87

Picture by: Getty.

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