By Callum Towler
At rallies, protests, even among friends, I hear two phrases frequently levelled at Conservatives: the ‘Evil Tories!’ or those ‘Tory Scum!’ Such mud-slinging has long been attached to a faction of left-wing activism bitterly opposed to Conservatism.
Unbridled from the restraints of coalition, we now see our government’s true ambition unfold. And the degree of malevolence – in policies like the scrapping of tax credits – is striking. Put it this way: if The Sun, Britain’s most virulent newspaper, is an outspoken liberal voice against you, how can you argue with accusations of right-wing extremism?
In this light, vitriol may seem the appropriate response. But I can’t help thinking such labels are at best lazy and at worst counterproductive in the left’s quest to win the war of ideas. Lazy because ‘scum’ and ‘evil’ are very simplistic, empty terms; offering no real insight into your point of disagreement. What they reveal instead is a tendency for knee-jerk classification – defining what your opponent is, and in the process what you are not, while stewing in your own moral superiority.
Tories – politicians and voters alike – are not evil people. True, their policies, and attitudes, appear to have a vindictive quality to them, best expressed in last years Bedroom Tax, Theresa May’s fearmongering rhetoric on immigrants, the list goes on. However the left must understand that, to them, such policies are means of establishing an ideology they sincerely believe in – a utilitarian idea of free markets and reduced state involvement that works best for society as a whole. They justify inequality as the necessary price for stimulating aspiration. And morality is merely a consideration rather than a foundation of society – we are but competitive animals who need the freedom to compete, whatever the consequences.
On an intellectual level, this pragmatism is simply a refusal to imagine how much better things could be. It’s the task of a resurgent left – still grappling to find an effective strategy – to disavowal the dominant theories of our time and persuade people round to a new way of thinking. Success depends on how grassroots activists, and the average supporter down the pub, react when their belief system comes under attack. For too long, a smokescreen of casual hate has filled the void where debate should flourish. Hiding behind your worldview and rendering opponents ‘evil’ is certainly a more comfortable position than engaging with those who oppose you. Only in discussion will minds be changed.
To grow, and become an electoral force again, the reality is the left must win over voters of parties on the traditional right. It’s an unpopular opinion these days but principles are of little worth without the power to enact them. Victory requires an equal passion poured into building a cohesive strategy, otherwise our responsibility for the worsening plight of the poor will be greater than we think.
Included within this strategy needs to be a coordinated stamping out of lazy labelling – on twitter, at rallies and in the collective mind of the movement. We need to recognise that it only fuels the tribalism of political allegiance, engendering a ‘them and us’ mentality that cements the views people already hold.
The ‘kinder, gentler politics’ Corbyn promotes requires some clear caveats. Substituted in for name-calling should be a passionate dismantling of Tory ideology, rhetoric and policy. Refuting the outlandish claim that they are the party of the working people. And revealing the realities of the illusory Conservative brand, pitching it’s tent far into the distant right and claiming it occupies the centre, hoping no one will notice.
Let them have the monopoly on cheap attacks, after all, their politics is founded on fear – inciting in people the dangers of change rather than the possibilities it holds. The left captures the public’s imagination when it rises above fearmongering, and puts forward the idea of richer, more rewarding life people can believe in.
If we drop down to their level – choosing to ridicule rather than seriously debate – they will win comfortably. A left that vents its frustration through spiteful attack is an unappealing pitch to the wavering voter; they feel alienated and fear prevails. Playing by their rules is electoral doom. We can’t let ourselves fall into such an obvious trap.