The 2017 general election will go down in history as one of the great mis-steps of Conservative Governments, and the beginning of the end of the hegemony of the right in the UK. With the short campaign pitched as an opportunity to reaffirm the Conservative’s catchphrase-reliant ‘Brexit means Brexit’, deliver a personal mandate for Theresa May and secure a stronger majority of Conservative MPs in the Commons – it actually failed dramatically on all three counts.
Parties with a left-of-centre agenda were expected to be cowed by an unstoppable Conservative force, but instead the results showed that no one party had a majority. What the election did do, however, is show that the values and aspirations of the left are alive and well, despite the crystal ball gazing of those in the Conservative government and the crossed fingers of the wider mainstream media.
It’s no mean feat to get a hung Parliament in a first-past-the-post system, but when gerrymandered boundaries across Britain favour the Tories, when the mainstream media favours the right wing, and when the current government is almost on a ‘war footing’ with the EU, the Conservatives failure to get a majority with this structural advantage is, perhaps, a sign that the tide is turning.
It’s a sign that the electorate – after years of being saturated with regressive messages – are beginning to see through the rhetoric of stability and ‘tough decisions’ to reveal the class warfare that is raging beneath. It is a collective realisation that austerity is not the ‘only’ option and that there are alternative economic policies which do not involve making the poorest in our society pay for the bankers’ mistakes.
A growing sense of economic solidarity is being fostered despite the prevailing rhetoric, and this can only be good for the left. It may have taken eight years of austerity and an increasingly doomed Brexit programme, but left-of-centre voices are becoming louder.
And, there is a plurality of views on the left – no longer are we represented by a monoculture Labour party as we have been at a national level for the past fifty years. Many would argue until the rise of Corbyn, Labour was anything but left in its views and policies. It is not enough to be merely ‘anti-Tory’ or to speak in generalities about human rights when the grassroots resurgence of left politics has been fuelled by many issue-specific groups that are largely aligned to values of the left rather than any one single part of the left.
Issues such as pensions inequality for women born in the 1950s, Trident and those suffering benefits sanctions have all had their champions and local activist groups which have given rise to a left defined not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up. The left is no longer solely dominated by a single national figure, although leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon, Caroline Lucas – and notably in the last month – Jeremy Corbyn, have, of course, had a positive effect. It is also driven by an alliance of involved and motivated activists who are increasingly educated and motivated to reform those issues that are close to their hearts.
When faced with the realities of devil-in-the-detail legislation from the political right – most notably the Rape Clause – the left have had to become policy experts themselves, and many new entrants to activism have become energised by small-p rather than capital-P politics. Because the explosion in left wing fervour has happened both inside and outside parties, the left is now a broad church with no one single owner. Being of the left is a belief system, a state of mind not a one-party membership card.
It’s about believing in humanity, in social justice, in equality and in human rights. It’s about believing we are all equal and that our society should reflect that. It’s about protecting those less fortunate and asking those of us with broader shoulders to carry the load. It’s about looking after each other.
The future for the left is in harnessing the energy of the growing army of single-issue campaigners and activists into the party system. Not merely by co-opting policies, although I would point out that the SNP has been largely in sync with many of these movements including WASPI, Trident, the Rape Clause and anti-austerity – but by harnessing the energy and personalities who champion these causes to bring authenticity and passion to party politics. The left hasn’t found its voice, it has instead found its voices.
Let a thousand flowers bloom … and let’s see what flourishes’
Clare Haughey has been the SNP MSP for Rutherglen since 2016. Prior to that, she trained as a mental health nurse and worked as a clinical nurse manager.