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The left has the most enormous opportunity right now

TWO years almost to the day since Theresa May took office and now the storms facing her government are off the Beaufort scale. 

They barrel wider and more violently than the cabinet resignations and the efforts by the Brexit wing of the Tory party to undo her Chequers deal of only last Friday. 

Those are but a playing out of the political schism that erupted just over two years ago with the referendum.

This paper was among those who argued at the time that a Leave vote would bring a period of systemic crisis for the British Establishment and the Tory party.

That is what has happened. That smarmy Blairite with a blue rosette, David Cameron, bequeathed to May a government of the party of big business tasked with carrying through a popular, national decision that big business opposes.

That flat contradiction is not going away. No matter the immediate outcome of the Tory Brexiters’ rebellion, which itself suggests that the Tory party is in such a bad state that it has lost even its legendary capacity to efficiently dispatch a failing leader.

May’s own, let’s say politely, “limitations” aggravate the wound. Some of us said two years ago that “she simply isn’t any good.” Everything she touches turns from stable to horse-bolted. Look at the long-delayed Donald Trump visit.

An ICM poll this week found that just 16 per cent of people in Britain agreed with the statement “politicians like Trump speak for me.” Some 62 per cent disagreed.

That hints at the social opinions that constitute the sandbank on which the May government is running aground. They are analysed in the newly published annual report of the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey.

Social attitudes do not in and of themselves alter the course of political events. That requires political agents — parties, movements and historic clashes.

But the BSA’s report provides solid grounds for the left and labour movement to be both optimistic and insurgent in confronting this dying government.

Perhaps the most surprising field where that is borne out is in the fight against the poison of racism and xenophobia.

Saturday saw a considerable mobilisation by the labour and progressive movements against the little Trumps (and in some cases wannabe Hitlers) gathering in London under the banner of freeing the criminal “Tommy Robinson.”

The brawling street stomping over the last few months of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) has been alarming. It is not, however, some outgrowth of a shift to violent racist and Islamophobic attitudes in Britain.

Nor is it the expression of popular football culture.

While these thugs, with fascists at their core and masquerading as the voice of football fans, ignore the multiracial composition of the England team, the rest of us should not disregard important findings about attitudes to immigration into Britain. They show that the racist rabble do not speak for a growing segment of society, still less a majority.

The BSA found that only 17 per cent of people think immigrants are bad for the British economy to 47 per cent who feel they are a benefit. Just 23 per cent think migrants undermine “British culture” while 44 per cent think they enrich it.

These are the most positive figures since the survey first started asking this question in 2011. Of course, concealed with them can be a sharp polarisation in which there is a hardening of racist and xenophobic views among a smaller minority. 

And there is the major issue of attitudes to Muslims — Islamophobia has been the leading edge of racism since the onset of the “War on Terror.” 

But even here, while dangerously high, Islamophobic attitudes in Britain are lower than in every other major European country. And the expression of hardened racist ideas in the political system, Ukip, remains suppressed. The decline set in sharply after Nigel Farage failed to win a seat at the 2015 general election.

That all can change — certainly if this nascent far-right offensive is not nipped in the bud by the pincer movement of the labour movement, immigrant communities and committed anti-racists. 

This far-right mechanism is moving from online cesspits to on-street intimidation, boosted organisationally and financially by fascistic forces on both sides of the Atlantic. Trump enables them. 

That machine of violent racism must be broken, and with it the racist policies it feeds off.

But there is every reason to be confident that doing so will be less holding a thin red line against massive reaction and more opening the floodgates for popular, radical change to the left.

Amber Rudd is unique among EU interior ministers in having to resign for being too hostile to immigrants. Her successor as Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, is trying to distance himself from the “hostile environment” policies introduced by May.

Window dressing it may be. But in almost every other major state in Europe interior ministers are galloping to the racist right in policy and rhetoric.

Horst Seehofer in Germany this week smirked as he told reporters that 69 desperate asylum-seekers had been deported to Afghanistan on his 69th birthday. One of them committed suicide on arrival.

Meanwhile the British government drives through the disaster of universal credit. But the BSA finds that sympathy with those on benefits, and support for both greater welfare provision and for a living wage, are higher than at any time for a decade.

There is what can best be described as a national mood that austerity has gone too far and that there needs to be a new settlement that restores and funds public services. It is most pronounced over the NHS. Education is not far behind.

If the Tories are the party of individual avarice — “there is no such thing as society” — the survey finds the highest levels of trust in fellow citizens (but not in political institutions) since 1998.

In England, the proportion identifying with a narrow and chauvinist Englishness is also at its lowest level for 20 years: 13 per cent.

There are many other findings in the survey. The picture they paint is not uniform. And it has some typical weaknesses. The biggest is that its categorisation of class is an antiquated marketing scheme of occupational status. 

So the nurse on a ward at 5am is considered part of a “managerial and professional” stratum, while the cleaner next to them is “working class.” 

That feeds into a second weakness of trying to find statistical correlations of “values” or “Leave v Remain” with political identifications or views that evidently are more complex.

That said, if we are as a labour movement to base ourselves on evidence-led politics, this provides some compelling evidence.

So while placing a heavy emphasis on age and educational differences in looking at the last election, it reinforces the message some of us have been putting that a “generational” or “culture” war approach would be disastrous for the left and for Labour’s chances of winning the next election.

There was a five-percentage-point increase in the number of 18-24 year olds voting in 2017 compared with the election in 2015 (and they overwhelmingly voted Labour). 

But there was also a four-point increase in turnout among 45-54 year olds (pretty much 50-50 Labour and Tory). Among over-65s it was a three-point increase.

Labour’s extraordinary advance last year was not down to a “youth quake” and to fixate on one age range of the mass of working-class people would be a big mistake.

As for the siren voices of the continuity-Blairite-Remain operation on Labour’s benches: the Tories increased support by 14 points among Leave voters (mainly from Ukip) but lost support by seven points among Remainers last year.

Labour, however, increased support among Remainers by 16 points, but also among Leavers by seven points (also from Ukip).

It did so with a manifesto that spoke directly to the big social issues highlighted in this survey and appealing to both blue and white-collar working class and to the lower middle class.

There is a way to go in that and in redressing the bleeding of support for Labour in working-class areas under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. 

But there is the most extraordinary conjuncture in Britain right now. The Tory government is wracked by crises. The far right, so apparent elsewhere, is dependent more on US money and European loudmouths than it is an expression of the trend in public mood.

The left has the most enormous opening. Jeremy Corbyn put it crisply at the Unite the union conference: to be a force “of the working class — in all its diversity.”

The only issue now, as someone once said, is to be as radical as reality itself.


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