What Next for the UK?
The Conservatives won; Boris Johnson’s hands are no longer tied. For many on the left, the aftermath of the 2019 General Election is a period of mourning: for the missed opportunity, for the vulnerable in our society, even for the future of the planet. And for the neighbours we thought we knew: all those good people can surely no longer exist, because they could never have saw fit to inflict such suffering on the masses.
In Wales, we see the spread of blue across the electoral map; any mention of the country in the UK media this week rarely amounts to more than ‘even Wales voted for the Tories!’ For a committed socialist like myself, this has been a bitter pill to swallow. I look to Scotland with great jealousy. They didn’t buy what the right has been selling; they chose something else.
But then Wales didn’t choose the Conservatives either. The overall swing to the Tories in Wales amounted to just a few percent. They won 14 seats; the centre-left, a combination of Labour and Plaid Cymru, won 26.
Yet it still troubles me that so many people in the UK could vote for a party with such a callous record, led by such a flawed man. Having intended to stay up on election night, I went to bed immediately after the exit poll. But my heart sank further the following morning when I discovered that, despite his recent scandal, Conservative MP Alun Cairns was returned to the Vale of Glamorgan with an increased majority. How could so many people vote with such disregard for their fellow citizens?
The answer is simple: they didn’t.
In the run-up to this election I poured over the manifestos, weighed up the likely truths against the obvious lies, and came to my own conclusions. I discussed it with particular friends, sharing opinions and predictions with them before the election, ranting about it afterwards. My Twitter bubble was full of people doing the same. But the truth is, this is not typical behaviour. As a group, people who are passionately interested in party politics, or the ramifications of specific policies, amount to a tiny minority.
The following day, here on Medium, I read an account of an experience campaigning for Labour in the Bridgend constituency — one of many Labour seats to turn blue. As was inevitably the case, it revealed an electorate of intelligent, caring people. These are qualities, it’s often assumed, surely lacking in someone intentionally voting against the interests of the vulnerable. But no one was doing that. No one was weighing the cost to the disabled or homeless against meagre personal gain and thinking, screw them. In many instances, they were the ones most likely to lose out.
When it comes to politics, most people absorb what they can from their surroundings, and justifiably feel that’s enough. Our society is constructed in such a way that it ensures those most concerned about negative impacts on the poor are those with the busiest lives; the more our society changes, the busier these people become. So they chose their candidates based on snippets of what they consider to be the mood of the country. But they’re gauging a construct, a series of voices put in our heads all singing from a very particular, warped hymn sheet.
These days, I avoid Facebook like the plague. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016, friends I’d long considered to be decent people started sharing racist posts. They began to denigrate the sick and disabled for assumed transgressions I’d thought no one could have believed to be true. Increasingly, tabloid headlines appeared verbatim in personal posts, jarring heavily with their own syntax. I logged off.
Facebook is a main source of news for many people now, and much has been made of its tendency to shepherd people into tightening circles of opinion. Its competition is often limited to glimpses of headlines from the billionaire press, or soundbites from TV channels equally invested in the interests of the rich.
From time to time, I still check my Facebook account. On one such occasion I noted a friend suggestion of someone I’d been close to in school, and then college. I remember him as one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met; any task you could consider cerebral, he was good at. Or in the unlikely event he wasn’t, his inquisitive mind would ensure the next time you asked, he would be. He was also a kind person; trustworthy, helpful and empathetic. In fact, he was exactly the sort of person you’d want representing you.
In his Facebook Bio he described himself as apolitical.
The apparent incongruity of the word stuck with me: how could he, of all people, not take a stance? But now, in the aftermath of the election, it gives me hope. It isn’t that people don’t care, or even that they don’t understand. It’s just that with the infinite life choices we face from the moment we open our eyes each morning, most people prefer to tackle the tangible, the things that offer immediate and definite results.
Knowing that a headline claim by Boris Johnson or Donald Trump turned out not to be true won’t give you the tools you need to single-handedly tackle climate change. In the short term, the most it’s likely to achieve is a headache and a deeper sense of your own limitations.
So instead you brush your teeth and put the bins out; you go to work to earn money to feed your family; you fetch milk for your elderly neighbour; you leave a few tins at the foodbank stall set up at the entrance of your local supermarket.
You’re astute enough to know the mere existence of foodbanks is an injustice. You know, too, that no choice you make today could possibly begin to address that injustice. So you divert your energies elsewhere. Onward you go, doing good where you know you can.
So the general public know that ‘Boris’ is a clown, but Corbyn sympathises with terrorists. They know a vote for parties like the Greens or Plaid Cymru is a wasted vote. They know politicians, presumably all of them, lie.
They know there is something wrong with society — this they truly know, deep in their bones. They know that the EU is a potential cause of it.
They know the UK voted to leave the EU. Those who did so themselves, they know that whenever they open a paper or an article online, they’re sneered at by the commentariat. They know when they’re being called thick, time and time again.
I’m not for one second denying the racist element of the Brexit vote. The majority of our most morally bankrupt public figures campaigned for Brexit, deliberately stoking xenophobic fears. Bigots, racists, and genuine neo-Nazis all rallied behind the cause with enthusiasm. But this reality isn’t a blanket that covers 52% of the UK. Most people voted because they thought they could trust the information they had.
Then, seeing that their votes might be ignored, they voted for the party offering to rectify this. Many life-long Labour voters held their noses and voted Tory. Those who couldn’t bear to, particularly in Labour heartlands, turned to the seemingly less metropolitan Brexit party, allowing the Tories to come through the middle and win. This wasn’t some great victory for the Conservative’s dystopian vision of the future.
What it boils down to, then, is people being too trusting of the media. Of course they know tabloids can’t be trusted completely. But many people believe they cannot tell outright lies, and that taking an average of all the opinions offered is likely to produce something close to the truth.
I had hoped that a strong, positive, left-wing message would be enough to cut through the propaganda. But a counteroffer of lies, willingly revealed to be lies, leaves the promises of honest people as worthless as those of known liars; if enough lies are told, then no one will be trusted.
This is the UK political system that has been consciously constructed, deliberately maintained. Democracy in the country that often claims to be its birthplace has long had myriad flaws, but this most recent addition could render all those that came before irreparable. Yet something has to give.
In Scotland, with their own — albeit limited — national media, they were offered a slightly more balanced view. Yet while the majority in Scotland chose the SNP, they’re getting Tories all the same. Wales voted for a majority of Labour candidates, while the Tories don’t even properly stand in Northern Ireland. Had Scotland and Wales voted in their entireties for Labour, and had Labour contested and won every seat in Northern Ireland, we’d all still be getting Tories. They’d still have an overall majority of 19 seats, with a 51-seat lead over Labour.
Things cannot change for the Celtic countries unless they do for England. And for as long as the right-wing maintains and strengthens its grip on Westminster and the London media, things will not change for England. It will take something dramatic to provide the jolt needed for England to alter their path, but Scotland could now be willing to provide it. If that were to happen, the steadily growing independence movement in Wales would surely then push to follow suit.
People are still good; they always were. Despite the self-centred beliefs that our neoliberal, capitalist society promotes, we have not suddenly become callous. We’re simply lacking, as a population, the free time to devote to understanding how our lives are run. Before than can be rectified, we need better access to reliable information.
And if an old colonial power is broken up on the way to achieving this, then so be it.