Photo credit: LSE Library
Owen Jones appeared in an interview recently for Esquire, sat alongside his political opposite, Alastair Campbell. The interview was candid, fascinating, and often very probing of the pairs personalities. I bring it up because, in one sense, it’s the kind of sit down that centrists and leftists need in the Labour party and, in another, because of a certain quote from Owen Jones. He references an American linguist, who claims that the left is inherently weak due to its focus on facts, whilst the right is able to conjure up compelling stories. There is much to say about this claim. Certainly, the right does appeal to idealism and a national narrative, as it did in the Brexit debate, but Owen lets many on the left off far too lightly.
This leads nicely to the countries current predicament. With the announcement of the snap election earlier this week, my social media accounts exploded, as I’m sure many of yours did. Friends and celebrities queued up to have their say on the outcome of June’s election. Paragraphs were written, tactics were devised, and many young people’s fears for the future were broadcast. Of course one person’s Facebook feed is no objective test, but what I read left me optimistic, whilst at the same time deeply troubled. Optimistic because here were young people that were engaged in politics, were encouraging their friends to vote, and did care about what happened to their country. Troubled, because often the loudest spoke in echo chambers, with little to no debate or challenge, and the narrative was partisan to the point of madness. In fact, madness was touched upon by more than a few of the viral posts I’ve seen bandied around. One called Theresa May “The terminally insane megalomaniac” and threw around words like “Fascists” and “The elite”. It emphasised Jeremy Corbyn’s policies on the NHS and housing, policies that I really believe are under reported as well as hugely popular in the country, but explained them with empty rhetoric. “He wants to protect the NHS” and “He wants to address the housing problem.” Which only begs the question, do the Tories not? And what about the Lib-Dems? If you want to understand the problems with young people on the left, you need to look no further.
Let’s break it down a little more. Of course I understand that people are angry at Tory cuts, at tax injustice, but name calling has proven time and time again, whether in the American election or here in the Brexit referendum, an absolute failure for the left. Theresa May is neither insane nor a megalomaniac. Branding her one immediately creates hostility. You’re broadcasting that you want a shouting match, not a debate. You don’t just disagree with her, but you personally dislike her. Already you’ve cut adrift millions of people who sympathise with Theresa May, but maybe dislike some of her policies. Have you really helped your cause? Let’s mention the words “Fascists” and “The elite” as well. Fascism is a brand of authoritarian, nationalist politics. Fascists don’t have to worry about votes in parliament, or back bench rebellions, and they certainly don’t advocate diversity. By immediately labelling a group “Fascist” or “The elite” you distance yourself from them, dehumanise them. Once again, you don’t want a debate, you don’t want to understand their point of view, you want to shut them down. Once again, millions of people who sympathise with Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, can’t and don’t want to talk to you, because you’ve made them feel plainly unwelcome. For them, it’s clear that if you don’t want to dissuade their fears about immigration and globalisation, they’ll turn to the far right, because there they can be heard without being antagonised, sadly in an echo chamber of their own.
Many young people are idealistic. Of course we are, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make the world a better place. The issue is, when things don’t go your way, and when people disagree with you or your heartfelt vision, many of us take it as a personal insult. From this position, you can never challenge your views, you can never develop, and you can never learn. Take Milo Yiannopoulos. I’m sure many people have read about his views and despise them. But have you actually taken the time to just listen to him speak? Instead of devising an insult, have you challenged yourself to come up with a competent response, a way to convince him that he’s wrong? Corbyn wants to increase the minimum wage to £10 an hour, and many young people are massively in favour of this. But have you ever actually read an article, in full, that challenged the economics behind it?
Read. Watch. Listen.
I’m not defending Milo. I’m not trying to convince you that the minimum wage rise is wrong. What I’m suggesting is that, for young people on the left to develop, to win our friends and older people to our side, we have to learn. That goes for me as much as anyone. If you think your position is the perfect one, I can tell you one thing. It isn’t. No one knows everything about a policy, a religion, a country, but we can be more informed. I believe in a future of persuasive, not inflammatory argument, and with every angry status, every fiery tweet, you make politics more hostile, more poisonous. Lord knows we don’t need any more of that.
We can no longer afford to shy away from uncomfortable facts or difficult truths which challenge our beliefs. We can no longer afford to antagonise people away from the left and force them into the hands of the far right. The left is the home of debate; it is our legacy, and we must seize it. Talk to people, listen to them, and develop your ideas when they hit the inevitable problems that reality throws at us. Embrace the challenge, don’t back away.
If we want to win, we can, and young people will lead the way.