The twilight of anti-coalition opposition

After the raging days of resistance, the left has become quiet, resigned and accepting.

The heady, raging days of resistance to the coalition government are over. In its place, a sense of weary resignation has begun to pervade the British left. The protests of 2010 now look to be a distant memory, whilst the crowds drawn by the March for the Alternative and the student movement have returned to the business of getting on with their lives.

Overcome by the unrelenting nationalist marketing surrounding the triple-whammy Wedding-Jubi-Lympics, we have shrugged, accepted it. If the whipping up of patriotic spirit has finished, for now, it is a tribute to conservatism that the rebirth of British pride can be heralded whilst the things to be proud of are systematically cut. The best that can be said of more cynical quarters is that our jaded eyes are turned to the new series of Downton. Resistance is dead, long live resignation.

So it should be lucky that there is a designated, official party in opposition. But Labour under Ed Miliband feels like a resounding disappointment. Locked in political stasis, the party lacks the bravery and the unity needed for an honest return to the left. Ostensible disagreement with the worst excesses of austerity masks an underlying agreement with the essence ofcCoalition ideology: cuts, economic deregulation, the maintenance of the status quo. Labour should be a rallying point for organised anti-coalition resistance. This current opposition appears to have lost the will for it.

At the same time, well-meaning unions and other leftist groups are straitjacketed, not just by sectarianism, but by the sheer volume of coalition attacks against the causes they stand for. With social justice, basic welfare and other naive ideas relegated to the box in the political attic labeled “Modern Compassionate Conservatism (contains Big Society)”, there is simply too much work to be done. We all know that TUC muttering about a general strike is likely remain just that: muttering. Any implementation of the lazy, occasional threat to outlaw strikes without a 50% union member turnout - ironic coming from a Conservative party without an electoral mandate - would simply formalise the existing situation.

This is frightening. David Cameron no longer needs to hide the return of the nasty party. The recent cabinet reshuffle was confirmation, if more were needed, that this government will continue to implement the most regressive, destructive set of “reforms” to much-needed British institutions since Thatcher. For sure, Liberal Democrat-flavoured policies do occasionally make it. Just as any reversal of the in-party marginalisation of leftist liberals by the Orange Bookers looks unlikely, however, so too has the party lost its leftist following. Despite Nick Clegg’s reference to a “turbo-charged right wing agenda” at his party conference this week, this concession to the social democratic end of the party is far too little, far too late.

The government’s targets are widely recognised: the poor, the young, women and the disabled, society’s most disenfranchised groups. Less noticed is the strategy behind it; for these attacks to provoke public resistance on any effective scale depends upon the ongoing empathy of more powerful groups. Amongst other factors, a lack of jobs across the board maintains the massive protests in Greece and in Spain. In contrast, our coalition’s toxic stew of cuts and privatization is cleverly directed towards the already disadvantaged. With widespread rhetoric stigmatizing these groups as blameworthy anyway, and in the context of a largely ineffective political opposition, there is only so long that the average person will be motivated to protest for others.

A twilight has descended upon anti-coalition opposition. For now it is mostly quiet, resigned and accepting. What protests it musters rarely make headlines, and in all this talk of politics there are still (for those lucky enough to have one) jobs to go to, children to raise, social engagements to be kept. For those who can afford it, there are lives to be led. In any case, resistance appears not to make much difference. Radicalism isn’t cool anymore. But whilst the left may have put its gloves on and gone home, we can be sure that the government is just getting started.

The crowds drawn by the student movement have "returned to the business of getting on with their lives". Photograph: Getty Images.

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy. Her website is here.

Jeremy Corbyn speaks to the media as he leaves a radio hustings on August 25, 2015 in Stevenage. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Corbyn's compromises show that he isn't so different from his rivals

The Labour leadership frontrunner is a politician after all. 

Jeremy Corbyn is lauded by his supporters for his honesty and conviction. His repudiation of the shabby compromises and realpolitik of Westminster. With no less fervour, he is denounced by his opponents as an unreconstructed ideologue, a man allergic to compromise. But as the Labour leadership contest reaches its denouement, the frontrunner is showing his pragmatic side. 

Having declared his support for British withdrawal from Nato ("I'd rather we weren't in it," he told the NS), Corbyn acknowledged at yesterday's Mirror hustings that there wasn't "an appetite as a whole for people to leave" and that he would instead call for the body to "restrict its role". The next Labour manifesto, should he oversee it, will not oppose membership (even the "longest suicide note in history" did not). Corbyn's compromise should not come as a surprise. Senior MPs told me that it would be all but impossible for him to find a shadow foreign secretary prepared to advocate withdrawal. On Tuesday, Andy Burnham, one of the few senior figures prepared to serve under the left-winger, had declared that he would resign rather than oppose membership. On this issue, Corbyn has shown that he is prepared to reach an accommodation with his colleagues and, more significantly, with the electorate - the act for which his rivals are condemned. 

Nor is this the first time that Corbyn has put pragmatism before principle. After refusing to rule out supporting EU withdrawal, he later clarified that "We cannot be content with the state of the EU as it stands. But that does not mean walking away, but staying to fight together for a better Europe." On the monarchy, the lifelong republican ruled that abolition could wait because "my priority is social justice" (another dreaded compromise with the electorate). If, as seems certain, Corbyn is elected leader, more trade-offs will surely follow. Once principles have been conceded a few times for reasons of electability or practicality it is harder to avoid doing so again. Corbyn, it turns out, is a politician after all. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.