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.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.