Ham-face: what do you do when your family love the politicians you despise? Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/WPA Pool/Getty
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What it’s like to be the lone left-winger in a right-wing family

My grandma thinks Cameron’s a charming, intelligent young man. I think he's a slippery, gammon-faced Putin-lite.

It was during a rather self-righteous conversation about where and when the Niqab should be banned that it really hit me. If life were the House of Commons, I would be staring at my entire family from the other side.

My father and his partner had invited me to stay with them in a cabin in the countryside. Not only did the prospect of a free holiday entice me, but I was curious to see what a few days away from the thinking, talking and writing about politics I did at work would do for my incipient wrinkles and growing cynicism.

But uninspiring weather and the subsequent cabin fever made for relaxation that turned swiftly to mild boredom, wine and finally, politics. I knew in the back of my mind that my family were all Conservative voters, but being reminded of their unfortunate affliction before the wounds of this year's general election were fully healed didn't make for a fun holiday activity.

I was born in South Shields, a deprived town in north-east England that earned its bygone riches on the docks. I come from a working-class Labour stronghold, and, I’d like to think, from ancestors who would be as disgusted as I am with the Conservatives’ neoliberal crusade.

We moved onto richer pastures and left the stark images of Britain’s true working class behind while I was still in single digits, but the backdrop to my formative years has stayed with me.

I know that coming from a working class background isn’t guaranteed to turn one into a raving socialist, just as much as having five middle names doesn’t guarantee entry into the Bullingdon club.

The conflicting views of Ed and David Miliband on how Labour should run the country are a good example of how nurture and background alone aren’t enough to define your politics. But a family of raving Tories with Geordie accents makes for a perplexing sight.

My mother’s career has involved several stints as an employee of the NHS. After my parents’ divorce, financial help from the state in the form of my free school meals and university maintenance grant (now loan – thanks to Osborne) helped alleviate their financial strain.

We also have a relative with learning difficulties, whose care home is suffering funding cuts. It's not as simple as north, poor and left versus south, rich and right, but Labour should be the natural party of my family nevertheless.

Any attempts to lure my more suggestible parent (my mother) away from the Conservatives have been fruitless. Before this year’s general election, I asked her why she was voting Conservative. “Because Ed Miliband is so negative,” she said. “Whenever I see him on TV, all he does is complain and say everything the Conservatives do is wrong.”

After narrowly avoiding a burst blood vessel, I told her this was the opposition’s job, unless the opposition was the Conservatives and they were backing Labour’s spending plan penny-for-penny before the financial crash. But let’s not talk about the financial crash, because according to the Browns, that was all Labour’s fault.

And it spreads further than my parents. My grandma thinks Cameron’s a charming, intelligent young man. I think he's a slippery, gammon-faced Putin-lite; an opinion she didn’t take to very well.

While on holiday, my father’s partner recounted a weird experience she’d had at the polling station on election day. She said the man in the booth next to her asked for help, in an Eastern European accent. “He didn’t know what to do, so I had to explain it to him. Then he asked me who he should vote for,” she said.

“I bet he just came over here to vote. I bet he wasn’t even a British citizen,” my father chimed in. In his defense, and to my relief, he stopped short of “send ‘em all back”.

For a long time I felt like I’d missed out because my parents didn’t really attempt to engage me in politics when I was younger. But being left to figure it out for myself has been a blessing in disguise.

The only way I’d pick the party that favours the rich, hides behind the much-debunked trickle-down theory and favours corporation over compassion is if I’d had been drilled into me from an early age that it was right.

It’s unfortunate that my family don’t see things the same way, but I think our bond will withstand our differences. Just so long our next holiday has less wine and better weather.

Photo: Getty
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Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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