A few weeks ago, in the latest of my frequent attempts to leave my dirty fingerprints all over the British political lexicon, I coined a term for the growing Tory habit of dismissing any even mildly left-wing idea by spluttering about Stalinism.
The equivalent trend in online debate for people to start yelling about Nazis has long been known as Godwin’s Law, after Mike Godwin, the American Lawyer who termed it. But I’m a modest sort of egomaniac, so I decided instead to name mine after a rising Tory star who is among the most active in demonstrating it. Cleverly’s Law is named for the Braintree MP James Cleverly, and states: “As any debate about Labour policy continues, the chances that a passing Tory will compare a left-winger to Stalin or Mao approaches 1.”
I mention all this partly because I’m determined to make Cleverly’s Law a thing and that’s more likely to happen if I keep going on about it, but also because it’s been much in evidence for the last few weeks. And I think this says more about the weakness of the right’s current position than they realise.
An oft-heard corollary to Godwin’s Law, after all, is that the person who first invokes Hitler has lost the relevant argument (although, this being 2017, the waters have been muddied somewhat by the growing prevalence of actual neo-Nazis). There’s a section of John O’Farrell’s memoir, Things Can Only Get Better, where he describes an argument his undergraduate self had with an older, Tory relative, and he does much the same. Describing the incident over 15 years later, O’Farrell is acutely aware that throwing references to fascism around is a sign he was struggling to make a real argument.
You can find similar passages in many other lefty memoirs covering the period. The popularity of something as horrible as Thatcherism was so mystifying to the left that many of those most worried about the damage it was doing to the social fabric struggled to articulate why its fans should care. Couldn’t they see that they were wrong? Isn’t that enough?
This, I think, is where right-wingers are now. They’re so terrified of Corbynism – not in a “We don’t like to lose elections” way, but in a “Can’t you see how dangerous this is?” way – that they’ve forgotten how to make their case. They’ve forgotten that they even have to. To them, obviously Labour is now hard left, and obviously the hard left is wrong. What more needs to be said?
Well: if the polls are to be believed, rather a lot, actually. There are two problems with simply yelling, “Communism!” every time anyone talks about – to pick two popular but contested left wing ideas at random – rail nationalisation or rent controls.
One is that the reason these policies are popular is that the status quo is broken: people feel they’re paying a lot of money to get something terrible. Dismissing all attempts to address that problem as the road to the gulag suggests either that you don’t think there’s a problem, or that you don’t know how to solve it. Neither is conducive to persuading people to vote for you.
The other is that it risks pushing moderate or liberal young voters further to the left. If someone having a shitty life is repeatedly told that any policy which might improve things is rampant socialism, then they might start to wonder whether rampant socialism might not be better than what we have now.
All this is fine with me: a bigger state and a more redistributive economy sounds like a rather fine idea (plus, Virgin Trains will no longer be able to play advertisements for Daddy’s Home 2 at you while you’re on the train loo). But the right-wingers should know that if they want to win back the voters they lost last June, they need to do more than smear their opponents. They need to come up with solutions of their own.