The real reason why it doesn’t matter who you vote for
Which party stands for humanity's history-making potential?
The unspoken issue in the UK General Election campaign is our collective loss of faith in the future and the capacity of humanity to make its own history. It afflicts all of the parties, the left at least as much as the right. Unless this problem is addressed, and we try to create a new culture of human self-determination, then none of today’s petty political debates and differences can make much of a difference to our destiny.
‘They’re all the same.’ You can hear that dismissive attitude towards politicians everywhere now. Where once such blanket cynicism tended to be the preserve of the politically ignorant and uninterested, now it is common even – or perhaps especially – among the politically literate. People complain that New Labour is a Tory party, that the Conservatives are too much like Blair, that the Lib Dems are mimicking Labour in Labour seats and the Tories in Tory ones.
The lack of genuine choice is particularly stark in the election. Debate is still dominated by the politics of TINA – There Is No Alternative. That phrase was used by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s as a battle cry of capitalist triumphalism. Today it rather reflects a downbeat, fatalistic acceptance on all sides that we live in a market economy where far-reaching social change is neither possible nor desirable. TINA’s influence is obvious in all of the election manifestos, where the differences on major issues such as the economy or foreign policy are more narrow than in living memory, and the parties scour the margins of the political arena to find issues on which they might make a distinctive stand (see Where have all the good slogans gone?, by Jennie Bristow).
Of course, the major parties are not really ‘all the same’. There are still differences in the detail of their politics and their promises. Polly Toynbee, the Guardian writer, insists that we should vote Labour because if the Conservatives were returned to power, very poor people would be worse off. That may be factually correct, and if that is what moves you, then you might want to vote Labour as an act of charity, the electoral equivalent of wearing fancy dress to raise money on Red Nose day. However, those of us who have slightly higher political ambitions, who want to see a wider debate about changing society, are not impressed by such diminished notions of political choice.
There is a far bigger issue underlying the lack of electoral choice. It is the absence on all sides of any idea of humanity’s history-making potential. Politicians and commentators now seem to be cut off from the past, yet fearful of the future. They are locked in the present, endlessly going over the managerial minutiae of how to meet immediate targets for spending or healthcare or something else. There is little sign of grand visions of how the Good Society should look – and no ideas as to how such a society might be brought into existence.
The belief in people having the capacity to come together and change the big things was once a principle on the left. But the right also had a sense of destiny and a belief that history was worth fighting for. Politics was centred on the figure of the active human subject. Now it views us more as passive objects to whom things happen.
There are no longer any political parties or movements with roots in society, that could give people a sense of greater things being possible. This is often seen as a shift from the collective to the individual. But it is more than that. The decline of the old collective institutions has not been matched by the rise of any robust self-assured individualism. Instead, the typical citizen of our age is seen as an overwhelmingly vulnerable individual, insecure and in need of ever-greater protection from all manner of supposed threats, a victim waiting to happen.
This assumption of our vulnerability runs right through the policies of every major party standing in the 2005 election. It is clear in all the various strands of their politics of fear, from the self-terrorising view of terrorism, through the doom-mongering about man-made global warming, to the assumption that feeble humanity is now at the mercy of microscopic ‘super-bugs’ such as MRSA. So long as this demoralised view of the human condition prevails, politics can have little deeper meaning.
An aside on the left. Several spiked readers have written to ask why, since the mainstream parties are all the same, we don’t show our opposition by supporting a left-wing alternative such as the Respect coalition, even if we disagree with some of its policies. But the problem with these ‘alternatives’ goes much further than that. At a more profound level, they reflect the same downbeat attitude as the other parties. Indeed, the demoralisation of the left is often worse. Respect’s opposition to the Iraq war, for instance, its most noteworthy stand, has been based on the politics of Not In My Name – the slogan, as we have argued before, of political disengagement (see The politics of the lonely crowd, by Frank Furedi). On other issues, as Brendan O’Neill points out elsewhere on spiked, their manifesto endorses some of the worst contemporary prejudices about risk, science and human destructiveness (see Behind the ‘Battle of Bethnal Green’, by Brendan O’Neill). This is socialism as self-loathing and it means that Respect often sounds like the most conservative voice in this most conservative election.
When asked if I am left-wing these days, I tend to say that I am on the left, but not of it. The political label ‘Left’ originated during the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, to describe those who came together on that side of the National Assembly to champion liberty and the Enlightenment ethos of rationalism and science, against autocracy and clerical reaction. It is hard to see somebody like Gorgeous George Galloway standing among them on the strength of the Respect ticket, which does not even have the gumption to call for the abolition of the monarchy.
We need a new debate about how to raise horizons, and put human self-determination at the centre of political life. Without that, it really does not matter who you vote for, it will make little difference to the future. The flipside is that, whoever you do vote for – or if you don’t vote at all – you can still be part of this debate. Forget about left and right for now. In the first instance we have to establish the belief that humans can make their own history, even if not in circumstances of their own making. Otherwise, to rewrite the New Labour slogan, things will never get better.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: Election 2005
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