There is a very old joke which says the United States is governed by a single political party with two right wings. Something similar is certainly true of the UK, where the differences between the largest (or, at least, most vocal) parties are often so small as to be hardly worth talking about. With very rare exceptions, it can be difficult to tell which policies emanate from which party. That is why – regardless of the way we vote as individuals or as a nation – we invariably end up with a conservative government wedded to political, economic and social hegemony.
There is a deeply reactionary consensus at the heart of British politics which demands that debate be kept within acceptably narrow bounds. A hairline crack between political stances can be magnified to the scale of a bottomless ideological chasm by commentators eager to maintain the illusion that fundamental differences exist. While disagreements certainly do occur, they are usually strands of the same conservative discourse. The minute there is an outbreak of real democracy, where genuinely different perspectives are aired and debated, when a departure from received wisdom becomes even a remote possibility, then retribution is swift and unrelenting (as here) (and here). We cannot be allowed to talk about such things. We must not even think them. And the persons responsible for this existential threat must be stopped at any price.
This is not a party political point (I do not support any of the principal UK political parties).
Thus, the reaction to the recent Labour Party leadership contest is both exemplary and entirely predictable. One candidate dared to break ranks and enunciate the unthinkable. He had to be ridiculed, marginalized, ejected, crushed, despite the fact (one might say, because) he had tremendous popular support. It is unsurprising that politicians and commentators of all stripes formed a holy alliance to combat this egregious political apostasy. They find it deeply threatening. Wealth, privilege and power must be protected.
One has to wonder what function a political party serves if it is obliged to duplicate the values and policies of its chief rivals in order to gain power. Why should anyone care whether or not it is elected? We have long since ceased to believe everything politicians tell us, and have learned to judge political parties by their deeds rather than their promises.
This is not a party political point (I do not support any of the principal UK political parties). It is not even about who is right or wrong about a particular issue, or who gets elected. Whatever our political opinions, and regardless of the way we vote, we should all be immensely concerned about this state of affairs. Must all political opposition be branded illegitimate? Do we wish to live in a democracy or are we content to settle for its simulacrum? Are we really that frightened of ourselves?
Many – perhaps even most – of the political and social policies that affect our lives on a global scale are made by individuals and organizations exempt from democratic scrutiny. They operate via networks of power, privilege and influence that ordinary mortals seldom encounter. Democracy is not a destination we have long since arrived at, but a distant terminus on a long and arduous journey. We must be prepared to undertake that journey if we are to solve the tremendous problems of environmental catastrophe, poverty and injustice that now threaten the very survival of humankind.
Let’s not rush blindly to oblivion simply because we cannot be bothered to think of an alternative.