Yesterday, I experienced something entirely new. I finally learnt what it felt like to celebrate an election result.
To be honest, I’d given up hope of ever having this experience. I thought my politics were simply too far to the left, and I would never find a candidate to cheer. I could certainly never muster any enthusiasm for Tony Blair’s victories. The fact that he was elected again after the criminal disaster of the Iraq war is something I’ll never understand, but long before that, it was clear that he did not in any way represent my views of how we should organise society. And the less said about David Cameron, the better.
But this year’s UK General Election was different. My approach to politics is very simple: ignore the newspapers, ignore the soundbites and scandals, ignore the opinion polls, and simply read the manifestos. Reality never completely matches the pledges, but it at least tells you where they’re coming from.
Labour’s manifesto was the first one in my lifetime that more or less reflected my views. “For the many, not the few” was not just an empty slogan—the manifesto backed it up by dealing with real issues of inequality, social justice, the environment, etc., and offering well-thought-out proposals funded by taxing the very rich. It even mentioned renationalising some of the public services that have been disastrously sold off to inept private owners. That’s been off the political agenda in the UK for about 30 years.
And, although I hate all the focus on personalities, it was also good that the party’s leader was, finally, someone I could respect.
Of course, all the celebrations on the left are a little strange. Theresa May is still Prime Minister, and Labour failed to win a majority. But the fact that she called this election specifically to strengthen her majority and ended up obliterating it, the fact that she started with a 20-point lead in the opinion polls and ended up with pretty much nothing, the fact that every sensible media pundit predicted a total disaster if Jeremy Corbyn and his dangerously radical policies were put before the British people, the fact that Corbyn had to overcome so many brutal attacks from within his own party, the fact that so many young people turned out to vote for hope over negativity: all of these things and more make this a very good time to be a so-called Corbynista.
And, for me, there’s one more reason to celebrate. I have lived my entire adult life under the political shadow of one odious phrase: “There Is No Alternative.” The Cold War was over, and capitalism had won. It was the end of history. Politicians still argued, of course, but it was over the precise size of the cuts to public services or of the tax cuts to the rich. The overall trajectory—a huge transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich—was uncontested.There was no alternative to unrestrained capitalism, increasing inequality, privatisation of public resources, brutal cuts to the few government services left, and so on. People like me were left to write lonely articles in leftist journals to audiences of other people like me.
But now, people are starting to say “no” to the intellectually crippling idea of TINA. Theresa May was this week’s casualty, but she’s not the first representative of the neoliberal order to go optimistically to the polls with the support of the bulk of the newspaper columnists and TV pundits and get the electoral equivalent of the middle finger.
Think of Hillary Clinton in the USA, who lost an election that seemed impossible to lose. (Note: alternatives are not always ones you agree with, but that goes with the territory. Trump is not an anti-capitalist, but he did promise an alternative to an elitist system that people are tired of. And Bernie Sanders gained huge popularity from talking about things that are supposed to be anathema in US politics.) Think of France, where the two traditional main parties only got around a quarter of the vote in the recent Presidential elections. Think of Matteo Renzi in Italy, who thought he was popular enough to win a constitutional referendum but was proved wrong.
And then there was Brexit, of course. There were lots of reasons for the Brexit vote, but one of them was the fact that millions of people felt abandoned and left behind, squeezed by years of austerity and unrepresented by Westminster. And the fact that most of the mainstream politicians and the responsible media pundits were urging people to vote “Remain” probably helped to enlarge the “Leave” vote. I don’t want to simplify Brexit into a protest vote over economic conditions, but it was certainly a factor.
These recent election results don’t mean that neoliberalism is dead. They just mean that serious alternatives are now on the agenda again. And, whether you agree with those alternatives or not, I think it’s a good thing that our elections are becoming broader. All those years of TINA led to some pretty ugly results in our society. With none of the major political parties offering serious solutions to problems of inequality and inadequate public services, those who had lost their jobs or were on zero-hours contracts as a result of the neoliberal economic agenda turned to other explanations, like immigration. And, of course, they were encouraged in this not only by right-wing ideologues but by the very mainstream politicians who had no interest in offering serious solutions.
In other words, when people are suffering and no alternative is possible in mainstream politics, they’ll turn to alternatives outside the mainstream. And the results of that might not be good. So if you don’t like the policies of people like Corbyn and Sanders, at least like the fact that they’re offering people an alternative within the frame of the democratic process. Even if they don’t win, they give people a voice, and that can only be a good thing.
So goodbye, TINA, and hello to a more interesting phase of political life.