By David Renton
Watching the Conservative leadership election, as a lifelong Labour voter, is a uniquely dispiriting experience. The problem is not just the familiar one that, bad as the next Conservative leader is likely to be, as lazy as a David Cameron, as wooden as a Theresa May, as egotistical and as corrupt as a Boris Johnson, the hapless Labour frontbench is already conspiring to lose to her. The misery goes deeper than that.
For, in that election, the Conservative grassroots faces a choice: business as usual under Sunak, or an interventionist state under Truss, and the latter is the odds-on favourite. What we are likely to see, in other words, is a continuation of a certain style of right-wing politics, “populism”, which has dominated in Britain and across the world since 2016, and in relation to which the Parliamentary Labour Party still has no answers.
Since 1979 we have been living under the domination of a shared set of politics, which was accepted by the leaders of both of our main parties. It held that the point of the state is to divert resources from poor to rich. In its original version, it insisted that state would create markets where they did not exist before, in everything from housing to greenhouse gas emissions. In its later version, the state was intended to offer a few people a way out – not to the poor, not workers, not trade unionists – but to a small number of determined careerists whose success would offer the echo of success, a degree of symbolic representation to those vast groups of people who have been the victims of sexism, racism, etc.
Long before championing either ordinary or social neoliberalism had ceased to be an effective way for candidates to win election, these ideas had ceased to resonate with the majority of voters, whether on the left or the right.
Part of the reason for the disconnect is that we have reached a point in society where most voters’ distress with the world and with democracy is past the point where they will any longer listen to politicians promising them more of the same.
In my book, Against the Law, I write about just one part of this crisis of democracy: the sense that the state exists, and subjects people to rules which the vast majority of people neither know (although, they rightly suspect those rules are there) or have any ability to change.
What the right wing populists grasp – and the parliamentary left is incapable of admitting – is that for 40 years, the number of laws has been accumulating faster than ever before. All of us are increasingly bound to each other not merely by the informal conventions of society -courtesy, consideration, the sense that you should be as kind to other people as you ask them to be to you – but by a series of enforceable rules.
Think, for example, of what happens when you go to work. Your employer offers you a standard-form contract, which you have no meaningful chance to negotiate. That contract has certain terms: your pay, the place in which you work, etc.
The problem is not so much these overt rules which you can read in your written contract, but the covert ones which underpin them. Are you entitled to maternity or paternity leave, and on what terms? Are you entitled to a series of breaks during the day; if so, how long? Can you request leave when you are sick? Are you entitled to paid leave in an emergency? Can your employer dismiss you from an unpaid but high-status role? Can you request – or is your employer mandated to give you – a right to return to work if you have been absent because you were menstruating, because you were pregnant, or because you were living through the menopause?
Now think what happens when you go home. You find yourself arguing online with a stranger. Surely something, someone out there can defend you: has that stranger libelled you? Is the insult they used so toxic that it amounts to a hate crime? Are the police obliged to record it, if you complain to them? Must they prosecute? Can they prosecute?
The answers to some of these questions are now so complicated that even experienced lawyers could spend hours debating them. In all areas of our life, in relation to housing, to insurance, to consumer purchases, the rules have become so tortuous – and the politicians and our press so obviously mendacious in pretending to explain them – that millions of people feel accurately that experts have abandoned them. This over-reach of the law is bad for democracy, encourages paranoia, invites people to fear some vague and mysterious other: ‘the elites’, ‘globalists’, Jews…
What populism offers voters is the pretence of starting over. So with Brexit, voters were told they could take back control by removing what we were told was an abundance of workplace and environmental law all made hundreds of miles from the UK’s shores.
The idea was never that the promises would be followed through. The point was that the promises were made: voters’ anger was seen and acknowledged.
This is the reason why, for example, Sir Keir Starmer is incapable of outpolling Liz Truss, incompetent as the latter obviously is, and as even her strongest supporters admit, incapable of looking a voter in the eye or holding anyone’s attention for a single minute with a speech. Because she tells voters what they want to hear, that Britain is broken.
While he tells voters is rather that Britain is fine and they are foolish and misguided to disagree. People need to adapt themselves to whatever consensus the grownups insist on. New Labour decided that it would make itself seem economically credible by promising not to increase any taxes for five years. Keir Starmer’s Labour wants to make itself seem politically credible by promising to keep every Conservative law in perpetuity.
Allowing the right to present themselves as the party of change is a strategic error. Labour positions itself in right wing voters’ minds as the party of the officious bureaucrat: in some unacknowledged but real alliance with those French customs officials who can be blamed for the reintroduction of passport controls in Dover.
Meanwhile the Party tells left wing voters that it is just as desperate as the keenest Conservative ideologue to see the world heat up, and to see BP burning the planet. At least, when the last tree goes up in flames, there will be a Union Jack planted on its crown.
For those of us who believe in something better, the answer has to be a return to the streets, to put such pressure on each of our main parties – over wages, the cost of living, and everything else – that the rich and their allies in the press and Parliament have no choice but reluctantly to accept the rightness of our arguments. In relation to the law, as to everything else, we need to make the left once again the party of change. Reduce the law, simplify it, keep only those rules which would save the environment or help workers or the poor.
David Renton is a barrister and the author of Against the Law: Why Justice Requires Fewer Laws and a Smaller State, which was published by Repeater in July.
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