It was a cold, windswept, sleeting, bleak mid November day on the Lancaster University campus back in 1993 when I realised that the politics of the far left would never win heart and minds, votes or elections. And it sure as hell would never win me back either.
I was 18. It was my first term studying politics and the Higher Education Minister of the tiring Tory government, Tim Boswell, had come to meet the top bods of the university. Boswell was in charge of overseeing the legislation that would be the final nail in the coffin of paying grants to poorer students like me to help them stay afloat whilst doing their degree and would instead saddle them with debts via the delightful Student Loan Company.
A demo had been advertised for more than two months to the 9,000 students to attend to show what they thought of this attack on the least well off who were trying to get a leg up. At the very least, given Lancaster had one of the largest politics departments in the country, I thought there would be a good showing of political students to show what they thought of this erosion of a basic donation to helping the poor get a better education and a better chance in life.
I arrived at 9.30 in the morning. To my dismay there were just 50 people gathered to show their displeasure. Worse still was that out of that 50, only ten of us had actually come to protest against the grant abolition and the introduction of debt-inducing loans. Ten were there to protest against Section 28 and governmental homophobia, another 15 to demonstrate against disability benefit cuts and then a gaggle of 15 or so Socialist Worker banner carrying self confessed Trotsky hard left rent-a-mob protesters who were simply there to be there.
We waited in a carpark outside the main entrance to where the Provost and the like were gathered for their meeting. Aside from the rent-a-mob, we were cold, wet and miserable and not really buoyed by the sporadic chants of ‘Tory, Tory, Tory, out, out, out’. Three hours after we arrived, to his credit, Boswell came to meet us and take questions from the few of us who had stayed. A disable rights activist got the first question in, I can’t remember what about. But whilst Boswell was answering, a placard carrying Trot tried to come from behind to, in his words after the event, ‘twat the fucking tory scum’.
Unsurprisingly he missed. The security staff easily managed to push the pillock out of the way, grabbed the Minister and bunged him in the awaiting Jag and sped off. The Socialist Worker types were delighted with what they had done and saw it as a victory. I, and the other non-Trot protesters, just saw it as a waste of everyone’s time and put me off thinking of becoming involved in truly left wing politics ever again.
I tell this shaggy dog story, not as some Uncle Albert ramble harking back to halcyon times. But because it demonstrates that the left never learns. I say this having read a fascinating and grim article by a friend of mine who is a member of the newly formed National Committee of Momentum, the recently formed Jeremy Corbyn campaign group. In it she describes a scene reminiscent both of my car park experience where the hard left resort to verbal and physical abuse to bully people to get their way, and, of Life of Brian, where the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front hate each other to such an extent that they leave the Roman masters victorious without them having to lift a finger.
It tells of haggard old left wing has-beens being as patronising, sexist and fearful of anything new or smelling like change as any Tory old guard. It shows how nepotism, egotism and in-breeding litter the left and much as the right. It demonstrates how those who led the failure of previous campaigns – from Respect to Stop the War – now nail their colours to the Momentum mast without either realising they lost or learning a thing from their ignominious defeat. And it describes of rather than drawing on the support and campaign tactics of those hundreds of thousands who led Corbyn to a Labour leadership victory, they want to go back to their tired old Cold War ideologies and tactics to boost their power base at the expense of ousting a pretty gruesome Conservative government.
And this is why the right will always win in Anglo-Saxon style democracies. The right can campaign on two simple messages that can be combined into an easy slogan -‘Profit without change’. It allows people to feel good about tapping into their own greed and believe it will be them that wins the capitalist lottery of making money, getting a good education and living somewhere nice. It helps people feel they are already in a decent enough position and can stay there by stopping change or allowing anyone else, like migrants, to come and get a slice of the action. And it conveys a simple sense of purpose and direction for even the least bright to understand and believe in. Sure there are different slogans and grades of financial greed compared to fear of the new or distaste of the unusual. But they are all still the same three things.
Yet on the left, aside from everyone being very grumpy, very serious and very angry, there is no common thread to their beliefs. They want to keep industries like steel and coal alive but want to have an environmentally friendly planet. They want to feed the world and provide a more equal planet without explaining how the resources of the world could cope with that. They want to unilaterally disarm without saying how the likes of Russia, North Korea or Israel can be kept in check. They hate entities like the European Union but also want institutions big enough to keep banks from controlling the world. They want to nationalise lots of stuff but never say what the criteria is for doing so and hate it that RBS was saved. The list is endless. Policies and beliefs that not only directly contradict other left wing groups but all too often contradict an individual’s views. And this lends itself to confusion, division and argument and leaves those that need convincing confused and a bit weirded-out. In short, the left defeats itself by repeating the same mistakes and never learning from history.
In the short term, in that carpark all those years ago, even if the Minister had taken all our questions without that pratt trying to smack him, nothing would have changed. Grants would have still ended and the Tories would have stayed in power til the ’97 election. Yet longer term, that hard core left wing mob isolated and turned off 35 passionate protesters from their cause forever. People who were still young and chomping at the bit to help affect social change for the good of the majority who struggle day-to-day were turned into resigned citizens who felt that whilst the status quo was awful, it would never be as if that mob got a sniff of power. They did that then to just 35 of us. But how will be turned off by the behaviour of the old/new leaders of Momentum and to the cause of solid, pragmatic left wing politics. My guess would be tens, if not hundreds of thousands and will leave the British right wing rubbing their hands with glee as the left consigns itself to the dustbin of history.