Is the UK in the Mood for Socialism?

We’ve given capitalism a chance — did it measure up to expectations?

In the UK and the US there is growing interest in socialism, brought about by the failures of neoliberal capitalism, and carried by supposedly unlikely leaders who have resonated with the public. Many people are experiencing extreme hardship; as a result of this, support for trade unions, socialist politicians and independent media has grown. For now, this support is coming mainly from the working and lower middle classes, but it has the potential to grow if things continue to get worse for the average British or American citizen — and/or if the middle classes reassess their conscience and decide that the current system is unacceptable.

That’s a difficult one to gauge, as we cannot yet see into the minds of others (although it’s probably part of neoliberalism’s ultimate goal). But as soon as the cutbacks to public services start to harm the middle classes, we will. Although traditionally left-wing media is covering the impact of British austerity policies on the poorest, readers of the Telegraph and Daily Mail are unlikely to be paying much attention to these stories. A lot of them simply do not know about the suffering and deprivation spreading through the poorest communities, as they do not read other papers or access the internet. They may have heard about some of these stories, but do not believe they are true or particularly common. They may not have chosen this echo chamber, but it is an echo chamber nonetheless.

Others, however, feel indifference, or even spite towards the most vulnerable. It’s hardly a surprise given the current stance on welfare and immigration. Britain and America have adopted divisive policies that place scrutiny on individuals, rather than the societies and systems they inhabit. In Britain particularly, a harsh stance has been taken on welfare claimants. Since 2005, the Conservative Party has pushed the message of “workers vs. shirkers”, invoking the Victorian ideology of the deserving and undeserving poor. The line between them has blurred, so that now all poor and sick people are treated like “benefit scroungers” until they prove themselves worthy of our pity.

As much as I’d like to believe people are inherently good, the level of suffering we are willing to condone in our society says otherwise. Not everyone thinks the poor deserve to suffer. Many of the general public do not know, either through ignorance or selective attention. Most Conservative voters probably do believe that anyone can improve their life through hard work, and that welfare claimants should be encouraged to get a job. Many of them may stick to that line and choose not to listen to news that challenges their view. But there are plenty of people who do know about the widespread hardship in the UK, and are absolutely fine with it — and there are too many of them.

This mean-spirited and individualistic trend has taken over the whole country. What Cameron started has been expanded upon by May, so that in just thirteen years, our opinion on welfare and the economy has become distorted. At the start of this century, there was much discontent among parts of the electorate that the Labour government was seemingly wasteful with taxpayers’ money. A lot of fear was raised over benefit claimants, especially foreign ones, and there were calls for welfare reform. But most of the population was happy with their own lives and finances, and there wasn’t the will to change things. But following the 2008 recession, the Conservatives seized the opportunity to criticise Labour’s economic policies and blame them for Britain’s financial misfortunes. The mood changed to one of frugality and looking after our own, and 2010 saw the Conservatives elected to power on a platform of austerity and ‘fixing’ a broken society.

Criticisms of Tory policies surfaced every so often, with the Chancellor George Osborne getting booed at the 2012 Paralympic Games (he made cuts to disability benefits and made it harder to claim) and concern over Home Secretary Theresa May’s Hostile Environment campaign, refusal to accept a fair number of refugees, and the Windrush Scandal. But reports of these injustices did not surface in large numbers, and most people wouldn’t have been affected or known anyone who was — so the level of concern would have been pretty low. Most people might not have seen anything wrong with the racist immigration policies of the time because centre-right politicians had skilfully convinced the public that migrants were a drain on our society, assisted by xenophobic far-right propaganda that went largely unchallenged.

Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” mantra was alive and well. Those who relied on state support were viewed as irresponsible and unwilling to take care of themselves. Cutbacks were made to local councils and public services, which went unnoticed for many and mostly affected the poorest. Still, there just wasn’t the outcry over these changes — things had not become that bad yet, and not enough of Middle England knew or cared about it.

They still don’t, but things are going to come to a head pretty soon. The emergency services are stretched to breaking point, parts of the NHS are being sold off, and schools are suffering. It could be a major test of our public services that tips things over the edge, or it could be something mundane. I keep hearing people complaining about potholes — wouldn’t it be a thing if that’s what brings the government down? But the present government has far more to be worried about than road surfacing. Brexit is the current test of their power, and a convenient distraction from all of the other problems. The ‘leave’ vote was driven by many concerns; parliament, the Conservative Party, and the public, are divided over it. In trying to please everyone with a watered-down Brexit deal, the Prime Minister is pleasing no-one.

It’s entirely possible that the government’s inability to provide a Brexit that people thought they would get could be their downfall. Our votes are more based on identity and emotion than a rigorous analysis of each party’s manifesto, and Brexit was an incredibly emotive issue. For many, it is the only issue, and a betrayal by the government will cost them votes. But that doesn’t necessarily pave the way to a socialist utopia.

The Labour Party have connected with the young and given them hope in a bleak and unfriendly UK. The Conservatives’ policies have harmed them personally in many cases, but they are also more likely to hear about the hardships suffered by the marginalised, due to their exposure to social media and independent publications. The old messages of self-sufficiency and greed don’t speak to the new generation of voters. There are new challenges, especially if we leave the EU, and the old ways aren’t working. But it’s whether enough people notice this, and care enough to change it, that will be the deciding factor in the direction this country takes.

Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had a very rough ride to get to where he is, having been challenged as party leader twice since his original candidacy. Those who sought to unseat him are centrists that look back to the success of the Blair years and believe that replicating his formula is the only way for Labour to return to power. But Corbyn’s appeal to the young and disadvantaged indicates that we could be ready for something a little different. The 2016 general election cemented Corbyn’s place as Leader of the Opposition, removing May’s majority and indicating discontent with the current administration.

There’s still fear among the old, a fear of Labour, and a fear of socialism. The idea that other people may benefit from our taxes is still seen as theft by many. But those who embrace socialism see it as a duty to meet certain minimum standards for all in society, regardless of their social class or working status. This way of thinking is more in line with William Beveridge’s 1942 report, Social Insurance and Allied Services, and the UN Development goals. Speaking of the UN, their Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights paid a visit to the UK, and his findings were damning. Conservative policies have now become a human rights issue, a sign that their reforms have failed to deliver what was promised. Instead of encouraging the poor into work, they have been forced into even worse poverty and in some cases, onto the streets.

The battle of Socialism vs. Neoliberalism is a battle of ideas and a battle of outcomes. Living under the most recent incarnation of Conservatism, it is clear that their ideology has not mapped to reality. Tough love has not helped anyone to improve their circumstances, in fact it has just been tough. Welfare reforms and cutbacks to public services have cost more money overall, and yet we are still paying the same amount of tax. Not only have we seen a human rights catastrophe so bad that the UN got called in, but we don’t even have any savings to show for it. And yet, the idea of a small state and personal accountability is still attractive to many — those who don’t face the same challenges as those on benefits. And there are a lot of these people.

Socialism works on the principle that resources are owned by a society and distributed fairly. The type of socialism that Britain is most familiar with is that of the post-war government of Clement Attlee, in which state-owned structures were created to need the educational, health, housing and welfare needs of everybody. The institutions created then still exist in some form, but in the 1980s the public attitude to state support changed. Until then, the economy had had its ups and downs, but everybody could afford to eat and have a roof over their head. Things were going pretty well for the average British citizen. Perhaps we became complacent when we adopted Thatcher’s brand of free-market capitalism, but for much of the 1980s and 90s it served us well.

Into the 21st Century, things took a sharp turn to even more extreme small-state policies during a time of discontent over immigration and the amount being spent on welfare. At the time, it was unclear how far this would go, or if it would be well-received by the electorate. For the most part, the electorate supported these measures, with relatively few touched by the consequences of these policies. But as the cutbacks grew more severe and widespread, the mood changed. Corbyn’s performance at the last election provided a platform for Labour to offer more explicitly socialist policies. Labour centrists do have a point about voters with more traditional values and what they would be willing to vote for — but even if those voters stick with the Tories this could boil down to a numbers game.

Younger voters see Labours proposed reforms as being like the reforms of the 1940s and 50s. Many people under 40 are not benefitting from capitalism in the same way as their parents’ generation did. That generation grew up with a generous welfare state followed by a period of abundance in adulthood that they did very well from. The issues facing Millennial voters are different to their parents’ concerns, and mostly stem from the extreme inequality they find themselves on the wrong end of. As this generation ages, they make up a more substantial fraction of the electorate. And many are becoming engaged with politics because they have been let down by a system that promised greater wealth, yet only delivered it to a few.

The sense of being let down personally, as well as an objection to hardship and suffering for the sake of party politics, are causing my generation to demand change. But when will it be enough? For socialism to flourish, we need support made up of voters with a painful conscience, and aggrieved young people wanting a better life than the one they currently have. Marx thought that socialism was the natural step following capitalism, and this has been played out in several European nations. The UK’s own foray into socialism generally worked quite well, but perhaps because they were so well provided for, the British took a risk on neoliberalism. The evidence from that experiment is pretty damning, although it arguably worked as intended. The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer.

The results are in, and depending on how you did, there will be evidence to support voting in one way or the other. But this is still a battle of emotion and identity, and to understand that we need to look to the public mood. Now that more and more of neoliberalism’s shortcomings are revealed, and the hopes of a socialist government are promoted, many people are changing their attitudes, and their internal sense of what Britain should be. The Conservatives came to power on a wave of discontent, and we are now living in another period of general displeasure. For the first time in two decades, the Labour Party are offering a real alternative to the Tories. And we can have it — whether it’s through loathing of the current government, or the desire to do better. Maybe we are in the right mood for socialism.