Whither – or wither – the Left?

Byelections are often strange, one-off affairs, but even if we shrug off Labour’s defeat in Copeland as about disunity, or nuclear energy, or Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn’s weak leadership, the signs all about us are that the Left is just about everywhere in disarray and the Right in giddy – and often unpleasant – triumph.

No wonder, you may say, that UKIP performed with little lustre: who on the Right needs UKIP when they have a Tory government which promotes anti-immigration as its top priority, even if it means leaving thousands of helpless children stranded on the other side of the Channel?

And yet, however much we on the Left may scowl and growl, the uncomfortable fact is that a heartless selfishness and a mindless little-Englander mentality are now becoming the norms of public discourse.

To watch a few late minutes of BBC’s Question Time last night was to despair. How obnoxious it was, a large part of the audience applauded to agree, that men with no evidence against them should be compensated for being locked up, chained and tortured in Guantanamo. The man in question had, it appeared, gone on to become a suicide bomber – perhaps always a brute in the making, perhaps turned vicious by the savagery of his treatment – but the mindless anger of the mob refuses to contemplate the requirement (legal as well as plain humanitarian) for the UK government and its allies to behave with decency to those it detains.

And then, minutes later, more applause for an audience member, scarcely able to speak for his fury, who condemned the punishment of British soldiers caught out in their own brutalities. Let’s remember that we’re not talking about actions carried out in the sweat of battle (which of us could predict how we might behave under fire?), but – to take the most recent case – a killing in cold blood. ‘I’ve just broken the Geneva Convention,’ said the soldier who shot an injured enemy as he lay on the ground before him. Now there’s a clamour for him to be pardoned. Have we really come so low as to believe that ‘our brave boys’ should be above the law?

There is, without doubt, a new nastiness stalking the land, and it’s a near certainty that if Theresa May called a snap election the Tory party would sweep to a resounding victory. What that would mean for the Left is its most testing experience in any of our lifetimes.

The satire of Lady Thatcher’s Wink, though it seems to have succeeded in making readers laugh in the right places, is at root a howl of protest against the cruelty of the Tory austerity programme – an affliction of pain on the poor, the dispossessed and the fragile which is about to get even worse as the effects of the last budget take hold next month. A disembowelled Left will be powerless to prevent Theresa May’s harshness against both helpless immigrants and the millions of ‘not even managing’ Britons – many, alas and inexplicably, cheering her on.

And still we have the hangman’s noose of Brexit to come. More nastiness for sure, but also an inevitable economic decline as we cut off ties with the biggest trading bloc on earth and enter into the lion’s den of a one-sided ‘special relationship’ with Trump’s America First. What idiot would willingly contemplate such a thing? No, surely not the British public if the facts were honestly laid before them ¬ but, yes, all those idiotic MPs who, despite knowing the likely consequences, have given May and her gross cadre of hard Brexiteers a free hand out of fear of offending (a chilling phrase from the 1930s Germany hymnal) ‘the will of the people’.

Growing up (how long ago it seems!) in the post-war consensus that governments could create a country which genuinely catered for all, we lament the Tories’ determined break-up of an underfunded National Health Service, its pauperisation of care in the community and its fragmentation of our education system. And of course we lament Labour’s pathetic inability to make a case for a better Britain, a Britain of the Left with compassion.

We at Wink are believers in Corbyn’s broad socialist platform, decriers of his limp acquiescence over Europe. Labour, unless it can unify and argue a compelling message, is a shameful irrelevance in the callous new world of May, Trump, Putin and the resurgent Right. Optimistic by temperament, we are laid low by the spinelessness of the official opposition, and we’re not alone in falling back on lines by W.B. Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The last lines of The Second Coming, you may remember, are:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Theresa May herself is altogether too slight a figure to be the answer to that question, but the ever more confident, virulent and demanding Right – here, there and just about everywhere on the planet – is, indeed, a rough beast whose time appears to have come.

We badly need a dragon-slayer, and there are millions of us waiting to cheer on that bold knight in armour. But where is he/she? And how long will it take him/her to emerge?

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