I became a socialist at the age of 41, just at the point where conventional wisdom says I should have been heading in the opposite direction. In truth, I always was a socialist at heart, but my generation – born in the social ferment of the 1970s, raised amid the deranged individualism of the 1980s, coming of age in the era of Blair and Brown – grew up believing that socialism was a dirty word, not to be embraced or admitted aloud.
If, like me, you’re in your late 40s and came of age declaiming that Things Can Only Get Better, look around you now. Everything I learned about “global warming” as a primary school child in the mid-1980s is coming true as we speak. Fuel hikes set by conglomerates are going to treble the bills of every household in the country. Your children are less protected in every sense from the predations of landlords, profiteers and exploitative bosses. If they go to university, they will probably be in tens of thousands of pounds of debt for a higher education you didn’t have to pay for.
In 2017, my fatalism disappeared – as if overnight – when Labour published its general election manifesto, For the Many Not the Few. There were no signs whatsoever of an unhappy accommodation with the idea that there was “no alternative” to the free market. It presented, clearly and confidently, exactly what the alternatives were. I wouldn’t even describe the manifesto as an expression of socialism; more rigorous social democracy of the kind that worked economic miracles in capitalist countries throughout the postwar period. Public ownership of essential services; good wages for good jobs; decent, affordable housing for everyone.
That June I voted, enthusiastically, for Labour’s vision of social democracy. A week later, following the horror of 72 avoidable deaths at Grenfell Tower, I knew I was a socialist. I hadn’t changed my mind overnight: a confident, growing movement for change had captured my imagination and articulated what I’d always known to be true. Grenfell represented the nadir of 40 years’ complacency, both from Conservative governments and the Labour governments so many people of my generation campaigned for in our 20s.
What can now be seen as complacency looked like compromise back then. New Labour so successfully neutralised opposition to their mashup of neoliberal economics and social liberalism that most Labour voters either put up or shut up or simply stopped voting. When Labour came to power in 1997 and restricted child benefit and income top-ups for single parents, I batted it away on the grounds that “it has to be done”, and that anyone who complained was either “middle class” (cringe) or deluded as to the scale of Labour’s task in holding power.
When the language of “rights and responsibilities”, so popular in the 1990s and 2000s as a cover for demonising people living on council estates, became ever coarser and more rabid, I shifted awkwardly in my seat and mumbled that it went down well in precisely those council estates. (This had a lot to do with having grown up on one where the received wisdom was hang ‘em, flog ‘em, and vote for Maggie.)
As Labour held power over 13 years, I gradually saw most opportunities for transformative change rot away. In that time, I became incredibly disillusioned, but still voted for them. There were several reasons for this. First, like young adults now who have grown up under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, if you were born in the late 1970s, you came of age only knowing a cruel, divisive and seemingly unending Tory government. Whatever Labour did, it had to be better than the Tories, simply because Labour was not the Tories.
Second, we grew up at the nerve-shredding tail end of the cold war. For most of the 1980s the end of the world through nuclear exchange seemed inevitable. The fall of the Berlin Wall came as such a relief that, naturally, we wanted to believe that it really was “the end of history”. We’d had quite enough of history, thank you: it nearly killed us all.
Many people of my age wanted to be done with politics, with believing in things: it seemed too earnest by half. The fact was, if a Labour government entered power promising to keep things pretty much as they were, while creating a load of money and spreading it around a bit better, who were we to complain?
And yet, to some, there were still reds under the bed, and they needed to be vanquished at all costs. As a student in 1994, my best friend –then at Manchester University and, like me, a member of Labour Students – reported with approval that he’d received a Christmas card from someone high up in the campaign to get Tony Blair elected. Instead of “Season’s Greetings”, the message inside read: “Keep kicking the Tories and the hard left”.
In the 1980s, as now, it was very easy to hate the Tories and “the Trots” without particularly articulating what it was you were for. Defining your outlook by what you were against was so much easier. We didn’t stop too long to ask what sort of a Labour government we were after, only that one was necessary and largely involved more attacking than defending.
I’ve thought about this a lot in recent weeks, as Keir Starmer dedicates himself to making Labour the party of “not-Tories” rather than a movement that stands confidently for its founding values of equity and justice. It was the incredible surge of enthusiasm and optimism during the Jeremy Corbyn period that made me recognise, with a shudder of shame, that it was people around my age who could have done things differently. What right does Starmer have to throw away that enthusiasm, to crush that optimism, and say, “let’s keep things as they are, only this time there’ll be no money to spread around a bit more fairly”? It won’t be long before he finds out that not only is he wrong, but he’s done it all for nothing.
In a 2020 article published in The Journal of Politics, American researchers tested the truism that most people drift towards conservatism as they get older. Although they found that “political attitudes are remarkably stable over the long term … liberals are more likely to become conservatives than conservatives are to become liberals.” The researchers refer coyly to the role of “folk wisdom” in bringing this about, perhaps better described as the triumph of experience over hope. But experience has taught me that hope is far too important to dismiss as youthful idealism. It’s no longer the case that anyone over the age of 40 who isn’t a conservative doesn’t have a brain; surely, it’s anyone who isn’t a socialist.
Lynsey Hanley is a freelance writer and the author of Estates: an Intimate History and Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide
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