Left out: Part 1
I have over the last 12 months been pondering a lot about why so many of the working classes turn away from the politics of the ‘left’, when arguably the policies of the left are precisely what can give people back their dignity, their livelihoods and build a society that works in the interests of the many. I know that there may have been many articles and analyses on this subject, which will be far more researched and academic than mine, but I want to share my thoughts on this, mainly informed by my experiences and observations. I want to start by stating that this is written from a place of love and hope, from a place of wanting us all to really consider our language, our behaviours and how these may be received by others and how we can learn to speak in a way that reaches the heart of others and allows them to move from a place of fear and reaction, into a place where they can feel safe and think critically. We must never forget that our heart is our seat of motivation, so it is always to the heart we should speak.
My journey into the left
I am a working-class woman and was brought up on a council estate in Jersey. I spent time as a child in the care system -2020 was the first year I publicly acknowledged that and the scars I was left with as a result in order to support others. Although I was one of the few working-class children to get a place in our local grammar school, I never got to go to university, not only because this was not the expectation for me, but additionally because of family issues, I had to leave home when I was 17 and there was simply nobody at that time to have the conversation with me about how I could access support to go. Since then, I have always had responsibilities, which alongside a limited income, it made it near impossible for me to be able to access higher education. My dream as a teenager was to become a teacher, my dream now is simply to be one of the change agents that help build that path to a future where everyone has the chance to flourish.
I have been on many journeys in my life, including an 11 year religious one, which ended over a decade ago (no I am not an atheist – another thing we need to learn to not judge people for on the left!). Perhaps the most natural though was my journey into the left, which I only knew was ‘left’ because of the labels others applied to me, but which I now own. I just thought it was natural for any decent human to want a kinder, fairer world, where nobody was held back on account of where they happened to land on the planet – in the beginning I did not realise how that was classified.
During this journey I have met and connected with incredible people, people that have inspired me and given me hope, some who I have never actually met but rather in this new virtual world we live in, are individuals I have connected with online. There have, however, been a number of disappointments on the way and I have unfortunately realised that there is an issue we need to address as a matter of priority on the left – the issue of elitism.
I have had a number of my own experiences, which I will get to in a moment but I will start with this. An occasion I felt forced to confront the impact it was having on some people like me, was when speaking to someone who is now a friend. They spoke in a very animated way about the issues of the left, what they perceived as virtue signalling, the condescension and additionally feeling humiliated on occasions. As I listened, there was much I could not argue with and what was more, I realised that sometimes arrogance and elitism of the left can be quite pernicious and alienating to people to a point where they were put off and ended up being pushed towards rather more unsavoury ideologies that don’t even benefit their own interests. Yet, if you took the time to discuss things, you’d finds they did not even agree with a lot of the things that were espoused but this is what exclusion can lead to. I learned two things from this situation, firstly the need to listen, even when it really is uncomfortable and even when we don’t agree with everything and secondly, that if we do not address this as a priority we simply will not win. We have a moral obligation to undertake some self-reflection and consider how we communicate with certain people and how not only can we improve it, but who we can empower to help us to improve it.
“If we are working towards a society that works for the 99% then our language needs to be communicated in a way that is understood and resonates with the 99%”Natalie Strecker
Recently I shared on Twitter my experiences of attending a local ‘Pint and Politics’ on a range of subjects associated with the left. We discussed how we had the correct moral argument but were failing to gain the ground, the rise of Trump and the far-right. The evening, which should have been a great opportunity to showcase the argument for the left, was led mainly by a bunch of middle-class men. Whilst they may have come with good intentions, they kept using exclusive language to an extent that I needed to keep making mental notes to remind myself to look up the meaning of various long Latin or Greek words. Additionally they spent a lot of time referring to various academic texts and throwing in more than a few quotes from the likes of Noam Chomsky. I spent some time observing the audience and when it came to audience participation, those who did engage were predominantly of the same background. I could feel myself becoming frustrated, because what should have been an opportunity to really sell our arguments of how our politics could positively improve people’s lives, it instead appeared to be more an opportunity for people to demonstrate how well read and intelligent they were. This led me to rather crudely respond, in a way I perhaps should not have, and expressed that the reality was no ordinary person really gave “a shit about” their “books” and rather wanted to understand how what we believe in could make people’s day to day lives better. This was met with some cheering from a number of people in the room – that was when I realised how many people were feeling like me! All too often there seemed to be a club on the left that you could not join if you had not read all the books and did not know the difference between a Marxist, a Trotskyite and a whole number of other distinctions.
Now, I am not stating that there is no place for this, nor that people should not aspire to be well read – certainly we would all benefit from expanding our knowledge. However, when so many people are in insecure employment, living in poverty, stressed, what they need is easily accessible and understood ideas. If we are working towards a society that works for the 99% then our language needs to be communicated in a way that is understood and resonates with the 99%! This does not mean we dumb down as some have felt. We should keep in mind that the greatest teachers are those that can communicate complex ideas in a way that can be understood by all and every one of us benefits from that.
This is just one of my experiences, but there have been numerous. I see it when I listen to the Michael Walker’s Tysky Sour, Owen Jones’ and many others. Additionally I feel there is a belief that certain people are the ones that set parameters of what is acceptable discussion and acceptable language on the left – if anybody dare goes beyond these, they are met with derision by these self-appointed ‘leaders’.
Some progress has been made in terms of messaging in recent years. I actually think Corbynism really helped with this, – the messages were simple, and it felt like the power of ordinary people, who had been genuinely inspired to pound the pavements and begin to engage with other ordinary people. It began to sow the seed of truly progressive politics in the communities, for which we know there is an appetite. I truly believe with work, perseverance and if we are smart, we can build on this and it WILL yield results.
So, what next? Well first of all, we need to improve our understanding of human behaviour outside of our own and develop our emotional intelligence. We need to comprehend that the right and far-right tap into people’s emotions and their legitimate anger and fear about the status-quo. They manipulate these and misdirect that anger into the scapegoating of already marginalised groups and also of the left. We have got to offer a clear alternative that people can imagine and buy into, an alternative that they can picture in their minds and that also demonstrates that what we are all embroiled in is a class war of the 99%, against the 1%.
I believe we need to create spaces for people to come together, even those who we don’t agree with on everything, whilst abiding by basic rules of respect. We must learn to meet people where they are, not where we always want them to be, because if we don’t we won’t win anyone over but rather remain in our echo chambers. We need to understand that every single human being is on a journey and that sometimes we need to overlook some of their flaws, the things they say, which we may find uncomfortable. This does not mean we ignore bigotry, but it does mean sometimes mean we allow people to express themselves, to ask questions and to have the opportunity to understand. By developing these relationships we can start to share stories that can touch people’s hearts, to encourage them for a moment to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, move them and over time influence, winning hearts and minds. I have seen it with my own eyes, but it takes patience and there are some of us that will be better placed to do this then others.
Anyone who knows me will know the plight of Palestinian’s is an issue close to my heart. One of my childhood friends, whose family classify themselves as a Zionist, once rather randomly in a conversation referred to Palestinians as “Palestinian scum”. Naturally I was horrified, however, something in me made me stop before I opened my mouth. It was not fear – rather I considered for a moment that I knew from the years of our friendship that they were a decent human being who frequently had shown kindness to others and also longed for a better world as I did. So, I decided that I would take a longer route and I began to sow little seeds, personal experiences of Palestinians, including my friends there. I kept watering that seed. Within a couple of years my friend had moved on from making this comment to stating how heartbroken they were witnessing what was happening and how they felt apartheid needed to end there. Had I just shouted at them, would they have ever opened up their hearts and changed their mind? It would have likely ended our friendship but also galvanised their beliefs they held at the time.
I too have had to go on my own journey of understanding as I have in terms of the LGBTQ+ community. I don’t believe, or at least hope, I was ever bigoted, but I certainly was ignorant. The ‘Pride’ movement only really took off when I was a young teenager and I remember the first conversation I had with my girlfriends on the subject was when Bronski Beat released ‘Small Town Boy’, which we were all moved by. Being gay was illegal when my parent’s generation were young and I also contended with previously held religious beliefs – it was actually one of the reasons I turned my back on religion. My understanding developed from being able to have conversations, watching movies, from training and at times having people being patient, able and willing to tolerate me asking questions.
We must understand the difference between tolerance of issues and allowing time for individuals and communities to catch up with those of us already there. We do not help the movement as a whole if we do not allow time for people to evolve before screaming at them. It does not win anyone over and actually ends any chance of them having time to reflect, process and understand issues. When you ostracise people it also more likely to make them vulnerable to being manipulated by people who are more careful in their interactions such as the far right. We know that when people feel unsafe and insecure, people will hold on to whatever they can to make themselves feel safe, whatever they feel they understand. When we appreciate this, we can not only find common ground that can unite us and build our movement, but additionally are much better placed to help these very people on their own journey into understanding.
For me I feel those spaces could be literally community spaces. Spaces where people can meet, prepare food together, eat. As so many libraries have been shut down, a place for donating books and where there can be reading groups. Places where workshops on all sorts of things can be delivered, legal rights, making/repairing things, mindfulness and wellbeing practices etc. a place where all are welcome regardless of who voted who last time – this is how we repair our communities destroyed by the ideology of Thatcher, Reagan and Milton Friedman. We start to talk and more than that, we learn to listen. We need to stop constantly transmitting and start receiving. This is how we rebuild relationships, how we begin to see each other as humans again and this is where we build a resistance that lays the foundations of that society for the many.
This is part of a two part series on the issue of elitism on the left, how that can manifest itself and how we should move forward to be more inclusive. In this first part, Natalie Strecker discusses her experiences of this. In part two we’ll hear from Ash Ahmed who’ll explain his similar and contrasting experiences.