I did vote Conservative once before — for Mrs Thatcher. It was back in 1983, and it was the first time I had the opportunity to enter into that sacred little booth and make my mark. Some weeks earlier, a few of us at the Student’s Union had cooked up a cunning plan.
We weren’t going to be suckered into the tiresome gradualism of the Labour party. Things needed to change faster than that. There needed to be a revolution. And the way to bring this about was to make things worse before they could get better. Capitalism, if allowed free reign, would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. We were living in the end times, and with just one more little shove the whole evil edifice would fall in on itself and a new socialist utopia would dawn. Oh, how clever we thought we were.
But this time was different. This time, I meant it. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to do it, though. Even on the way to the polling station, I was uncertain. The days of my flirtation with the SWP were long past, but there was something particularly sticky about the moral pull of socialism. And, I suspect, there always will be. The “hope” that Labour activists kept on talking about. Yes, I want wealth redistributed. Yes, I am perfectly happy to pay more tax. And yes, Labour’s manifesto – if a little overblown – was the sort of thing I had in mind, particularly when it came to economics. But in the end, my cross went in the Conservative box.
Back in early 2017, I was still cheerleading for Corbyn. I made a short film for the BBC’s This Week programme about why Corbyn was the right way to go. Later that evening, Andrew Neil would destroy me as I struggled to fend off his questions about Hamas and the IRA. I may have looked like an idiot, but I felt as though I had taken one for the team.
A few days later I suffered a major heart attack. As I awoke from surgery, still groggy with anaesthetic, my wife told me the news. Corbyn had done much better than expected. Even Kensington has been taken from the Tories. Hope springs eternal.
But in the weeks and months that followed, something began to shift. The EU referendum had been the crack in the dam, and it was getting bigger. I got my Euroscepticism from Tony Benn, a great man and friend, who had long been alert to the way in which our membership of the European Union was diluting national sovereignty, and thus slowly undermining the one power that the poor shared equally with the rich: the power of their vote. Without this, capitalism would run unchecked.
I was genuinely shocked at how many on the Left lent instinctively towards Remain, preferring to cede their precious rights over to some distant authority whose main aim was to allow capital to move around unhindered between hitherto sovereign nations. Like Esau in the book of Genesis, we had sold our democratic birthright for a measly pot of capitalist pottage.
It wasn’t the referendum debate that changed me. It was the establishment’s reaction upon losing it. Slowly at first, then increasingly as the campaign against the referendum result began to pick up momentum throughout 2018 and 2019, as the opposition took to the courts, my indignation burned. 17.4 million people were being denigrated as racists. Democracy was being deliberately sabotaged because it didn’t square with world view of liberal metropolitans who had become all too used to getting their own way. On Twitter, I was discovering what it was like to be on the receiving end of the Left’s unquenchable self-righteousness. I had become “Tory scum”. It felt like my default allegiance to the Left had turned into something like an abusive relationship. Perhaps it had been like that for longer than I realised.
Being religious had long made me a suspect on the Left, a potential traitor within. So, too, my sense that patriotism wasn’t a dog whistle for racism but a basic instinct for national solidarity and togetherness. So, too, my love of Israel as a place of salvation for the Jewish people — it was something I had learnt to keep quiet about for too long. Mea maxima culpa. Now, all that was released. The cognitive dissonance had reached impossible levels. And the more the Left piled in, the more space it opened up for me to re-think my political commitments.
So by the time I came to place my little X before the name of the Conservative candidate it wasn’t with any sort of shame – it was with relief. I was no longer a prisoner of my past allegiances. The Left didn’t get it. The more they abused Boris Johnson, the more we leavers recognised the same abuse that we, too, were experiencing. It made many of us naturally sympathetic to him personally— despite his several and obvious faults.
Being cast out of the club now feels like a liberating experience. If Labour believes that people like me are so much the enemy that they don’t even want our support, then they can hardly be surprised when they don’t receive it. If “good riddance” is their attitude towards people as naturally sympathetic as me, then Labour should expect not just years of opposition, but annihilation. For once tribal loyalties have been broken, even just the once, the weight of the past allegiances can no longer exert the same emotional pull they once did. And now this has happened across great swathes of former Labour heartlands, Labour will no longer be able to take any votes for granted.
The fallout from Brexit is far from over for Labour. Their dark night of the soul is just beginning. For the reason Brexit presented – and still does — an existential threat to the Left is that it exposed how much one side of the party loathes another. It is the sort of hatred the People’s Front of Judea has for the Judean People’s Front. For like some sort of religious purity cult, parts of the Labour party have been far too invested in the idea that the kingdom would only be ushered in when their own ranks had been sufficiently purged of heretics and unbelievers.
Protestantism is littered with thousands of inward looking churches with dwindling congregations all at the throats of another little church down the road whose divergence on some obscure matter of doctrine has become all consuming. The ridiculous thing is that I still have much in common with the hard Left. Like them, I still believe that there is a deep moral flaw within capitalism. Even so, unless the Labour party can learn to accommodate a far greater bandwith of political commitment it should not be surprised that some of us will be content to remain as ‘Tory scum’.