The general election revealed the worst side of the British people. A quarter of the electorate voted Tory. One thing is clear: whole swathes of the population lack basic empathy.
I know what you’re expecting me to say here. You are ready to read the kind of angry anti-Conservative rhetoric that seems to have taken over our social media feeds, our workplaces, and even our streets. Perhaps you expected me to write something like this:
“What upsets me more than anything is that millions of people actually voted Tory. This election was about morality… That is what’s heartbreaking – that millions of people didn’t care about the lives of society’s most marginalised.”
“To those who are arguing that high levels of anger are ‘unnecessary’ and an ‘overreaction’: fuck you. Do not belittle people’s genuine despair and fear at the general election result… This is people publicly and vocally saying that they cannot and will not take 5 more years of this life-destroying shit… We’re talking about a party that has literally driven people to suicide through their brutal cuts to public services. And you want people to calm down?… If that doesn’t make you angry, why the fuck not?”
Or maybe even this: I am not going to write anything like that. Instead, here’s my contention: It’s not the Tories who are lacking empathy here. The ones lacking empathy are those who really really, truly truly, cannot understand why anybody would vote Conservative. Those who shout loudly that Tories want to hurt the poor, drive the disabled to an early death, and redistribute more wealth to the yacht-owning mega-rich.
Nobody is like that.
As the journalist Isabel Hardman expressed pithily, “If you genuinely can’t understand why someone voted for another party, the problem might be that you spend too much time talking to yourself.” Isabel is assistant editor of the Conservative-leaning Spectator magazine, so of course she would say that in the smug afterglow of election victory. But she is not the only one. Even Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore criticised the self-satisfied ‘echo chamber’ of social media: “If you can’t even have a conversation with someone who votes differently to you, how do you begin to imagine you might bring them back to your way of thinking?”
It is easy to understand why people vote Labour. For example, in the 2015 book ‘Why Vote Labour‘, Dan Jarvis MP wrote this about their conception of deep freedom: “A genuinely free society is achieved not only through absolute rights like freedom of speech and freedom of worship, but when everyone has the opportunity to lead the lives to which they aspire without being chained to forces that restrict peoples life chances like ill health, substandard education and poverty pay.” Labour governments tend to be more interventionary. They seek to obtain this kind of freedom through direct measures. These measures are easy to see and popular. Labour seems ‘nice’, irrespective of the less visible consequences further down the line.
It is harder to understand why people would vote Conservative. Just after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral I wrote about ‘Why your Conservative friends are so nasty’. I argued that they’re not nasty at all, but the difficulty in explaining their policies makes them seem that way. Conservative governments tend to avoid instant but clunky intervention. The ‘niceness’ of their policies depends on their long-term effects. For example, “Thatcher’s government privatised industry where possible, so that the profit motive would act as a guarantor of efficiency; they limited the power of unions, believing that short-term resistance to reform in unprofitable industries led to longer-term decline; they sought to lower direct taxes even on the wealthy, arguing that the effect of individuals freely spending their money was more effective than government spending in creating economic growth and therefore jobs too.”
If you cannot understand the intentions behind Conservative policies, then they just seem like cold-hearted actions. Add to that some genuinely difficult short-term consequences, and no wonder it’s so easy to think the Tories are evil. And if you really believe that, it is easy to be whipped up into synthetic indignation. The kind of spewing rage that we saw on the streets of London this weekend.
A mature society cannot let its understanding remain that superficial. Dig deeper! Try to comprehend a politics that is not always instantly ‘nice’, but nonetheless well-intentioned. Get beyond the echo chamber of social media. Ask questions without presuming the answers.
In the meantime, thank goodness the real world is not as cold and inhuman as the anti-Tory protesters think it is.