Darren McGarvey: progress on social inequality hinges on political cooperation

Written by Darren McGarvey on 2 March 2018 in Comment

Long-term action that extends beyond the oscillation from left to right requires a dialogue with people we wouldn’t normally align with politically

Darren McGarvey - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

My earliest memory of being confronted by a Conservative politician was around the age of five. The location, if I remember correctly, was Glasgow City Chambers.

The meeting took place in a large, oppressively decorated room, made luxuriant with the kind of ornate furniture that never seems to age. In attendance, 30-or-so activists from Pollok.

Whatever the meeting was about (probably water charges), one thing that remains seared in my memory is the sight of a Tory politician physically shaking as he was challenged – as vigorously as a person can be without being physically touched – by angry Glaswegians throughout the course of an hour.

To be fair, they had every right to be furious. Things were bad. But for me, even at such a young age, there was something strangely humanising about this man’s vulnerability in that moment.

He was not the classic Tory villain I had heard about as I toddled around Glasgow at my granny’s side, going from protest to protest as a child.

I’m not sure whether anyone else could sense how frightened he was – or if they’d even have cared – but that day was the first of many where I sensed myself diverging, ever so slightly, from the prevailing sensibilities of my community.

Daring to suggest that a Tory politician may occasionally be motivated by something other than a hatred of the poor is, for many, unthinkable or stupid.

It’s this generally low opinion of the Conservative Party that regiments much of the thinking on the left regarding Tories, resulting in an instinctive scepticism and unwillingness to engage in anything but on the most adversarial terms.

Sometimes it’s justified, at other times, it’s excessive and self-defeating. It’s also understandable.

There have been many adversities in my own life from which I could draw a direct line to some poorly conceived – or downright vicious – Conservative policy, whether it be the decision to decimate the industries that traditionally provided working-class people with a route out of poverty or the ‘tough-love’ approach taken when those same communities descended into idleness, violence and addiction.

But I also understand that any meaningful long-term action on the broader issue of social inequality that extends beyond the inevitable oscillation from left to right between electoral cycles requires having a dialogue with people we wouldn’t normally align with politically.

One day that might mean engaging with Tories.

Action on poverty depends not only on fighting and winning elections but also on creating and maintaining a broad enough consensus so that voters, from all political persuasions, can see the value in that action.

From the left, the fight for social justice takes place on multiple fronts. There is the tireless activism of thousands of individuals and groups, raising awareness of the struggles that specific communities face based on their class, race, gender, sexuality or disability.

This activism often moves onto an institutional front, where radicalism is traded for the creeping legitimacy required to harness anger and protest into something politically viable.

Finally, there is politics. Elected officials debate and legislate on our behalf. Often, parties will negotiate specifics and make concessions to get business through parliament – though compromises are often underplayed because politicians run the risk of appearing reasonable and mature.

The truth is, most meaningful progress hinges on political cooperation.

When it comes to poverty, we need even more than backroom deals or grudging concessions.

We need bold legislation rooted in evidence – not dogma or political opportunism – that looks beyond the horizon line of party-political lifespans.

Where do we want to be in 50 years and what should we do with the intervening political time?

This will require imaginative, innovative thinking and politically intelligent arguments, appealing to more than our own tribe, rooted in facts and research that cannot be pettily disputed.

This bold programme must be introduced by leaders at all levels of society, from communities, the third sector and politicians of all parties, who are not afraid to lead opinion as well as merely reflecting it.

What if we, as a society, could come to a loose agreement about what a good outcome on poverty would look like for our country, at some hypothetical point down the line, and then spend some time debating how to get there?

While I may disagree with many people – not least the Tories – on a range of issues, I also believe deeply in the core decency of most people living in this country.

I don’t believe anybody wants to see people sleeping rough or children living in care. It’s from that place of common humanity and shared purpose that a potential consensus around poverty can and must emerge.

Whether we like it or not, at some point the discussion around poverty inevitably intersects with people who have their own ideas.

Is it possible to open a new front, where some of us may become willing to rise to the pressing political challenge with more than crowd-pleasing rhetoric?

The issue of social inequality is so urgent that I would be prepared to engage with anybody if I thought it would help – and that includes the Tories.

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