openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Shapeshifters: the hard lessons Labour must learn from ‘Johnsonism’

Labour often characterises Johnson as an opportunist. But his skills go deeper, and Labour must learn how to respond.

Ken Spours
20 January 2020
Boris Johnson leaving Downing Street for the Houses of Parliament
Boris Johnson leaving Downing Street for the Houses of Parliament, 8 Jan 2020
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SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

When defeated on the field of political battle, you not only ask what you have done wrong but what your opponent has done right; especially when it’s a fourth defeat and a big one.

Pots of ink have already been spilled over the shortcomings of Labour and its election campaign. But far less attention is being paid to the extraordinary adaptive capabilities of the Conservatives. Principal amongst these has been ‘political shapeshifting’ - to rapidly change their personae to appeal to critical parts of the electorate. In the space of a few months the Tories moved from being divided party polling less than 10 per cent in May 2019 to a united and different type of political organism that won a General Election with 45 per cent of the vote. This is unprecedented.

While many were being lulled by the all too apparent personal failings of Johnson, he was ruthlessly working to cohere the Right bloc. But Johnson’s shapeshifting is much more than an act of deception; it has been a carefully devised strategy that took pitiless advantage of the failings of both the Centre Right and the Left during 2019.

The Left see this essential pragmatism as a sign of ideological weaknesses and hopeless opportunism – but all the time it’s running political rings around them. To beat your adversary, first you must understand them.

What will become known as ‘Johnsonism’ is riddled with contradictions and will face many difficulties of its own making, notably in the upcoming trade negotiations with the EU and the real prospect of economic stagnation. However, speculations about its inherent fragilities should not deflect from a deep appreciation of its achievements and the hard lessons they can teach us.

The Right adapts much faster than the Left. Johnsonism is but the latest episode in Conservative shapeshifting, having been preceded by Cameron’s ‘liberal conservatism’ (2005-2016) and May’s ‘soft nationalism’ (2016-2019). It is, however, by far the most potent, tapping into a wider set of discontents and thus being able to shift the electoral landscape in ways that Cameron and May failed.

What has been so impressive has been the ability of the Right to create the wider environment in which the transitioning could take place, notably through the EU referendum campaign of 2016 and the ‘Brexit Window’ that reframed political life, cultural identities and political affiliations. This was a classic example of Antonio Gramsci’s ‘war of position’, the patient political and ideological ‘trench warfare’ that was followed in the 2019 election period ‘war of manoeuvre’ summed up in the simple but resonant slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’.

Here Conservative shapeshifting is indebted to the persistence of Faragism and the maturing of an English nationalist and nativist project that had been fomented for more than a decade. Tory shapeshifters realised that they had to co-opt the essential features of the Brexit Party and, like the Spectres in Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’, they sucked the life out of it.

The result of realignments on the Right has been the emergence of a new virulent regressive ‘combinational’ politics comprising several strands – both dominant and subordinate. Dominating is a mix of populist English nationalism and nativism; neoliberal deregulation and authoritarianism intended to drive regressive change. In a subordinate position, with the aim of extending political appeal, is a mild Keynesianism comprising promises of modest public spending on the NHS, policing and schools, laced with the rhetoric of One Nation Conservatism.

Johnsonism is a form of politics that will continue to rapidly evolve. The Conservative’s lack of ideological anchoring, Johnson’s adaptability and the Tory’s desire to both secure power and extend its political bloc makes further shapeshifting inevitable.

So what hard lessons can be learned from a critical appreciation of the adversary? How do we patiently build a more appealing progressive combinational politics, without merely creating a left version of shapeshifting?

The Progressive Left has to take long-term view and create the environment for transformatory change – whether this be building from below; being clear about the UKs relationship with Europe and, above all, forging a new politics around the climate emergency, something around which the Right will fail abysmally. It is a case of creating the sea in which the progressive ship can sail.

A key task will be building an alternative progressive politics that has its different strands that speak to the problems that people face now in their lives as well as the promise of future transformation; a form of political bilingualism that appeals across different social groups and binds them together. Here the most urgent task is to build bridges between so called ‘communitarian’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ social constituencies. It’s been done successfully before and can and must be again.

To facilitate this, the blizzard of blame-shifting, half-truths, division and the looming despotism of Johnsonism will have to be confronted by a progressive and open democratic culture of ‘radical decency’. Here possibly lies the most serious challenge for the Labour and the wider progressive Left – to replace the habits of tribalism and top-down controlling politics with a culture of collaboration, participation and generosity.

But the starting point of any progressive revival is the awareness that our opponent is not just oafish, opportunist and casual with the truth, but ruthless, agile and above all super smart in their ability to escape from every corner they seem to have painted themselves into. This is their game and we cannot beat them at it. But we have to understand it, never underestimate it, think beyond it and beat it with our own agile transformative politics.

This is an extract from a longer report published by Compass.

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