by Capel Lofft
Few people would immediately associate the modern Left with a spirit of delight and celebration. The popular image is of purse-lipped puritanical preaching, interspersed with a good dollop of hypocritical Bollinger bolshevism – quaffing a nice glass of something cold and sparkling with one hand while finger-jabbing at the plebs’ pleasure in bacon sandwiches, fags and booze with the other.
Although this perception is not altogether fair – it does sometimes seem that the Left can’t win, as whatever we say we are doomed to be denounced as either grim-faced killjoys or champagne socialists – there is some truth in it. It is rare to hear voices on the Left raise even a mild hint of scepticism towards whatever the latest pronouncement of public health experts happens to be, whether it’s plain packaging for crisps, a special tax on unhealthy food, or regulating vaping out of existence.
Indeed, in some ways this is unsurprising, as there is a very persistent strand of puritanical DNA in the Labour movement. Many early socialists were Methodists who tended to stand on pro-temperance platforms. Keir Hardie was not untypical in his early activity in the anti-booze movement, and it is not difficult to see why: whatever the other injustices that ailed working class people in the 19th and early 20th century, working men frittering their meagre wages away on beer down the pub clearly didn’t help.
However, there are other traditions in Labour movement. As Martin Pugh has pointed out, there were such figures in the early Labour Party as Jimmy Thomas, who mocked his colleague Phillip Snowden for drinking ‘ginger pop’, or Jack Jones, who proudly proclaimed that ‘beer is our national drink’ and objected to middle-class prigs looking down their noses at the honest workingman’s predilection for a thirst-quenching pint. Working class culture was not uniform, and a culture of boisterous enjoyment and ‘cakes and ale’ co-existed with earnest self-improvement and high-minded paeans to the virtues of sobriety. As Pugh points out, in some areas in the country Labour’s main rival was ‘Beer and Britannia’ popular Toryism, and Hardie-style homilies just weren’t going to cut it.
This kind of populist Left ‘cakes and ale’ appeal might seem to be hopelessly out of place in the 21st century in the face of many serious health challenges: child obesity, rocketing levels of mental illness, and so on. Although a more sober-minded generation of younger people seem to be embracing a more abstemious lifestyle, heavy drinking is hardly unknown in modern Britain. This does not mean, however, that a socialist appeal to the politics of ‘beer and bacon’ is wildly irresponsible today.
It is not a coincidence that ever shriller calls for more state regulation of life’s little pleasures – plain packaging for this, more taxes on that, ever more unrealistic ‘advice’ to eat half a rasher of bacon every fortnight or 9 pieces of fruit and veg a day (and so on) – goes hand in hand with these multiple public health crises. The ethic of modern consensus economic and social liberalism tells us: anything goes, no-one has the right to tell you how to life your life, individual autonomy is all! At the same time, free-market liberalism has hollowed out our civic institutions and the rich cultural life and the set of standards and values that they sustained, creating an anomic, isolating and empty society. Combine these things, and what actually results is as much a society of curious soulless and distinctly unjoyful hedonism: unhappy, disconnected people buying cheap booze and drinking it on their own, workers forced to take two jobs who cook salty ready meals or opt for Just Eat takeaways because they’re too knackered to bother with anything else.
This then rubs up against the other tendency of establishment liberal politics: technocratic utilitarianism. The public health consequences of the kind of society they’ve created are predictably disastrous, but their only response is top-down state intervention or totally unrealistic and condescending pieces of ‘lifestyle advice’. They grow endless nuts, only to find the only way to crack them is a massive state sledgehammer, or empty moralistic exhortation. Economic liberalism decimates society, leaving a mess for the state to clear up, and so state and market power rise together in desolating symbiosis.
The reality is that a real politics of enjoyment is not the empty bacchanalianism of lonely liberal subjects crying into their Sainsbury’s Basics vodka: it is communal, and it is about relationships as much as necking neat gin. It is rooted in intermediate institutions and our common life, practices and civic habits that are collective but not necessarily official or directly provided by the state – pubs, social and working men’s clubs, the informal chats between smokers on their break, tea and biscuits at Church dos, sharing a few drinks after the cricket match or watching the football.
These social contexts tend to allow earthy enjoyment and the letting-off-of-steam, while providing ways to regulate behaviour and ensure nothing gets ‘out of hand’ (and therefore in the long run probably overall reduce unhealthy behaviour). 17 year olds allowed to have a pint in their local in full view of people who know their parents might get a bit squiffy, but they’re not going to end up in hospital. In any case, this kind of hedonism is just much more fun – drinking and smoking and eating in a social context, with mates and family, is far more pleasurable than the questionable and anti-social joys of getting wrecked at home. This means accepting that people will always need vices – most normal people are going to ignore weekly alcohol unit limits and eat bacon sandwiches – and actually, it’s only human to enjoy a beer or packet of crisps, and so why not embrace it? It also allows us to make the argument that if you provide the right kind of society, people can enjoy themselves while we combat the deeper causes of genuinely damaging and self-destrutive behaviour: stress, overwork, anxiety, depression and isolation.
The final point to make is a more political one. The Left’s attitudes to things like drinking and public health really don’t help our image. They make us look out-of-touch and censorious, and add to the perception that Labour has become a party solely for highly-educated metropolitan liberals who spend their time eating mung beans and farting because they’re too up-tight to have a drink and a laugh. Nigel Farage might drink red wine in his spare time, but he knows that photos of him enjoying a beer in a pub strike the right note with core Labour voters in the Mansfields and Stokes of this world.
Why cede this sense of ‘people-like-me’, down-to-earth pleasure and enjoyment to the likes of Farage? We’ll win more votes with a smile on our face and a pint in our hand.