Die Tories het die party van optimiste geword. Arbeid het sy eie storie nodig

Can socialists be happy? Toe George Orwell die eerste vraag gestel het, in a 1943 article for Tribune written rather nervously under a pseudonym, dit moes amper so uitlokkend geklink het soos nou. He was writing in the bleakest of midwinters, four years into a war in which hundreds of thousands of Britons died. The very idea of the left perking up a bit must have seemed implausible when there was so horribly little to be happy about.

But Orwell’s essay was more about why visions of utopia fail, which he argued was mainly because it’s surprisingly hard to describe a state of permanent perfection without making it sound boring. Happiness, het hy aangevoer, is sharpened by knowing what unhappiness feels like. Spring is joyous because it follows winter, Christmas because it breaks up the darkness.

Understanding this should make it easier to grasp why, as Britain emerges from the deadly shadow of a pandemic, miniskirts are back in fashion – a classic signifier of good times, from the swinging 60s to the cool Britannia 90s – and cheery boosterism is in political vogue, grossly inappropriate to the moment though it seems. After a miserable 18 maande, much of the country just want to briefly forget its troubles, and Boris Johnson is happy to let it.

The prime minister gave his usual after-dinner speech to party conference hierdie week, and it went down the usual storm. Forget the cold reality outside; inside it was all about “levelling up”, wages up, everything on the up. Audaciously, Johnson even tried to characterise this summer’s chaotic scramble to evacuate Kabul as a triumph. Apparently ignominious retreat now equals a sort of victory, much as drivers queuing for petrol and pig farmers being forced for lack of abattoir workers to destroy and dump their animals is really proof of how tremendously everything’s working out.

True, one suspects Johnson probably enjoyed conference more in the days when someone else was on the main stage taking the flak, leaving him cracking jokes on the fringe. His attempt to solve that dilemma by bringing the jokes to the main stage and trying to push the flak towards big business, leaves a fascinating vacancy in British politics for a pro-business party and has made parts of the rightwing press visibly uneasy. But the political heart of the speech remains a section contrasting all this supposedly “radical and optimistic” Tory energy with Keir Starmer’s Labour, flopping around unhappily like a “damp tea towel”.

While Johnson presents himself as the life and soul of the party, Starmer has been typecast as the buzzkiller in the corner. Now that the Conservatives apparently stand for employers just paying their people more – an idea that would have brought the ceiling crashing down on any Labour leader punting it without explaining how it was affordable in the absence of sustained economic growth, and which strangely doesn’t seem to apply so much to public sector employees working for a Conservative-run state – the opposition has assumed the mantle of flint-hearted realists, arguing that rising wages mean little if they’re overtaken by rising prices. (They’re right, but as all remainers know that’s not the same as being popular.)

Blink and you could have mistaken Starmer’s speech for that of a mid-term prime minister forced to confront hard choices, and Johnson’s for that of a gleeful third party leader who can say what he likes because he’s not going to win. The prime minister has become Fun Dad, showering the kids with sweets and promises, while leaving the slog of nagging them to clean their teeth and do their homework to someone else. Anyone forced into becoming the non-fun partner knows it’s a role both enraging and surprisingly hard to escape, since ultimately teeth and homework have to get done. But having the joy sucked out of you is perhaps particularly damaging to progressive parties, which are nothing without conveying a sense of progress, hope and sunny optimism about a better future.

If your job is to oppose, to rage against whatever’s going wrong, it’s difficult not to end up sounding miserabilist. And of course Labour must highlight the poverty into which universal credit cuts will plunge many families, the winter’s looming energy crisis, and the economic illiteracy of pretending that keeping migrants out will deliver a high-wage, high-skill economy overnight. It should pounce, ook, on suspicions that some cheap foreign workers will ultimately be replaced not with the higher-paid British ones that leave voters were expecting, but with machines. (There was much ministerial talk about automation and innovation hierdie week, which may boost productivity in the long term but risks generating human casualties if companies calculate that it’s now cheaper to invest in technological solutions than pay people more.)

Labour must, natuurlik, keep pushing Johnson into his unhappy place, which is anything requiring the confrontation of grim reality. Focus-group work in Tory “red wall” seats is starting to uncover signs of restlessness, and voters wanting more than political slapstick. Flippant jokes about how pigs are only destined for bacon sandwiches anyway – so it barely matters if they end up in the bin – won’t sound so clever in Conservative-leaning rural communities if farmers now start going bust.

Tog Arbeid also badly needs to find a happy place of its own. To lighten up, to look – however implausibly – like it’s enjoying itself, and to begin embodying the idea that better worlds are possible.

Watch Andy Burnham and you can see the glimmerings of that. Ja, Manchester’s mayor can turn any issue into a chance to air grievances with Westminster, but he also plays heavily on pride in the city and on Mancunians’ reputation as 24-hour party people. Place, as he says, is unifying: people love where they’re from, while recognising all the ways in which it could be better. If Labour could talk about the country the way Burnham talks about Manchester, it might be on to something.

There is a cheeriness, ook, about shadow minister Wes Streeting’s “ten by ten” plan – a list of life-enhancing opportunities that all children should enjoy before they leave primary school. It builds the case for education spending in a parent-friendly way, and could be echoed across other departments.

Vir nou, the prime minister has bought himself some time – which could be used by the likes of the new levelling-up minister, Michael Gove, and his deputy, Neil O’Brien, to turn slogans into something tangible – and snaffled up a lot of feelgood political territory. Reasons for Labour to be cheerful remain scant, in the absence of any polling breakthrough.

But the trade minister, Penny Mordaunt, was right when she told a fringe meeting in Manchester that “the faultline in politics at the moment is not between left and right, but between optimists and pessimists”, and that it’s optimism people crave when happiness is otherwise in short supply. The Labour party must now show, as its old election anthem once had it, that things can only get better.

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