the Disillusioned kid: Well, Blow Me Down With A Feather
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Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Well, Blow Me Down With A Feather

An interesting article in today's Guardian reveals, "The average voter does not share the keen interest of the political and media classes with Iraq, according to the results of this month's Guardian/ ICM opinion poll." The survey (available here in pdf) shows that voters rank the issue last out of a list of 10 issues when asked which they consider most important. Asked to name "two or three" issues which they considered most important 59% listed the health service, 42% education and 35% law and order. This is followed by the "traditional issues" (to borrow the Guardian's charming terminology) of the economy and government spending and then the issue immigration, named by 20%.

This would seem to fly in the face of the assertions of some on the left that Iraq "is still a raging political issue for both Bush and Blair on the domestic front." Or that "[i]t is the fundamental cause of the growing dissatisfaction with Blair." (In case you're interested, these quotes come from an article in the Socialist Worker, but they are probably fairly typical.) Nonetheless, the results of the survey should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Polls have showed fairly consistent opposition to the war (albeit with a major dip when the invasion began) and an increasing support for a UK withdrawal from Iraq. Ordinary people (as opposed to leftists like myself), however, are understandably more concerned about issues which affect them directly.

The failure of the left to understand this seems to be a reflection of the echo chamber phenomenon. As in any other grouping, there is a tendency to interact with those of similar beliefs. Because leftists tend to regard Iraq as an important issue, it is easy to develop the misconception that so does everyone else. I think the question of Iraq represents a general problem among many on the left who have come to believe that foreign policy issues can, or perhaps will, form the catalyst for social change. Radical social change occurs when social relations within a state become untenable, this may be exacerbated by a government's actions abroad, but you can't build a revolution (for want of a better term) on the back of an anti-war movement. The consequence of this leftist misconception has been an unhealthy focus on international affairs, often at the expense of domestic issues. I'd be the first to concede that I've been as guilty of this as anyone.

None of this is to suggest that Iraq isn't an important issue. It is one of the issues of our age and to not have an opinion on it would be a serious omission. There is also the question of US power which, as Rahul Mahajan has pointed out, impacts on a huge range of other issues from trade and development, through the environment, but has staked its credibility "on one country, Iraq, and the success of one policy, occupation, [as a consequence Iraq] looms far larger than it would otherwise." Not to forget the very serious question of British complicity in actions which amount to war crimes.

This widespread problem is one of the things which fuels my interest in the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA). I'm not for a minute suggesting that their politics are impeccable, or that there is nothing which they say or do which I disagree with, but I think they are one of the most interesting and possibly most important projects on the British left (such as it is). Their focus on community work and talking to people about the issues that concern them, rather than those we think are important is probably something the rest of us could learn a lot from. That they have seen some electoral success on the back of their efforts, only reinforces my belief that they must be doing something right.

In order to pre-empt any criticisms from people who take the time to read the Guardian article, its probably worth commenting on the issue of Europe. The article points out that "voters do not appear to share Westminster's preoccupation with the European Union and rank it only eighth out of 10." Some might point out that this apparent disinterest didn't harm UKIP in the European Elections. Quite true, but this is likely to reflect a tendency for people to vote differently in the European rather than General or Local Elections. It is also worth noting that UKIP's share of the vote has crashed from 4% in a June poll to 1% now, suggesting that any political capital which could be made from the issue wasn't sustainable. As such it hardly forms the basis of a model which the left could or should follow.

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