Rules and power: why we mustn’t fall into the same Tory trap
Now that the Johnson regime looks like it is starting to push the message that we’ve all forgotten the little transgressions we all made during lockdown, it might be useful to firm up our own popular messaging about what it was really like.
At the moment, we talk about how we obeyed the rules, while the elite didn’t. The go-to phrase has become ‘one rule for them, one for us’. It’s become a matter of fairness, and of the elite misusing its power to do as it wishes.
This looks alight as an outpouring of emotion in the short term, and it’s understandable that rancour towards the elite should be our first reaction, especially when we see the painful stories of people who didn’t get to see their loved ones as they died alone.
But I am concerned that this ‘one rule for them, one for us’ messaging, if continued and developed as a principal political theme, will do us more harm than good in the longer term, and that we’ll end up falling into the same kind of Tory trap as many of us (myself included) fell into in 2019.
Let’s re-frame what we did and didn’t do from March 2020 through to July 2021. What we didn’t do, by and large, was simply obey the rules laid down for us. What we did do, collectively, was submit ourselves to a long period of abstinence from our normal, everyday pleasures.
That is, we denied ourselves even the smallest of transgressions, because the story we decided live by (h/t Joan Didion) was that if we transgressed in any small way, then that would lead to bigger transgressions, and to wider moral failure.
So in the end many of us acted even more abstinently than the rules allowed. For example, while we were allowed to shop more than once a week, many of us limited it to just the once, and while two people from a household in a shop was allowed, we tended to do it singly.
Sure, the rules were there, and they provided a handy checklist, but to say about ourselves that we just obeyed the rules is to do ourselves down, when what we actually did was undertake a massive and heroic act of communal agency.
And this is what the political messaging should reflect. The line we need to develop is not the negative “we didn’t break the rules”, but the more agential one: “we denied ourselves even the smallest pleasure”, and contrast this not to the elite’s power to break the rules, but to their morally degraded lack of self control.
Because this is about power. If we allow the whole narrative to be about their power, and our powerlessness, we will fall into the 2019 trap, when the 1% vs the 99% narrative of fairness failed so miserably, precisely because it seemed to deny our own capacity collective autonomy, and thus opened the way to a Tory party all too keen to tell us they’d take control on our behalf, and all too good at portraying Labour position as the small-minded politics of envy .
We made all the right calls in March 2020, while the Johnson regime dithered dissolutely. There’s plenty of evidence of that from the time. We acted as citizens, and co-produced our own public health response. We weren’t simply consumers of the law.
Our messages need to reflect that collective strength, set against the weakness of the people who had the temerity to say they were leaders.
It’s less about fairness, and more about us being better people than them.
 Back in 2019, I wrote about why Labour lost, and said this:
Labour’s Gramscian left populism, with the imposition of 99% vs 1% (victims vs villains) identities, created an ontological threat to existing social identities, which revolve around personal autonomy and freedom to be who we say we are, not who the state, represented by a glowering Jeremy Corbyn, tells is we should, or must, be.
The re-fashioning of Labour as a legitimate force must, therefore, restore that sense of autonomy.
Corbyn is gone. It would be not a little ironic if the Starmer Labour party made the same political messaging mistake again.