In 2015 there were lots of surprises, but at the end of the year everything made sense. David Cameron had won an unexpected majority for the Tories, but the reasons for his victory were typical of past elections: the voters preferred Cameron as a lead and thought that Labour were weak on the economy. No one predicted that Jeremy Corbyn could be leader of the Labour Party when he declared his intention to run for the position, but his victory makes sense when you remember that the other candidate’s statements on welfare, spending and immigration were far to the right of what the average Labour Party member is comfortable with. 2015 made sense when viewed through our traditional lens for examining politics.
All that changed in 2016. It is as if our ability to understand the titanic shifts occurring in politics is itself breaking down.
This year saw surprise victories for Brexit and Donald Trump, as well as growing support for right wing nationalist populism all over the Western world. Despite the conventional left and right opposing these movements, and the combined weight of our civil institutes and media thrown against them, they succeeded by engaging in a different political debate that is completely parallel to the one being had by established politics. Cameron wanted to talk about the economy, but Nigel Farage was talking about borders. Hillary Clinton wanted to talk about experienced leadership, but Trump wanted to talk about crooked politicians.
Brexit was not a left wing or a right wing issue. The leaders of government and opposition were united in opposing it and are now united in supporting it. The supporters of Brexit and Remain are drawn from both safe Tory and Labour seats. People now politically identify more strongly with their referendum vote than any particular political party. This is an earthquake that has shaken up the way we have been doing politics since 1989 (perhaps since 1945).
British Politics is profoundly different after the referendum result. There is now a new political spectrum divided between nativists and globalists with both sides drawing support from both the main right and left wing parties. This is nothing short of a profound reordering of politics.
The same process is happening in America. The victory of Trump has shown that the most electorally successful position in the old way of doing politics (being socially and economically liberal) does not work when confronted with populism. The way of doing politics that has gone unchallenged in Britain and America since the days of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton is now dead. Seeing the world through their political prism no longer allows us to make sense of it.
The unusual victories of Brexit and Trump were driven by many factors, but a key one is the way that we consume our news today. Two points emerged this year: firstly, that many of us get most of our news from a social media bubble that feeds back opinions that we are likely to agree with and excludes ones that we are likely to disagree with. This has distorted our perception of politics and how widely accepted our opinions are. It has allowed ideas and positions to go completely unchallenged and preventing voters from interrogating their own opinions.
The second issue is that many people are consuming some degree of fake news. Stories that are completely untrue and would not see the light of day in a media landscape that was dominated by a few well established brands that respected the ethics of journalism. The complacency and narrow mindedness of some established media companies is partly to blame for this. However, responsibility also lies with ourselves as media consumers.
We are too willing to only read articles that we agree with and ignore articles that we disagree with. This is what has allowed us to be lied to at an industrial scale. We need to break out of our filter bubble and find some way of telling what is a lie from what is truth in a media landscape where both appear equally valid and where we are driven to the one that most suits our own bias.
Much like climate change, the solution to this problem does not require a technological fix, but for people to behave better and to be more open minded. How do we encourage people to avoid confirmation bias, to be open to new ideas and to challenge their own assumptions? Most people, it turns out, would prefer to be lied to than to challenge their own world view. In our current way of doing politics we accept news from the sources that we like or that broadly share our political opinions. In the world of fake news this leaves us open to being lied to and exploited.
The undisputed king of the fake news and media relativism is Vladimir Putin, a man who has extended his reach across the world this year, maybe as far as the White House. Politicians of the left and the right are united in the belief that something needs to be done about this tyrant and threat to democracy. However no-one knows what to do beyond the use of strong words.
In the old politics sunlight was the best disinfectant. It was sunlight that showed the BNP to be the incompetent thugs that they were, but how do we do use facts to bring down a man who shifts perceptions of reality itself? How do we argue with someone who exists in a murky world where every piece of information is equal regardless of how extreme or spurious it is? How do we present a better alternative to someone who insists that all government is equally flawed? Putin challenges even the fundamental idea of what a fact is. We cannot defeat him with conventional politics.
Putin’s biggest accomplishment this year has been saving Bashar Al Assad’s oppressive Syrian regime and successfully crushing the uprising against him. In the process hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilians have been killed. The suffering the people of Aleppo, meted out indiscriminately by these cruel despots, must move every human being. However, the West cannot do anything about it. The world is too complex, too unstable and too frightening - so we are paralysed by inaction. This is not the world of the 2000s; America and Britain cannot throw their weight around and hope this effects a smooth transition to a better, freer world. We do not understand the complexities of the geopolitics in the 2010s enough to stop something as awful mass slaughter.
Our entire way of understanding the world has stopped working. The current toolbox we use to understand politics is not sufficient to explain the new political system that we live under. This has led to those with painfully simple messages to cut through the confusion to great effect: “take back control”, “make America great again”. The answer is not to become simpler, but to find a way to navigate these new complexities.
In 2016 the soft left ran out of things to say that explain the world to voters. Between Hillary Clinton and Owen Smith, people simply do not believe in the old way of doing social democracy anymore. Corbyn offers something different, which is welcome, but I do not feel that his analysis of the political challenges of the early 21st century are complex enough or radical enough to be up to the task of inspiring large numbers of people to support a left wing political movement.
Let 2017 be a year of new ideas. Not 80s throwbacks, or 90s throwbacks, or insultingly simple answers to complex questions. Let 2017 be a year of brand new exciting ideas, deep thought about the world we now find ourselves in and an openness to re-examine the assumptions of the past. The left needs a vision of the future because the future is frightening. It needs to be new and it needs be radical, perhaps more radical than we have ever been before. I know we can do it if we find a way to remixing our thinking so that we can make sense of 2017.