The Cambridge left needs all the help it can get

Sam Rhodes 10 April 2015

It's a dispiriting time to identify with left-wing politics. In the UK, the Conservatives are on track to collect the lion's share of the vote in May's election, with Farage, not Miliband, the thorn in Cameron's side. On the continent the picture is similar; the politics of austerity go largely unchallenged as far-right nationalist parties increase their influence. In my native Australia, Tony Abbott presides over one of the most socially and economically retrograde governments in living memory, and, aside from a glimmer of hope in the shape of a bilateral agreement between China and the States, decisive global action on climate change seems as far away as ever.

It's a bleak picture. But then, when was the last time things were better for the left? Once the flimsy notion that Blair and Brown led left-wing governments is properly discarded, the majority of Cambridge students have no experience living under progressive administrations. Indeed for many young lefties, the politics with which they identify have for their entire lives been the politics of protest, the rebellion to the right's empire. In 21st-century Britain, inequality is rising, not falling, corporate influence over politics is greater than ever, half the Parliament is still unelected, and social mobility is lower than that in the US.

So it was against this rosy backdrop that I read the Cambridge left's recent open letter to the Stepford Student. It's important that I admit at this juncture to having absolutely no interest in student politics, and make clear that this article is not intended as judgment or even comment on the specific debate between those two parties, which appears to be proceeding towards a mutually acceptable outcome.

Instead I want to pick up on a thread that runs through the letter, the issue of the credibility of left-wing speakers, and its importance to the larger success or otherwise of the Left.

The letter makes two assertions. The first – that underrepresented groups should be given a greater voice in the student media – is impossible to argue against. The second – that pieces about oppression should not be written by those who do not personally experience the oppression in question – is nonsense, and indicative of the division that has held the left back for so long.

Marginalised groups should feel possessive of the narrative defining the public's perception of their experiences, and it's certainly indisputable that their voices should comprise a large component of any commentary on them. But to exclude other perspectives is to hinder progress towards equality.

The left in 2015 finds itself in serious danger of becoming a closed church, out of power for so long that its beliefs have become more trendy counter-culture than cohesive alternative manifesto. Now, in the same way that anyone who doesn't own a copy of your new favourite band's demo cassette can't be a true fan, nobody who benefits in any way from the current social structure can be a true leftist. It leaves us in the absurd position of complaining simultaneously that the rich don't care about the poor, and that those who do speak out lack credibility exactly because of their wealth.

But speakers like Warren Buffet and Stephen King are wealthy, white men who write credibly and passionately about the unfairness of the American tax policy, of which they are beneficiaries. With his vocal support for marriage equality, Australian heterosexual (and rugby player) David Pocock has forced the issue of gay rights into the extraordinarily heteronormative space of professional sport. These speakers are not interlopers, but assets.

Even those who do experience the oppression against which they rail are subject to the effects of intersectionality. Martin Luther King, for instance, spoke to disenfranchised African Americans from a position of relative economic and educational advantage. One wonders whether his credibility would be questioned today.

But it's exactly these sympathetic, albeit privileged voices that the left needs to co-opt in order to be successful. Classical rhetoric describes the three appeals: pathos, logos, and ethos. The latter of these, referring to the perceived credibility of the speaker, matters most here. In short, people tend believe those they trust, regardless of whether their emotional and / or logical appeals are valid. It's why anti-vaxxers still believe Jenny McCarthy over the entire medical establishment, and why Nigel Farage has become so popular despite a mishmash of contradictory policy.

And it's why a variety of voices is useful in bringing the struggles of marginalised groups to the largest possible audience. Imagine the equivalent of McCarthy talking about racial inequality or Jeremy Clarkson Mk II talking about transgender rights, not in the place of those oppressed groups, but in support. What ultimately matters in any political movement is how many people you can convince, and more voices is never a bad thing.

Owing to its progressive nature, the left is under constant pressure to reassess its objectives and principles in a way the conservative side of politics will never have to. This is a unique and vexing challenge. But I would posit that if there is one core belief that will always define the left it is that the accident of birth should not limit a person's ability to fully participate in society in the manner of their choosing. It's for this reason that we believe in public education, in universal healthcare, in the fair treatment of minority groups, and in the compassionate treatment of the underprivileged. It's for exactly this reason that the left needs credible speakers from all backgrounds, speaking loudly and often, to achieve its goals.