Politics is increasingly and perversely becoming apolitical.

Keir Starmer recently said he does not want to call for Matt Hancock’s resignation after the Health Secretary was found to have acted unlawfully over contracts handed out during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of Starmer’s supporters have claimed this is the right move. Their argument is that Labour doesn’t want to be seen as ‘playing politics’ during a crisis.

Whatever merits there are to this decision, two things are instantly bizarre about this argument. The first being that holding someone to account when they break the law isn’t ‘playing politics’. Secondly, surely what is truly ‘playing politics’ is avoiding holding the government to account for the sake of good optics and electoral clout.

This timid attitude of avoiding important conversations under the guise of staying ‘non-political’ has been the single most damaging thing to happen to our political landscape in recent decades. At no time has this been more obvious than during the pandemic. 

Clapping doesn’t bring change

It’s now often seen as uncouth or inappropriate to talk about how a decade’s worth of funding cuts has led to the crumbling of the NHS’ infrastructure; or indeed, how increasing privatisation of NHS services has led to inefficiencies in the provision of healthcare.

Instead, we were all meant to stand outside our doors clapping for the NHS, as if a sustainable healthcare system can be brought about by goodwill alone.

Labour’s whole pandemic strategy of not appearing to be overly critical is a reflection of this placid attitude; namely, that to actually discuss the real material of politics is something to be avoided.

Are issues sometimes cheaply politicised for the sake of point-scoring? Absolutely. But there’s a big difference between that type of politicking, and actually addressing the material and ideological conditions that underlie our societal problems.

Malnutrition is political

Let’s look at another example during the pandemic: the free school meals scandal. Marcus Rashford was very purposeful in not making the issue about party politics, and as a non-partisan agent, this made sense in many ways.

However, I believe politics was too far removed from this cause. You don’t have to get party-political about the issue, but you can certainly get political about it — and should if you want to address the actual problem.

The campaign to get the government to change their decision on free school meals, although successful in the short term, didn’t bring to the fore a greater public understanding as to why around 20 per cent of children, in one of the richest countries in the world, are eligible for these meals.

When we don’t treat inherently political issues as such, we disarm ourselves of the tools necessary to efficiently and sustainably reduce or solve problems.

Apolitical environmentalism is just advanced gardening

Outside of pandemic politics, the same can be said for environmentalist groups like Extinction Rebellion with their ‘beyond politics’ platform.

The goal of taking such a stance is to attract more people to the cause. The same was true of the free school meals campaign.

This however is not only short-sighted in terms of keeping momentum, but also in terms of results. When you remove theory and politics from environmentalist groups, what do you have left?

You can’t promote sustainable use of the planet’s resources and not confront the fact that the current global capitalist system relies on exhausting the world’s resources — thereby making it the antithesis to sustainable production and consumption.

In effect, by making themselves apolitical, these movements become empty. They become slogans worn on t-shirts, and they become branding opportunities for corporations who are part of the very problem these causes claim to fight.

Politics as PR

The biggest impact of all this is that as citizens, we are left intellectually and ideologically unequipped to actually understand and deal with big societal issues. Political life becomes a surface-level affair, essentially transformed into a PR exercise.

This is what’s happened with Black Lives Matter. Wilfred Zaha has recently pointed out the dwindling impact of the movement in the Premier League. The taking-of-the-knee before the game and the posters around stadiums were perhaps powerful to start off with, but this has now become an empty token because the material conditions have not changed.

The wholesale adoption of this movement by the corporate world has completely deradicalised it and seen its momentum dramatically dissipate. It didn’t evolve into any meaningful debate. Racial politics has been ‘depoliticised’ as if it’s just about peace and love, and not about genuine economic investment and redistribution. The apolitical stance is definitely effective for some.

This is how neoliberal politics works. It takes the aesthetics of radical politics, white-washes it and commodifies it.

If we are to truly progress as a society, and if we are to tackle the multitude of issues confronting us, then we must drop the idea that politics can be done without ideology — there is simply no such thing.

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