Fear is a strong emotion. For many it can be fears of small spaces or heights, and it is a brave soul who can overcome a fear of spiders. Often it can be associated with our childhood.
My first memories of fear took place at ‘One Sixty’, the family name for Grandmother’s house. It was in fact an upstairs two bedroom flat where Gran and Grandad had raised five children, and could be found in the Avenues leading up from Saltwell Park in Gateshead.
A trip to the ‘netty’, as the outside toilet was called at One Sixty, remains my earliest memory of genuine fear, especially in the winter after dark and in the rain. Descending the steep outside stairs, leaving the warmth and security of inside in exchange for the darkness of the back yard, and taking a step into the unknown was not for the faint hearted. I was often more worried by being forgotten about than the dark and it was always a great relief to dash back indoors.
I can’t say that I am afraid of the dark now, but these childhood memories are still very potent. It has been many years since I stayed at One Sixty but I do vividly remember that fear of the unknown.
Political fear is in a different category, but is, in its own way, linked heavily to the fear of the unknown.
Today’s political fear is the result of old certainties being cast aside as a consequence of globalisation. A factory on Tyneside can be relocated to Poland with the ensuing job loses here fuelling the political cause of those who argue we need to, ‘take back control’. One of globalisation’s benefits is the ease with which you can move to live and work in another country but such opportunities ring hollow to those in the North East who don’t have a passport or have never been to London.
It is in this response to the downside of globalisation that we can see where the vote for UKIP and Trump is coming from and it’s a shift in voting behaviour that is striking genuine fear into the hearts of the established political parties on both sides of the Atlantic, including Labour.
Fear is partly the result of not knowing how to respond to a threatening situation. Soldiers are trained to overcome fear through repeated drills, so that they respond automatically when attacked. Politicians aren’t trained in the same way, which is why so many have frozen when confronted with the rise of populist parties like UKIP, who optimise many voters’ response to globalisation. This is a topic I have written about before in a previous column
In the past we Labour folk would often talk of ‘Labour areas’ and some still do but the truth is they no longer exist, even here in the North East. We now live in an age where more adults have voted for more than one political party than ever before. Combine this with the fact that whole swathes of the population, especially the young, don’t vote and have often never voted, then you can see why mainstream politicians fear defeat. Understandably some politicians have retreated, others have girded their loins and recommitted themselves to knocking on doors and talking to voters, trying to reconnect, trying to find common ground, trying to address the understandable fear that comes from the old certainties falling away.
There are positives to be found, however. Although fear can sometimes be a useless emotion for politicians: it is important that we do not freeze up. The world does not stand still simply because there are no easy solutions. We must therefore cast our fear of the unknown aside, because the only way to defeat fear is to face it. I intend to do so in the New Year, and I hope that other politicians will do so with me.
So as 2017 arrives a good motto for politicians of the centre left and centre right as we move into the clearly turbulent political waters of the year ahead are the words of Franklin Roosevelt, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.