Monday, 6 October 2014

Recomposing Labour

Oblivion is a shuffle, lurch, and crawl away for the Conservative Party. Even if by some dark miracle they are returned to power next year, the terminal crisis enveloping them cannot be sidestepped. Either the hard right lunatics decamp to an ever-so-pure and ever-so-irrelevant electoral lash up with the purple people bleaters, or they don't. And for as long as they lay claim to Toryism, so the Conservative Party will be permanently hobbled. Yet things aren't too great for Labour either. Demographics, economics, and culture are chewing up the Tories. But they're doing the same for Labour too.

Consider the big shocker during the referendum campaign. Honourable members, party workers, activists and trade unionists who trekked north were deeply shocked by the awful state Scottish Labour was found to be in. As the SNP boast of passing the 100,000 member mark Scotland's former ruling party is languishing on something like 5,000 members. That's just utterly, utterly pitiful. Local conditions have a role to play, but when stagnation and decline is too often the lot of Labour parties outside of London something else is going on. Just as the Tory collapse cannot be stymied by a few more canvassing sessions and new returns entered into Merlin, so it is true with Labour. Keeping calm and knocking on doors is not sufficient to see off the shadow on Labour's lung.

I've blogged loads about changes to class and culture in Britain these last 30 years. The working class as more or less cohesive networks of communities institutionalised into the political architecture of post-war capitalism has gone. The bedrock of the Labour Party that provided it generations of politicians who did their internships at the coal face of life has largely melted. As the political economy underpinning the structural foundations of British Labourism turned to dust the communities of solidarity they sustained frayed and drifted apart. The labour movement remains. But the labour movement as a counterweight and repository of hope for something different and better, that's more an idea than a reality, unfortunately.

New Labour can profitably be read as an attempt to overcome this structural weakness in labour movement. And the means it chose was rather novel. Making a virtue of necessity, the "old Labour" of industrial politics was interred under Tony Blair's stairs along with inconvenient trade unionists, the "S word", and anything that smacked at all of, ugh, working class people. In came the slick presentation and reaching out to swing voters. Workers vanished, hard-working families proliferated. Blair's New Britain was a "young nation" unconcerned with the socialist muck of the past. Economic efficiency and social justice were to be the twin pillars of a modernising government that would be in power forever. This was the third way to the New Jerusalem.

The problem was New Labour was only ever a superficial electoral construct. When the wheels came off after Brown ducked an election in 2007, and then capitalism rudely reminded the former iron chancellor that it can and quite possibly could go bust, the electoral coalition - that had come to look a bit threadbare by 2005 - frayed and unravelled in 2010. Far, far more problematic was the kind of constituency New Labour tried to build itself while in power. Temporarily British capital's government of choice as the Tories knocked lumps out of one another, Blair and Brown tried to make this affiliation permanent. Hence no meaningful finance regulation. Hence the pro-business homilies and exaltation to "enrich yourselves". Hence the mania to open up public services and the NHS to more and more marketisation so a parasitic section of British capital weaned on the taxpayers' teat could profit from New Labour largesse. While this was going on, workers' rights were retarded; new folk devils among working class people were picked out and panicked about; the minimum wage held down and, yes, the continued offshoring and gutting of manufacturing; casualisation; the closure of pension funds; only now do Labour's leadership belatedly recognise that doing nothing was perhaps not the best of ideas.

New Labour was a product of labour movement weakness. And it sought to deal with it by compounding that weakness. So the problems afflicting Labour heartlands across Britain isn't because policies failed socialist purity tests: if that was the case, the likes of TUSC would be running Labour close, not Elvis Loves Pets. It's because they broke up and dispersed working class communities and solidarities just as sure as Thatcher did. No wonder she thought New Labour was her greatest achievement.

Here's the easy/difficult job. Labour can arrest its decline. Catastrophe can be averted. And, what's more, doing so is a less arduous job than the rebirth by fire awaiting the Tories. But it requires nuanced, smart politics. Here's the challenge. For Labour to dominate the 21st century it needs to, first of all, not attack its own people. Not too difficult is it? If our most vulnerable can't depend on the party that was set up to represent them to not deny them the resources they need, then who can they rely on? It's not just about benefit cuts, Labour needs to be alive to the toxic consequences of successful markets. Where markets exist in public services, they provide bumper profits for the few off the back of lower standards, lower wages, atomised workers, insecure working. Is that a price worth paying for some abstract efficiencies target? No, it is not. Likewise, throughout the wider economy as a whole Labour need to turn an unsympathetic ear to British business who've had it all their way for far too long. Workers representation on boards, yes. New rules on hire and fire and union recognition, new rules on tribunals, permanent and temporary working - stuff hardly redolent of Trotsky's The Death Agony of Capitalism but have the effect of reversing the disaggregating effects 30 years of marketisation have had.

Let's get more ambitious. It's time Labour staked out what the labour movement really is. Our movement is a broad tent of workers and consumers. Everyone from the well-heeled professional and the celebrity, to the call centre worker and the disabled should have a place with us. It is a community founded on the need to labour and the sets of material and political interests flowing from it. The labour movement's interests are coincident with those of the vast majority of people who live in Britain. Our interests are the universal interest. But the Labour Party only represents everyone because it is a party of workers, by hand or by brain.

Labour is a parliamentary party. Labourism is the marrying of the interests of the labour movement to constitutionalism. But let's be honest, there's been plenty of constitutionalism and not enough marrying it to our interests these last 20 years. And the price we've paid is horrific. The terrified and deeply anxious society we live in now is because New Labour did nothing to address the economic and self-security of the great mass of our people. Small wonder there are CLPs hanging like rotten scraps in the wind, and that Labour are seen as part of the Westminster problem - not its solution.

As it stands, the present policy platform on offer shows a bit of an understanding of Labour's nature of threat, but scant awareness that punitive policy and continued market madness will do the party in the long run. Those are the stakes. Either the leadership wake up - a doubtful prospect, alas - or it's up to the rank-and-file of the labour movement to push this settlement through the party.

Once again, you either do politics. Or politics does you.


bjsalba said...

Please correct the SNP membership figure. It is not and never was the figure you quote.

Officially (last I heard) it was 77,777.

It would incline me to return to this blog if you check the facts before publishing.

Phil said...

SNP now has over 100,000 members.

Still, talk about not seeing the wood for the trees.

Robert said...

Scottish Labour is in deep trouble. Next year there could well be a cull of Scottish Labour MPs. That might not be entirely a bad thing - parts of Scotland have been a one party Labour state for far too long.

Meanwhile the Blairties appear to be briefing against Ed. This is not only disloyal but deeply damaging. Ed isn't going to be knifed before the election so what is the point of weakening him and damaging Labour? Some of these Blairites have never forgiven Ed for not being David and I suspect quite a few won't be too upset if Labour loses next year so they can feel vindicated.

Anonymous said...

"Everyone from the well-heeled professional and the celebrity, to the call centre worker and the disabled should have a place with us."


The well-heeled professional and the celebrity should not be allowed to dominate, they should be a marginal part. In fact if they want to join our movement so be it but the movement will never pander or orientate to their needs. Just as it would be with those who are religious. Join us if you want but don't expect our movement to pander to your religion.

Speedy said...

Well said although obviously you avoid the elephant in the room - mass immigration and multiculturalism. I have come to agree with your assertion as a materialist that economic insecurity etc does play a major part in the sense of atomisation and powerlessness people feel, but ignoring Labour's aggressive attack on Britishness also played a major part, and continues to do so - where is the token white working class male reporter on C4 News i wonder?!

Ignoring people's tribal identities (or rather ignoring Britons') is a major component of the unease people feel - there is no sense of belonging. Britain has become worse than the US - people reduced in to consumers (the capitalist version of materialism) with no sense of common identity (as in the US). The British feel swallowed up by the world - economically AND culturally Phil. Universalism is poison to nation states - Labour's universalism heralded not a socialist revolution but a capitalist one.

Hired a man in a van the other day, Bulgarian, I asked him where in the city he came from, he told me. Shithole, he said, full of immigrants. Ah, he said, as we reached our destination, i like it here, people are the same. What do you mean the same, i said. British, he said.

Human nature is what's universal... ;-)

Robert said...


I expect a lot of black and Asian British resent all these immigrants from Eastern Europe ;)

Chris said...

Let us just rewind a little before speedy uses the word flood!

The ethnic composition of the UK is 87.1% white. And this isn’t Rhodesia, the 12.9% are not ruling over the white oppressed masses but often form part of the lowest layer.

So not so much an elephant in the room as a new born mouse.

New Labours aggressive attack on Britishness! Did I dream Brit pop or what? Did I forget the screeching vans abducting people in Union jack shirts?

“where is the token white working class male reporter on C4 News i wonder?”

Where is the token working class black person you racist tosser.

“Ignoring people's tribal identities (or rather ignoring Britons') is a major component of the unease people feel“

Some facts:

Among those in working families, around 65% of Bangladeshis, 50% of Pakistanis and 30% of Black Africans are in low income. These rates are much higher than those for White British (10%)

In all parts of the country, people from ethnic minorities are, on average, more likely to live in low-income households than White British people.

So much for ignoring white people!

“The British feel swallowed up by the world - economically AND culturally “

Oh yeah, as they take more foreign holidays a year than most nations, as they are only second to the USA in the countries that are imperialist index.

The irony here is that the very people who claim there is a problem with White peoples place in the nation are the very ones who are creating the problem in the first place.

The remedy to the problems speedy raises is to stop listening to idiots like speedy.

Speedy said...

No surprises from Rotherham Council Chris the only problem comes from people pointing out there may be a problem. Now where have we heard that before?

Perhaps i only imagined immigration tops the concerns of most voters?

Your stats don't add up btw. Apart from ignoring EU citizens, even based on what you say 10 per cent of 87 per cent is greater than 50 per cent of 5.

Have a nice day.

jimboo said...

Latest polls show that David Cameron is more popular in Scotland than Ed Milliband :-)

Chris said...

Speaking of stats, speedy still hasn't given us the % of Pakistani men involved in the child abuse cases. Which he was asked for and didn't provide. All he provided was innuendo and insinuation, as is his method.

My stats show that your elephant in the room is but a new born mouse. Your fear mongering will cause fear no doubt about it, so mission accomplished and it will also cause ignorance, hatred, bitter division, a rise in reactionary policies etc, this much is true but it won't change the fact that you are, as usual, talking out of your backside.