Wednesday 5 November 2014

It's the Sense of Security, Stupid

At the start of the summer, prospective parliamentary candidates enjoyed a breakfast audience with His Royal Blairness. There was none of the "proper" post-prime ministerial coyness that our Tony normally pretends to. He was frank and open. Sort of. He was asked what he thought of Labour's chances going into the next general election, to which he replied "it's the economy, stupid". Observing that GDP figures are up and relatively strong after years of stagnation, Blair implied that the Tories stewardship of the economy will see them (unjustly) reap the benefits. Just as smilin' old Bill did all those years ago.

Let's just park that up the third way cul-de-sac for a few paragraphs.

A little over a month ago, I was bold/daft enough to suggest that the difficulties besetting the Tories meant that the general election was Labour's to lose. And whaddya know, it turns out the walls of so-called Fortress Scotland are crumbling away, and there are too few troops to man the parapets. Not the kind of situation Labour wants to be in when an insurgent SNP and its leftist baggage hauliers are settling in for a protracted siege. And not ideal for anyone who wants to see the Tories out next year, lest Labour-led coalition jiggery-pokery with the SNP and others can keep the blues and the purple people bleaters from returning to government.

The impact the Scottish meltdown has had on the polls has seen Labour's lead whittled down to somewhere between a point and even-stevens. And so there are mutterings about the leadership, again. While this is nothing new; after all the griping of "shadow cabinet sources" flowed unabated when Labour was bringing home eight per cent leads on 40%+ poll shares. On this occasion, there are reasons to moan. Politics may well have changed, but even then a party looking to return from the opposition benches needs to be doing better. The polls are slipping, Ed Miliband's ratings are truly subterranean, and the party hugely trails the Tories on the economy.

Millions of words have been expended on diagnosing the problems. For the Blairites our policies are too left wing and we got the wrong Miliband. For the left the opposite is true: policy owes too much to the Tories. The truth of the matter is dumping Ed won't work. Neither will promising to slash the deficit and reform (privatise) public services, nor nationalising the top 100 monopolies and squeezing the rich until the pips squeak. And so attention turns to that most nebulous of wonky terms, 'narrative'.

Helpfully, this is the topic of George Eaton's latest in the New Statesman. He asks if Labour can scarcely inspire its own MPs and activists, then how can it be expected to fire up the country? Part of the problem is the incoherence of Labour's message. The cost of living crisis, One Nation, Blue Labour, and the repeated usage of 'Together' in the leader's conference speech have hardly been cohered together in a compelling story on which policies can be hung. Indeed, there is incoherence. We're told that Tory austerity has caused a pain and suffering, and yet our solution is to carry on with the public sector pay freeze. Labour champions investments, not cuts. And undermines its message by promising cuts and pledging to keep the purse strings on a tight leash. You can't have it both ways.

One of the key historical problems for Labour has always been the tension between power and principle, or to be more exact between forming and following public opinion. It sees a British public now up in arms against immigration and social security, but also keen to see the rich getting a kick, the NHS protected, and key utilities renationalised. They want excellent public services and low taxes. How does a party in the business of catching votes square contradictory policy preferences. Labour historically has gone down the empiricist route: this is what the people want, so this is what the people will get. This reached its unedifying apogee in the New Labour years in its tightening of social security sanctions (hello work capability assessment!) and introduction of very strict immigration rules for non-EU nationals. It tried to get round the contradiction of snazzy public services with low taxation by making the Tory-invented private finance initiatives its very own. Each time, New Labour approached the voting public as refracted by the press and adapted its programme to these perceptions. What you might recognise as "traditional" social democratic policies were slipped in now and then provided no horses took fright. The alternative to adaptation is striking out and boldly seeking to lead public opinion. If you provide a coherent enough leftwing programme that champions the interests of working people and the most vulnerable, Labour can cut through the crap and excite opinion with a flourish of decisiveness. The problem is that in the narrow pragmatism of managing a party of government, would the investment of political capital be repaid? Unfortunately, and with the phantom of 1983 ever ready to rattle its chains, there is no way the present leadership, socialised as it was under Kinnock and Blair, are going to strike out in that way when the "facts" of public opinion are so evident.

There is another way beyond empiricism and voluntarism. You can make Labour's narrative as coherent as you like, but it's got to touch real people; not the wonks, not the hacks. This does involve a bit of thinking. Rather than worshipping the attitude surveys and the polling as hard social facts the party has to live and die by, we need to take a scalpel to them. We have to think sociologically. There's plenty of this going on. Ask any switched-on Labour person where UKIP and anti-politics comes from and the answer, regardless of the wing of the party they live in, will likely be the same. Collapse of old industry, social dislocation, mass immigration, housing crisis, service sector dominance, and so on. A few might even mention masculinity as well. If you spend some time going through Labour blogs and publications, all this is there. And yet rather than the beginning of political wisdom, Labour tends to address the symptoms, hence the lack of consistency and - yes - mostly managerial approach to them.

It really is simple. Blair was wrong. It's not the economy, it's a sense of security, stupid. The roots of anti-politics tangle together in a knotty mass of insecurity. Growing economies transform into approving votes only if they coincide with growing affluence, certainty and self-security among the electorate in general. If that's decoupled, the only 'stupid' are those who brandish it like supreme wisdom irrespective of circumstance. And what we have in Britain is an uncoupling of economic performance and living standards. What then might be most appropriate to the circumstances? Why, that old warhorse the cost of living crisis might be helpful here. But rather than hang wonky nonsense about One Nation onto it, Labour needs to build a story about the insecurity blighting people's lives and, crucially, adopt policies that address it. For example, if hire and fire culture was done away with, if the minimum wage was made up to the living wage, if firms were forced to make good the pensions contribution holidays they've been on, if young people could go to university knowing tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt won't wait afterwards, pledging to strip out these roots anxiety and insecurity (among others) could make a massive difference to Labour's fortunes. This then is the story Labour can tell, the future it can sell. Some of its already existing policies would reduce insecurity, but again, the continued, ruinous commitment to austerity runs counter to it.

The path to victory requires leadership and a certain boldness, and also an ability to understand how anxiety works itself out as all kinds of fears and cynicisms. To intersect with that requires a creative pragmatism utterly different to simple empiricism, bound up with a story of how we got into this mess and what Labour's going to do to bring certainty back.


Speedy said...

Good to see you"re getting there Phil... ;-)

Although not quite there yet - you know the Blair rhetoric re a hard line on immigration did not match the reality, which was the opposite.

Back to Weil - a need for roots. The concerted all-fronts attack on identity has sunk socialism. From the Thatcher years on solidarity, empathy, greed is good, council house sales and privatisation etc. From the Left - multiculturalism (ie no culturalism), mass immigration and devolution. Universalsim combining with sheer spite against the English working class. From outside - globalisation, the internet etc.

We have a perfect storm in which, as you say, identity - security - in the UK has been smashed. A whole culture has been disolved and all that is left is consumerism, commoditisation. Things - the faith of things (and as Momus says "things dont mean anything"). The UK is the US without the unifying elements of identity. The Great Looting and religious terrorism are what we have to look forward to - both "morbid symptoms" - along with nationalism and stupidity in general. An exit from the EU would be another example.

A Labour government off the back of an SNP coalition would be disaster for Labour - it would unleash English nationalism and possibly destroy the entire movement.
Labour would not only be seen as the party that betrayed the working class, but lack any legitimacy at all in the majority of the country for their policies. As Thatcherism rejuvinated the SNP in Scotland god knows what would happen in England.

A living wage etc wont work. Too little too late. It is noticeable Labour still does not get it - no mea culpa re immigration. Like 2p to a begger lady. But its not about taxes eithet - it is about vision, afdressing these identity issues head on. The Tories recognise this over English votes. Labour is terrified and turns away. This is why it is the party of the past.

Gary Elsby said...

There are a number of things going on creating a perfect disaster for Labour.
Firstly, they are not bold enough (yet) on new ideas allowing defeated people hope.
c)EU, to name a few.
Secondly, No one appears to be too broken hearted about coalitions.
Third, the Tories have created a rampaging immigrants shovelled onto us by mad EU men who then bill us.

Labour appears to have no stomach for a EU fight and leaves it to EU lunatics such as me to fight the correct fight properly.
Housing should be the number one fight with the whole economic reasons for it (1-2million new houses, hundreds of thousands of new jobs and apprenticeships.
Pensioners should be made more important as an ever growing age concern gathers and should not feel a 'death tax'.
I wrote the pensions 1% NI rise, ring fenced for elderly care starting from 16 and then graduated through to retirement age (Kate Barker MPC from Stoke takes the credit 5 years later)
The Tories are shit scared of majority EU voting and run with an immigrant story instead.
Ed Miliband is weak and therefore Labour is weak and therefore Labour members are weak.

I'm the least surprised person in the room.
No heart, no hope.
The solution is very simple.
Fight for what is right and mean it.
Make a Nazi look like a Nazi, that is the deliberate change of plan during the Nuremberg trials which saw top Nazis look like freedom fighters.
So the tack was changed.
Labour should fight and give hope.

David Timoney said...

Speedy talks of identity as some intrinsic, pre-existing property that has come under attack from outside, but identity is not fixed. It is the product of process, i.e. the social and economic forces doing the "attacking". English identity was made by industrialisation and the welfare state, not by the Witenagemot and Magna Carta. Current English identity is being sculpted by post-industrialisation and the erosion of the welfare state - the morbid symptom here is the nostalgia for '45.

Multiculturalism was not a hostile force against identity but a conservative response to the perceived "loss of identity" that gathered pace in the 70s as deindustrialisation and hyper-individualism took hold, an attempt to find a life-raft in the churning sea of modernity. Weil's diatribe against deracination was an important reactionary input to this fashion.

Re "The UK is the US without the unifying elements of identity". Methinks you're confusing ideology with identity. Again, the Tea Party and tearful flag-gripping are signs of trouble not strength. The process of modernity in both countries is much the same (there has been enormous convergence over the last 3 decades and the movement has not been all in one direction), which is why both have struggling labour movements.

The Labour party is bollixed because its core, i.e. labour, has been divided and disempowered by modern capitalism. Turning itself against immigrants, i.e. labour, and bleating on about authenticity and roots will continue its decline. Phil is right that a focus on work and living standards is the only credible way forward, however the party remains way behind the wider population in terms of its radicalism, which provides breathing space for shite like immigration controls and the EU.

Speedy said...

David, your immanent critique is a tool for the cultural studies laboratory, and part of the problem is too many of its graduates took it outside and misapplied it to the real world as policy makers.

With their pat responses they doubtless cut an intellectual swathe but to paraphrase Myra Breckenbridge "what may have caused consternation in the seminar led to dismay on the high street".

You are simply wrong about multiculturalism (a response to mass immigration) and US/UK (an ideology AND an identity). That is not to say that multiculturalism was born of some liberal conspiracy (more like liberal complacency) or that US identity is anything more than a myth, but that's not the point.

Anonymous said...

Labour has spent much of the past 20 years telling its own core supporters that job security and decent wages are anachronistic. It has therefore played a key role in undermining the credibility of the very policies you advocate.

The core determinant of economic activity in a capitalist economy is the investment function. Both Marx and Keynes (in their different ways) held this view. Unless and until you begin to find ways of subordinating that function to social need, all talk of tackling insecurity and anxiety is so much labourite hot air and waffle.