Sunday, 10 May 2015

On Centre Grounds and Aspirations

Tony Blair's enduring, if banal, insight is that parties win elections from the centre ground. Labour has to be where most of the voters are in order to win seats enough to govern. While in one sense true, in another the centre ground is a many legged beast. And each body segment has its own direction of travel. It's not the done thing to believe the polls these days, but they have consistently shown support for nice lefty things like nationalisation of utilities and the rails, properly funding the NHS, rent controls, and a host of other causes we hold dear. And they also show the salience of some regressive views - antipathy toward immigrants, and hostility to those dependent on social security. The centre ground here is merely a recipe for wishy washy fudging that satisfies no one. You can do that, or you can have a programme that tries to address these on their own terms. This is what the Labour manifesto did. There were some sensible and eminently supportable policies and some that, from a socialist point of view, were less than ideal. It was a centre ground manifesto as per Blair's understanding, and it still lost. Furthermore fetishising the centre ground not only runs the risk of fixing for all time political truths whose sell by date has long passed, it can also be a recipe for dull, grey managerial politics. Not only does this fail to inspire electorates, as this general election campaign has shown, it leaves Labour woefully unprepared to counter the irrationalism peddled by the Tories and UKIP. Blairism of the 1997 vintage was hardly passionate politics, but it rode the wave of a generalised anti-Tory feeling. The more leftish programme Labour offered this time didn't connect because it was too wonkish, despite having plenty of good stuff that would have made a real difference to people's lives. So while Blair is right in one sense, Labour needs a more sophisticated understanding of the political ground it works as well as realising the capacity it has to break new ground itself.

The other word is aspiration. Doing the rounds on TV and in the papers, leadership hopefuls and newly elected MPs have been talking it up. This was the other great insight of Blairism, of understanding that where people are isn't always where they want to be. This, apparently, was a lesson unlearned during the last five years. It's not that the Labour manifesto failed to address aspiration, but rather the wrong aspirations. The worker on a zero hour contract aspires to regular hours. The problem is, she's not the one who votes whereas the archetypal hard=pressed business owner does. Millions of people are trapped in insecure tenancies, but their vote is nothing compared to actual and aspiring land lords. And on it goes. The problem here is if we chase the small c conservative aspirations as Blair did, we run the risk of destroying our party. We tip toward deficit determinism and accepting key tenets of the Tory manifesto, and we might lose tens of thousands of members and, crucially, our trade union life line. More balanced politics are required. As I've argued before, Labour has always been less a working class party and more a proletarian one. i.e. It has gathered in its ranks all stratas of a wide, variegated class that is compelled to work for a living. We and our movement are living proof that the aspirations of those at the bottom and those better off can be squared - not without tensions - in a common framework. Doing so and taking that programme to the country requires nous and political imagination, not lapsing into the comfort zones of the past.


Boffy said...


Surely its quite simple isn't it? marx did not talk about building Socialism on the basis of only appealing to the lumpen proletariat, or even a minority of workers, but of "winning the battle for democracy", i.e. winning over a large majority of the working-class, which itself constitutes the vast majority of society.

There is nothing wrong with appealing to "aspiration", Socialism is all about creating the conditions whereby such aspirations can be met for the vast majority, which as marx himself stated, DOES come from CREATING much more wealth, not from simply - and as he showed futilely - trying to redistribute the wealth that currently exists, as the Fabians sought to do.

There is in fact, a fairly straightforward way, for example, in which even the Tories could make a large chunk of their welfare cuts. Announce, a planned, and substantial rise in the Minimum Wage, to be implemented over the next five years, and a corresponding reduction of in-work benefits. That would mean all those small businesses that rely on low wages, would have to begin planning how to raise their productivity through innovation and investment, or go bust, and it would mean that capital would stop being encouraged into these zombie enterprises, and instead flow towards higher value, higher paying areas - that is how Singapore and other economies developed rapidly and pushed up living standards.

But, Labour could promote aspiration on our terms to appeal to workers, and sections of the middle class. We should emphasise that the real "functioning capitalists" are the production line managers, the people who are members of unions like MSF, not the coupon clippers who simply draw dividends and interest, or their representatives who flit from one Board of Directors to another in search of sinecures.

We should encourage the idea of aspiration to own and run your own business, and point out why that can only realistically be done on a collective basis, by workers establishing large co-operatives. We should encourage the aspiration for workers to have control over their pension funds, and be able to use them so as to further their role in society, and ability to create new wealth - indeed as happens at John Lewis.

We should encourage the aspiration not to be reliant on the capitalist state, but demand, therefore, that the huge funds that must have been built up by that state from a century of workers taxes and social insurance contributions, be handed over to them to be used for the development of their own co-operative property and organisations.

Phil said...

I have been thinking along those lines as well. We need to reclaim the notion of aspiration from those who think it equates to an extra sunny holiday every year.

Vinyl Miner said...

I worked casual, cash in hand in the John Lewis restuarant kitchen, not a nice experience. (1990)

BCFG said...

Aspiration is tea party shorthand for the undeserving and deserving poor. It is about looking down upon people as inferior, the winner and loser society. Marx and Engels always championed the unskilled worker above the highly skilled one, who they believed could be bought off.

Socialists can re-brand aspiration all they like but we need to demolish the old one first. And stand up for those who are implicitly attacked by the concept.

Socialism should not be a socialism for the highly skilled, which is what I see among many a so called Marxist. Some so called Marxists want to portray the unskilled as lumpen elements.