Sunday, 5 November 2017

Why British Politics is Polarising

What's going on? Take our mate Jolyon Maugham QC, for instance. Commenting on the latest Ipsos MORI putting Labour on 40% and the Tories on 38%, he argues Labour needs a new strategy and leadership because it can't "make headway". We can forgive him because he knows not what he does. But this is a common refrain. The Tories are stuck down t'pit, but Labour are hardly pirouetting top side. Indeed, it's the basis for stubborn Corbyn scepticism and hostility, the idea our lead should be measured in light years, not single digits and that were the party headed by some centrist/liberal hero we'd gallop away with the next election. Why isn't it happening?

Because polarisation. Consider the difference between now and early period New Labour before the 1997 general election. Then, as now, a strong, confident Labour Party faced a chaotic and exhausted Conservative government. The difference was on the core fundamentals ranging from approach to public spending to the role of markets, the hegemony of business, the sidelining of unions and so on the Tories and New Labour had an unspoken policy compact. Today, the Tories offer a programme, if it can be called that, self-evidently geared around the protection of class privilege while Labour offers something that can renew British capitalism and open the path to something beyond it. The 1990s were a time of class peace, albeit one of capital's terms thanks to the defeats of the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now is a time of sharpening class conflict.

If the frisson of Marxist verbiage is too much for your delicate constitution, consider it like this. Prices are rising faster than wages. Low wage insecure work is the norm, particularly for younger people. Thatcherite policies aimed at creating a property owning democracy has merely fostered a speculative caste of landlords blocking people, again mainly the young, from accessing the housing market. Public services are defunded and social security is a system of victimisation rather than support. Meanwhile, profits are doing alright and our home grown oligarchy, the beneficiaries of the flood of wealth from the poor and the modest to the super rich, has interred its cash offshore. Social mobility has seized up and only the availability of credit and cheap imports have prevented a crash in living standards. If your life is buffeted by a professional salary or better, you might not notice this shape of the world. But millions of people have and are getting stirred by it.

Something else is going on as well. The way the economy works is changing, a quiet, subtle revolution that has unfolded over the course of the last four decades: the replacement of material by immaterial labour, or to be more accurate, the increasing importance of intangible commodities - information, knowledge, services, relationships - to the business of profit making. There is much variety among this emergent layer of people working here, but a great many commonalities too. They are in some ways less dependent on the employer. Their skills, knowledge, personalities, resources are employed by business in the process of immaterial production. The customer service assistant has to affect a friendly and helpful countenance, as well as a feigned passion for whatever they're selling. The manager flitting from company to company brings with them organisational killer apps and people know-how (at least that's what they tell prospective employers). In both cases their social being is where their use lies, and what businesses transform into value via employment.

This social being simultaneously is and isn't an individual property. Social knowledge is arrived at cooperatively. Take a microscope to someone's personality and ultimately it's a sedimented history of social interaction all the way down. As human beings all of us are engaged in acts of social production. The seemingly solitary act of writing this blog post on a Sunday evening is mobilising the knowledge and exposition skills acquired through dynamic relationships with others, and is battered out on a keyboard manufactured in China and transported here by ship container. Those are the inputs. The outputs are, immediately, more content for Google to data mine and, I hope, a post that will be shared and read by many thousands of brains for as long as the internet exists. It becomes part of the general store of human intellect, a piece of the common almost everyone in the advanced countries is connected to via the internet. What is more, while tacit collaboration has always provided the social and cultural infrastructure for capitalism the significance of the internet, and especially so since the spread of social media, is the rapid multiplication of networks, of the expansion and increasing mediation by screens of a broadening perimeter of relationships. Leisurely acts of social production, like hanging out on your phone or playing video games often draw upon and contribute to the seething pulse of endless chatter and learning across digital networks. We freely use this store of knowledge and competency at play, and we do so at work.

Work then is not only immaterial, it's is simultaneously networked, cooperative, and social. The cultural consequences? Despite the hype for latter day fascism, people are generally becoming more tolerant, more peaceful, more sceptical and irreverent toward existing institutions and powers and, crucially, aware of shared interests. The new common is transforming social relationships and the fabric of our societies, and politics is just now catching up.

If this thesis is correct, what is the relationship between it and what's happening to British politics? In the first place the number of immaterial workers have been growing for some time. It was among the post-war generation they started emerging in anything approaching mass numbers, especially with regard to the expansion of the professions and the public sector. Then for my generation, so-called Generation X (we're cooler than we sound), industrial jobs gave way to retail and, latterly, call centres while more of business moved into knowledge production and lifestyle services, and started delivering social provision hived off by the state. And for the Millenials they can look forward to disproportionate numbers of jobs without much security, with few prospects and, in a lot of cases, not even guaranteed hours. Theirs is a generation raised on dreams of bourgeois success and brought low by crushing proletarian realities. Yet in each successive wave the scope and spread of immaterial workers have grown. The younger you are, the more likely these are your conditions of life.

The flipside is the older you are, the more likely these aren't your conditions of life. There is a tendency for older people to not be as integrated into the flows and constitutive power of the common. As such and with the world looking more uncertain and alien, nostalgia is the perfect fix. Reliving the old certainties is not just comforting and familiar, it's the school of hard knocks that made them into what they are. And if it was good for them, surely that way is the best way for everyone? Hence their embrace of the masochistic in politics, of seizing the irrational and handing it down to rising generations to deal with.

These conditions of existence help explain the electoral coalitions lined up behind the two big parties. The Conservatives prey on nostalgia, even to the point of borrowing stratagems and scaremongering from decades past (the Winter of Discontent still has potency for some). They offer a certain certainty, of using the flag as a rallying point and selling the idea of a thinly-disguised homage to imperial Britain as a means of sheltering one from the anxieties and insecurities of the modern world. As such the Tory coalition doesn't just take older people in disproportionate numbers, it does well among strata in terminal decline. Meanwhile Corbynism appeals to the young not because they're young, but because they are the most numerous expression of immaterial/socialised/networked labour so far. The policies Labour offered at the 2017 election were an antidote to the hate mongering and beggar-thy-neighbour stuff of the (former) mainstream and offered fare that resonated. Stuff on work, on housing, on the environment, on education, on promising a (nebulous) better Britain than an endless iteration of more of the same. There are then effectively two mainstreams in British politics, one on the centre right concerned with immigration, national identity, preserving property and what have you, and another on the centre left that - rightly - doesn't want a life of dog-eat-dog and would like to see the economy work well for everyone, opportunities available, and decent rather than decrepit public services. All that Brexit did was catalyse the camps and give them some coherence, it is a dependent variable and not the catalyst for a new, all-consuming division.

It also means that politics is paralysed for the time being. Tory efforts at capturing the youth vote are doomed to fail because, even now, they aren't capable of affecting a proper concern for them. Likewise, while it is right for Labour to try and reach out to older voters this is not terribly fertile ground because, in the imagined community of this coalition, Jezza himself is anti-British and wants to remove the very things that keep Britain secure and safe. What we can look forward to then is no sudden movements in the polls for the foreseeable. Assuming the Tories limp on to 2022, even with the sex and harassment scandals, the Brexit shambles, and the fall out of the Paradise Papers, but assuming they don't do anything egregiously stupid on top, like the dementia tax, they will slowly diminish as Labour slowly rises. And this is because the social conditions producing this state of affairs aren't going anywhere. The abnormal is the new normal, so you'd better get used to it: polarisation is here to stay.


David Timoney said...

I don't think anyone would disagree that UK politics has become more pointed, but the very existence of the Jolyons suggest that it isn't yet polarised. After all, if it were, he and his ilk would be gleeful at a 2 point Labour poll lead.

I suspect that Brexit, which genuinely is a binary issue, has led us to over-estimate the degree to which the country has divided into 2 camps. The party political landscape remains mutable.

Dialectician1 said...

Hmmmm....there is far too much emphasis in this piece on age grouping and not enough on class. Neither the experiences of generational groupings or changes to the way we sell our labour can explain the polarisation you describe.

Phil said...

I'd direct you to the other pieces written on this. The age effect isn't an independent variable, it's an *outcome* of recomposing class processes.

Phil said...

I'd say politics is polarising (hence the title), but what we're seeing (I didn't have time to throw a paragraph in on this) is a *soft* polarisation . This is an outcome of a gradual reassertion of class from below in the political arena and it trying to work its way through existing institutions.

phuzz said...

"And for the Millenials they can look forward to..."
Apparently the millenials generation stated in 1980 (some say '81), so some of us 'kids' are in our late thirties now. sIt's less "looking forward to" and more of "have lived with for most of our lives".

Mark Livingston said...

There's definitely polarisation going on. The socialists seems to be cleaving towards a mild form of social democracy. But, what's worrying, is that the Tories (and a good pinch of Blairites) at Westminster seem to be coalescing around a rancid expression of English nationalism. The two camps aren't mirror images of each other.

Phil said...

There are apparently two segments within the millenials - Generation Y who are the early 80s/mid 90s folks and Generation Z or 'zillenials' (cringe) born after. The distinction is made on the grounds of the different conditions the latter grew up in vis a vis the former.

Amanda said...

Polarisation or All-The-Same...the Tories when not engaged in this scarifying and flag-daubing appear to be racing haphazardly to adopt some of this social democratic policy output...even if a thin, easily chipped veneer. When someone shouts from inside the Tory world-view it now echoes in the hollow spaces of rationality and social awareness.

Anonymous said...

You dont think that we might be forging ahead just a bit more against the worst government in living memory, led by someone who is showing every sign of being the most incompetent ineffectual PM we've possibly ever had?
I accept there's a degree of polarisation, possibly unlike others in recent history, but surely we should be doing better?


Phil said...

No, because the polarisation process is overdetermining politics presently. Despite all the problems the Tories are having they have not done anything so far that could break up and disperse their coalition. If they screw up Brexit and/or are seen to be betraying it then we will see movement. But until then ...