Thursday 22 August 2013

Reconnecting Labour

Two articles. Two broadly similar points. In the first place is James Bloodsworth's piece for the New Statesman that makes what should be an uncontroversial observation: that "backward" attitudes among working class people toward immigration and social security stems from competition with and close social proximity to migrants and recipients of the dole. Hell's bells, even someone as unoriginal as me has occasionally made the same points. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the estrangement James talks about that his piece was shared widely on social media. Unfortunately, the bleeding obvious does need restating at times.

The second comes from the professional contrarians of the former Revolutionary Communist Party. Mick Hume argues that Ed Miliband is vacuous, and that's okay because it fits nice with the void in Labour's shell. Social democracy is dead, Labour is rotting on its feet, etc. etc. When RCP cadre weren't trying to horizontally recruit young people in the late 80s, it used to push the same line then - but with the certainty that Labour's demise would lead to its immediate replacement by the RCP itself. All that's different 25 years on is while their position was previously trumpeted with revolutionary enthusiasm, it's now muttered with all the cynicism a defeated and unlamented project can summon.

An aside - the RCP apparently went one better than Lenin and said Capital could only be understood if read in the original German. I doubt leading figures took their own advice, because Mick Hume's piece reeks of fatalism and hopelessness.

The majority of the left and the pontificariat, like Spiked, are aware that British capitalism has undergone seismic changes. The particular kind of working class politics that grew up under the 1945-79 settlement had to be - and were - brutally broken up in the 1980s. The neoliberal model of mass privatisation, offshoring of jobs, vocationalisation of education, and "hands off" economic policy met its Waterloo in 2008. What kind of capitalism comes next is still up in the air, though it's becoming increasingly clear what Labour's "offer" will look like.

During this period, along with the restructuring of British capitalism the working class has changed. The labour movement has declined in absolute numbers by about half and trade union density in a larger work force is the even more worrying story. The communities of solidarity that grew up around one or two industries are largely gone. Class, as an active means of identifying oneself, is seldom seen outside of the chest-beating nonsense of the far left. Employment and consumerist practices, often by design, serve to individuate, not collectivise. And the big collective struggles of the last 30 years - the miners in the 80s, the anti-war movement in the 00s, failed. In short, the working class exists. But it ain't what it used to be.

One of the consequences of the defeat and dispersal of working class solidarities is the impact it had had on the Labour Party. Forget the fairy tales you may have heard about Labour's socialist golden age, it has never been anything but a social democratic party. Just as trade unions exist to represent and stand up for working people in the capitalist workplace, so Labour has, at best, stood up for the interests of working people in the context of British capitalism. So next time you hear someone moaning about Labour being an "openly pro-capitalist party" you have to ask yourself who really has or had "illusions in Labour". Nevertheless, as the labour movement has weakened the transmission belt provided by the trade unions and community organisations that fed the party generations of working class politicians narrowed and, in some places, were choked off. The progressive middle class element as exemplified by Blair seized their moment and New Labour was born. The redundancy of industrial working class political signifiers were actively dumped as unnecessary baggage, as relics that would only ever get in the way of winning elections. And true enough, for its part New Labour's authoritarian mangerialism was deeply alienating. For instance you don't want MPs speaking like human resource officers, especially when you had to hear that crap at work. So while New Labour was a symptom of labour movement decline, it compounded it through high handedness, active disassociation from working people, and a policy agenda that was deeply problematic from a labour movement point of view.

And yet, despite this, Labour's relationship to the labour movement remained intact. The much-vaunted Labour link is more than a bureaucratic arrangement beneficial to apparatchiks in party and movement, it's a real connection that exists at all levels. The stated political allegiances of active trade unionists tends to be Labour. And, funnily enough, local constituency parties tend to have quite a few union members at their monthly meetings too. But where trade unions have been unsuccessful - as the Falkirk debacle demonstrated - is organising effectively in the party to promote the kinds of policies and people that can make the link work.

Like many of his ilk, Mick Hume cannot see outside the Westminster bubble. His pitiful piece is a retread of every criticism ventured in this most snarky of silly seasons, albeit with the sprinkling of chic particular to his brand of radical spectating.

But the fact that Labour still has a clear, organic relationship to the class that founded it is not cause for sitting on our laurels. Speaking the language of class today is more difficult because 'our people' are more differentiated than ever before, but they know crap wages and job insecurity well enough. They too know about declining incomes and rising prices better than any policy wonk. For Labour to succeed, to "reconnect" with millions more speaking to working people's actual experiences is what we need to be doing more of. And if we are returned to power in 2015, implementing policies that address these problems would go some way to building up the constituency, the head of steam, that can drive Labour to deeper and more radical changes in the decade beyond.


Anonymous said...

Slow hand clap...
Nice piece, as far as it goes but as I see it the problem is not one of class, or lack of it. It's engagement.
Even the 'former' middle classes no longer trust the political elite. Their very elitism is causing the people to move away from a system which no longer serves them.
The poor have long lived in fear of political intervention in their lives. They have come to except that they have no voice anymore.
Pontificating Ministers of all shades rail against a society they do not understand and have no contact with. The rise of the "Professional Politician" has seen the gap between the elected and the electors grow wider and wider. It appears that politicians of all parties no longer see public service, so much as "self" service.

Ralph Musgrave said...

I just love the idea that "backward attitudes among working class people toward immigration . . . stems from. . . . close social proximity to migrants”.

Yes. Clearly first hand experience of something is no qualification for expressing an opinion about it. I mean if was choosing a skipper to get a yacht across the Atlantic, no way would I choose anyone with experience of the sea. I’d choose a Guardian reading sociologist: after all, they know everything.

Phil said...

While that is true, Anonymous, the rise of the professional politician is ultimately a symptom of the emptying out of mainstream parties. Because this isn't just a problem for Labour - the Tories are collapsing, and not just because of UKIP.

Phil said...

The fact you had to chop bits out Ralph demonstrates an intent to misquote and score points. Sad really.