Sunday 17 July 2016

What is Happening to the Labour Party?

Or, to be more accurate, what's happening to politics in general? The times they are a changin', and things are happening so fast that it's difficult to keep up. This week we've had a new PM, the ruthless purging of the Cameroons, two Labour leadership challenges (including one as I write this), the drama of *that* NEC meeting, the draconian rules on voting eligibility, and two legal challenges. Compounding the sense of chaos were the horrors of Nice and the failed Turkish coup - both awful events that will reverberate for years to come. When there is too much happening and you haven't got a staff of writers to help keep the blog updated, the only thing you can do is step back and reflect. Which is precisely what I'm going to do in this post about the state of British politics. It's time to go beyond the personalities and positions of the factions and look at what's moving in the guts of society so we can get a sense of what's happening to our politics.

Firstly, the thing isn't to pretend that everything was fine and dandy before the Brexit vote. Or, for that matter, Jeremy's election as Labour leader last year. Or before the general election. Or the Scottish referendum. The rapid, bewildering change we're now experiencing is amplified by recent events, but have their roots far deeper in the changes to Britain's political economy. To get close to understanding what's going on, a standpoint informed by the sociological imagination is required. The only alternatives are the realms of conspiracy theorising, or the fixation with personalities as per professional punditry.

It is now generally known and widely accepted that the 1980s saw deep and far reaching change to British capitalism and the class structure underpinning it. On the one hand you had the transition away from manufacturing as the bedrock of Britain's economic strength to an economy dominated by service provision (and hence mass consumption) and the production of immaterial commodities. Examples of this aren't just the aforementioned availability of services, but also knowledge, financial "products", and digital goods. The post-industrial trend wasn't just confined to Britain - it is the lot of all the advanced capitalist nations, though the way this transition was handled and the depth to which it was carried through varies from state to state. Bound up with this, at least in the UK, was the destruction of the institutional props of the post-war economic order - casualties of an unsparing, ruthless class war waged by Thatcher and her governments. The common sense that full employment was the objective of economic and social policy got junked. All that mattered was keeping inflation low, public spending down, and letting the market run amok. That the Conservatives and the interests they represent happened to benefit materially from tearing up the social contract was more than coincidental.

To reach this destination the state had to take on the organised labour movement, which Thatcher did in set-piece battles. Closing nationalised industries in the early 80s weakened the bargaining position of labour by flooding the market with millions of unemployed workers. Attacking the miners - the big batallion of the organised working class - and defeating them after a year-long struggle was the pivotal moment. Other struggles coincident with it, such as the dockers' strike and the collision between the government and Militant-led Liverpool City Council were paid off at the time and were clobbered once Thatcher dealt with her main enemy. That put trade unionism permanently on the back foot and we haven't recovered since. The labour movement has sat largely powerless as public services and state enterprises were sold off, broken up, or gutted by market forces. Neoliberalism, the common sense that markets were best at everything didn't come into being because it was "what worked", it's a philosophy justifying exploitation and the continued seizure of the greater part of social wealth by a tiny, powerful minority. It became the commonsense because they won.

Nothing lasts forever though, not even defeat. Because capitalism is a class system that carries within it the seeds of its own demise, seeing off challenges and challengers from within is a constant, ceaseless accomplishment. And the present political turbulence reminds us of this fact. The defeat of the miners and the full bore market fundamentalism Thatcher unleashed trashed the institutions that suppressed inequality, the communities that produced a "work ready" working class, the trade unions that fought for our share of the social wealth that we produced. It paved the way for New Labour's market-embracing approach, locked down social mobility, and made insecurity and anxiety the lot of millions. Our culture became schizophrenic and disjointed - at once atomised, powerless, and at the employer's mercy while flattered, seduced, and kowtowed to by the blandishments of consumption. Affluent lifestyles paraded as its trappings became less affordable, especially for the young.

The defeat of the post-war social order changed politics more profoundly than the turn to market fundamentalism and the (temporary) death of socialism. It weakened the relationship between the two main political parties and their constituencies, and was expressed in declining membership and joint vote share. While never actually total, in the Labour Party's case falling numbers and less input from the trade unions enabled moves to insulate the parliamentary party from the base and create a more authoritarian party in which power was concentrated in the leader's office and an iron grip exerted. As, under Blair, Labour made its neoliberal turn the constituency the party traditionally represented had a more passive relationship to its party. The transmission belt that would take shop stewards from the factory floor and into politics ceased, replaced by an over-preponderance of graduates from the party's middle class wing. Exacerbated by a strategy that ignored working class support to concentrate on the marginals of the leafy suburbs and (relatively) affluent towns, the atomisation of our class enabled the autonomy Blair's office and the party apparatus under his control. The continued pursuit of neoliberal policy by Labour in power ensured that, in its fundamentals, this relationship carried through into the Brown era and opposition under Ed Miliband.

Something similar afflicted the Tories too. Their deindustrialisation impacted negatively on whole sections of capital, small and large, and enriched some at the expense of others. Their market fundamentalism promoted selfish individualism at the expense of the family, of community, and of what they're supposed to represent at a values level - conservation. Under Blair, for the first time in their history the Tories went from preferred party of government to British capital's second eleven. For a brief period Blair's success in rebranding Labour as the party of business broke the Tories' claim to being its natural home. The consequence was the triple debacle of Hague, IDS, and Howard, and the pre-eminence of those business interests that did stick around: the socially useless but superficially dynamic city slickers, and the most backward, least competitive sections of capital. Hence under Dave, his and Osborne's economic and political programme was wedded to these interests, which were counterproductive from the standpoint of business as a whole, and ran the most sectional government in modern times in the hope of rewinning what was lost to New Labour. But as they did so, traditionally anti-Labour working class people, its petit bourgeois support, and the core Tory shire supporters were isolated, atomised, and ignored. They too had nowhere to go.

Constituencies were cut off from their traditional parties did not mean grievance and anger didn't stop accumulating. Sooner or later large numbers of ostensibly powerless people realise that strength of numbers does give them power and influence, and eventually find their way into politics. In other words, the disconnect prepares the ground for an eventual reconnect. There were two early signs the autonomy of politics couldn't carry on indefinitely. There was the rise of the LibDems throughout the 90s to the point they went into coalition. They represented something new and fresh, especially as they took a superficial social democratic turn under Ashdown and Kennedy. Even before the Iraq War, there were plenty of people in my age group happy to give them a punt against the bland managerialism of Blair and the repulsive conservatism of the Tories. For others, especially the most down trodden and semi-lumpenised section of our class, the BNP took off in a number of areas as a protest vote against established politics. In both these cases though, the protest was sporadic, inchoate, and passive. Matters moved up a notch as the LibDems collapsed and the BNP folded. First, UKIP, which was also a recipient of increased levels of passive support during the 00s, hit the big time after Dave alienated a good number of toxic "traditional" Tories over his equal marriage stance. The significance here was that it affected a split within the party itself as activists decamped to UKIP and it started wracking up impressive parliamentary by-election votes and became the go-to party of protest. UKIP then represented a partial reconnection to politics by those on the right alienated by the official right.

The next big earthquake was Scotland. Treated like a fiefdom by the Labour Party for too long, what happened was decades in the making. Rotten boroughs with tiny, barely functioning constituency parties, this was the part of Labour's apparatus that had intentionally been allowed to decay so the dominance of the PLP and the machine could continue unhindered. As it became more remote from its core support and promulgated policies opposite to the aspirations of its voters, the Scottish referendum and the catalyst of mass politicisation saw the party collapse as newly energised, active voters flocked to the SNP. In an incredibly short space of time, the SNP has cohered a solid rock of support that would take Labour decades to shift - if it can at all. The raw ingredient, again, was people who were atomised and ignored by established politics, and who rushed in once the possibility of making a difference was perceived.

And now the same process is working its way through the Labour Party. To have more than doubled in size in less than a year is incredible, and for a mass audience for radical, socialist politics to appear more or less overnight is breathtaking. It too is a product of mass alienation, of people in large numbers feeling angry and ignored for years. Their charging onto the political stage is entirely welcome and should be encouraged, despite the crudity, anger, and naivete that often accompanies it. Those cut off from Labour for the best part of 20 years, including those for whom Labour has always been just another establishment outfit, are cohering collectively around our party. The Corbyn moment last year, and the monstering that has taken place since is politicising and driving even more people into the party, transforming it from a party centered around Westminster constitutionalism into something that could do that and more. This means the leadership election is about more than who's the most competent, it is the site of a battle between an old order (understandably) wedded to previous realities and a new just beginning to become aware of itself. The potential danger is if this is successfully blocked then this new wave would find expression elsewhere, either through the Greens, or an evolving anti-political strand in the trade unions (yes, I think this movement of people will start working its way through the unions in time), or - very unlikely - a strengthening of the hitherto entirely marginal far left. The election then is a choice between a Jeremy-led Labour Party with all the problems it entails, or a party on the road to ruin. It's a matter more serious than winning or losing the next general election, it's whether the party survives as a going concern.

What's happening, then? Change is happening, and it's been a long time coming. Masses of people excluded for decades by broad social trends and deliberate political choices have, in spite of those processes, seized an opening and are remaking politics. And not before time - for apathy and anti-politics to melt before active political engagement is something that should have every democrat in this country rejoicing. Our party cannot avoid this and go back to the way things were. We either embrace the change and find ourselves strengthened in the long-run, or oppose it and invite our ruin.


jim mclean said...

The SNP have been in Government for 10 years and have basically misgoverned as they concentrated on constitutional matters, a Parti Quebecois scenario is in the offing but that is further down the line.
Unfortunately Corbyn and his supporters are as far removed from the former Labour Party base support as the PLP is. Both sides offering a top down option only. Labour as we know it will not return, I live in a working class community that was 100% NUM 20 years ago and is now 75% self employed 25% unemployed or inactive in the market for other reasons. I am on state pension. Plus Corbyn is not really rated by a working class that would rather ignore politics. The Unions that support him are mainly reliant on the State or Local Government for employment, and the PCS is really middle class, those of us who have been mangled by the Benefits system see them as the enemy, sanction monkeys. I do not see any form of working class unity soon. The private sector workers have no time for Unions and Politics, rejecting both. Well I think I'll have a nightcap and to bed. One thing, there will be more fighting in the streets, without aim, why shouldn't they grab a little of the action, of course Labour will condemn it and the working class kids aren't too big to prosecute.

Ken said...

Well, that was worth waiting for. Excellent analysis.

Speedy said...

Ah, so you've embraced the "we'll lose in 2020 anyway" stance. From what I've read, few of the £3 "cliicktavists" are getting involved at a constituency level - they're much the same people that sign petitions and the like during their lunch breaks. On the contrary, I would suggest falling for the myth of the surge, masks the very phenomenon demonstrated loudly and clearly by Brexit. The thousands supporting Jeremy are not the same people who voted for Brexit, who are the very people you have eloquently explained have become alienated from the PLP. The combined readership of the Guardian and Independent does not win over an electorate 40 million strong, and I'm afraid you are naive (although I do not think you actually are, I think you understand the facts very well) to believe that the JC surge represents any kind of future success: it does not travel outside London or the metropolitan areas, like the referendum vote. It does not swing voters.

But this is about the "soul" of Labour, right - by JC's Labour is not a Labour Party, it is a Left party, a party of bourgeois values that is completely out of touch with the values of the class it was created to represent. It is a "do as we say, we know what is good for you" party, not a party that expresses the anxieties and aspirations of the great majority of disempowered people of this country, who want a good job, good pay, a nice TV and a decent holiday, the sort of people that are proud of their national identity, and deep-down the vast majority of the muesli-munching new Labour supporters think of as "chavs".

That's why this is wishful thinking, because like it or not, this is a democracy, and it is the chavs - or the proles - who have a vote, and they may lack consciousness, etc, etc (or they may not think they way that you, their "betters" think they should) but they will see right through JC's Labour, and its successors, and will vote for parties of the centre, even if these parties deprive them of their opportunities, because they will understand them better, and better meet their aspirations. And that is the tragedy of Labour - they have just handed that ground to the Tories, and the new Labour supporters, comfortable in their bourgeois bubbles, couldn't give a toss.

Paul Ewart said...

An excellent piece. I'd just like add a couple of thoughts:

No discussion of Tory policy is complete without reference to electoral strategy. By promoting policies such as the Right to Buy and the shareholder society Thatcherism succeeded in transforming the way we talk and think about the world. She created a new capitalist realism in which there really was no alternative (discursively) to actually existing capitalism. It was a form of gerrymandering (literally in some cases - Shirley Porter) that colonized minds:if everyone could become a property owner or a a shareholder, then everyone would see that their best interests were served by the Conservatives. If everyone became a small businessman or woman, then they'd be inveigled into the world of accountants and tax avoidance. This was the assault on collectivism that took place at a subconscious level, a level that was made concrete by the end of actually existing socialism and the associated internalizing of the end of history thesis.

But that world is over. Neoliberalism as a form of common sense hit the buffers in 2008. The world changed and we are still working through the consequences as established interests seek to preserve the gains made during the last 40 years by virtue of a scorched earth policy (there will be nothing left to privatize). The new politics, as you allude to, are the politics of the interregnum, during which morbid symptoms appears as the old is yet to die and the new struggles to be born. That is why today's battles are so important, as you rightly note. It has nothing to do with personalities and everything to do with whether we are ready to allow the new to be born, or whether we allow a zombie neoliberalism to close down all alternatives.

P.S. Peter Hitchens wrote an visceral piece on his sense of disaffection and betrayal. He claims that the last 30+ years have been a mistake and that he was a dupe.

Phil said...

Nothing says more about the bankruptcy of the anti-Corbyn group than their repeated invocations of 'entryism' and 'the Trots we got rid of in the 80s'. Yes, Militant and Socialist Organiser still exist (in different forms), but even at their height they could never have taken over CLPs by weight of numbers. These days, groups like those are a shadow of their former selves; the combined strength of British Trotskyism (defined generously, including Left Unity and the AGS) probably tops out at 5,000, a.k.a. approximately the number of people who joined the Labour Party every day in the last month. When groups do 'dissolve into' the LP these days, they do it so as to be where the action is (and where the new recruits are). Something big is happening, and Corbyn's opponents are Mr Jones 170 times over.

Personal note 1: about the atomisation & recomposition of the Labour movement. Raymond Williams shaped my political views; when I graduated I was entirely certain of two things, that I was a Marxist and that I was a Labour voter. Joining the party briefly looked like a good idea - I had high hopes of the Kinnock/Hattersley leadership - but then Kinnock embarked on his long Mandelsonian march to the Right (remember "Meet the challenge, make the change" - the song, that is?) and the moment passed. So I was in a very uncomfortable position - feeling loyalty to a movement that seemed to be going in the wrong direction - for a very long time. (Needless to say, I was never sold on Blair.) 33 years(!) after I'd first toyed with joining the party, Miliband's 'primary-style' reforms gave Labour sympathisers a voice in the leadership election; I voted for Corbyn and promised myself that I'd sign up properly if we got a good result (I never expected him to actually win). So I've joined, and after a couple of months of lingering on the threshold I've started going to party socials & ward meetings; I've even been out on the knocker.

So I was part of the atomisation process & now I'm part of the recomposition; it feels good. I don't know what proportion of the recent membership surge is people like me, but I'm pretty sure it's substantial. At our ward meetings, the membership secretary reads out separate figures for new and returning members. But it takes time - months of getting up the courage to go to meetings, months growing into years of going to meetings, getting to know people, talking in the pub... It takes time for a social subject to constitute itself, and we're nowhere near there yet. Which, presumably, is why the Right has moved now. The single most depressing thing that's happened recently (in a strong field) is the announcement that CLP meetings would be banned during the election. It's as if they just want us to piss off all over again.

Personal note 2: I don't know about you, Phil, but I'm knackered - mentally as well as physically. Three weeks of bad news on bad news, three weeks of solid blogging & tweeting, three weeks of strenuous & sometimes bitter argument with people I'd thought of as friends and allies... I feel like I did when I'd just finished marking, and I can barely look at Twitter without starting to panic. If the news isn't going to let up, we're all going to have to give serious thought to self-care.

Paul Ewart said...

In response to Peronal note 2:

Yes it has been exhausting but don't give up Phil. The coup has been an exercise in the politics of demoralization, hence the unconstitutional vote of confidence, the orchestrated resignations and the relentless smear campaigns. It's hard to stay hopeful in the face of such low and hostile tactics, but it's necessary. The PLP are trying to kill hope, we have to resist.

Igor Belanov said...

@ Speedy

One thing that is distinctly absent from your analysis is that the decline in Labour support in non-metropolitan areas dates from a long time before Corbyn came to the leadership and membership numbers took off. Maybe you'd like to comment on the development of the phenomenon before 2015?

The problem of getting many working-class and poor people to vote at all, let alone organise to represent their own interests, is one that has taxed the Left for years. You'd have to be very gullible to believe the arguments of the PLP that they know what 'the electorate' or the 'working class' think, given the 2010 and 2015 election results and the fact that they have fewer organic links to ordinary people than Labour Party members do. It is very convenient for professional politicians to have a 'silent majority' which they can claim to represent. However, when you avoid accountability to people for five years at a time and rely on 'lesser-evilism' to win elections, then you can't really claim to be representing the disadvantaged.

Robert said...

@pewartstoat. Yon Hitchens is a smart guy. Always interesting even when he's completely wrong.

MikeB said...

The claims of the PLP to represent any kind of advance from Blairism are hollow. They remain trapped in a neoliberalist framework of analysis, and have a fundamental antipathy to the idea of accountability to the wider Party membership.

The current upsurge of dissent has two directions - one is a purely negative "to hell with you all"; a cynical, misanthropic vision which accounts for UKIP and Brexit. The other is also an expression of disgust, but it is hopeful that something new can be built. These are the new Corbynistas, the Scottish independence campaigners etc.

Apart from a radical spasm imposed by the force majeur of WW2, the anti-capitalist tendency in Labour has always been a beleaguered minority, and grassroots community activism viewed with deep suspicion. The PLP simply wants to re-impose the status quo.

I doubt the wider Party has the resources to oppose this; but if not now, when?

BCFG said...

I think speedy should be reminded that it was the Blairites who were most outraged by the Brexit vote, well and me!

If we look at the election results in working class areas of the North, those that stupidly voted for Brexit, we can see that Labour has increased its majority under Corbyn. As the Guardian reported Corbyn’s support comes mainly from the working classes and the Blairite counter revolution is thoroughly Middle class, or at best those workers who think they are a cut above the mere plebs. And this is so obvious; Blairism was and is built on attracting the Middle classes who traditionally vote Tory to the labour ranks.

This was always going to be a short term project as social liberalism is something any right thinking pro captitalist can easily embrace and actually I think most pro capitalists only embrace social conservatism as a position of convenience. It is no longer convenient to be socially conservative, so the Tories have wisely occupied the same ground and were always going to do this. So this leaves us with 2 almost identical parties who are socially liberal, extremely authoritarian when it comes to civil liberties and hard right when it comes to economic questions. Choice there is not!

Corbyn is the only credible chance working class people have of seeing choice and hope, this is why there has been incredible levels of support for Corbyn. I thought even the social democratic left accounted for maybe 10% of the electorate but now we see it is more around 30%, which given the media culture and Britain’s history and position in the world economy is quite something. That 30% can clearly see there is no choice between the main parties and they demand a voice. And 30% is enough to win an election, because sooner or later the sitting government will be kicked out. Whether the powers that be allow you to function standing on the platform Corbyn promotes is doubtful. But whatever the establishment decide they cannot wave a magic wand and dismiss the 30%, which could easily grow as the old forms of mind control break down.

I do think you are bending the stick about the levels of change taking place, we still have a Tory government and even if Corbyn was elected we would have to ask how much change he can actually bring about. Though I fully support him because political progress cannot be dismissed. But overall the change is pretty superficial, the fundamentals are still not being challenged.

Of course while Britain works out the bourgeois revolution at home it brings chaos and misery to the developed world, this is where real change is taking place, and where Britain has its dirty claws change is for the worse!

This why a pro imperialist left is no left at all!