Wednesday 26 October 2016

Should Labour Stand in Richmond?

Labour is standing in the Richmond Park by-election. But should it? At the 2015 general election, Zac Goldsmith romped home with 58% of the vote. The Liberal Democrat runner up mustered 19% while Labour languished on 12%. The highest proportion we ever managed was at the 1997 high watermark, and then it was a measly twelve-and-a-half per cent. This is a seat in which Labour is doomed to be sidelined as the Tories and LibDems fight it out. Small wonder that with anti-Goldsmith considerations in mind, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, and Jonathan Reynolds have come out and said we should duck the fight and give the LibDems a clear run.

The answer depends on your conception of politics, what you thing is going on now British politics is in a state of flux and, flowing from that, your strategy for progressive politics. If you think the vote is split and your priority is an alliance of angels tying Labour up with the LibDems, Greens, SNP, and Plaid Cymru to get the Tories out and proportional representation in, fine. If you look a bit deeper beneath the surface, then matters look somewhat different.

As I've argued before, Labour isn't a workers' party with a bourgeois leadership as per the Lenin's 1920 formulation, but is rather a proletarian party. Put away your images of cloth caps and chimney stacks, I'm using 'proletariat' in the old, old sense of people who sell their labour power for a living. That can take diverse forms, and attracts varied remunerative compensation based on region, skill level, availability, costs of reproducing these workers, and so on. As such, contra the depictions of proletarians in popular culture and A-level text books, it is a heterogeneous category of people to which the overwhelming bulk of people in our society will belong, do belong, and have belonged to. This doesn't and has never precluded status conflicts between different sections of our people, but it does indicate a substantive unity: that income is contingent primarily on one's ability to labour for an employer, regardless of how small or hefty that wage or salary is. Nevertheless, because material and autonomy privileges afforded by work spin off in lifestyle differences, positions that are privileged vis a vis one another, and the acquisition of different levels of cultural and social capital, certain sections tend to be more wedded to the prevailing system than others and are prepared to defend those advantages at their expense. This noisy, contradictory mess of a class built the Labour Party to ameliorate capitalism, not to overthrow it. It explains why the party has a left/right divide, why the right throughout the party's history have tended to call the shots and how the party has always accommodated itself to capitalism.

Making matters more complex is that British politics is undergoing realignment, and because the stultifying electoral system locks out new/challenger parties, the process is now working through the Labour Party - having had turns with the LibDems, BNP, UKIP, and the SNP using different classes and strata. To save writing it all out again, the ridiculous numbers of people who've joined Labour
... are drawn from the emerging occupations - the knowledge worker, the care worker, the precarious worker, forms of labour that are mostly concerned with the provision of a service in some way, work that has the production of social relations at its heart ... This section of people who have to sell their labour power in return for a wage or salary are a rising group. Just as the industrial worker was the "hegemonic" form of work and the left's preferred political agent of the past, so the networked worker (for want of a better phrase) is the increasingly dominant constituency in all the advanced countries. It's slowly waking up, therefore it is vital for the future health of our party that we be its party of choice.
Politics isn't about an irrational, tribal affiliation to a label. It's about interests, and it's in our class interest to ensure Labour captures this movement of networked workers by addressing it, mobilising it, and standing up for it in the media, in Parliament, and at the ballot box. We are the progressive party not because it's a flash word that sounds nice. We are the organised expression of the wave of the future, of the overwhelming majority, of the universal interest. We stand a chance of becoming more than the sum of our parts if we organise everywhere.

This is the main reason why we shouldn't countenance a deal with the LibDems in any instance but the most exceptional circumstances. Like gestures of respect in the tragic event of a murder of a MP, or where the obvious outcome is uncertainty between the yellow of liberalism and the brown of fascism. Again, this isn't because they're uniquely objectionable, but because they're not a progressive party. Yes, sorry. They might like electoral reform, be (formally) anti-racist, believe in things like climate change, have a better position on the EU than most Trotskysists, and are alright (on paper) on matters of liberty and individual freedom. Dipping beneath the froth into the social substance that makes them up, the LibDems are, ultimately, a party of capital. That isn't to say they're primarily made up of business people - that isn't even true of Theresa May's Conservatives. Composition-wise, today's LibDems are a middle class party - a large smattering of the relatively privileged sections of our class, and a smaller sprinkle of the self-employed. Yet the interests it tends to are those of capital and the vanishingly small number of people who live off its unearned proceeds. We have an interest in overcoming our divisions and building a society in which capital is entirely socialised. The LibDems, in contrast, appeal to and reinforce those divisions to pose as better/more rational managers of capital's interests. The basis of liberalism reifies and fetishises the individual, becoming an abstraction providing the dull conformity and crushing tyranny of the market and the workplace philosophical cover. Any identity of interest between them and us is coincidental and episodic, as the experience of coalition government should remind us.

The choice isn't one of boneheadedly standing a candidate when the greater good demands a break from the norm. It's the refusal to subordinate our political project, of standing for the interests of the majority to another who does not, will not, and cannot.


Metatone said...

Rather shallow analysis there. There is unlikely to be another byelection before the triggering of Art.50.
Throwing away the chance to send a signal on this issue is pissing away the chance to influence an event which will put thousands of "proletariat" jobs in danger. Further, it is an event which will likely change the trajectory of this country permanently and not for the better.

All this should be considered more so because Richmond Park is, let's face it, not a place the proletariat are going to win a seat any time soon.

But then, you're just living the religious zealotry of individualist economics, where Brexit turbulence and the economy will return to trend. So you deny the importance of events and deny path dependence.

jim mclean said...

The electorate will decide, the fact that Zac is still a Tory may incline them to vote LibDem. As for "Labour isn't a workers' party with a bourgeois leadership as per the Lenin" I waver a bit, in relation to Momentum it is exactly that, created by a bunch of young Oxbridge elitists who have never had to earn a crust. Labour must stand of course but nead not try too hard.

Boffy said...

Absolutely Labour should stand. Firstly, we need to send a message to those in the party who harbour illusions of some future alliance with the Liberals and other petit-bourgeois forces such as the Greens, and reactionary nationalist forces like Plaid or the SNP.

Secondly, what could workers think of a party that just makes cosy electoral deals with a Liberal party that has so recently demonstrated its true reactionary colours throughout the period of the coalition government?

The point is not to simply try to do down the Tories by facilitating the ambitions of some other reactionary outfit, but to oppose all of them, and present a socialist, or at least radical social-democratic alternative at every opportunity, whether we have a chance of winning or not. Its the same reason, socialists do not propose a vote for conservative Gaullist candidates in French Presidential elections, in the second round against the Front National.

With more than half a million members and still growing, there is no reason for Labour to ally with anyone. It should be the progressive force in all spheres of life. If others want to tag along behind that is their choice, but they can expect no right to participate in decision making in any such ventures, for example, in opposing racism, on environmentalism, opposition to war and so on. That applies particularly to all of those disruptive left sects that represent less than nothing.

Labour should keep its distance from all of these sect fronts such as Stop The War, Stand Up To racism and so on, and simply establish its own campaigning activities on all those issues. If anyone else wants a say on them, they should become Labour Party members, and participate in the internal democratic process like everyone else.

But, for the same reason there is no Labour should engage in shoddy electoral pacts with anyone. Our aim should be to win in every seat. One immediate basis for that is amongst the progressive 48%, that voted against a return to reactionary nationalism and insularity, and against making concessions to bigotry.

Igor Belanov said...

"Throwing away the chance to send a signal on this issue is pissing away the chance to influence an event which will put thousands of "proletariat" jobs in danger. Further, it is an event which will likely change the trajectory of this country permanently and not for the better."

We had a referendum on this issue very recently. A pro-EU election victory in an isolated parliamentary seat in an affluent part of London will benefit no-one but the Lib Dems.

And why should we support the rehabilitation of the Lib Dems? The Liberal Party had effectively hit a historical dead-end by WWII, and it took a heavy dose of opportunism to transform it into a moderate party of protest by the 1970s and 80s. Entering the coalition represented the abandonment of this position and consequently spelled electoral ruin for them.

The argument that membership of the EU prevents economic collapse and saves 'proletarian jobs' proved unconvincing to many in June and is likely to impress few more now. There are many left-wing interests that need to be safeguarded, including workers' rights, free movement and international socialist solidarity, and these are not to be trusted or subordinated to the Lib Dem agenda. Leaving the EU is regrettable but not fascist, and does not compel the formation of an 'unpopular front'.

Anonymous said...

Yes we must stand.

The local CLP has grown considerably I understand and I'm sure they will be keen to campaign vigorously for their candidate.

Unless there are truly exceptional circumstances Labour should put up a candidate at every election, even in constituencies where we have little hope of success.


Blissex said...

«Labour [ .... ] is rather a proletarian party [ ... ] of people who sell their labour power for a living.»

That's agreeable, but there is a somewhat difficult situation: many «people who sell their labour power for a living» seem to think that they are primarily property owners, and only secondarily they sell their labour. In part because their income comes primarily from property capital gains, in part because their labour is well rewarded primarily because they own as property some kind of professional credential. For example if you are a chartered accountant the real basis of your income is not your labour, but the credential that makes you so. It is not a tradable property, but it is still property that makes you money.

New Labour/Progress wants to represent the interest of those voters. That is a plausible aim because "pure" «people who sell their labour» are a significant number but still rather a minority of voters; but Progress/New Labour seem to want to represent _only_ their interests, while taking the vote of "pure" «people who sell their labour». Still Giles Radice's "Southern Discomfort" is a real political problem.

BCFG said...

"I'm using 'proletariat' in the old, old sense of people who sell their labour power for a living."

It has never been this simplistic and if it was then the Tories could easily be described as a proletarian party.

To be honest describing Labour as a proletarian party is a stretch to say the least. Someone is chuckling!

But just to give the facts,

With ABs - the social class with the highest turnout (75%), defined as “households with higher and intermediate managerial, administrative, professional occupations”, the Tories captured 45% of the vote, and Labour 26%. In other words those who sell their Labour power for a lot of money!

Labour only had a clear lead over the Conservatives among voters in social class DE (the “semi-skilled and unskilled manual occupations, unemployed and lowest grade occupations”).

Clearly the old old way of describing class is way way inferior and inadequate than the modern bourgeois way of describing class!

Now the question is, why would the Yvette Cooper loving centre left be using such an inadequate method of defining class?

Dave C said...

Well as you know I'm normally Mr Nuance but for me this is really clear cut: May has a tiny majority, here's a chance to cut it by more and make it harder for her to push through her effectively racist version of Brexit. I live in a Lab/LD constituency, there's no love lost between the parties, but there's not a lot of difference between our feelings about the EU, and fighting the Tories on this together we are stronger.

This isn't about going into coalition with the Lib Dems, it's about uniting on matters of huge national interest. The Tories are blundering their way towards a poorly negotiated Brexit that will see us worse off, and the only people gaining will be the xenephobes. So no, it isn't LibDems versus fascists (although Goldsmith's campaign against Khan came close to being that), but it is still a big fight.

Speedy said...

Nice analysis, though BCFG appears to miss the point by a country mile - yes the Tory's garnered a larger slice of the AB vote, but the lesson to be learned is not that they are Tories, but the Labour Party has lost their support. It's not rocket science.

Blissex said...

«With ABs - the social class with the highest turnout (75%), defined as “households with higher and intermediate managerial, administrative, professional occupations”, the Tories captured 45% of the vote,»

These people derive a considerable part of their income and wealth from capital and inheritance, not their labour. They own one or more houses, they own professional certificates, they own professional practices, they own largish pension accounts, they "own" safe jobs. They are not baristas or factory workers who sell their labour raw and by the hour.
In general also they are the "trusties" of the business or property owning class.

BCFG said...

"but the lesson to be learned is not that they are Tories, but the Labour Party has lost their support. It's not rocket science."

But the AB's have always supported the Tories in large numbers speedy.

That's the point Doh!

But is glad that that well known campaigner for the working class and who thinks Corbyn's supporters are all Middle class should be calling for Labour to pander to the upper Middle classes.

You can't make this stuff up!