Monday, 11 June 2018

The Left after the 2017 General Election

It was just over a year ago that we experienced the greatest election upset since the war. From 20 points behind, an impregnable Prime Minister with the organs of opinion behind her and, seemingly, the voting public was humbled in the most electrifying and exciting campaign of my life time. In defiance of political gravity, at least according to the learned Newtonians of the press and the Parliamentary party, Labour polled its highest vote in 20 years, won back constituencies in Scotland thought lost for a generation, and made significant gains in precisely the seats the latter day disciples of Tony Blair seriously coveted. All this on a campaign that wasn't supposed to work. Labour aimed at mobilising people put off from establishment politics. It went to the country with the most left wing manifesto for a quarter of a century, and did so with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm - a man and a leader who was supposedly electoral bromide. The Tories lost their majority and the leading echelons splintered, May's authority crumbled and the crisis of establishment politics entered a more acute phase. It was a wonderful time.

A modest pinch of nostalgia is alright. Who doesn't enjoy kicking around the memories of yesteryear? But it is paralysing when it comes to politics. Others might treat it as a game, as they recall such-and-such a speech or get all gooey over BBC replays of past elections. Indeed, for some it is a game populated by the tribal affiliations of blues, reds, yellows and greens. Politics, however, is deadly serious. It's a constant battle, the ceaseless ebb and flow of power and resistance. Behind the theatrics (and the hysterics), the arcane rules and bad faith, the skulduggery and stupid grandstanding are the processes, the relationships, the coming together and becoming conscious of collectives of people. It is the terrain interests clash and crash upon, a politics of management vs a politics of the unmanageable, the forces stretching every sinew to keep things fundamentally as they are, against the inchoate, at times silent and restrained, at times cacophonous and vital forces pressing, pushing, breaking through the limits imposed on them. It has always been thus, and will always be thus until capitalism is superseded by something better, or we find ourselves overtaken by the quietude of the grave. Casting an eye backwards must always be with a view to learning, to understand the present, to advance.

And so when approaching the 2017 general election, apart from the feels, the new MPs, and wrecking what was bound to be another ruinous and decadent Tory government, what did it achieve? As Alex Williams and Tom Gann suggest, not a lot. At least where leftist politics outside of the Labour Party is concerned. Is this the case? Unfortunately, the answer has to be yes. The number of trade unionists and labour disputes reached a new nadir last year. The tragedy of Grenfell Tower elicited widespread sympathy rather than anger, and street mobilisations are no more frequent nor larger than at any time in recent years. The UCU pensions' dispute and McStrike offered glimpses into what might be possible, and will surely help ensure this year's strike figures will not be as low as the last, but the former ended in compromise and left a severe schism between the members and the apparat, and the latter is as yet unresolved. Sadly, hate crime stats are up, and the far right are taking to the streets yet again with only smaller numbers of anti-fascists out to oppose them. How?

Regular readers know my argument concerning the constituency powering Corbynism and the transformation of the Labour Party. If not, here it is again. The even shorter version is Corbynism and the Labour Party successfully appealed (and appeals) to the growing section of waged and salaried workers - those engaged in immaterial labour. The object of their work is not the making of tangible things, but of so-called intangibles. Stuff like knowledge, data, care, service, relationships, and subjectivities. For example, except for a spell in a factory every job I've done - shop assistant, "security" (yes, it's true), supermarket dogsbody, sessional lecturer, editorial assistant, bag carrier, and now lecturer/bureaucrat - all of these are examples of immaterial work. Additionally, these jobs chiefly involve mobilising our social competencies and knowledges that are mostly acquired (and enriched) outside the employer/employee relationship. Therefore, immaterial work is not only immediately cooperative, just like it always was in the capitalist work place, but is not possible minus the social infrastructure of socially productive, socially cooperative relationships all of us are embedded in. We are simultaneously socialised workers, and thanks to the way computers and telecommunications technologies have sunk into and enable our social vistas, we are networked workers too. In the initial formulation of this idea in relation to the Labour Party, I argued the only possible way it could win is by doubling down on this constituency, appealing to its concerns, and using the power of its connectivity and mobilising on this basis. Forget triangulation and going a little bit racist to catch older UKIP voters. Going for the former is exactly what the party did, despite the best efforts of some MPs and candidates convinced Corbyn was an albatross rather than an asset, and lo the Tories were robbed of their majority.

To answer why this hasn't led to a wider political advance means understanding the characteristics of the socialised worker as they actually exist. In the full throes of Corbyn scepticism in the run up to the first leadership contest, I argued there was something formless, rootless about the support he was attracting to the party. This was true, but what we were seeing was the composition of a social movement, albeit consolidating in the most unlikely bosom of the Labour Party. Here, the figure of Corbyn was a lightning rod, an attractor for the anger and frustration that had circulated in wider society but had not found a political expression for itself. As per the networks of the socialised workers, his candidacy snowballed and drew in incredible numbers of new people, just as the failed independence referendum in Scotland mobilised tens of thousands to join the SNP. We know what happened next and what is still unfolding inside Labour. This mobilisation and politicisation, however, was on a very narrow basis. Corbynism as an organised movement has hardly spilled over into trade unions, street campaigns and other causes. The transformation of establishment politics has left its fundamental characteristics untouched - it's still a representative affair in which one group of party elites (the leader's office and allies) do battle with another group of elites within the party, and the Tory elite on the government benches. The problem isn't people wanting to create and believe in a cult of the personality around Corbyn, it's that far too many see their activism fundamentally as a support role. It's liberal democratic politics replicated, albeit with new actors.

This radicalisation of the narrow range is entirely understandable. As socialised and as networked our rising constituency is, as capable, educated and skilled it is, as it retains every potential of becoming conscious of itself as a collective, politically speaking, and seemingly contradictorily, it is atomised. Surely networks plus atomisation equals a nonsensical combination, an incoherent assemblage of opposites? No. There are two intertwined reasons for this. The first is the absence of political collectivity in popular social life beyond the parties. The taming of the labour movement under Thatcher and the subsequent diminution of street-based collective politics, the failure of extra-parliamentary mobilisations since the Poll Tax to put serious pressure on governments, the disappearance of collectivity as an acceptable category in mainstream politics, the atomisation of communities thanks to housing policy and privatised forms of entertainment have all had their part to play. And winding around, reinforcing these and feeding off them is our old friend Neoliberalism. Not as a policy orientation re: economics, but as a mode of governance. Or, a way of addressing and responding to people, the acceptable and accepted way of being, well, a human being. With an absence of popular collective traditions and identifications (apart from the nation and the royals), is it surprising Jeremy Corbyn attracted hundreds of thousands of people who responded to his politics as individuals? That they bypassed the existing labour movement, activist and community groupings, poured into the party and, well, stayed there instead of fanning outwards to alternative avenues of political activity? That while left wing and socialist ideas have won new adherents and audiences, this is marginal to the dominance of spectator politics? And that the politicisation that has occurred has fuelled polarisation, but not given the hundreds of thousands in the Labour Party and the millions more who voted for it a sense of collective confidence and power?

Hence why, outside of Labour, the left have appeared to have stalled. And it's not just a Labour thing. Where a similar process occurred in Scotland, it too is stuck in the bind of representative/spectator politics, albeit with an independent nation acting as a catch-all attractor. The fault for this state of affairs does not lie with the leader's office. Sorry Trots, it's going to take more than the "correct leadership". The process of constituting our class as an active participant in politics cannot be short circuited, but it can be helped along. This is why the democratisation of the party is so vital. Not because of the possibility of getting rid of PLP no marks, but because enabling mass participation and bottom up democracy can catalyse a deeper round of politicisation. It's a means of our class learning to organise itself around its own interests, and from there the potential to revitalise itself as a collective by building new institutions and transforming old ones. The narrow, almost passive radicalisation we've seen so far is not the end point but the beginning of a journey, and one that can transform everything for the better.


Speedy said...

"It was just over a year ago that we experienced the greatest election upset since the war."

And yet... the Tories have carried on as usual. But they're doomed, as you always say. Doomed, I tell ye...

Greg said...

I'm not sure about this at all. Maybe I missed something in earlier posts (or in my earlier education), and my thoughts are somewhat half-formed. But I would like a clearer explanation of what you would expect to see on the left if it hadn't stalled, in your view. What would a "wider political advance" look like?

You mention some metrics: the number of trade unionists, the number of labour disputes, and the number of street protests, including anti-fascist demonstrations. All of these are too low.

But why should those be the metrics of a successful left? They are just tactics. It looks to me as though they are the kind of tactics that we are moving away from, and I'm not totally unhappy about that. Of course unions are powerful tools, but they should be seen as a means not an end, and to the extent that there are other, equally effective means available, we shouldn't necessarily worry.

I'm basically in full agreement with the diagnosis around the socialized worker. My assumption was that what's been happening on the left is that people have moved away from traditional institutions such as unions - but not just because unions have been under attack; also because (caricaturing a bit) people are frustrated and turned off by opaque hierarchical power-politics, infighting and institutional inertia; rule-fetishists, cranks and ideologues; and that socialized workers now can organise themselves much more naturally in fluid, organic, networked and mission-oriented structures, bypassing institutions, and without even necessarily committing themselves to a political identity. The success of Labour over the last few years was that it opened itself up to that new kind of bottom-up energy. If it continues to do that job properly, and fully, why would it be necessary for something outside the party, and what would that be?

ISTM (and this is where it gets very half-formed, sorry) that much of the change we need (and are trying) to effect is cultural as much as material. For example lasting change is not really about boosting the labour side of the oppositional labour / capital relationship but by trying to dissolve it. I'm also wondering how that gets reflected in the analysis.

Ben Philliskirk said...

I think the crucial factor to remember is that the Corbyn 'phenomenon' has derived much more from the collapse of the Labour establishment than from any radicalisation in the broader society.

The 2015 election and its aftermath really sunk mainstream Labour. They had managed to lose to the architects of austerity and, after this embarrassment, showed their lack of ideas and principle by falling in behind the Tories' cuts!

Labour members who might previously have held their noses and chosen a leader who they thought would be electorally successful, now had no reason to vote for candidates from the morally and electorally discredited party establishment, and felt they might as well vote according to their consciences.

Many, if not most, of the members Labour recruited after Corbyn's 2015 leadership victory were rejoining a party they had left during the Kinnock and Blair years, and these people also provided the core of Momentum and the movement that defeated the 2016 coup.

What I'm saying, essentially, is that these people had stayed where they always were from the political point of view, and were joined by a significant amount of young people who effectively shared their 'old Labour' outlook. The reason that this appears to be a new 'radicalisation' is that they were able to fill the vacuum that was left by the disintegration of the credibility and election-winning reputation of 'New Labour', a collection of career politicians that found it more difficult to survive on their diet of 'lesser-evilism'.

Unknown said...

Can't wait for mandatory reselection. The purge of the Blairites must be swift, determined, organised, utterly ruthless, and bloody. They should all be filmed and posted on u-tube so we can watch them over and over and over again.

Anonymous said...

I am one of those mythical voters that simply stopped voting during the Blair years and after, and returned to vote for Corbyn. Politics seems so often to be a negative, dispiriting pursuit, involving lots of anger and hatred, which I'd prefer not to have too much of in my life, so the question, even for me at a personal level, is why I, even as someone sympathetic to Corbyn, would want to be involved in politics any more than I needed to be (i.e. the four-yearly (if only) trip the ballot box). The appeals to building a "socialist culture" often sound so stodgy and unimaginative, I doubt I would even want this culture if it was brought into being.

This isn't to discourage creative work, but I suppose to point to the points at which something might shift such that my perspective did.

Anonymous said...

Not voting signals submission, not protest and so does voting for the lesser evil. Voting for a losing candidate encourages the losing party to keep working and encourages others to vote for that party.

Blissex said...

Yet another somewhat interesting article without a single mention of property prices and rents. As if english politics were not entirely revolving around that single centre point.
The enormous influence of property prices and rents on voting is really the "we don't talk about that" topic of english politics.

Here a commenter has the usual hallucination that "austerity" has happened in England:

«They had managed to lose to the architects of austerity»

In 2015 Labour lost to the architect of one of the biggest property price and rent booms. English southern property owning voters don't vote against governments that deliver £20,000-£40,000 a year tax-free, work-free, to them.

For tory voters the years since 2010 have been years of great and improving prosperity, of significant lifestyle upgrades, not of "austerity". That means that "austerity" has not happened, but rather upward redistribution from poorer to richer, from north to south.

Phil said...

I don't mention it because it's a given. When I talk about clashes in the Tory party, for instance, it's not necessary to mention wage labour, capitalist relations, etc ever single time.

Boffy said...

"English southern property owning voters don't vote against governments that deliver £20,000-£40,000 a year tax-free, work-free, to them."

That may have been true for a long time, I'm not sure it's true now. Those Tory voters surely have twigged that a higher nominal house price is pretty useless to you, if you still want somewhere to live. The fact that the paper price of the house has risen, which allows you to borrow more against it, doesn't make you better off, it makes you worse off by the amount of the debt you have taken out, and have to repay, especially as interest rates are now moving sharply higher, and will do so for a prolonged period.

Moreover, those same Tory voters will have noted that whilst the nominal price of their own £200,000 house has risen to £400,000, the £400,000 house they wanted to move up to is now an £800,000 house, by the same token, and as their wages have not risen by anything like that proportion, their chances of moving up to a better house have disappeared in a puff of inflationaly smoke. Its why property transactions have stagnated.

In addition, they have seen that as well as the prices of the houses they wanted to move up to, now going out of reach, even the basic houses their kids might have moved into are out of their reach, which has started to impact their psyche and make them realise that this property bubble is more than just a delusion, its now undermining their prospect of improvement, and their kids chances of even getting a foot on the property ladder.

Moreover, as interest rates are rising sharply, they will see that land and other asset prices are set to crash, as they always do in those conditions. If those Tory voters don't get out of their property soon - and they never do do that - they will see the bubbles burst in dramatic fashion, and that illusion of money for nothing will disappear along with it. So, the basis you think has provided support for the Tories will turn viciously against them, as those Tory voters find they have worthless property, but increasingly expensive debts to pay back.

George Carty said...

Blissex's view of English politics doesn't quite ring true, as AFAIK English marginal constituencies are not disproportionately found in London and the South East (the areas that have seen the most house price inflation).

In fact, Labour's biggest weakness currently seems to be in the Midlands: perhaps it is a result of how badly the region stagnated economically during the New Labour years? Another problem there is that the small towns (Nuneaton being the canonical example) are becoming more pensioner-heavy as the young move to Birmingham or London.