Thursday 9 April 2020

Tony Blair and the Politics of Decay

Tony Blair has said some words again. Not just about the appalling situation the economy's going to be in after the Coronavirus outbreak has exhausted itself (talk about stating the obvious), but concerns political strategy. Or, to be exact, what Scottish Labour should do. Apparently, its route to success is Labour becoming more like ... Ruth Davidson. She was able to energise the pro-union case and see off the Scottish National Party. As he puts it, "the only politician in Scotland that broke that SNP grip at all was Ruth Davidson." And she was able to do this because Scottish Labour were wishy-washy on unionism.

First of all, let's scotch Blair's myth-making mischief. Whatever one thinks of Davidson's qualities, she did not "break the grip" of the SNP. Under her leadership the Tories turned in a creditable performance at the 2017 general election, but following her departure last summer things went to pot as they fell from 13 seats to six at the general election. If we're playing the centrist game where Jeremy Corbyn's near miss is irrelevant, so is the peak of the Scottish Tory resurgence. Considering the 2016 Holyrood elections, the Tories displaced Labour as Scotland's second party and took 31 seats, but in terms of MSPs and votes the SNP won twice more than "Ruth's team". Perhaps what Tonty meant is how Davidson caught the eye of London-based commentdom, who at times feted her and, if the stories are to be believed, was approached by an all-too-brief trail blazing outfit to lead them. She certainly proved more effective wowing arbiters and gatekeepers of establishment politics than winning voters over from Scottish nationalism.

On Labour's are we/aren't we unionist stance, there's some selective memory at play here too. It was never Scottish Labour's policy to back independence or support another referendum. Last Summer John McDonnell said Westminster shouldn't get in the way of another vote, if that's what the Scottish parliament decides to do. A position Jeremy Corbyn also conceded, while Scottish Labour stuck to its unionist line. And still the party got steamrollered, again, by the SNP in December. To suggest the party's salvation is being more explicitly unionist is peculiar to say the least.

Speaking on Steve Richards's programme about Labour's futures, Blair (rightly) notes the SNP aren't a far left formation, but goes on to suggest a political space exists for a centre left unionist opposition. But where? The Tories are the hard unionists now, and why would progressively-minded voters be lured away from the SNP when, all told, the SNP are hardly living up to the Tartan Tory caricatures you can still find bandied about among some sections of Scottish Labour. In fairness to Blair, he does recognise the party has to create its own political space by drawing attention to the SNP's record on education, and so on. Which is fair enough, but going after them on economistic grounds concedes the constitutional politics of the nation - the central question in Scotland - to the Tories and SNP. And besides, is Uncle Tone seriously suggesting Scottish Labour doesn't already talk about these things?

The truth of the matter is, while Blair is right that in England Labour have to take votes from the Tories to win an election, he cannot bring himself to make serious suggestions about how in Scotland Labour has to win them back from the SNP. And this comes as no surprise, because to understand how Labour lost north of the border it is necessary to think about how class dynamics there have played out.

I never shut up talking about the new working class and its relationship to the Labour Party, and how Corbynism was simultaneously its articulation and expression. As far as the 'old' working class were concerned, i.e. the huge numbers of older workers and retirees who abandoned Labour for the Tories in December, their old auto-Labourism were legacies of working class institutions that have long since faded, of common outlooks tied together by work and place, and a much more homogenous culture. As the political economy supporting the integration of organised workers with the Labour Party was eroded and, in the 1980s, smashed up, so their loyalties faded and other politics backfilled the void - mainly the politics of soft nationalism, which has a particular resonance with older people.

This is true of Scotland too. Labourist unionism has historically been dominant in Scotland because all across the central belt and in the major towns industry was initially tied to the Empire, and in the post-war period was maintained as successive governments were committed to (haphazard) policies of full employment. The labour movement then, cursed by empire chauvinism across Britain, and doubly distorted by added sectarianism in Scotland, nevertheless formed an assembly of working class institutions that bargained, sometimes forcefully, sometimes militantly for its share of the spoils, and won them. The Scottish working class derived tangible benefits from being part of the United Kingdom. And then the post-war consensus fell apart, and in came the Tories. As per England, Britain's primary industry and manufacturing base was imperilled by competition and was in decline before Thatcher, but her countenancing of mass unemployment to break the labour movement destroyed livelihoods and the political economy that conferred the state legitimacy. With unemployment giving way to call centres, offices, retail parks, the benefits of the union became less tangible. Having a few staff from the DWP transferred out of London and the multiplier effects of Faslane, what is there? And so once the Scottish Parliament was set up, a new mainstream politics opened up relatively autonomous from Westminster and more reflective of the dynamics post-industrialisation were set in train. In other words, Labour's domination became conditional.

The 2014 independence referendum saw this conditionality collapse. It wasn't so much that Labour played the leading role in the Better Together campaign, and shipped in activists from England to assist a long hollowed-out party, but rather the manner of the politics adopted. Here Labour were lining up with the very Tory party that had just spent four years overseeing attacks on the poor and driving down living standards while getting into high profile spats with the SNP over spending - a series of set-tos that allowed the SNP to present itself as the best defenders of the Scotland and "Scottish interests". Labour meanwhile was saddled with its pathetic non-opposition to austerity, and were only too happy to go along with Tory threats about how much they were going to screw a post-independence Scotland. What was particularly catastrophic about this blunder was it made sure the rise of the new working class in to political consciousness be channelled into the SNP as opposed to Labour. Scottish Corbynism was only ever a nice idea because what would have been its base was the SNP's new base.

Now, Scottish Labour might have the strategic genius of the likes of Ian Murray on its side, but any strategy for returning the party to health that fails to recognise this elementary fact is utterly useless. This is where Tony Blair fits in. The kind of politics he's advocating is no different to the Blue Labour prescriptions for winning England, but in Scotland it's doubly dumb. His preference and that of what remains of the party's establishment is to go after the Tories for the decaying unionist vote. Madness. As England where Tory support remains in long-term decline, despite their bumper Christmas gift, Scottish unionism is decomposing at a faster rate. Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservative support is mostly older, mostly retired, and is not reproducing itself. Sticking here is never going to be a route to political success, and guarantees nothing but diminishing returns for Labour.

I don't have a magic bullet, a solution, or even a strategy for Scottish Labour. Only a diagnosis of a problem. The medicine Tony Blair is dispensing, however, is nothing of the sort. Far from a cure, it's not even a palliative. Swigging it induces paralysis, and guarantees decay, defeat, and irrelevance.

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Unknown said...

Very nicely put argument. But I think First Aid advice to the Scottish or any other UK 'Unionists' is already too late. The UKanian state is visibly crumbling and for good reasons. It is very difficult to see a Unionist rabbit being pick out of the hat in Scotland. Surely Brexit and what has happened since has put pay to that. 'Northern' Ireland is in a Waiting Room for a transition to unification. Ditto re Brexit (plus demography and the decline of most forms of sectarianism north of a shrinking Irish border.)
It may take longer before the Welsh people cast a final judgement of the nature of the links they wish to prioritise with England. A radical further devolution seems most likely in the short term. Then there is the massive question of radical English devolution - an essential requirement for any last socialist project. Not forgetting Kernow and Hen Ogled (Cumbria)!

Blissex said...

The game is over! Dear Very Public Sociologist, as signalled by Ian Murray being the shadow secretary for Scotland in the 97% anti-Corbyn new shadow cabinet, the strategy of the Mandelson Tendency is to fully accomplish the PASOKification of english Labour, scottish Labour does not matter that much, as it has already been done. Why Tony Blair devotes any attention to an already done deal seems a bit hard to explain, perhaps he sees it as a model for England. After all he had guaranteed that Labour would win if it campaigned strongly for a second referendum, with Keir Starmer as the leader for that campaign.

Blissex said...

«With unemployment giving way to call centres, offices, retail parks, the benefits of the union became less tangible.»

What anti-union consultants say is that highly centralized capital intensive industries, with high value added per sons, like steel, car making, shipbuilding, are ideal breeding ground for trade union "infection", because workers are all together, and if they strike a large amount of capital becomes unprofitable.

So with "call centres, offices, retail parks" plus fast food, home deliveries, minicabs and other uberized services, it is not that union membership benefits become less tangible in a generic sense, but that establishing trade unions is much harder, as workers are dispersed, and strikes in any one particular location or even area have very small impact. That's for example why New Labour (now back in control of Labour) and the Conservatives have kept or made laws that mandate per-workplace strike balloting too.

George Carty said...

Blissex, the "union" that Phil was talking about was the Union between England and Scotland, not a trade union!

And one important point about Uber (which you mentioned) is that it is an example of counterfeit capitalism: it runs huge losses bankrolled by VCs who believe that it has the potential to build a transportation monopoly.