Monday 5 October 2020

Ideology, Class, and Coronavirus

Picture the chancellor. Strolling through a restaurant without a Covid care in the world. In one hand there balances the thin gruel of the patchy support packages. The other tray, however, appears more weighty. Under the cover's polished dome sits something steaming, but this particular dish carries nothing of sustenance - except perhaps for the yellowing Tory grassroots, as ever crying out for Thatcherite fertiliser. Indeed, under the cover we find a generous dollop of fiscal contraction, cuts for the poorest, and the promise of austerity renewed. At least not yet. As far as Rishi Sunak is concerned, the first dish is the unappetising starter with the main dish - the "need" to balance to books - reserved for the main course in the medium term.

At the Tories' glitch-hit virtual conference, Sunak tried his hand at an old Boris Johnson trick: burble the hyperboles while offering little to nothing. The "overwhelming might" of the British state will be brought to bear on joblessness. Neither will the government cease "trying to be creative" to get the country out of the hole the Tories dug well before the pandemic was a tinkle in an errant bat's eye. There is such a thing as hope too, the chancellor told us and, thanks to the imminent end of the furlough scheme, there is the promise of a "pragmatic" respone to difficulties ahead. Over-promising and under-delivering, he's Johnson's apprentice alright.

At the start of all this, Sunak declared ideology must come second to handling the emergency, but at every step Tory pecadilloes and shibboleths have intruded and overdetermined their cackhanded strategy. They have mismanaged the crisis, caused tens of thousands to die unnecessarily and lumbered more with the lingering, unknown consequences of long covid. It's an instructive lesson in how ideology isn't free-floating hoohah or a set of fake ideas about the way of the world. They are demonstrative of the Tory concern with the health and wellbeing of one thing: the complex of class relations their party is embedded in, and will defend to its last.

Consider the evidence.

Why, no sooner had the Tories announced the furlough scheme, did they openly mull cutting and closing it? Likweise, as Job Centres closed, dole sanctions regime was suspended for 90 days. Yet amid sky rocketing unemployment and vacancies evaporating, the Tories couldn't wait to reintroduce the tranche of conditionalities and penalties in early July. Why? The answer is tediously predictable. Workers need to work, the labour market must churn, and they have to be reminded not to get too comfortable. While plenty of Tories think British workers are a pampered, malingering bunch of shirkers what they fretted over most was the breakdown in labour discipline and with it decades of carefully nurtered biopolitical strategies. In this case, the ideological distaste for state support of workers entirely coincidentally lined up with the everyday management of the working age population. Funny that.

Then we see everyday the debacle of test and trace and outsourcing to obviously unsuitable service providers. As we know, it's been an article of Tory faith since Thatcher onwards that private is best and the public sector is overly bureaucratic and inefficient. Apparently, the competitive pressures of market discipline a priori assures the efficacy of business over anything Whitehall mandarins and local government workers could cook up. Johson and friends are proven true believers in this credo. As far back as June, the Tories had contracted businesses to the tune of £1.7bn, and we have a mess of screwed up apps, two loads of track and trace failures, and egregious misreporting of daily infections. Once again, might the ideology of private sector efficiency, undoubtedly really believed by many Tories, have some sort of relationship to sundry businesses benefiting from Coronavirus contracts backing the Tories, throwing money at them, and chummy social relationships with leading party cadre?

And there is the question of how to pay this. Contrary to Tory dogma, UK state finances spring from the magic money tree in the Bank of England's garden and from borrowing. In both cases they're created and later paid back through taxation (in the case of the Bank, the debt is entirely bogus considering it's an institution of state). The waffle about tax funding public services fits ideological constructs around belt tightening, responsible spending, and disciplining the ensemble of state bodies from the parish council to ministerial office. Having previously labelled public debt a Frankenstein's monster of government "profligacy", Sunak's talking up of careful spending and having to pay back later readies a new dynamic suggestive of future austerity - though given the country's dilapidated state, this will be discretionary spending of the most discretionary kind. Money for pet infrastructure projects and the Tories' mates (as per above), but nothing for our rotting public realm. Just like the schemes unveiled earlier this year in those pre-Covid halcyon days. Small statism, the holy grail of post-Thatcher Toryism, coincidentally underlines everything we've talked about so far. It justifies further rounds of cuts to Universal Credit, the refusal to back anything the Tories feel is politically suspect, and imposes the obligation of debt as the commonsense of the age.

It's abundantly clear the disaster of Tory mismanagement is because their priorities are skewed by the (oft contradictory) pressures bearing on them, and their class instincts and interests as mediated by their ideological precoccupations. It's not enough to slap the label of incompetence on the Tories. It's far worse than that: their incoherence and recklessness, whether it's bumbling Boris or dishy Rishi fronting them up, is guided by one principle: the protection of the British oligarchy, no matter how many have to die.

Image Credit


Blissex said...

«the Tory concern with the health and wellbeing of one thing: the complex of class relations their party is embedded in»

That is the primary concern of every party, so I don't begrudge the Conservatives their loyalty to their constituencies, but rather that their constituencies are largely extractive and/or nasty, and that the Conservatives "take care of their own" with particularly mean and narrow minded zeal. Even T May and I Duncan Smith have said much the same:
«There's a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the Nasty Party. I know that's unfair. You know that's unfair but it's the people out there we need to convince - and we can only do that by avoiding behaviour and attitudes that play into the hands of our opponents. No more glib moralising, no more hypocritical finger-wagging. We need to reach out to all areas of our society. I want us to be the party that represents the whole of Britain and not merely some mythical place called "Middle England", but the truth is that as our country has become more diverse, our party has remained the same.»
«He said he resigned because he lost the ability to influence where the cuts will fall, adding: “The truth is yes, we need to get the deficit down, but we need to make sure we widen the scope of where we look to get that deficit down and not just narrow it down on working age benefits ... otherwise it just looks like we see this as a pot of money that it doesn’t matter because they don’t vote for us, and that’s my concern. I think it [the Government] is in danger of drifting in a direction that divides society rather than unites it. And that I think is unfair. ... This is not the way to do government.”»

«and will defend to its last.»

The political consequence of that is that if the "new leadership" of [New New] Labour aims at stealing from the Conservatives a chunk of their votes, then they have to offer policies to defend the health and wellbeing of the same "one thing". A post in July on argued:
“I’m an ex-Tory election candidate who’s joined Labour because of Keir Starmer [...] But Keir Starmer gives me confidence it’s possible to kick the Tories out at the earliest opportunity. I want someone who’s relatable, competent – and yes, conventional enough – to not scare off voters in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s constituency; the ones Labour must reach in order to win, barring a Scottish revival for the party. Starmer’s credentials and skills fit the bill. [...] But if we want to prove (or disprove) the maxim that one full term of the worst Labour government is better than a single day of the best Conservative one, then Labour needs to get onside many, many Tory voters.

If those Conservative voters are from most "pushed behind" areas, then they may be converted into genuine Labour voters by persuading them that their interests are more in good wages, good social services than in bigger property prices (which they are mostly not getting), but if the goal is to take voters who have quintessentially tory interests, the only way is to satisfy those interests. The constituency of J Rees-Mogg seems quintessentially tory to me, from Wikipedia: “This area is marked by significant agriculture and green buffers around almost each of its settlements, which largely consist of detached and semi-detached properties, with a low rate of unemployment and negligible social housing tenancy”.

Blissex said...

That is the primary concern of every party, so I don't begrudge the Conservatives their loyalty to their constituenciesThat is the primary concern of every party, so I don't begrudge the Conservatives their loyalty to their constituencies, but rather that their constituencies are largely extractive and/or nasty»

Which has just reminded me of an amusing quote about everybody having a right to representation:
«An old mining MP called Bill Stone, who used to sit in the corner of the Strangers' Bar drinking pints of Federation ale to dull the pain of his pneumoconiosis.
He was eavesdropping on a conversation at the bar, where someone said exasperatedly about the Commons: "The trouble with this place is, it's full of c*nts!"
Bill put down his pint, wiped the foam from his lip and said: "They's plenty of c*nts in the country, and they deserve some representation." (To get the full effect, say it aloud in a broad northern accent.)
As a description of parliamentary democracy, that strikes me as unbeatable.

And that is also the argument why "There Is No Alternative", the claim by T Hunt, P Mandelson, C Umunna that “Labour would only win if the party championed aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose” like the Conservantives and the LibDems: the small percentage, 50-70%, of the electorate who prefer socialdemocracy to thatcherism deserve some representation too.

Blissex said...

As to all parties championing the "Middle England" vote, here is another amusing and quite realistic quote:

«Corbyn told me a story about having tea with Joan Maynard, former MP for Sheffield Brightside, and Harry Cohen, former MP for Leyton, shortly after the two were elected. Joan sat the two of them down and said: "If both front benches are agreed, it’s probably bad news for the workers. And if a minister ever gets up and says ‘we’re going to have to take some tough choices and some tough decisions,’ it’s a disaster for the working class. Just bear that in mind and you’ll not go far wrong."