Friday 10 June 2022

The Faces of Wes Streeting

There aren't many occasions when I've nearly fallen off the sofa, but Thursday night's Question Time almost decanted me onto the floor. On a panel packed with rightwingers and asked about the railworkers' industrial action, Wes Streeting, uber Blairite pretender to Keir Starmer's throne, defended the RMT, the right to take strike action, said he would have voted for stoppages in their position, and called for the nationalisation of the rail network. I was forced to check the shadow health minister hadn't been replaced by a Corbynist doppelganger, but no. It was definitely him. Coming after Lisa Nandy had made similar remarks about the strike before an anonymous party spox rowed back on her behalf, people are entitled to ask what's going on. Can our would-be leaders smell the ichor dripping from Starmer's lacklustre leadership? Are both tacking left in case Starmer and Angela Rayner are forced to resign over BeerGate? That was the consensus of Labour's Twitter watchers today. And who am I to contest the wisdom of my crowd?

But I'm going to. Partially. Having tweeted out the clips from Question Time, Streeting provided proof that rail nationalisation is a policy he's long supported. An aberration? A strange affectation among a policy preferences marinated in soggy centrism? Further evidence that Streeting's position might not just be about position-taking can be found in his Fabians pamphlet from a couple of years ago. A piece which, while not Corbyn-lite, was a recognisably Labourist document with all the weaknesses and contradictions that entails. Could it be, shock of all shocks, Streeting's defence of striking workers comes from genuine goodwill?

No, I haven't gone soft on Streeting. We all know what he did between 2015 and 2019. He's loyally followed Starmer's most damaging policies, is signed up to the same try-hard prostration before British institutions, and most scabby of all showed that he was looking forward to "getting tough" with teachers while handling shadow schools brief. But it's not enough to say Streeting's declaration for the RMT was posturing ahead of a contest that's probably not going to happen. Instead, his two facedness is not a character flaw but a characteristic of Labourism itself.

The fairy tale goes something like this. The trade unions, ILP, Fabians, and the Social Democratic Federation came together to form the Labour Party. In a fit of sectarian pique, the nominally Marxist SDF pulled out because the party would not commit to its programme - well done those lads for condemning scientific socialism to the margins of the labour movement. But Labour was a socialist party and stood for the interests of the movement that founded it. If only it wasn't for the Labour right who hijacked the thing and rail-roaded the party into successive compromises with the capitalist interest, culminating in Tony Blair. They have consistently betrayed everything Labourism stands for. Except they haven't. Before the party was founded, the dominant ideas in the labour movement were mixes of religious preachifying, Spencerian evolutionism, syndicalism, ethical socialism, and pleading of the most cringing, forelock tugging sort. Leading party cadres embodied these contradictions. Dear old Keir Hardie, whose impoverished upbringing and toil down the mines led him to espouse a fiery socialism based on moral virtue and not a political appreciation of his formative circumstances. Or Philip Snowden, a Labour politician explicitly opposed to strikes and extra-parliamentary politics in all their forms. Or Ramsay MacDonald who did so much to establish the party's independence from the Liberals, only to join with the Tories.

These ideas were weak but reflected the lived reality of Labourism. The 1825 Combinations of Workmen Act permitted trade unionism only for the purposes of pressing for wages and hours worked. This decriminalisation created an incentive for the infant labour movement to stick to the most basic bread and butter issues, bedding down economism and creating a common sense that issues of high politics, or politics generally, were alien and beyond the competencies of the movement. The subaltern position of the worker was institutionalised from the start. But at the same time, through incremental struggle with employers - and the immediate failure of the mass mobilisations of Chartism - constitutional struggle was sanctified, the law respected, and parliament identified as the only institution that can change the workers' lot for the better. This was the material basis for the ideas that came to define and dominate Labourism - ideas the proved a boon in building the unions, the cooperative movement, and later the politics. But simultaneously hobbled the party by not providing the resources for a serious critique that might challenge the system, and indeed warded against developing such a theory. In these circumstances, had the SDF stayed on winning Marxist converts in Labour would have proven a difficult job.

Labourism since has moved on, but the basics have not. These traditions reach down into the present in all shades of Labourist opinion - the hard and soft left, Momentum, the Fabians, Progressive Britain, and Labour First. They have changed but the enabling/disabling fusion characteristic of Labour habits and ideas are unchanged. And this is where Wes Streeting comes in. He talks up one group of workers and defends them against crude Tory divide-and-rule tactics, but he spent the first four years of his parliamentary career combating the Labourism that articulated and defended all workers. He speaks about rail nationalisation and underfunding the network, while wanting to expand private healthcare into the NHS, ostensibly to reduce waiting lists. There are many other instances of ping-ponging from left to right and back again. Streeting might betray the class he came out of, but he does not betray Labourism. On the contrary rather than being a careerist alien to the Labour tradition, he embodies it.


Shai Masot said...

Nah, He's a careerist.

Alan said...

Tim Fenton, on the Zelo Street blog, takes a considerably less positive view of Streeting's contribution on Question Time over his failure to call out the lies of Tom Harwood. Fentom argues that Streeting's uselessness was manifest in his failure to contradict even the most blatantly nonsensical of Harwood's bletherings.

Robert Dyson said...

Fascinating historical insights - as always. You are my politics tutor.

Anonymous said...

The rail network is already owned by the nation. It's just the TOCs that are private.

Dialectician1 said...

Cognitive Individualism & Eugenics

“In this scheme, work was the vehicle for individual realisation whereas the state and, particularly, the unions were fetters on the achievement of working class aspirations……..This was the Trojan (horse?) for further privatisation and marketisation in education and health, under the guise of ‘choice’, as well as the highly individualised workers’ rights New Labour implemented.”

Long before Blair and New Labour, the Labour Party (particularly during the interwar years) had bought heavily into eugenics.

For example, Labour MP ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson had signed up to Eugenics Society, which in the 1930s rivalled the Fabians as the fashionable salon of London socialism. Ellen Wilkinson even wanted the society to form its own committee of Labour sympathisers.

As we know, Ellen Wilkinson was Minister of Education in the Atlee government and implemented the much reviled Eleven-plus test, which was based on the idea that intelligence was a ‘fixed’ capacity. The belief was that once quantified at the age of eleven, a person’s intelligence was a constant for a lifetime - regardless of life experiences. The tripartite system, which was introduced in 1945 by the Labour government, led to a ‘tiered’ educational system, or as some have described it: ‘educational apartheid’. In effect, the well-scrubbed middle class kids went to the grammar school, which made up approximately 20% of each cohort, and the rest went to secondary moderns (a very small proportion of eleven year olds went to ‘technical schools’). During the years of the tripartite system, 75% of all state funding for secondary education went to the Grammar Schools. In other words, it wasn’t worth spending money on the thick kids.

The great majority of kids felt the deep shame of failing the Eleven-plus (knowing they were thick) and experienced a stultifying secondary modern curriculum, one designed to educate a future work force to a minimal level, so that, as Wilkinson states: “coal was mined and fields were ploughed”.

The Labour government of 1945, never intended to radically transform society, the Eleven-plus was a clear sign of its latent intent to move towards an ideology of meritocratic individualism, allowing the state to withdraw from its redistributive commitments. Those who were clever and entrepreneurial would get rich, but those who failed could only feel shame.

The Blair years of ‘education, education, education’ was a continuation of this ideology. The talk was of ‘social mobility’ by expanding opportunities (for the clever) rather than equalising the distribution of resources across society.

Blissex said...

«The Blair years of ‘education, education, education’ was a continuation of this ideology. The talk was of ‘social mobility’ by expanding opportunities (for the clever) rather than equalising the distribution of resources across society.»

Perhaps in the context of a private-capitalist system “equalising the distribution of resources across society” is too ambitious (and those who pursue it have been waiting for a century and more for "one last heave" that will end it).

But the socialdemocratic aim to raise minimum resources via social welfare is quite feasible, yet the neoliberal idea is to that is too much. My usual quote from Roy Hattersley:
"In fact, success has emboldened the Prime Minister to move further to the Right. [...] Tony Blair discovered a big idea. His destiny is to create a meritocracy. Unfortunately meritocracy is not the form of society which social democrats want to see. [...] A Labour government should not be talking about escape routes from poverty and deprivation. By their nature they are only available to a highly-motivated minority. The Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape.

That “no poverty and deprivation” is rather less ambitious than “equalising the distribution of resources”, and yet it has been abandoned.

That for me is the real problem with the entrysts of the Mandelson Tendency: that even that simple goal is way beyond what they will tolerate.