Home > Dave's Favourites, Labour Party News, Terrible Tories > Crystal ball gazing and 2010

Crystal ball gazing and 2010

This week has seen some crystal ball gazing by different pundits, Tory and Labour, on the subject of a 2010 election, and what the results might be should Labour win. Neither, I think, have cut to the core of the matter. Blimpish Tory’s article repackages some seriously dodgy truisms as a rule of thumb to understanding elections. Tom Harris, on the other hand, demonstrates a hilarious inverse hubris.

Harris’ intellectual exercise can be dismissed in a paragraph. The internal culture of the Labour Party is such that another election victory would simply sustain inertia. That inertia will shatter Labour, either by defections from the PLP or by the final collapse of CLPs. Gordon Brown and his cohort have not learned to think in different ways, to challenge orthodoxy and so have nothing new to offer.

This is why they’re not going to win in 2010, much less win a convincing majority. Too many factors are obviously conspiring against them, not the least of which is the desertion of even the ‘liberal’ wing of the intelligentsia. Taking into account Chris Dillow’s interesting article on spending, another Labour term, covering a period of recovery, might see the old spartan Treasury logic reasserted – surely a death knell.

Blimpish Tory isn’t interested in hubris but is guilty of vast assumptions and simplifications which don’t bear out, in my view. The relationship of each Party to the electorate is complex, just as the electorate is not a homogeneous mass. Moreover, the ‘message’ of each Party changes over time. It would be silly to assert, for example, that the presentation of the Tory 2010 manifesto will be like 2005.

I genuinely suspect that 2010 will be a landslide victory for the Conservatives, contrary to Tory Blimp’s expectations. The historical contingencies and vagaries which he doesn’t value so highly are coming into alignment: disillusioned trades unionists – probably not helped by the PMs reaction to the wildcat strikes – will not vote Labour. Civil liberties will put people off voting Labour. Stuttering over house building will put people off Labour.

Meanwhile, Michael Howard really was a dream opponent for Tony Blair; he practically frothed at the mouth over things like immigration. That was just about the only thing likely to fire up the declining Labour activist base. Having Lord Ashcroft about to outspend an ailing Labour in the marginals also helps, no doubt – and that financially ailing Labour is a metaphor for the ‘third way’ twits who lead the Party.

That’s not all. Tory Blimp attempts to substantiate his argument by reaching into history to examine other Tory victories from Opposition. Yet the argument ignores the fact of class struggle, which can either sharpen the distinction between Labour and Tory or, depending on the role of the Labour leadership, give an ill impression of the Labour Party and push working class voters towards the opposition.

At the moment, working in the favour of the Tories, is the fact that Labour seems very little different to the Tories from the point of view of workers. A lot of the public money being spent is ‘invisible’, in that people have got used to banks not going under and are still wondering about dilapidated trains and other public services. These have remained private and prices have inclined in this period of recession.

This is essentially because, despite the best efforts of socialist activists, barring certain islands which will be defended to the death, the Labour Party is now owned, lock, stock and barrel, by its leadership. That leadership, and its union cronies, will act to curtail open class struggle – as was shown by Brown’s reaction to the wildcat strikes recently. Workers, therefore, don’t have an alternative, they have two parties of Capital.

I’m not arguing that there aren’t differences. When the private sector moves, as Chris Dillow suspects, to fulfill their expenditure plans once the credit crunch ends, the Tories may or may not be more aggressive in retrenchment of public spending. Nevertheless, both parties are constrained by the same economic logic – thus on the macro scale, Labour is simply a Tory-lite party in different clothing.

Should the Labour clothing prove to be enough, the real fall out of a Labour victory in 2010 would be when chickens come home to roost from ill-planned PFI deals. As has been demonstrated by successive consultants and contract renegotiations, PFI service providers essentially have the government over a barrel as regards bailing them out, should things go sour.  This will have ramifications for ‘new’ public spending.

Our Tory Blimp tries to round off his commentary with the assertion that the age of mass politics is over. As with ever concrete, historical movement, such a bald assertion is worthless unless we put it into its material context. My counter-contention would be that the age of mass politics didn’t so much end as was beaten out of existence. It was forcibly replaced with consumer culture, as it represented a threat to capitalism.

I would go on to discuss this in terms of class struggle, social capital and other concepts of political sociology, but I think that deserves a separate article. Suffice it to say, there are only two ways Labour will recover – either by reawakening that spirit of mass politics or by continuing to play the presentation game with the Tories, appealing to the last vested interest standing, Capital, while giving that a social face.

Only one of those routes would I commend and consent to be a part of.

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  1. February 20, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    God post Dave, top analysis; the only place I’d really differ is what the analysis implies… I think that playing a presentation game must remain intrinsic to what we do. As society diverges, our job is to glue the less fortunate elements of it together with whatever adhesion we can muster. PR plays a valuable part in this.

    But, as you say, mass politics may be about to get a whole lot more important.

    Anyway, the argument that mass politics is now dead is in my view, bullshit. It’s just been forced out of political parties and trade unions. A bride needs to be built to allow it back in.

  2. February 20, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Bridge, even!

  3. February 20, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    As I’ve expressed before, Tom, the concept of building a counter-hegemonic strategy to unite the working class – as conceived in Marxist terminology – is not the same as PR. We should be choosing one, not the other – the difference being that one requires a bureaucratic caste elevated above the activist movement, the other is intrinsically inherent to the praxis of activism and socialism.

  4. February 21, 2009 at 6:29 am

    “I’m not arguing that there aren’t differences. When the private sector moves, as Chris Dillow suspects, to fulfill their expenditure plans once the credit crunch ends, the Tories may or may not be more aggressive in retrenchment of public spending.”

    You can see them laying the foundation for retrenchment on local govt spending (though only a smallish % of overall public spend, it’s a signficant marker)in the ‘green paper’ out the other day. It’s a Thatcherite concoction of populism and cost-driving (bureaucracy, waste etc. get lots of mentions though never anything specific). The referendums (when did the Tories forget their Latin?) are all around driving down expenditure at public demand, and pretty explicitly about not expanding services at public demand, for example.

    I’m not naive enough to think there’s a clear policy intent- implementation link, but the general discourse is revealing once you get past the initial ‘red Tory’ veneer of decentralisation (‘as long as it’s our kind of decentralisation’).

    And of course they’ll be licking their lips at the welfare reform debacle, because it creates a perfect environment for them to cut hard and cut soon – Purnell’s done the hard work, the private sector are ready and waiting to get in there on the improved terms the Tories will offer them (they’ll call it recontracting or some such) and the public have already have bitten the idea that it’s the work shy and the so-called sick who are to blame for the recession and must now be punished. It couldn’t be more perfect timing in Toryland, and that is why Freud has jumped now – he knows his legacy to the Tories now can be the one Keith Joseph got himself in the 80′s.

    So, yes, it will be worse, because there’ll be no stopping them.

  5. February 21, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Thank you for the link; the condescension I could’ve lived without.

    Vast assumptions:

    “… disillusioned trades unionists – probably not helped by the PMs reaction to the wildcat strikes – will not vote Labour.” – this on a day when the FT highlighted a mild poll swing back to Labour among C2s.

    Simplifications:

    “Stuttering over house building will put people off Labour.” – on the other hand, constraining the housing supply might contribute to holding up housing prices, which might help them.

    This is good:

    “Yet the argument ignores the fact of class struggle, which can either sharpen the distinction between Labour and Tory or, depending on the role of the Labour leadership, give an ill impression of the Labour Party and push working class voters towards the opposition.”

    I didn’t ignore the fact of class struggle; I just addressed a different question. As it goes, I think class struggle is a very useful lens through which to view politics. But not everything in life is about class struggle.

    And anyway, the notion of ‘working class voters’ is, these days, struggling. The bulk of what used to be working class voters now have mortgages and private pensions. A proportion of the remainder now derive their income from state benefits… which are paid for by (actually exploited) labour and capital. A lot of those more characteristic of the traditional middle class are now supportive of turning the tables on capital because they have middle-class jobs.

    As for this:

    “Meanwhile, Michael Howard really was a dream opponent for Tony Blair; he practically frothed at the mouth over things like immigration. That was just about the only thing likely to fire up the declining Labour activist base.”

    … if it ever did fire up the declining Labour activist base, it was to no avail – the Tories lost the 2005 election more than Labour won it, through an inability to pick up defecting Labour voters.

    … and this…

    “Our Tory Blimp tries to round off his commentary with the assertion that the age of mass politics is over. As with ever concrete, historical movement, such a bald assertion is worthless unless we put it into its material context. My counter-contention would be that the age of mass politics didn’t so much end as was beaten out of existence. It was forcibly replaced with consumer culture, as it represented a threat to capitalism.”

    I didn’t “try” to “round off”; it was a footnote. And if it wasn’t, it would’ve been rounding off, no trying, thanks.

    And to the substance: as one sentence footnote, forgive me if I didn’t explore the meaning of every phrase in the full context of historical-materialism and cultural hegemony, not to mention overdetermination… I had other priorities, and still have.

    But to the merits: I would differ with you on the notion of mass politics being “beaten out of existence… at it represented a threat to capitalism”, mainly because I think you credit the Capitalist ‘Them’ with far too much thought and power, which (witness their management of our banks, ahem) they really don’t have. Structural change in the distribution of capital, and power, and the understanding of those changes and their meaning, have far more to do with it.

    Finally, to the inference: it seems to me that you think that I welcome the consumerisation of politics; this is another of those vast assumptions of which I also am guilty. I do not welcome consumerisation as such (although neither do I reject it out of hand), let alone the suffocation of the public realm (by which I do not mean Government) because of the excessive expansion of the private.

    I look forward to your planned further article, and if I link to it and comment upon it, you can be sure that I’ll take the time to understand your arguments as you make them. As it goes I’ve got quite an interest in questions of social capital. If we talk by one another, there really is no hope for politics, mass or otherwise.

  6. February 21, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Quite right; I apologize for giving the impression of condescension – I’d never read your blog before and actually I found it better than most Tory blogs I read. On the matter of inference…I did take the impression that you welcomed the consumerisation of politics. If that’s wrong, then great. I think what caused the impression was simply the finality which could be read into it – and I’m so used to triumphalism from the Right on the subject.

    It felt like an ideological sting in the tail, which, perhaps, is why I said ‘tries to round off’ – as it was as though the remarks had been left hanging there to knife any passing Lefty.

    On the other subjects – e.g. our respective accusations of oversimplification and assumption – I’m sure you have justifications for yours and I’d like to hear them. Mine, with regard to trades unionists reflects my experience on the ground – with the recent CWU and NUT strikes, which I was involved in, and the public sector workers I come into contact with regularly.

    I don’t tend to trust polling data; so often it is ephemeral. Perhaps you might say that anecdotal evidence is no evidence at all – and I’d agree in different circumstances – but I’ve found concrete support amongst trades union rank and file is best measured when you’re talking to them about the big issues and how they reconcile the Labour government as enemy and the Labour Party as ambiguous.

    As for simplifications…yes, constraining the supply might keep prices up. This has the potential to appeal to anyone trying to sell their house, whether to get out of debt or for whatever reason. However, first, I’d raise the question of visibility: which are people going to see – that Labour is not building houses plus the fact of 40,000 repossessions or that their house has only declined by 10% instead of 20%? I would suggest the former, but I welcome disagreement.

  7. February 21, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    Quickly, as it is Saturday evening… no need for apology as I probably vented more than was necessary anyway. Thank you for taking it in the spirit in which it was intended.

    You’re quite right about the ephemeral, unreliable nature of polling data – my point is, if it says something difference, it should at least give us pause before judgement. I don’t doubt that many more traditional Labour voters (including union activists) are becoming disaffected, although I think at least part of that is a reflection of the Government’s broader collapse. I also wouldn’t disagree that Labour’s political strategy since Blair has involved taking the core vote for granted (“they haven’t got anywhere else to go”).

    In fact, I’d say you and I probably agree on quite a bit. Your point about Labour being left as little more than Tory-lite I’d agree with. In your terms, if Labour has left itself as Tory-lite, then in times like these, the security-seeking voter has an abundance of choice; but they’ll go for the genuine Tory article, which is also untarnished with immediate responsibility… Progress-seeking voters have nowhere really to go.

    In terms of class, the bulk of the “new” working class (lower middle class, in traditional terms), have enough capital to be security-seeking in the bad times, and are reliant enough on their labour to sustain it (i.e. keep up mortgage payments) that they become progress-seeking in good times.

    The problem is, Labour is left in a bit of a strategic bind – the core vote needs them to be more obviously Labour to be excited, but the floating vote are after (small-c) conservative crisis management right now. (Core-floating vote analysis is extreme simplification; but hopefully you get what I mean.)

    Re house prices – Labour will get no credit if house prices don’t fall more; but they’ll get less blame, and in the position they’re in, damage limitation may well be the name of the game. As with the polling, my point was mainly that there are a range of factors involved.

    All of these responses really are vast assumptions and generalisations written in haste, but good to discuss!

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