Defining coalition, defining class: the challenges and opportunities facing Labour (part 1 of 2)
It was interesting, and refreshing, to see Sunny from Liberal Conspiracy come out as a class warrior last week.
Much of what he says about the way some kind of class-oriented electoral strategy makes a good deal of sense; the Tories’ poll lead has been reduced since (to use Sunny’s term) ‘class war erupted’, and this is confirmed in the polls coming out since Sunny wrote the piece.
You seem to be describing bankers as wealth creators, in which case 2006 just called – they want their conceptual framework back.
I laughed out loud at that one, but it was the laughter of recognition; a recognition that the ‘conceptual framework’ for many voters has indeed changed since the onset of the financial crisis and recession, and the values of Mandelsonesque aspiration that New Labourites like Tom once took as an unassailable mantra – ‘Labour is the party of aspiration’ – no longer hold the same weight.
For a more extended rebuttal of the Harris-2006 –conception-of-the-world-we-live-in, Will Straw’s new Fabian article is useful. In particular he debunks the accepted wisdom amongst New Labour diehards about how the party developed an extraordinary winning coalition through its appeal to an aspirational ‘Middle Britain’
Protagonists argue that the Middle Britain strategy was an overwhelming electoral success, heralding an unprecedented period of Labour governance which has delivered a list of achievements so long it took Gordon Brown minutes to read through them at this year’s Labour Party Conference. But another interpretation shows that Labour’s 13.5 million votes in 1997 was lower than the 14 million that John Major achieved in 1992 and, because of low turnouts, fell to 10.7 million in 2001 and to 9.6 million in 2005 (fewer even than the Tories recorded in 1997).
There is scant academic evidence that the focus on ‘Mondeo Man’ worked in electoral terms. Research by Dr Malcolm Brynin at the University of Essex found that “neither of the main parties can woo supporters from the opposing main party in sufficient numbers to make a difference.
In a similar vein, and drawing on recent electoral experiences, Don Paskini sets out the argument that there is electoral success to be had in a ‘them vs. us political narrative:
In 2000, Al Gore trailed George Bush by 7.5% in opinion polls taken over the summer. Gore made the theme of his Convention speech ‘the people versus the powerful’, and by September, had gained 25 points over Bush in terms of being chosen as best able to handle the economy, the largest gain on any of the policy areas surveyed, and had taken the lead in the polls.
In short, there seems to be a growing recognition that the building of as broad an electoral coalition as possible, celebrated as the way forward for the centre-left as recently as Obama’s election, may not be eveything that it has been cooked up to be, and that there still may be life in that old idea of ‘adversarial politics’.
New Labour may have been forced towards a renewed ‘them and us’ strategy because the Conservatives have been assiduously taking back the centre ground, though in a way that has in no way solidified into any kind of stable vote; the financial crisis may have afforded sudden opportunities around bankers’ bonuses and other media-friendly capitalist excesses – opportunities for short term opinion poll gain that have been seized out of this same sense of desperation, and you can also see the vacillation going on amongst the New Labour hierarchy as they struggle to come to terms with a narrative that smacks of Old Labour.
But, whatever the reasons, whatever the reluctance behind this new narrative, the language has changed perceptibly over the last month; I don’t think I am being unkind to Sunny if I suggest that he would nothave contemplated writing a piece advocating ‘class war’ ,however knowingly the inverted commas are used, even two months ago.
Suddenly, Tom Harris and his ilk really do seem soooo 2006 with their talk of aspiration and wealth creation.
And to a limited extent, the changed narrative has led to small changes in policy direction. While the decision to press forward with a tax on bankers’ bonuses is insignificant enough in financial terms, it is reflective of the government new understanding that confronting capitalist excess, alongside a strategy of pinning a ‘Tories are for the rich’ tag on the Tories can be electorally beneficial.
This new realisation, set alongside a sudden appreciation that the grand ‘Middle England coalition might have been a bit of a useful myth all along, is a step forward, whatever the haphazard reasoning and series of events that have led to it. It opens policy doors for the centre left, and all of a sudden Compass, for example, are able to portray themselves as policy leaders with real results to show for their efforts (and to be fair, to Compass, they have done well at capturing the moment, albeit within its usual PR constraints, while the Labour Representation Committee has seemed strangely silient, though this is more an issue of lack of resources than desire).
But this only takes us so far.
Even in immediate electoral terms, it may be insufficient as a changed narrative, alongside the limited changes to the manifesto, to bring about victory in 2010, although I clearly hope that it will be.
Beyond the coming election, too, while a changed narrative is important because it brings with it limited changes to policy as an inevitable method of defending the changed narrative as a reality, such a shift to a vague adversarialism will do little to change the political game overall, and Labour will face either the near-inevitability of defeat at a 2014/5 election as support from the core ebbs away further.
If Labour doesn’t win this time around it faces the prospect of 10 years or morein opposition while it waits for the electoral cycle of disillusion with the governing party to work its way through so that it can then recapture the ‘centre ground’ recenlty lost with new photogenic but studiously non-committal, ‘non-ideological’ leader. By that time, of course, the far right may have risen, and the game may be changed for good.
To avoid this, Labour needs to change its own conceptual framework, and it needs to start by digging deeper into the narrative it’s now starting to adopt as a short-term emergency measure.
Labour, with its Labour-friendly academics, commentators and bloggers leading the way, needs to move beyond using class as a handy (often deliberately ironic) part of this new narrative, and define what it means by class.
It could do worse than start with EP Thompson, whose first words at the start of The Making of the English Working Class hit the nail on the head:
The working class did not rise like the sun at the appointed time. It was present at its own making.
Class, rather than classes, for reasons which it is one purpose of this book to examine. There is, of course, a difference. “Working classes” is a descriptive term, which evades as much as it defines. It ties loosely together a bundle of discrete phenomena. There were tailors here and weavers there, and together they make up the working classes.
By class I understand an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasise that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.
I’ll leave you with those wise words for now.
It’s Christmas, and to Christmas I will go.
I’ll be back on back on Boxing Day to set out the importance of EP’s reminder that class is, in the end, about economic relationships under capitalism, and not a cultural phenomenon either of flat caps or Adidas trainers and vicious dogs.
In so doing, I’ll set out how John Rentoul’s cursory dismissal of class consciousness (expressed as ‘class war’) as an outdated irrelevance reveals both his, and a more general shallowness in current political commentary, and one leftwing blogs like this need to work hard to challenge, as well as working to create a new grassroots narrative of class which does indeed prove Rentoul wrong.