There should be no doubts. Labour should not be participating in a televised debate involving any of the other parties. It is not a question of testing each man’s ideas in the fire of debate. It’s not even about the cheap point scoring which will almost inevitably be heavily featured. It’s about creating a spectacle which should not, but could, end up having a huge effect on national politics.
Practically, the debate means nothing. Like Question Time and the other such shows, it will not be about serious policy. Yet depending on what actually happens, the media may end up crowing about how one side ‘won’ the debate. Not that this will be a seriously considered analysis either, if the preliminary crowing is anything to go by. Witness the Independent’s Matthew Norman:
[Gordon Brown's] a telly catastrophe. Disturbingly unnatural and unnervingly weird, with the top lip of The Joker, eye bags the size of Caligula’s imperial couch, waxen flesh the hue of unwashed grey flannel, and the rictus grin of a jackal in its death throes, he is by light years the least accomplished television act of the trio. His MPs’ expenses tour de force should be made available to any outsourced Syrian torturer tired of strapping electrodes to genitals.
What. A. Dick. It’s true enough that Brown is hardly the best performer in the world. Yet everyone seems to have forgotten what happened the last time we had a bloody circus monkey as Prime Minister. Three wars, plus all the stuff we seem to forget had being going on during the Blair years – the expenses scandals, businesses giving fantastic amounts to political parties as ‘loans’ and so on.
Whenever I saw the Fabian leadership debate between Gordon Brown, John McDonnell and Michael Meacher, the only thing which saved Brown’s performance was that Meacher was even more of a dribbling idiot. And yet Meacher, by all accounts, is a conscientious parliamentarian. I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, since he’s a soft Left wimp, but at least in his newspaper articles he tries to show a critical engagement with the issues.
Unlike some other parliamentarians I could mention, whose newspaper appearances mostly consist of self-aggrandizement and gasbaggery designed to override opposition almost by force of personality. Because it’s certainly not by rational argument. Ask yourself, which character does the televised debate encourage, and which character would we prefer as our Member of Parliament?
Or, indeed, as leader of a party and leader of the country.
There’s plenty to complain about, as regards Gordon Brown and the Parliamentary Labour Party. They have made politics worse in many respects. But measuring how well they can please a crowd with rhetorical trickery and then using that to make judgments on who won a televised debate, as though it impacts on the substantial issues, this is not what I think politics should be about.
It is, as Matthew Norman alludes to, a sop to the ‘X-Factor generation’, as though a few flashing lights and theme tunes will fix the problem of a declining youth vote or political participating generally.
Iain Dale has the text of Cameron’s New Year speech up. Quite rightly the media will be paying particular attention to this short but important little snippet:
‘But let’s make sure the election is a proper argument about the future of the country, not some exercise in fake dividing lines.’
Cameron recognises here what Tessa Jowell misses in her nonsense about ‘hideous’ ‘class war’ (reported on by Dave earlier). By playing the one nation card at this stage, he is effectively admitting the Tories are deeply rattled by the prospect of a Labour move towards a class-based electoral strategy.
He’s seen the opinion polls, he’s seen the financial context in which such a strategy might be implemented, and he’s afraid.
Let’s put aside for now the staggering hypocrisy of the leader of a party talking about parties coming together to ‘sort out Britain’s problems’ after a ‘good clean fight’ when that same party has shown itself prepared, in its own electoral interests, both to talk down the currency and to talk up the prospect of a reduction in the sovereign credit rating and consequent worsened credit terms.
On the matter of electoral strategy, Cameron’s dead right.
He knows that, if Labour gets it right and makes the right appeal about what it might mean to be a worker under a Tory government – whether you identify yourself as middle class worker, a working class worker, or a worker without the prospect of work – then the sheer numbers start to stack in Labour’s favour.
Tessa Jowell and Jack Straw need to listen more to what Cameron is saying. On this matter, he’s ahead of them.
…but don’t worry, it’s just a quip, not part of a strategy.
Gordon Brown draws a fundamental distinction between Labour and the Conservatives, and suddenly everyone is focussing on his one remark about David Cameron having attended Eton.
The real point Gordon was making, which everyone seems so quick to ignore?
“Mr Brown made the comment [about Eton] at prime minister’s question time, claiming Tory plans for inheritance tax cuts would help millionaires but cost public service investment £2bn.” [BBC]
So weeks later, Tessa Jowell has to come out and say how beastly ‘class war’ is, and associate it with attacks on the backgrounds of individual politicians. As opposed to Cameron’s millionaire-loving policies which Brown was actually attacking instead of trying to emulate, for once.
This seems to be a developing theme from inside the leadership, that people are getting jittery about all this talk of investment in public services, rather than Tessa Jowell’s favoured ‘reform’ (read cuts, presumably).
She’s not the only one, apparently, with Lord Dracula, er, sorry, Mandelson apparently falling out with Brown about the current electoral strategy. The media seem to be insisting it’s part of a ‘core vote’ strategy designed to appeal to the working class.
No wonder the types who like tax breaks for the rich, whilst the rest of us don’t get a break, are feeling uppity. What a shower.
Before Christmas, I suggested that Labour’s shift by towards a ‘class war’ narrative of the type that’s giving Peter Mandelson and Tom Harris the heebie jeebies should not simply be dismissed as the empty rhetoric of a party falling back on its core vote in desperation not to lose the election too badly.
However, I finished by saying that such a shift was not in itself enough, notwithstanding the odd policy on bankers’ bonuses move to reflect it, which are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things but enough to have John Rentoul and his ilk looking around for those forms they sent off for just in case.
A shift towards a loose ‘them vs. us’ narrative may shore up the ‘core vote’ in the short-term, as voters disillusioned with New Labour feel able to give the party the ‘one last chance’ that either their family traditions of voting Labour or their longstanding hatred of the Conservatives makes them hanker after secretly.
To create a more definitive shift back towards Labour, a temporary narrative showing up the Tories for what they are is insufficient, however effective in the short-term.
To create a definitive shift needs, appropriately enough, definition about what Labour can and should be about, and how that contrasts to what the Tories (and LibDems) are about.
And in the end, what must make Labour different can only be about one thing; it can only be about class.
This is ‘class’ as set out by EP Thompson, as quoted at the end of part 1, but bearing repetition:
Class, rather than classes, for reasons which it is one purpose of this book [The Making of English Working Class] 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 emphasize 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.
Quite simply, when Labour sets outs it’s’ them vs. us’ narrative, it needs to be clearer what the ‘them’ is. It should identify as its ‘core vote’, and sell the idea as a key aspect of its electoral strategy, not the working classes – that group defined culturally be traditions of location, dress, learned behaviours etc.- but the working class - the very much bigger section of the British population which sells its labour for a living and takes home no surplus value (or would do if it were afforded the opportunity to work).
Conversely, it will not be sufficient to do what new Labour under Blair did (though the extent to which he actually did so is disputed in part 1) to win in 1997: simply to sell Labour as a party acceptable to the middle classes, defined as a cultural category and ascribed consumerist aspirations to foreign holidays and Mondeo cars.
This redefining of what it is to be working class, this re-establishment of what should be Labour’s core vote will necessarily bring with it a shift towards what Thompson identifies as the other main fault – the identification of class not as a cultural entity, but as an economic relationship with another class – the class made up of the owners of capital and those at the heart of the capitalist state institutions who are there to promote the interests of capital.
In so doing, a new ‘them vs. us’ conception will be formed amongst the electorate, and policy will be driven by that new electoral mandate.
Here is not the place to set out the exact terms of that policy, not least because they are well-enough established, and I will content myself with copying over the general priority terms in which Dave sets them out (in his post on hunting which also seeks to capture issues around how class defined as cultural characteristics works against the objective interests of the working class):
- Lower taxes for the poor and middling; higher taxes for the wealthy and corporations.
- Better public services, with confident unions prepared to intervene on behalf of the public interest, rather than abandoning ‘public service’ to profiteers.
- Unions, organised nationally and internationally, with no State-enforced restrictions, that can fight for investment and better wages.
- Universal healthcare, universal and universally good quality education right up to third-level.
These are policy commitments which, if sold to a reconceptualized electorate, will appeal to and meet the interests of what we now conceive of as the ‘middle classes’; that is why, indeed, Dave uses the term ‘middling’. The challenge is to create an effective narrative to convey that reality.
Of course I am not suggesting that the Marxian language in which I set out the case above will be appropriate. Even the world ‘class’, especially as it is used in the term ‘class war’, has been so negatively loaded by the right with negative cultural and historical connotations that it is unlikely that it can be used with positive effect by the Left in the short term.
As Sunny has pointed out forcefully, the ‘register’ and type of language that we use is important (though he does so to suggest that Dave and I don’t understand the concept and that everything we ever write or do is by lengthy Marxian treatise).
Instead of terms like ‘class’ and ‘surplus value’ we will need to talk in terms of the powerful and the exploited, but the aim should be to redefine the argument in economic rather than cultural terms, and in so doing to create – to use Laclau and Mouffe’s useful heuristic – ‘political frontiers’ with and ‘discursive antagonisms’ towards the Conservatives and the interests they represent.
Will all this happen, or is it simply wishful thinking on my part? Well, of course it won’t happen in the way I set out, with a clear adoption by the Labour hierarchy of the rationale I set out above. Any moves towards it will be more as a result more of short-term electoral desperation than any new commitment to class politics, and of course New Labour’s lamentable recent record in some areas of social policy like benefits, means that for many of the electorate nothing Labour ever does or says will be trusted, and however much reality has become mixed with a New Labour myth.
But there are also opportunities.
The financial crisis has created a greater macro- economic literacy amongst the electorate, and the work that the newly founded New Political Economy Network of biggish centre-left hitters, while its main focus will be on exposing the plain stupidity in the Tories’ plans, may in so doing create a space in which to put forward a case for a renewed electoral focus on how Labour DOES have an objectively different constituency of interest.
In addition, as Stephanie Flanders has pointed out in her most recent post, the period before the election is quite likely to be marked by some large bond market/credit rating event around our sovereign debt, and while the Tories will play that for all it is worth as a sign of Labour’s economic imprudence, Labour should be able to portray any large upswing in yield curves and/or credit rating downgrading as an attempt by the forces of capitalism (and Conservatism) effectively to disenfranchise the electorate and impose a government committed ideologically, and supported in this commitment by the major financial institutions, to the further exploitation of the working class.
In short, I remain hopeful about the coming election, and of course I remain, contra Robert, convinced that it really DOES matter who wins it, not simply because what the Tories promise to do to us is so awful.
Rather, I remain hopeful that the recent adoption by Labour of a new, electorally popular adversarial narrative will, if reinforced both conceptually and rhetorically in the coming months, and then in the next year or two, and if taking place concurrently with a grassroots takeover of the party’s institutions, may in fact create a Labour party, in power, which swings to the left and is glad of it – a Labour party which no longer needs the likes of Peter Mandelson, or tolerates the likes of Tom Harris.
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.