Archive for December, 2009

Presidential politics and that TV debate

December 28, 2009 Leave a comment

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.

Laurie Penny, Bernhard Schlink and generational guilt

December 28, 2009 12 comments

There’s a point near the end Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, when the narrator travels from Germany to New York to meet the sole survivor of a war atrocity to which his ex-lover, a then illiterate Romany girl who found herself employed as a concentration camp guard, had pleaded guilty in order to mask her own guilt at her illiteracy.

His job, set out in the will of his lover, who has committed suicide the night before her release from prison, is to hand over the paltry life savings to this sole survivor.

The survivor, now a well-off middle-aged US citizen, sees right through his guilt at his unknowing association with a convicted war criminal, and the more general ennui he feels as a post-war German:

‘Did you ever get married?’

I nodded.

‘And the marriage was short and unhappy, and you never married again, and the child, if there is one, is at boarding school.’

That’s true of thousands of people, it doesn’t take a Frau Schmitz [the ‘Reader’ and convicted war criminal].

In an instant, the Jewish survivor sums up the fate of much of the post-war German generation – not guilty of the rise of Nazism themselves, but seemingly ineluctably tied to the collective guilt of their parents’ generation, most of whom were themselves victims of Nazism, and now passing on their feelings of alienation to another generation. 

The moment is all the more poignant, of course, because it is someone who has actually lived through total horror who is now judges the narrator and his generation for their seeming inability to move beyond the psychological pull of this collective, inward-looking pain.

As the book closes, the narrator nearly attains ‘closure’ after putting his story in writing:

‘What a sad story, I thought for so long.  Not that I now think it was happy.  But I think it was true, and thus the meaning of whether it was sad or happy has no meaning whatsoever.’

But the guilt lingers:

‘Maybe I did write or story to be free of it, even f I can never be.’

I was reminded of all this a week or two ago when I read a typically impassioned and honest post from Laurie Penny.  Here’s an excerpt:

 ‘(O)n being asked why [a friend] had given up a promising career in marketing to become a political activist, she told me quite simply that she ‘would have gone crazy otherwise’.

That’s a pretty accurate verdict on the state of my generation right now. Whatever our background, nearly all of us are under an immense amount of pressure, struggling to find and keep work or benefits, trying to establish our independence in a world that does not seem to have any room for us. My generation, overwhelmingly, faces a choice between becoming politically active or becoming massively despondent, ‘going crazy’ with frustration at a world that has turned out so much harder and crueller than we thought it would be even when we’d grown up enough to realise that politicians and business leaders would repeatedly and inevitably let us down………

It is my firm belief that the current generation of 18-25 year olds have an unique perspective on politics and culture, filtered through a childhood of war, encroaching natural disaster, frantic consumerism and sudden betrayal.’

 And Laurie concludes:

 ‘(A)fter a discussion I had with my boyfriend last night, during which he ventriloquised rather aptly for our parents’ generation:”here, have this planet! It’s only slightly on fire!”‘

In the last paragraph in particular, you can hear the scorn.  Betrayal by her parents’ generation, Laurie seems to be saying, is what is making her and her generation ill.  The fault for Laurie’s sense of alienation lies with me (I’m 47 now) and the people of my age.  My failure to create a peaceful, environmentally sustainable world for Laurie to live her life in makes her ‘despondent’. 

So do I then have the right to be angry at my parents’ generation also?  After all, my mother was 19 years old on the day the second world war ended, and her adult life was spent in a peaceful country, where in 1945 there was a real commitment to socialism, but by 1979, when I was about to come of age, the socialist dream had turned sour, and the New Right had risen.

And so might begin a generational cycle of despair, to which both my and Laurie’s children, should she have any, will also surely be entitled.

One reaction to Laurie’s post might be the kind of cold scorn shown by the Jewish survivor to the narrator on The Reader (and indeed there is some of that displayed in the comments to Laurie’s post).

But I don’t think it’s the right reaction.  For starters, it not an attitude to which we are as entitled as the Jewish survivor; she had the right to stand outside and beyond (it is not coincidence that Schlink has her in New York) and make her judgment on the post-war German generation precisely because she has suffered unimaginable horror, and because she is about as ‘pure’ a victim as there can be.   My generation is not wholly victim; we are collectively guilty of allowing a neo-liberal economy to develop unchallenged over the last 30 years, and we need to be honest about that.  It is not our place to judge what Laurie should or should not feel.   We are, quite simply, not worthy. 

But nor, on the other hand, is it the right reaction to fall into a despair at our collective guilt, precisely because collective guilt does not make us individually guilty.  I have been a good trade unionist, I have saved the lives of many poor children, and I have done what I can in my own small way; it is simply that it has been, at least to date, to small.  That in itself does not make me guilty of the crime I am now accused of by Laurie.

 The right reaction, I contend, is the one that the narrator in The Reader makes, at the very end of the book.

‘What a sad story, I thought for so long.  Not that I now think it was happy.  But I think it was true, and thus the meaning of whether it was sad or happy has no meaning whatsoever.’

It is the truth about why my generation failed that we must seek, and then we must seek to make it better with all the energies that are left remaining to us.

The reason we failed is that the forces of capitalism were too strong, and because the Left did not organize as effectively as it could have done.  The reason the left did not organize effectively is that, in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was young, the Left lost its focus on class, and became besotted with the ‘identity politics’ of post-Marxism to the ultimate detriment of its own organizational core.

That is the bare truth, and acknowledging this dispassionately, without blame from one generation, and without collective guilt on the part of another, is an important step towards generational reconciliation and comradely action. 

This is possible, especially in an internet world where people like Dave, myself and Miljenko,  different generations with different life experiences who might have looked past each other in person but treat each other as equals in cyberspace.  To do otherwise – to seek solace in the company of one’s own generation and not to look at why things turned out the way they did – is to miss the real target for our anger: capitalism.

Thus, while I understand why Laurie should want to seek out her contemporaries in the form of ‘A Radical Future, a forthcoming ebook written and devised by British activists and academics under 30 years ‘, my respectful contention is that the development of such age-based groupings may be comforting for the participants in the short-term, in the same way that ‘Men’s Societies’ in universities might possibly be, but in the longer term they may divert energies from the real challenges the Left faces, and even prove counterproductive as stereotyped norms of how generations act and relate are reinforced through lack of engagement.

Our own generation can create a comfort zone for us in our anxieties, our anger and our guilt, but what really helps change the world is stepping out of the comfort zone.

Cameron gets it; Jowell doesn’t

December 27, 2009 1 comment

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.

Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell are utter berks…

December 27, 2009 3 comments

…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.

Defining coalition, defining class: the challenges and opportunities facing Labour (part 2 of 2)

December 26, 2009 15 comments

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.

Class war, libertarianism and hunting

December 26, 2009 6 comments

The concept of class war has been getting a lot of attention. Whether it’s the Tory posters accusing Labour of pursuing it, or Labour denials on the subject even whilst they put the boot into the Tories for favouring the rich, or Sunny saying it’s playing well in the polls or Paul’s investigation into the substance of what’s going on, there’s plenty of chat about it.

Now there are headlines in the Independent, “Now Brown declares class war on hunting!” The article records how some Blairites are ‘wary’ of scaring off the ‘aspirational middle classes’. The headlines are a result of the new campaign to ‘strengthen support for the ban’, led by, of all people, Hilary Benn. And it has got off to a preposterous start, as one might expect.

In an article for the Indy, Benn writes, “Quite why this is something that would be a priority for a Tory government, instead of the economy or tackling other concerns, is hard to explain to the public and [the Conservatives] have failed to do so.” One could wonder the same thing about this new campaign by the current Labour government.

Could it be that any given government can focus on more than one issue at a given time? Else how does Mr Benn bother with anti-hunting editorials in national newspapers? Why is he not cloistered with Alistair Darling, sorting out the economy even on Boxing Day? But we shall pass over this unfortunate pot-kettle-black moment.

If the essence of class struggle is the fight of the working class to organise itself, against the fervid opposition of the ruling class, then hunting bans have little to do with it. If the essence of class struggle is the seizure of power and the means of cultural legitimation away from the bourgeoisie, then a hunting ban hardly furthers that aim.

The benefit of a hunting ban comes in the feelings held by much of the working class, ranging from irritation to anger to visceral hatred, against those who participate in the great hunts. Such as the hunts every Boxing Day. They are, in essence, red-coated Tory toffs, of wealthy background even though not all may be landed gents any longer.

This is the picture which emerges if we frame the debate in terms of class war. I’m not arguing that there are not other ways to frame the debate, such as cruelty to animals, but the media get a kick out of framing it like this. And the various pro-hunting groups also frame it like this, from the Countryside Alliance right down to the individual magazines.

Ironically, hunting is not exclusively the pursuit of the red-coated Tories. Reading any hunting magazine, the one-man-and-his-dog aspect to hunting is very clearly visible. The great hunts, which do not have universal appeal, can thus be repackaged as a fight of liberty against an overbearing State – and this has much wider appeal.

Our working class have every right to resent the State and its client political parties. They are remote from the average worker. The State is at once the soulless bureaucrat, the cut welfare cheque, the seemingly stupid H&S rules, the corrupt politician, the reason we’re out of a job and the friend of the bosses who want to make us work extra hours for no pay.

Libertarianism, which on the surface contains much rhetoric about fighting for individual liberties against State control, can thus be vested with much class content that can appeal both to the urban working class and the rural working class. The State, in a capitalist context, is the tool of enforcing bourgeois class demands and restricting working class demands.

So it should be no stretch to see how a ‘class war’ against the hunts can be obfuscated by ‘libertarian’ demands to repeal the powers of the State.

On hunting, urban workers may be more likely to see through the rhetoric. The Countryside Alliance, for example, represent themselves to rural-dwelling people as defenders of a ‘rural’ way of life. This is tosh, obviously, but identity politics can have a great pull on people who can find within  the proffered identity something that resonates.

Urban workers stand apart from that, but as hunting is not likely to be a key issue at the next election, Tories may win even in constituencies with large anti-hunting majorities. Thus the balance in Parliament is likely to tip. The answer is not to try and hike hunting up the agenda, it’s to beat the Tories on the issues which are high on the agenda.

The real class war, for example. 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.

Labour’s problems in these areas are manifest. It fears the Unions. The PFI-PPP deals threaten the future of universal education and healthcare. The failure to structurally challenge neoliberal capitalism means selling off more ‘public’ industries rather than putting them to social use. And the failure to organise the working class means the inability to resist ruling class demands that the cost of the recovery be shouldered by workers.

This is why the easy visual of fighting horse-riding toffs in red jackets is a good out for New Labour. It’s not the prosecution of class war, it’s a way to escape having to prosecute class war.

Instead of such demands as the rather classless ban on hunting, the ideal Labour fifty-state strategy would target the terrible margins on which many rural workers have to live. It would reach into every small town and its environs to bring workers together in unions and communities, to take control of jobs, to demand and plan housing and so on.

We cannot escape the need to do this. In Kent, where I live, the vindictive destruction of the mining industry has removed a core plank of the organised working class. It’s easy to see the results; listless communities and high levels of youth crime, because a lot of people will never escape an area where joblessness is relatively high and education a low priority.

The Conservatives are never going to solve problems like this. Labour, left to its own devices, would never solve them either. But every revolutionary demand, that exceeds the capacity of capitalism to cope with unrest, must have a demand for reform – for building houses now, for changing the law now, for creating jobs now.

There’s no reason why a ‘reconquered’ Labour Party should not be the vehicle for that. Indeed it was one of Lenin’s truisms that the ‘reformists’ should be in power, that the working classes see what they are really like, in order to push the organised proletariat towards conscious, rather than incipient, socialist, revolutionary demands.

A ban on hunting doesn’t even address most of these issues. It is a front, and one which we need to move past sharpish.

Defining coalition, defining class: the challenges and opportunities facing Labour (part 1 of 2)

December 24, 2009 5 comments

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.

In contrast, it was no longer surprising to see Tom Harris come out against ‘class war’ and in favour of ‘aspiration’.  For a sharp rebuttal, I can’t better what one commenter on Tom’s piece said:

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.

Categories: Labour Party News, Marxism

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