Saturday, 9 May 2015

Why the British Labour Party is in a Tail Spin ...

A simple view of the problem of the Labour Party, expressed from both within its own Left and from middle class observers looking at it from outside, is that Labour has (in the words of one correspondent) "transformed from a party of the trade unions into a party of the metropolitan, largely London-based opinion-shaping set and new clerisy." In this model, the party that was born to represent working people’s interests "is now little more than a kind of political safe haven for a new elite that [is] cut off both from traditional politics and the masses." Labour politicians, largely raised in tight networks of middle class public service, activism, professional public affairs, NGO and charity work, see themselves "as providers of public benevolence, operating from a metropolitan milieu, well away from any of the problem areas to which they minister."

I believe that, while there is some truth in this, it is not the whole truth by any means - the symptom is being mistaken for the disease. It is all little more complicated ... after all, some areas increased or solidified their Labour vote: Wales, The North East and so on. The Labour vote actually went up more than the Conservatives (by 1.5%) yet they were down 26 seats. Core Labour areas seemed to become more Labour (excepting Scotland), especially if one takes into account the fact that UKIP was stripping out some working class Labour votes (which means they were being replaced by regional middle class votes). Losing one major sectional interest (Scotland) 'did for' Labour in Parliament but the hidden story is that the reason that this is a disaster is that Labour is little more now than a coalition of interest groups and, if the Labour representatives of the interest groups that make up that coalition can no longer command the constituencies they claim to speak for, Labour faces the problem that each time political reality breaks the back of one bit of the chain that holds it together, the Party drifts further and further away from office.

What you are seeing here is not merely a metropolitan matter but a strategic issue that embraces the whole nation ... because the core model for New Labour was never so centralised as it appeared. It always was a federation but New Labour turned it from a federation operating as a 'national socialist' force into one that was far more coalitional. Yes, national politics in terms of the State were increasingly centralised and the Party itself as organisation (hitherto the expression of Labour's 'national socialist' culture) effectively gutted as an independent force but power was now delegated to sub-elites within a range of linked 'satrapies'. In other words, New Labour did not adopt a command' model so much as an 'imperial model' in which local Rajas kept the faith and administered things on behalf of the centre in return for favours and being left alone within their area of concern. 

The model depended on de-socialising its interest groups, unravelling the belief in a single unified nation (multiculturalism being only the most obvious part of a much more widespread phenomenon) and then turning these groups into a coalition of interests which developed mutual dependency. We had a) small nations and regions, b) trades unions and c) identity groups. The idea was that these three combined under the leadership of a liberal intellectual class (which had always historically been treated not as superior but as agents of the Party) would always give a permanent majority against conservatism, defined as the dominant inchoate sentimental mass that the old elites ruled through rhetoric and lassitude. But this model is now falling apart. How? Why?
We have already mentioned that the core regional group - Scotland - has broken out of the programme for entirely local and historical reasons but one has to understand why this is so devastating to Labour. The Scots were central to the original Labour Project and they drove much of its radicalism right up until the formation of New Labour - represented by Brown and Cook. There is a line, believe it or not, from Jimmie Maxton and the 'Red Clydesiders' all the way through to Gordon himself. Brown and Cook represented different unionist and devolutionary models in the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s but, when it came, devolution (Brown's preferred strategy against independence) redirected the attention of Scots back on to Scotland itself, Scottish problems no longer demanded a unionist and London-centred perspective. The Imperial model no longer applied. The Scottish Labour elite found itself detached from Scotland even while it held high office in London, looking increasingly like a bunch who would go off to the Imperial Capital to rule the world and simply throw Scotland into the pot without considering its needs.

To counter this, Wales, the North East, South Yorkshire and the North West retained an interest in the Union as a means of getting advantages for their various Labour-dominated largely urban and densely populated local authorities so it was logical to continue to vote Labour. Remnants of British industrialisation, these areas are only viable economically so long as they are sucking the South as dry as they can of the additional revenues that come out of London as global trading city. These areas are now stuffed in terms of direct access to the centres of power for half a decade, although Tory One Nation thinking will try to sustain some balance here, seeking to reward those areas that realise that localities cannot just gamble every five years on a Labour victory for their sustenance and so pull at least their business classes into some sort of accomodation with Conservatism. 

Crossrail, even with its risks to votes in the Conservative corridors through which it passes, is very much part of that strategy of engagement. Patronage is now fully in the hands of the centre-right ... and it will be used to chip away at Labour hegemonies. The effect on segments of the white working class will not mean that they will hold tighter to their Labour mother for fear of something worse but that they may, as in Scotland, look for new patrons - and this is where UKIP, if it can mature, comes in. UKIP ousted the Tories as second party in much of the urban North East and was clearly picking up Labour votes just as Labour was picking up Liberal votes.You can expect the Labour side to try to revive 'regionalism' as a solution ... Prescott's original vision ... but the people just do not care enough, it all looks too self interested now (like any sudden interest in electoral reform) and the Tories could trump it easily enough with a bit County, City and Parish decentralisation.

There is a certain historical dead weight that will ensure certain areas will remain Labour strongholds all things being equal for a very long time, bases from which perhaps an opportunistic neo-Blairite strategy might expand again, but, with the loss of Scotland, the Party cannot afford to lose another fortress. As much energy will be spent on holding these territories in the two years leading up to a European Referendum, when the metropolitan love of Euro-socialism may not chime with the Party's roots as the arguments develop, as in building the policies for a recovery of credibility in Middle England.

The second element of the Coalition, the trades unions, also expected highly focused goodies (full employment and worker's rights, often vectored through the EU) from its support for Labour as a political movement. In return, in 1996 and then again in the middle of the Blair regime as the Warwick Agreement of 2004/5, the trades unions gave up on their historic association with 'socialism' (already attenuated compared to the Marxist versions elsewhere) to concentrate on a restricted range of policy imperatives, only a few of which were about interests outside their own. The deal with the devil was that the Labour Movement would get all it wanted as a special interest but not worry its pretty little head about the context - the broader cultural, economic, freedom, national security and even social justice (insofar as this meant transforming society rather than amelioration of targeted abuses) aspects of the case. 

The special interest that once meant all workers now increasingly meant only workers employed by the State. This drew it inevitably towards the Brownian model of a moderated capitalist economy from which a surplus was to be extracted - to serve not the people but the State and the special interests that served the State under cover of 'improved public services'. In the recent period, this has meant that the two heirs (Milliband and Balls) to a decent social justice-driven Scottish ideologue found themselves offering little more than to sweat the private sector a little to benefit only (in the eyes of the very many working people who are in the private sector) the public sector and regional and state sub-elites. Irritation at Scots and other regional claims to more money for their support of a Labour Government during the campaigning of the weeks before the vote on May 7th may be read as code for irritation about all such diversion of funds from 'hard working families' in the South, still struggling to return to prosperity levels of pre-2008, to a range of special interests who were only more needy in their own eyes.

On top of this two-layered sponge of interest-group regionalism and trades unionism, both neutered by their lack of interest in anything other than their own sectional interests, was overlaid a mish-mash of London-based rainbow identity politics managed by a professional political class seeking, in a consciously Gramscian model, to control the culture in order to control the politics of society. There  was a history to this - a transformation of the student revisionist Marxism of the 1970s into a sort of radical centrism that merged with the rise of middle class activists representing neglected identities, part neurosis, part performance art and part genuine grievance packaged as a shrill set of demands for victims who clearly did not include their own representatives. It was an ideology that presumed to speak for others and denied agency - it also intruded into private life and private custom.

The horror of the Rotherham child abuse case exposed the falsity of the pose although this would scarcely have had an effect on the national election. It did not occur to many enthusiastic Left-liberals that a twentieth century Italian Marxist model might be intellectually creative but could not represent political reality in a highly developed country of largely prosperous and free but anxious households. Nor that the triangulations of American liberals trained within the tradition of Saul Alinsky spoke to very different social conditions and histories. The sponge cake has every sort of pretty bon bon on it now but each was merely that - a bon bon with no serious base in the country even if it made a very good fist at asserting cultural hegemony while it held the reins of State.

So, for example, the metropolitan feminist element could lay claim to the pages of the Guardian but alienated many women in the country as much as it mobilised others. It also irritated many men otherwise tending to tolerance and liberalism. Cameron, instead of trying to placate this activist class with positive discrimination in favour of second rate ideologues as Labour did, began to promote fewer but infinitely more able women into office - Theresa May and Justine Greening are simply more impressive than Yvette Cooper and who? (we can't even remember their names!). Who Labour should have remembered were Barbara Castle and even latterly Margaret Beckett and nurtured similar strong fighters for economic equality within the trades union movement and broght them into public life. Instead, it emphasised cultural and social activism. 

Similarly, the LGBT element in society often felt patronised by their own activists. Many, actually quite socially conservative (it was always presumptuous to think that someone who liked other men or was black or was a woman or was a Muslim could be corraled into a coherent liberal-left 'line'), were pleased at Cameron's struggle against his own Right to push forward civil marriage. On the Left, strong and courageous individuals like Peter Tatchell noticeably preferred the Greens to Labour which may have been flaky but did tend to attract some of the more creative individuals in radical politics.

Perhaps the only vote captured for New Labour that 'worked' in the mass for it was the ethnic minority vote and then only selectively. Only now has Labour ousted Respect in Bradford but the suspicion (apparently admitted to friends of mine by Labour officials in a state of inebriation) amongst the white working class who worried about these things grew that migration was partly engineered to create this bloc. Whether conspiracy theory or not, the very rise of such minority groups and the compromises required in terms of a faith-based agenda to ensure their votes (often at the expense of their own more vulnerable members) eventually alienated many liberal-minded middle class people as much as they did the demonised white working class. 

What was striking about the Middle England vox pops after the election on Newsmight was that there were evidently traditional Labour voters uncomfortably moving to the Tories. The message was 'my Gran would be spinning in her grave' but it needed to be done. The Tories spoke to economic anxieties outside Labour's core areas and public sector but that would be matched by anxieties inside their core vote - it would be a numbers game. What may have tipped the balance was a mounting sense of cultural resentment which was far from illiberal - indeed, a deep resentment that the resentment was merely dismissed as illiberal is an explanation for some part of that swing. If certain votes moved to UKIP, that cultural discomfort moved other votes to the Conservatives as LIBERAL protectors of the homeland culture.

With the fortress areas under siege from within by cultural discomfort and from without by selective patronage, with the organised trades union movement lacking any strategy that does not require a liberal Labour Government to enact it and with the cultural model promoted by the 1970s Generation looking threadbare, Labour has some serious issues to address, issues that may not be sufficiently addressed by simply offering Blair-lite when Cameron is doing that so much better. 

More to the point, Labour may now be structurally 'stuffed' because it allowed itself - in its hunger for power in the late 1980s and early 1990s - to adopt a coalitional American style politics that works in a Presidential system and one where Congressman wear their party discipline lightly but which hollows out the organisation that forgets that the United Kingdom is still small in area, with a distinct and shared national culture that places 'shared values' and household interest ahead of, or alongside at worst, special group interest. The point about socialism (in its national form which is the old British form) is that it could genuinely trump individualism and create a dialectic between the nation and the personal expressed in two great parties of state offering different visions of the national interest. 

By removing socialism and replacing it with an eighteenth century concept of 'interest', Labour has undercut its only means of undermining conservatism and the ruling elite in the long term, even if it could carry it off well in the short term. New Labour was an unsustainable political model. We may be about to see the Strange Death of Labour as a coalition that may never get traction again for majority government, one that now stands in the way of radical national alternatives as dead weight, whose base is now either aging and tired or young and inexperienced and which has sentenced its own support base to second class status for a generation.There may be no solution other than the failure of its opponent.

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