Labour and a mandate for change

Journalist, activist and full-time Labour cheerleader Owen Jones (is there really only one of him?) thinks that socialism is on the way; Blairite Nick Cohen  fears a Corbyn government; Corbyn himself has hit a plateau of confidence and security as Labour leader; the Conservatives have presided over a disastrous year of British history during the shambolic Brexit negotiations; the essential creed of Conservatism that it is the defense of property rights and other vested interests is becoming increasingly exposed each day by the fact that the mythical carrot dangling out in front of voters that they too can become part of the prosperous, unmortgaged, property-owning club without having to sell their kidneys and/or their daughters has become less and less realistic to more and more people; the Conservatives are sitting on a demographic time bomb in terms of voting intention and party membership; Labour’s grass roots base has flourished with the rise of Momentum; younger voters have been emboldened  by the shit storm that is Brexit to come out and vote in greater numbers; the economy has stalled and household debt and homelessness has soared; and austerity is now hitting mainstream state provision (like primary schools, police, the NHS and firefighters) in a way that – from my own observations in a safe Conservative constituency in the south – is troubling even many traditional Conservative voters. The conclusion seems clear: Corbyn is going to be the next prime minister.

Only, for all of the things in Corbyn’s favour, the idea that there will be a Labour victory with a sizable majority still seems somehow hugely implausible.  And, without it, any radical program that could even come close to being described as socialism, would be impossible.  The latest polling, for instance, suggests that Labour and the Conservatives are virtually neck and neck.  So why is this? The ‘S’ word is clearly a factor. Socialism is a divisive ideology as a mainstream political platform in the UK and until Jeremy Corbyn assumed the leadership of the Labour Party, the spin-doctored Labour centrists had it down on the blacklist of ‘words you should never, ever use,’ along with Militant, Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, communism, the 1970s, the 3-day week, Arthur Scargill, miners and Clause IV. That was all part of the Blairite strategy of moving Labour firmly into the Murdoch-approved neoliberal centre ground, in which rather than being seen, in tabloid speak, as a ‘bunch of beardy lefty loons’, they might instead be positioned as competent, professional technocrats interested in ideologically nebulous concepts like social mobility and justice.

Owen Jones is aware of the toxic nature of the word ‘socialism’ in mainstream public opinion, which is why he is doing his best to reclaim it as something positive. ‘Socialism will liberate the individual. And here’s how,’ is his pinned tweet at the time of writing, linking to an article in the Guardian about how neoliberalism robs people of freedom because it also robs them of their security. He has history on this kind of project – his first book ‘Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class’, which propelled him into relative stardom – mounted a thought-provoking and passionate argument against the lazy dismissal of an entire section of society as a kind of undesirable and unwanted underclass. Many on the left, Jones included, argue that the tabloid press is one of the main problems – the tabloid world is one that is outwardly full of clichés, stereotypes and casual dismissal; and on closer examination turns out to be a concerted and relentless propaganda campaign waged by billionaire media moguls to strip people of meaningful consciousness of what is really going on in the world. Fake news, in other words.

The grip of tabloid culture on political views and voting intention and its role in enforcing a kind of cultural hegemony amongst the electorate is loosening in a much more complex and diverse media environment in which people under the age of 40 almost never buy a newspaper and social media (in itself a highly segmented and diverse channel – Facebook is as different to Snapchat as the Daily Mail is to the Guardian) takes up an ever-increasing proportion of people’s media consumption. In that sense, Labour’s prospects are looking up – in a more decentralised media environment, the plutocrats in theory should have less power and influence, though arguably both the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election have shown how the apparently heterogenous and fragmented nature of social media can also be subverted to achieve dogmatic ends that represent the interests of capital.

Regardless, I’m not sure that socialism is necessarily what people want anyway. Do a straw poll and ask people what ‘-ism’ they do want. My guess is that nine out of ten cats will tell you that they want roof-over-my-head-ism, food-on-the-table-ism, health-service-that-works-ism, good-education-for-my-kids-ism and the like. A socialist, of course, would say that his or her ideology would guarantee all this and more. But I am very sceptical of anyone trying to sell me a political creed above the real-world consequences of what that would mean for real people. The twentieth century taught us to be wary of ideologues – and, although it may reek a little of centrist dad, I think that it’s a lesson that’s well worth remembering in a time of increasing extremism on all sides of the political spectrum. Jean-Paul Lyotard famously defined the postmodern condition as a incredulity to metanarratives – in other words a rejection of sweeping discourses about the world in favour of small, localized stories. We live in this postmodern world, or what Mark Fisher called the world of capitalist realism, in which other forms of economic system are effectively unimaginable. So I’d suggest to Jones that he abandons the ‘grand narrative’ dogmatism of trying to sell socialism to the masses and instead focus on something like what Jeremy Corbyn has been doing at PMQs – finding individual instances of problems that people have and how the government may be able to make a difference by doing something that it’s not doing at the moment. Here’s an example of this:

‘I have a question from Steven, who works for a housing association. He says that the cut in rents will mean that the company that he works for will lose 150 jobs by next March because of the loss of funding for that housing association to carry on with its repairs. Down the line, that will mean worse conditions, worse maintenance, fewer people working there, and a greater problem for people living in those properties. Does the Prime Minister not think it is time to reconsider the question of the funding of the administration of housing, as well as, of course, the massive gap of 100,000 units a year between what is needed and what is being built?’

What is important is that the solutions are effective (as in providing a better quality of life for as many people as possible instead of enriching a tiny part of the population) rather than rigidly ideological in nature (the state always being the solution).  The likelihood is that they will offer a direct challenge to the dominant neoliberal consensus and therefore be what you might call a ‘leftist’ policy, but in terms of selling this to the electorate, it needs to feel that it is primarily problem-solving in nature – and rooted in a value system of care, compassion and justice.

The opportunity for meaningful change comes at that point when it seems inevitable and unarguable that there needs to be a new type of social contract. And this is what I am referring to in my title when I talk about a mandate for change. It feels that this is almost within Labour’s grasp. At the end of the Second World War many people wondered what they had been fighting for if was not to have a better deal from the state in a number of different ways. Winston Churchill, who, even at the height of his own personal popularity in May 1945, understood that there was a great appetite for the state to provide a much higher level of welfare to its citizens and put him out of a job, suggested that if the British public voted for Labour, they would encounter ‘some sort of Gestapo’.

 

This was Labour leader Clement Attlee’s quietly impassioned response:

‘The prime minister made much play last night with the rights of the individual and the dangers of people being ordered about by officials. I entirely agree that people should have the greatest freedom compatible with the freedom of others. There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day. I remember when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair. There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power  of the state, given to it by parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners. The Conservative party remains as always a class party. In twenty-three years in the House of Commons, I cannot recall more than half a dozen from the ranks of the wage earners. It represents today, as in the past, the forces of property and privilege. the Labour Party is, in fact, the one party which most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life.’

Attlee embraces many individual causes that his party had been successful in helping to change – things that seemed retrospectively so obviously to be the right thing to do that he created that same culture of inevitability about the Labour Party’s own right to form the next government. What he does not do is to bang the drum about socialism – indeed, he doesn’t mention it.

Twenty-year-old RAF pilot Tony Benn returned from Egypt in June 1945 on the troop ship Carthage, which was also carrying many servicemen who had fought with General Slim in Burma. They decided to organize hustings on board and Benn spoke on ‘Why I will vote Labour,’ even though as a twenty-year-old he was actually ineligible to cast a vote (the voting age was then twenty-one). On that ship, on 7 June 1945, Benn said this to the troops:

‘One of the most pressing problems of all is housing. Before the war, slums were a running sore – disease and squalor were rampant in many areas. the submerged tenth were a forgotten minority. The position now is even more serious than it was then. Inability to effect ordinary repairs and the damage caused by enemy action is incalculable. Are we going to let Jerry builder do his worst and breed a new series of slums for the next generation, or are we going to plan decent homes for the future.’

Labour promised food, work and homes, full employment and a national health service. Out of the bombed ruins of Britain’s cities, they planned to build a New Jerusalem. Their motto was: ‘Let us face the future.’

Likewise, Labour now should not be trying to sell the British people an ideology; they should be creating the conditions in which meaningful social change can take place and establishing that same sense of inevitability which existed at the end of the Second World War. That may not be socialism – many  on the harder left would argue that a much better and less austere welfare state is capitalism’s greatest weapon against genuine socialism (and a form of accelerationism would suggest that austerity is actually a positive weapon in bringing people to genuine consciousness about the reality in which they live – see for instance the popularity of I, Daniel Blake as a consciousness-raising meme only made possible by brutal welfare policies) – but a new political direction which not only has a sense of basic decency and compassion, but which is also able to deliver the benefits of this outlook to as many people as possible, feels like it would be a positive development in this country’s recently disastrous national life. I don’t think that has to revolve around a conscious self-identification with leftist politics (in fact it would be better not to) – instead, it has more to do with a determination that there can be a better way of life for the majority of people in this country. And the moment that breaks out of a sense of political tribalism and into the mainstream is the moment that Labour does get a mandate for change.

 

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