councils of despair

Sheila Cohen writes on the situation after last month’s elections

The May elections have left a smirk on Cameron’s face – or perhaps we should say deepened the one that was already there. But for the left the result was, once again, a mixture of predictability and despair. While the Tories got trounced in the Northern cities – and the LibDems , of course, everywhere –  any illusion of a return to sanity was flattened by the Tories’ overall performance.

ed miliband is fishing for conservative working-class support

The staunch battalions of the North, it seems, have never forgotten Thatcher and the wounds she inflicted – but in the supposedly affluent South-East, the dynasties that once fell to New Labour have once again reverted to at least the appearance of support for what our rulers love to refer to as “aspirational” policies.    

It seems we may be back to the political significance of that section of society which Ed Miliband now refers to as the “squeezed middle”, but which in Blair’s glory days was known by the voting classification “C2s”. Back in the heyday of “Old Labour” those (comparatively) skilled, predominantly white workers had been badly burned increasingly severe pay restraint which in the mid to late 1970 led to a significant undermining of working class incomes.

The dam burst with the 17% Ford pay settlement, secured by a nine-week strike backed by solidarity from dockers and car-exporting seafarers; this action was followed by the famous 1978-9 public sector Winter of Discontent, in which strike figures exceeded those of the revolutionary First World War period. While Thatcher’s 1979 victory was widely put down to resentment of “trade union power”, detailed analysis of the period shows that working-class disillusionment with Labour stemmed from the opposite – fury at the suppression of working-class incomes in the name of what Benn, Castle and other “left-wing” Labour politicians had naively described as “equality of sacrifice”.

The loss of the once Labour-loyal “C2” battalions was further compounded by the radical left turn during the late 1970s and ’80s to postmodernist forms of “libertarian”, “communal” and “popular democracy” politics in which the working class got short shrift. Influenced by the increasingly  Eurocommunist CP and a mileu of radical academics around the magazine Marxism Today, left response to Thatcherism was increasingly turned into an obsession with “hegemony” in which a one-sided reading of Gramsci was used to justify the ouflanking of neoliberal ideology by the left. Charles Leadbeater, a regular MT contributor, argued for the promotion of forms of “socialist individualism” to match the capitalist variety, while the continued existence of anything resembling a working class was challenged by influential academics like Stuart Hall, who argued that “working-class experiences…had been transformed by a new matrix of values concerning individual prosperity, status and…consumer acquisition.”

Such “Marxist” analysis of popular consciousness was meat and drink to New Labour, or its early forms in the 1980s. As Blair’s biographer Rentoul put it in 1995, “For a long time Blair has borrowed the language of Marxism Today to describe the new politics…” That language, of course, was not itself aimed at the likes of “C2s”. But this is where Blair turned his most effective political trick – he “made Labour electable”, as the mantra goes, by directly appealing to those very sections of the working class so long neglected by the left. In both 1997 and 2001, Labour gained majority support amongst both C1s (lower-middle-class white collar workers) and C2s.

How did Blair do it? The details are unclear in retrospect (other than through Blair guru Philip Gould’s recognition that the “unexceptional suburbia” inhabited by C2s was “The land that Labour forgot”), but even without a full picture one point is clear: Blair took the C2s seriously.

This stands in sharp contrast to the Labour Party left, who by the 1980s can be accurately described as positively detesting the “white working class”. Kinnock’s 1987 conference-speech travesty of the “£400 a week docker”, aka “Marbella Man”, was in tune with what was by now almost a pathological hatred of this layer of once strongly-unionised printers, steel workers, telephone workers, and, yes, dockers. Such workers and their workplace preoccupations had been rejected by the “communitarian” or “red-green” left by the 1970s and ‘80s. Yet the left preoccupation with the Labour Party, both nationally and locally, appears to have as its only lasting testament the creation of “New Labour”. Most of the apparachniks grouped around Blair, including the great leader himself, had at one time or another been associated with the Labour Party left. The connection with the neoliberal politics most definitively associated with the Blair “brand” was enabled by the fundamental disassociation of these “lefts”, whether “hard” or “soft”, from the real world of workers. As the Labour Co-ordinating Committee put it in 1984, “The left’s advance became more and more divorced from what was happening outside the Party and its tactics less and less concerned with what was happening in the real world.”

It is all the more ironical, then, that Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 was enabled not only by the electorate’s by now uncontainable disgust with the Tories but also by New Labour’s apparent embrace of that radical left pariah, the “white working class”. Yet the subsequent disillusionment of this grouping, yet again, with Labour was rooted not in its own “reactionary” politics but in something much more basic – the sustained attack by New Labour on workers’ incomes, economic security and social services.

A clue to this dynamic is provided by an influential 1992 Fabian pamphlet, Southern Comfort, by MP Giles Radice. While this argues that its research subjects, “Tory voters in the key South-East marginals”, were in pursuit of a Tory-style perspective of “freedom of the individual” and were thus, in New Labour-speak, aspirational, the “real world” of the Essex men and women interviewed here is one of deprivation and economic insecurity. Quotes from the pamphlet’s first page include: “We’re living off savings and I just don’t know what we’ll do the month after next.”  “If you lose your job, the chances are that if you get another, it’ll be longer hours and smaller wages.” “People can’t afford eye tests and dental checks…”

While Radice wrestles to base his arguments on South-Eastern “privilege”, the message that emerges throughout this pamphlet is one of fundamental economic insecurity. Yes, these C2s (or their banks) may be “homeowners”, but this was enabled only through Thatcher’s manipulation of the working class with the “Right to Buy” policy, masking the fall in incomes resulting from her government’s increasingly neo-liberal policies. As Radice comments, “The interviewees felt themselves to be both rich and poor – rich enough to own their own homes, poor enough to be ‘struggling to survive.”

As a result of such betrayals and deceits, the Guardian could note as early as 1990 that “The shock troops of Thatcherism are in open revolt. The voters of class C2, the skilled manual workers who did so much to propel Mrs Thatcher to power…are swinging back to Labour on an even more drastic scale than the electorate as a whole.”

But what about now? Surely the 2011 election results demonstrated exactly this “North-South divide”, this irredeemable conservatism of the “white working class”? Once again, research comes to our rescue. Only a year before the Con-Dem victory in 2010 – again fuelled by the desertion of Labour in the South-East – the TUC published a pamphlet, “Life in the Middle” which sets out in bleak detail the realities of economic hardship for this group. Correctly adjusting the definition of “middle Britain” in terms of mean (midpoint) income, rather than the average, the research shows that those at or below the median have suffered significant losses in their standard of living since 1979: “…there has been a steady fall in the share of national output taken by wages, especially by wage-earners in the bottom half…”

Even more importantly than its revelations of massive economic injustice and inequality – an inequality initiated by the Tories, but which “Labour has been unable to reverse” – the study shows clearly that C2s are far from holding the reactionary attitudes with which the left has endowed them. Its survey of attitudes to class reveals that 40% of “middle income-ers” define themselves as working class. Asked whether responsibility for solving economic and social problems should lie with government or ordinary people, 62% answered “government” (sabotaging Cameron’s “big society” – we’re not quite at the workers’ state stage yet). As with many other responses, this was a higher proportion than any other group; likewise with “yes” to the question “Is it the responsibility of government to reduce inequalities in society?” (58%), while 73% agreed with the statement “Ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth.” Finally, 37% of C2s – more than any other group – agreed with the statement “Britain’s super-rich don’t deserve their wealth because they have become rich by unfairly exploiting others.”

These survey results, which seem to dramatically undermine the image of “C2s” as selfish, beer-swilling champions of individualism, should give the middle-class left pause for thought. In many ways the results indicate the potential for a much clearer class consciousness amongst this always maligned and now clearly deprived group. But, of course, the grim reality cannot be denied that such potential lies buried beneath a litter of tabloids, gadgets and reality TV. As ever, “C2s”’ class potential is most likely to be realised in workplace struggle; the Visteon occupiers and engineering construction workers of 2009’s mini-upsurge stand firmly in this category, as do the RMT members and airline staff who keep Britain’s strike statistics flying.

But what of “democracy”? Chartists fought, and waged a quasi-revolutionary General Strike, for the vote. Citizens of deprived countries queue for long patient hours for the opportunity to mark their ballot papers. Here and in the US, elections have become the occasion for a collective yawn; not because we don’t appreciate our privileges, but because the electorate has long learned the bitter lesson that its vote doesn’t make any difference. The phenomenon that has occurred in Britain since Thatcherism, and in the US for much longer, is one labelled “convergence”. In other words, whichever party wins, the same old policies, ultimately subservient to private profit, are ultimately trundled out.

In 1997, for a brief and glorious moment, the population forgot its indifference; Blair’s landslide exceeded even that of the 1945 Labour victory. Yet by 2005 the C2s and most of the working class had deserted him. In Blair’s, um, autobiography, he wheels out the usual rationale for abandoning his supporters: “I had started by buying the notion, and then selling the notion, that to be in touch with opinion was the definition of good leadership. I was ending by counting such a notion of little value and defining leadership not as knowing what people wanted and trying to satisfy them, but knowing what I thought was in their best interests and trying to do it.”

People’s “best interests” for Blair, as for every political leader over the years, turn out to be the interests of capital. And this, of course, is at the core of the problem. From 1924 to 1945, from 1997 to 2011, the policies of governments social-democratic or neo-liberal have  ultimately “converged” in those interests. 1976, under a Keynesian Labour government, was the year of greatest equality in Britain – which says something for the much-maligned 1970s. But it was also the year when a Labour chancellor allowed the IMF to carry out an early form of “structural adjustment” in Britain; and, of course, it was the era of a “Social Contract” which blamed workers for an inflation-generated capitalist crisis, and in making them the scapegoat enabled the first of a series of neo-liberal governments.

Where to go from here? Capitalist electoral systems are a universe away from the forms of direct democracy generated by workers in their struggles. Socialists like Paul Foot, in his fine book The Vote, have argued valiantly for forms of “economic democracy” to supplant the political democracy which inevitably disappoints working-class expectations; yet 1970s policies like worker participation were helpless to contest the savagery of capitalism. Partly the problem with such panaceas is their understanding of democracy as a structure rather than as the dynamic process illustrated in rank and file struggle. Even if socialists continue to see it as worthwhile to contest elections, this must be on the same basis as revolutionary participation in working class struggle – one of commitment to their class interests. It seems the only way is Essex – if “Essex” is taken as a metaphor for exploited, overworked, oppressed workers “struggling to survive” across Britain.

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