Sunday, 19 January 2020

Surveying the Wreckage

Jeremy Gilbert's post mortem on the 2019 general election at Open Democracy has been one of the more intelligent contributions to date, but it suffers from his habitual determination to squeeze the result into the frame of electoral reform. To this end, he insists that "the single most significant shift between 2017 and 2019 was the desertion of the ‘centrist Dads’" (it's unfortunately gendered, but not inaccurate as a thumbnail). This leads him to reject the idea that pushing Labour towards backing a second referendum was damaging: "there is good evidence that the largest distinctive cohort of votes that Labour actually lost between 2017 and 2019 wasn’t any one group of leave-voters, but middle-aged liberal centrists. The only good reason for any such voters to abandon Labour between those two elections was they had come to believe the relentless propaganda to the effect that Corbyn was an enemy of cosmopolitan liberalism. It wasn’t in pushing Labour to adopt a less ‘Leave’ position that the centrist-Remain camp did their damage. It was in convincing a large section of their own audience to vote against Labour."

I'm sure the relentless anti-Corbyn propaganda turned off many liberal centrists, by which we can assume Gilbert means largely middle-class voters across the whole of the UK, but to suggest that Labour's loss of working class leavers in Northern and Midlands constituencies wasn't decisive flies in the face of the evidence. The reality is that Labour faced a perfect storm and consequently lost votes in every direction: remainers to the Liberal Democrats and Greens, leavers to the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, and crucially both to abstention (it was the last of these that appears to have tipped the balance in key marginals). Where I think Gilbert is more on the money is in his assessment of politics since the 1970s: "The end of the post-war consensus gave way to a period in which neoliberalism was implemented by a professional political class in allegiance with powerful sections of capital; but their project never commanded widespread public support, and anger and frustration at its long-term implications now inform every shade of political opinion in the country." The irony, of course, is that this project did command the support of the (now) middle-aged liberal centrists.

Gilbert has focused on this particular constituency because he believes it is key to building an anti-Tory alliance. Despite the commitment to mass mobilisation and the Popular Front gestures with which he concludes his argument, he is essentially advocating a technical solution to the problem of parliamentary democracy: ditch first-past-the-post in favour of proportional representation. The rationale for this is that the electoral system, as much as the media, has an in-built Tory bias that can only be overcome by a unified anti-Tory bloc. The problem with this argument is that we cannot assume that the disposition of parliamentary forces in a PR system would always produce such an outcome. Indeed, there are good reasons, notably the 2010-15 coalition government, to believe that PR might simply entrench the Conservative Party in power, making it the equivalent of the Italian Christian Democrats in the postwar era. In our contemporary context, as John Gray puts it: "More likely, parties of the far right would set the political agenda, as they do throughout much of the continent. If you want a European-style voting system, you get a European style of politics."

Gilbert concedes that PR would cause the Labour Party to split: "if we had had proportional representation for any significant portion of the past century, then neither the Labour party nor the Conservative party would still exist in anything like their present forms. Both would have fragmented into a number of smaller, more ideologically coherent units." However, I am less convinced by his claim that the Tories would have split in the same way, if at all. The ideological division within Labour - between a socialist left and a managerialist liberalism - is far more profound than any division within Conservatism. Michael Heseltine and Nigel Farage may appear to be poles apart, but they share a unity of vision when it comes to the sanctity of property and the defence of capitalism. Their differences are ultimately tactical, notably in their view on whether close integration into European markets was in British capital's long-term interest. In contrast, what divides a socialist and a liberal is a strategic disagreement over the value of capitalism itself.

For this reason, I am also not convinced by Gilbert's claim that had PR been adopted in the past, "whatever such outcomes may have ensued, they could hardly have been worse than the ones that we’ve endured." Had Attlee adopted PR in the late-40s, it is likely that the shift to neoliberalism would have happened much earlier, probably at the start of the 1960s. The crisis of the late-70s was in large measure due to the resilience and resistance of the welfare state during that decade - for many people the era of actually-existing socialism and advancing living standards, rather than the hellscape of subsequent media caricature. Had the "revisionism" of Hugh Gaitskell and Anthony Crosland come to power in the 1950s, as it possibly would have under a PR system that biased towards a managerialist liberal centre, then the erosion of the welfare state would have started earlier and simply been more gradual. The introduction of prescription charges would have been the first, small step, not a crisis that prompted a violent reaction and revealed the fundamental division with the Labour Party.

Gilbert isn't advocating "one simple fix". He fully acknowledges the importance of hegemony and his analysis is worth quoting at length: "I’d suggest that there are three principal domains in which working-class power and democratic efficacy have been deliberately and systematically undermined by 40 years of neoliberal hegemony. These are: labour organisation, local democracy and the media. In each of these fields, institutions that were sympathetic or conducive to the democratic, self-organised power of working people have been suppressed, diminished and defeated during the whole period since the 1960s. As I remarked already, I believe that it is the failure to intervene in these domains for which the New Labour administration will eventually be remembered most critically. Had they done more to regulate the press and support independent media, to actively encourage trade-union membership, and to restore power and autonomy to local government, then the Tory austerity assault could never have been as successful as it was."

In my view this confuses hegemony, in the sense of its ideological grip (which certainly explains New Labour's inertia), with actual material conditions. The trade unions have been undermined by globalisation, specifically offshoring and the disaggregation of production, more than by anti-union legislation. Rebalancing the power dynamic between capital and labour is going to take more than a membership drive. Similarly, local government has been weakened by privatisation, not just in the narrow sense of outsourcing services but in the wider sense of provision being transferred from the public sector to the private, as in the case of housebuilding, and the reduction of council responsibility to a "safety net" for a residuum of the poor and vulnerable. Redressing this would require not only the re-establishment and expansion of democratically-controlled public services ("broadband communism" wouldn't even be the half of it), but a sea-change in the managerialist attitude of local government itself (bear in mind that councils remain the powerbase of the Labour right).

The media has become more rightwing because the expansion of channels due to technological change (digital TV, the Internet, smartphones) has made private interests more dominant. Basically, money talks and so dominates the conversation. This has also fed-back into the increasingly constrained public sector, particularly the BBC, where a rightwing agenda is now routinely accepted. Meanwhile, though new media has lowered the cost of entry for the left, it has also allowed it to become ghettoised and thus marginalised. Left voices are given airtime and column inches, but this is intended to provide an antagonist for more "sensible" analysis, hence the preference for gobby lefties who can reliably wind up conservative viewers and liberal readers. One result of this has been that while the liberal media still provides room for left voices in order to perform its own tolerance and inclusivity, its actual editorial line is increasingly anti-left and unforgiving of dissent towards the house rules.

Gilbert's conclusion is that the forces arrayed against the left are so powerful that only an anti-Tory coalition stands a chance: "We inhabit a political system that is not only designed to prevent the socialist left of the Labour party from taking power. It is now clearly biased against every force other than nativist ‘platform nationalism’: ‘disaster nationalism’ in the age of ‘platform politics’. Under such circumstances, it makes no sense not to try to build as broad a coalition of anti-Tory forces as possible – from anarcho-communists to liberals – to try to challenge it and change it." But if you change the political system to try and facilitate such a coalition, say by introducing proportional representation to Parliament, you should expect the Tories to adapt accordingly. As last year's point-blank refusal of the Liberal Democrats to consider a Corbyn-led administration indicates, coalition tends to be a tool of political discipline more than a joint endeavour. In the 2010-15 coalition, the Tories disciplined the Liberal Democrats, not the other way round.

I think Jeremy Gilbert is too pessimistic. He is right in his analysis of the structural constraints that make a Labour government difficult, and a left-leaning one even more so, but I think he is also too intimidated by the success of the forces of reaction and too inclined to believe that this is structural ("platform nationalism") rather than contingent on the failure of the centre since 2008. His insistence that "Labour has never come from opposition to win a convincing parliamentary majority and then gone on to implement a radical programme" is correct on a technicality but ignores that Labour in 1945 was very much the opposition to Churchill, even if Attlee and others had been in the wartime government, that the two elections of 1964 and 1966 should really be seen in tandem, and that while New Labour's 1997 manifesto had the approval of Rupert Murdoch, the public version on which the electorate voted included rolling back anti-union laws and reversing NHS marketisation, both of which the party reneged on in office as Murdoch no doubt confidently expected.

I don't have a principled objection to proportional representation, I merely believe that it presents a different set of structural constraints and that ultimately the shift between left and right is driven by material interests, not the electoral system itself. The choice appears to be between occasional periods of socialist government - the British model - and a more persistent progressive alliance - the Scandinavian model: hare versus tortoise. But this ignores the secular shifts of the postwar age. The dominance of social democracy was a product not only of ideological hegemony but of a realisation by the political centre that the state needed to be more active both to address urgent social problems and to provide security for private capital. Once globalisation made the national economy model redundant, and once improved living standards reduced much of the electorate's dependence on the welfare state, the political centre moved firmly back towards support for a larger private realm and a more punitive approach to welfare. And it has stayed there ever since, despite 2008 showing up the limitations of the post-national economic model and austerity proving to be self-defeating.

We are now in a new phase in which much of the electorate has shifted left on material issues (popular support for Labour's policies has become almost a cliché). The right has managed to deflect this through a focus on manufactured issues of patriotic identity, notably Brexit, and by a generalised culture war in which the condescension and authoritarianism of actually-existing neoliberalism, notably the New Labour years, is held up as evidence of an anti-democratic elitism. But the reason the right has managed to prosper is not because of the vagaries of the electoral system but because the political centre remains unwilling to support a return even to the mild social democracy offered by the likes of Corbyn and McDonnell. Gilbert's analysis is correct in its initial observation, that the problem is the "centrist dads", but the idea that proportional representation would lead to the formation of a progressive anti-Tory coalition is simply not proven. The problem is that the political centre has been decidedly centre-right since the early 90s and shows little desire as yet to change.


  1. How do we convince the Centrist Dads? By the time climate change strands their fossil fuel portfolios, it'll be too late.

    1. I doubt that the typical centrist voter owns any fossil fuel stocks, but perhaps a key source of defection was the 40-something cohort who are more attached to suburbia and car culture than the millennials, and were spooked by the increased green emphasis of Labour's 2019 manifesto vis-a-vis 2017.

  2. Herbie Kills Children25 January 2020 at 11:32

    People were surprised by the Brexit vote because of the disconnect between votes and what people actually believe. The Brexit vote was a reflection of deep seated racism, which many couldn’t link to voting patterns and years of top down political correctness.

    Corbyn was in effect gravity inserted into politics. For decades gravity had been removed from politics because basically all parties were the same, they just had different brands. So changing votes was about as significant as changing washing detergent.

    Corbyn changed all that and forced people to confront their own actual politics. So in the Northern heartlands the real politics were reflected, which was best articulated by the BNP. I always puzzled how the right wing didn’t do better in the North, given the views I was being inflicted with on a daily basis, and I suddenly realised it was because gravity was missing. I have to thank Corbyn for making me realise this.

    So to sum it all up, the actual votes now reflect people actual political positions, which they didn’t so much before. Corbyn forced people with BNP views to flee the party and vote for someone else. For the first time in amny years we actually got a good barometer of what people actually believed.

    Now Corbyn and therefore political gravity are being taken away, I expect a return to normalcy and everyone will pretend people believe something different!

    Personally I prefer gravity!