Saturday, 21 December 2019

The Beverage Report

The claims come thick and fast: Labour is losing the support of the working class; the condescending liberal elite do not understand the people; the left despises the patriotism that ordinary folk imbibe with their mother's milk. These same claims have been made for over a century now. The essential argument is that socialism is foreign to native good sense, which stands in a longer tradition of scepticism about all things continental that runs from the English Reformation through the Napoleonic Wars to Brexit. The relative prominence of these claims over the last hundred years has owed more to fluctuating electoral fortune than to sociological reality, hence the current clamour is of a volume similar to the early 1930s and early 1980s. This doesn't mean that the claims should be ignored, that Labourites should simply wait for the inevitable uptick in the manner of 1945 and 1997, but it is worth understanding the political utility of these assertions before addressing the social reality.

British political parties are coalitions of interest. While those interests may roughly correlate with actual social groups, such as trade unionists or pensioners, they are also articulated through emblematic identities that serve as shorthand for wider social and economic preferences, such as "Workington man" or "the liberal elite". There is obviously a grain a truth in these emblems, but instead of focusing on the material interests that drive their preferences - for example, the different expectations of Cumbrian retirees versus metropolitan lawyers - the identities are often flattened into caricature, hence the absurdity of hot beverages as a signifier of a particular worldview. These caricatures serve multiple ideological purposes: defining the "real people" and marginalising dissenters as inauthentic; framing society as a set of marketing segments for whom politics is a series of retail offers; and promoting a hierarchical field of study in which the mass are only dimly self-aware and political scientists are prescriptive.

The most coarse-grained of these caricatures is the idea of a working class that is wholly defined by an indigenous culture rather than its relations to the means of production. That culture as presented through the media is predominantly white, male and socially conservative, which makes it both suspicious of difference - i.e. the racial and sexual diversity of the actual working class as much as foreign notions - and vulnerable to the attraction of reactionary values, from maudlin patriotism to the condign punishment of the antisocial. The role of the state, the working environment and the media in shaping that culture is well known, and the mechanics of value formation extensively studied, however this knowledge is replaced by strategic ignorance whenever the caricature is deployed in political discourse. This leads to both misrepresentation of the actual working class and a refusal to question how such representations arise and are maintained.

The current Labour leadership contest has barely begun but we already see this tendency towards caricature in a heightened form. One reason this has happened so quickly is that accentuating the heterogeneity of the coalition at a time of dispute over whose interests should predominate leads to emphasising the homogeneity of the separate groups. You are either exclusively chalk or exclusively cheese; of the North or of North London. It is no coincidence that so much emphasis is being placed on the candidates' "backstories" by the media, ably assisted by politicians who often have little more than a backstory to offer. This is not just journalistic laziness, or even a telling judgement on the lack of substantive policy difference, but a way to emphasise the importance of authenticity. The other dominant journalistic trope is the candidates' associations with "foreign" thought, whether that be traditional smears about pro-Russian sympathies or the more voguish "anti-Westernism", which conveniently elides into the charge of antisemitism.

The enemies of Labour, which includes not only direct political opponents but those who believe the party should be broken up and recombined with outside elements, such as those advocating a new centrist formation or insisting that Labour must forge an alliance with the Liberal Democrats and Greens, will not only criticise the party through the vector of its supposedly irreconcilable cultures but will also seek to divide it structurally. The Labour party's history is one of both internal division, such as in 1931 and 1981, and repeated attempts by its enemies to divide it from without, such as the detachment of the unions (attempted both by Conservative governments and its own New Labour "reformers") and the recent alienation of affiliated groups such as the Jewish Labour Movement. This focus on the institutional gives rise to bureaucratic identities.

The Labour's left proceduralism (it's focus on elections to the NEC and control of the manifesto) is a reflection of its liberal heritage of electoral activism and wordy aspiration more than its lust for power, while the Labour right's love of purges and stitch-ups ironically shows where the real Stalinist legacy is to be found. Nothing was more typical of Jeremy Corbyn's personal ethos than his willingness to indulge members of the PLP who persistently undermined him throughout his tenure, many of them ridiculing him for his "weakness". The angry denunciation of Corbyn by some of his own MPs this week was performative, intended to assert the PLP's authenticity and authority in what looks like another turn in the permanent coup that has been running since 2016, ahead of a leadership contest in which the party right, which seems to be investing its hopes in the "charisma" of Jess Phillips, will probably struggle.

This bilious festival produced the irony of party princelings, like Stephen Kinnock, and members of the actual North London elite, such as the former Islington councillor Mary Creagh, who was parachuted into the once-safe seat of Wakefield in 2005, complaining about Labour's inability to connect with voters in the North and Midlands. The attitude is petulant, but it goes beyond mere entitlement to dovetail into a wider establishment judgement on the impossibility of left politics. Of course, arguing that nationalisation is always wrong or that inequality is a price we should be happy to pay for the tax receipts of bankers isn't going to work on any doorstep these days, so the caricature of "fruit tea" must serve. Likewise, journalists demanding the sacking of apparatchiks like Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy, or the marginalisation of media outriders like Owen Jones or Ash Sarkar, are not just conducting a campaign of bullying but an auto da fé.

The social reality of Labour's support is that it tends towards the young and the cities, which is another way of saying that it reflects the modern working class. The caricatures of the metropolitan latte-drinking elite and the antique monoculture eulogised by the likes of Blue Labour are deployed to obscure the evolution of the class, the one serving to trivialise the changes in work brought about by new technology, the other seeking to revive a social formation that has dwindling relevance. The debate over Northern towns, which should really be a discussion about economic geography, has predictably been reduced to a contest of "values" in which both of these caricatures feature prominently. The paradox of this debate is that the working class is portrayed as simultaneously monolithic and fundamentally fragmented. The reality is flux: labour is being ceaselessly reconstituted by capital.

The great structural advantage that the Tories have is not the enthusiastic support of the press or the connivance of the BBC but the cultural hegemony of a particular expression of the middle class: anti-intellectual, xenosceptic and prone to a Burkean pessimism. It is this that allows the Conservative Party to obscure its own coalition in which capital dominates, presenting instead a politics of "common sense", reactionary grievance and the fetishisation of the "apolitical" state in the form of the monarchy and armed forces. In reality, this hegemony is under assault from capital and its contradictions: the expansion of tertiary education, the globalisation of culture and the inadequacy of pessimism in the face of a potential climate catastrophe. Labour needs to work with the grain of history, not retreat to a nostalgic yesterday, whether that be 1945 or 1997. Chai latte may not be everyone's cup of tea, but that, rather than chimps drinking PG Tips, is a better guide to what the future looks like.

1 comment:

  1. Some might ask the question 'do we need a Labour Party at all'. Will the Tories replicate their successful domination down south oop north and block out any other parties for a good long time?

    Perhaps we might look down south at why the Tories dominate. Brexit is not the factor, a good proportion of The South voted Remain but still turned out for the Tories. Why, because the alternatives were so cr*p.

    But why are the Tories successful. Down south it is because they offer selfishness dressed up as good sense. Given that the Tories have neglected The North for a good long time it should not be hard for them to spread a some largesse. The only snag is for how long that largesse can be funded.

    This might work because the old industrial esprit de corps that helped the unions and Labour is gone. We are all middle class now so how might any rival party differentiate itself? Getting into a selfishness war (we are more selfish than them) is a bit of a blunt instrument. But perhaps pointing out that Tory selfishness is designed to benefit the 1% whilst our selfishness is designed to benefit the 5% might have appeal. Forget all that socialism, appeal to baser instincts.

    Or of course Labour could hang around hoping the Tories fall flat on their faces - might be a while. This is not to say Toryism is any good but right now it owns the media and it owns the agenda and its got the money. The question is how long before it all goes wrong and can any political party wait that long.