2016: Labour, culture and class

by Tom Miller

Though my own politics are within the tradition of democratic socialism, those who know me well will know that I am heavily inspired by thought around the tradition of Eurocommunism. This tradition was a lot more recognisable in the mid 1980s to early 1990s, but I think parts of it have insights of value today.

It’s Marxist, but sounds more Marxist than it is, if that makes sense.

It emphasises the importance of a complex politics of culture and hegemony. Building on Antonio Gramsci, the tradition emphasises the role of everyday cultural outlooks and political opinions as something which shapes attitudes in politically advanced democracies.  It gives rise to a socialist politics of pluralism and alliances.

It starts from the rather obvious standpoint that sets of ideas come to dominate  and create an overpowering (hegemonic) consensus in wider culture, sometimes to the extent not even clear to less politicised (‘normal’) people that these ideas and systems of ideas even exist or have any defining features. They are simply ‘common sense’.

This would always be important, but Eurocommunists identify these things as becoming of ever greater significance as the Fordist industrialised world fragments in the economies and cultures of the global West. 

The manned production line becomes a rarity. With it go institutions of common organisation and independent class identity. This might mean directly ‘political’ institutions like local political parties, economic ones like the local branch of the NUM, or purely cultural institutions like working men’s clubs or Sunday schools. With these things going, sources of education and common identity become more about what we consume and have offered to us, as opposed to what we make. And when we organise our politics, there are always fewer of us. TUPE’d and outsourced workplaces, privatised mail companies competing against each other, call centres replacing steelworks. You name it.

Successful past alliances in the left around racism or gender also give birth to an ever more diverse and plural economic base, whose experiences are more diverse – where solidarity is gained, cultural identities (and politics) become less cohesive.

For me these processes characterised the 1980s, but are fully realised now – and are predominating facts of our economy and politics.

TV and newspapers become massively important. Things like sitcoms and soaps start to dictate our view of what justice, decent behaviour or professional dignity might look like, where before working people would have more chances and direct reasons to organise among themselves for a shared community sense of safety, identity, and political morality.

This is all very good, but does it mean that class doesn’t matter? This is where the big split among those inspired by these ideas happens. 

Some Eurocommunists essentially ended up powering a ‘modernised’ social democracy or event the third way, class completely abandoned as the key concept. The crucial importance of mainstream culture became a reverence for its very mainstreamness, a cruel irony bearing in mind that this then means conceding to the views you accuse of dominating and pushing out others. 

The reasons people with such politics ended up this way sometimes has to do with a fetishisation of the for the prevailing common sense, but beneath it lies a rejection of two kinds of class politics – that is the politics of class interests, and the organised politics of class representation.

Smarter thinkers manage to preserve the insight without this kind of liberal idealism (‘wouldn’t it be great if everything was nice!’) coming to dominate. There’s an acceptance that a smaller and far less independent culturally powerful working class reflects itself in culture and political behaviour. It reproduces itself in existing working class politics, not least those of the largest and most representative parities – in our country, Labour. If this is so, and the economic trend continues, the natural conclusion becomes the reducing power of traditional working class politics and the need to build and hold alliances outside it.

1983 is a great example of where this imperative was not successful. Some on the left blame Bennism, others the defection of the SDP. It’s amazing how many people still think this debate is a fight worth having, thus missing the point. Either way, it is clear that Labour could not hold together a sufficient class alliance and get a wide enough spectrum to buy into it. Is this surprising, when it employed a politics which was not premised on it?

Labour left: getting hegemony wrong

I think at the moment it’s fairly clear that Labour is a party led by people who can’t handle the idea of alliances unless they are with people who have a very high level of agreement with them (such as the Green Party). The idea of a tactical alliance with any voters who are not as left wing as them is anathema, even if these are previous Labour voters, and even if it is clear that Labour’s support bloc is too small, shrinking, and increasingly divided. All of which is of course to some extent a secular trend which simply reproduces a real world economic phenomenon: post-Fordism.

It’s not just that the intellectual leadership of Corbynism is far too conservative to handle ‘political’ alliances based on building Labour electoral support. It has also completely avoided any though of class alliances. It’s not prepared to reach it to socially conservative manual workers (rightly in my view, to an extent). It also really couldn’t give a shit about middle class consumer types on middle pay, and our need for them at elections.

This second type of useful political alliance is (in my view) not the Compass/Counterfire type based around political lines, parties and elites. 

This is talking about a cultural-political alliance of real people – voters. In order to create a big enough bloc of supporters of Labour and of left politics. It’s not getting thought about, and it won’t be happening, despite what the economy and our opponents’ policies are doing to our bloc of support.

If you suggest a pro-home ownership line as a consequence of mass council house builds, targetting you middle earners, you’ll probably get a dogmatic policy response which demands 100% adherence as well as missing the point. That’s because strategies like alliance building and growing the bloc are not important to most rank and file Cornynites, whose priority is hegemonising a party in which they already hold ultimate power. Hegemony in terms of creating a left alliance in mass culture is ignored; electoral hegemony is ignored; political hegemony is ignored, subsumed to the Corbyn project and an orientation towards party-cleansing.

Well, if that’s how a ambitious people remain on behalf of their leader, then the real world will make their leader a failure.

Labour’s internal class position

Labour’s class base is often said traditionally to be working class people, and particularly manual workers. But is is not actually true. Labour’s initial successes relied on removing votes from the liberal party, and it’s post war successes, not least 1945, have always relied on a mass appeal to centrist ‘middle class workers’ as well as those in manual-heavy and industrial areas and neighbourhood – people particularly affected by the prevailing ‘common sense’. There are also middle class radicals of course, and then the big bloc of people in mining areas etc.

In calling Labour a ‘bourgeoise workers’ party’, Lenin was essentially correct – it is a manual worker/middle class formation and is only successful on this basis, especially in present times. The party is of course also deeply bound into representative democracy and the universal franchise. This was of course a chartist, working class demand, but it hasn’t created a worker-dominated political system. It’s created liberal democracy and the beginnings of a plural party system, albeit under crappy first past the post.

This matters because Labour’s internal base includes organised and manual heavy workers through unions, middle class radicals, but not the swing voting middle earner section. The class base of the party internally does not reflect its voting class base.

Which is Labour’s core? I’d argue both actually. And I’d argue given the background, we need a heavy alliance focus to what politics we choose to put forward. It should be reflected in how we configure policies, but even more through how we present ourselves and frame how we argue.

It’s not hard to see how that conflicts with a politics framed around absolute integrity, unyielding and inflexible principle, disdain for power etc. Very commendable populism.

And yet, without forming alliances and recognising that Labour’s base actually yields a set of them, there can be no winning on policy, public opinion, cultural influence and popularity, and at he summit of these things, electability. From the populist position to this is the journey that must be taken, which requires intellectual honesty and some very very fundamental strategic rethinking. Top put this in academic terms, we’re fucked, please do sort it out.