I’ll start by saying that I’m not going to be very critical of any of the Labour leadership candidates. While this blog hasn’t got the readership to do any damage, I think in principle we need to be careful about what we say about them. Whoever wins, we’re going to have to back, and that is going to be awkward (even among our social circles) if we have been mouthing off about the leader for two months.
By the way, I know I’ve started saying “we” in reference to the Labour party rather than “they”. This isn’t because I presume that everyone in the world agrees with me, or that you are a Labour supporter. It’s just a habit of speaking I’ve fallen into – “we” more or less means “the left”.
Yesterday evening, Liz Kendall spoke to a room of 100 or so Labour supporters in Manchester. She was supported by two back-bench MPs, both of whom argued that Liz was the only candidate willing to say tough things to the party, to offer real change, to get re-elected. The subtext being ‘We need to shift to the right to get re-elected. Fact. Liz is the Blairite candidate. She will get us re-elected.’ More concretely, Kendall was arguing that the party took too narrow approach in the last five years, and need to appeal to everyone, not just the economically disadvantaged. This will give everyone something to vote for, so that everyone will vote for us.
Let me be clear, I agree that it is better to have Labour in power on a centrist platform than have the Tories in on a Centre right platform, and it would be better to have a Blairite in Downing Street than Jeremy Corbyn in opposition. I would vote for Blair if it got us back in. Sticking to “our values”, which was once more helpfully called “ideological purity”, is not obviously compatible with those values.
When Marx and Engels first politicized the word “ideology”, they were opposing it to “materialism”. Their point being that ideology is something that takes us away from the actual political and economic situation we are in in order to maintain an unjust system of power. The bourgeois have ideology, the communist has reality. Social democracy is the politics of the real situation, which commits itself to pragmatism. It is not consistently left wing to refuse to vote for anyone who doesn’t offer to renationalise everything and redistribute wealth to the poor. In opposition, we have to act within what is politically possible. We can only change what is politically possible in power by changing the material conditions of our society.
But, the concern I have is that I’m not convinced that we can successfully repeat Blair’s trick of absorbing the centre ground. The political landscape (material conditions) is/are different today than in 1997. Kendall’s line is that if you weren’t on a zero hours contract, paying high rent, or a student, then there was nothing in the campaign for you. This is probably true, but can we win by trying to offer everyone something to vote for? There are a large number of people doing quite well out of the status quo, alongside those within the cost of living crisis, and their interests are fundamentally opposed.
In the special Question Time before the election, where Miliband was placed in front of an audience of his enemies, one question from the audience demonstrated the impossibility of pleasing everyone. Miliband spoke about raising wages in order to reduce the need for benefits and tax credits, a policy Kendall has backed. The audience member said “Are you essential telling us that you expect the private sector to fund the gaps in the welfare bill?”
There is no answer to this question other than “Yes, because it is low paying employers who are responsible for the welfare bill in the first place. It is immoral and economically unsound to permit low wages. Business is effectively forcing government to subsidise cheap labour (so much for the free market).” If you say that, you lose the business vote. If you don’t answer, you lose the business vote. If you retract the policy, you lose the working vote.
Kendall quoted Blair’s Clause IV several times. “By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.” But, living in actually existing neo-liberalism, this is not true. Plenty of ordinary working people now do well out of Tory rule. There are huge numbers of couples renting out their other half’s old flat (hence the massive increase in landlord insurance adverts on mainstream television and radio), there are huge amounts of shareholders, mortgage holders, and small business owners. There are even workers who empathise more with their employers’ situation than their own. I have had dozens of arguments with people who claim that maternity leave and equal employment for women puts an unfair financial strain on small businesses. I have never had this argument with a small business owner. Why is this? Because people believe in capitalism in this country. The bourgeois believe they entitled to what they have, and the proletariat agree with them because they have been sold they idea that they too could run their own business one day.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge for the left is that Marx is usually right. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” So to with our society. There was no consensus, solidarity, or sense of common good that could have united the country into voting Labour in May. Even if Labour were trusted on the economy, we wouldn’t have won. I don’t see how we can plaster over genuine class struggle by giving everyone something to vote for. This would lead to a contradictory manifesto.
I applaud Team Liz’s cynicism and pragmatism, but I don’t think it’s going to work. The interests of the different demographics are now too incompatible. In the end, the party would have to sacrifice the interests of one demographic for the other. This is invariably sacrificing the interests of the poor for the rich. If this is actually her covert intention, and I don’t think it is, it may not even get Labour elected. With so many viable protest parties, is it still true that we can afford to ignore its core vote for those middle class swing seats?
I know I sound very certain and emphatic of all this, but I’m not. A convincing counter argument is that the Tories are very likely to make things worse for everyone in this government. They have a good record of doing that sort of thing. If everyone does badly out of the Tories, a solidarity can be built out of this and Blairite aspiration MyMy strategy might work. But, with how far to the right we would have to go, would Labour be a credible alternative? Austerity will come to an end. It is unsustainable. If we stay too close to politics that are inevitably branded “Tory Lite”, the party will be on the wrong side of history.
Then there is the possibility of an exit from the EU. It’s grim.