A version of this appeared in the Morning Star 28 November 2019The long-term decline in working-class political engagement is a barrier that has to be overcome, says NICK WRIGHT
In two weeks time, we go to the polls. It is no exaggeration to say that the outcome will shape the politics not only of the next parliament but of the next decade and beyond.
If Boris Johnson’s refashioned Tory Party gains a majority the country will be set on a course in which a separation from the political structures of the European Union will mask a continuing convergence with the neo-liberal policies which are a condition of EU membership and to which our ruling class is equally wedded.
It seems to have eluded the grasp of some on the left that the deal which Theresa May reached with the EU – and the slightly modified one which the EU reached with Boris Johnson – are as much the property of the EU as our Tory premiers. Neither the dominant elements in our ruling class nor their opposite numbers in the EU states envisage a complete break and nor do either desire it.
The fragile grasp of the political realities in the EU which characterises the thinking of left-wing Remainers rests for its coherence on the illusion that the EU is open to the kind of changes which would allow for a recovery of the post-war social democratic settlement.
We should not completely discount this possibility. Although big capital is firmly based, in the main, in particular nation-states much of its strategic thinking is done in transnational institutions and, faced with powerful challenges to its political hegemony or to its core ideologies, it will find collective ways to meet these challenges.
If these entail making concessions which might blunt a challenge to their political power, or more seriously their ownership, then will take a hit on their profits. We should not discount the possibility that this will make a difference to the ways in which the EU is perceived.
But inside or outside of the EU Labour can win a parliamentary majority and this terrifies our ruling class.
It is not that even a full implementation of Labour’s ambitious programme threatens the basis of their economic and political power. This rests not on whoever temporarily inhabits Downing Street or has a parliamentary majority but on the ownership of the vast bulk of our country’s productive capacity, its industry and agriculture, its plant, machinery, land, communications, banking and media
It is buttressed by the vast network of political, personal, professional and financial connections which bind the affluent elites who dominate every aspect of modern life into a caste whose immediate interests are bound up with the ruling class and into whose social circles they are integrated.
It rests on their dominance of the machinery of public administration, on the criminal justice and law enforcement systems and – in both the intermediate stages and in the final instance – on the bourgeois state’s monopoly of violence.
These people know that if Labour succeeds in taking our basic utilities, water, gas, mail, electricity and telecoms into public ownership and it nationalises the railways and buses that profit margins will take a hit and that the revenue streams which ownership confers will dry up.
They know that squeezing profit-taking out of the NHS will upset the likes of Richard Branson and discomfort big Pharma and the health industry vultures.
The reason why it terrifies our ruling class is that in successfully implementing its programme the working class and the great majority of working people will begin to think in a new way.
Anyone over these days who has canvassed a working-class community, worked the front doors of a council estate or stood in the high street and talked to voters knows that apart from people committed to vote there is a great mass of working people who are completely detached from politics or who see all politicians as equally indifferent to the way they live their lives.
It is quite striking just how many young people have absolutely no conception of what is going on in public life. It is an alien world to them. It is as if politics takes place in a postcode of alternative reality.
Part of this is down to the demobilisation of popular participation in politics that has followed the fragmentation of working-class communities with deindustrialisation; in part lies with the passivity induced by the disappointments of New Labour; in part with the disaggregation of organised labour with the number of workers in trade union in steep decline.
There is a whole academic industry devoted to analysing the alienation of working people from the political process. And there is a whole political project devoted to making sure it continues.
But the roughly one-third of citizens who never or rarely vote are not natural followers of bourgeois parties.
Labour can still count on a core of committed voters secure in their political affiliations but this alone is not a sufficient base for securing either a parliamentary majority or of mobilising sufficient extra-parliamentary support for the obstacles that will inevitably be placed before a Labour government.
My immediate experience of canvassing for Labour in one of the most working-class communities in coastal North Kent is by turns encouraging and deeply dispiriting. Encouraging because Labour activists are actively engaged and mobilised and Labour’s programme is beginning to exercise a real appeal among some people. Dispiriting because the response on the doorstep has reinforced the impression that Labour has not only lost much of the automatic loyalty that characterised working-class communities but that it faces an uphill task in getting some people to take it at its word when it promises radical change.
Of course, there is the residual influence of Margaret Thatcher’s idiotic and misleading presentation of public expenditure as comparable to the domestic budgets of people on a limited income.
Getting across a convincing case for Labour’s economic strategy must rest on more than the appeal of its policies to one section of the people or another.
But the principal reason for the alienation of a substantial section of working-class voters is evidently the retreat from Corbyn’s pledge to respect the referendum result. The turnout in the referendum was significantly higher than in any other vote for decades and was up markedly in working-class areas. No wonder they feel annoyed and ignored.
It is not simply this egregious error although the media monstering of Corbyn has created a crazed climate which he is condemned on the doorstep as simultaneously a closet Brexiteer and a duplicitous Remainer.
It is that Labour is seen as equally complicit in these years in which delay and duplicity have subverted the popular will. If Boris Johnson – who in these years has hawked his fully flexible convictions down both sides of the Brexit street – has any credibility it is because he has pledged to get Brexit done in a situation where millions of working-class voters think Labour wants it undone.
The fact that Johnson hasn’t and probably cannot achieve this goal – at least to the satisfaction of many people who voted for Brexit – is obscured by the perception that Labour is now a Remain party.
Corbyn’s decision to emulate something of Harold Wilson’s studied neutrality in the earlier referendum to remain in the Common Market – in to which the Tories took us without a vote – has done something to dispel the atmosphere of ambiguity. The question is, is it enough to give working-class Brexiteers a reason to vote Labour?
Faced with these experiences on the doorstep some Labour activists are inclined to internalise the main themes of the media offensive against Corbyn and alongside this begin to see the working class itself as a problem for the Labour Party.
A test of political maturity will be the understanding Labour partisans reach whether this election results in a victory or a defeat. The key will be the extent to which our links with working-class communities are renewed and whether we learn to listen.
There are, of course, powerful factors preventing Labour falling into the electoral abyss along with those social democratic parties that have yet to throw off class compromise. Its trade union base and affiliated membership is something of a counterweight to the middle-class bias that exists in some constituencies and is over-represented in the parliamentary party.
And Labour’s greatly enlarged mass membership is, in its motivation and mindset, essentially critical of capitalism as a system and radical in its basic assumptions.
These are reasons to be cheerful as well as sufficient reasons to be careful.
Another period in opposition will be a setback. An election victory will be a tremendous advance and will take us to a new level in which the contradictions between the needs of millions of working people – if reflected in the actions of a resolute Labour government – will bring unprecedented challenges.
We should not envisage a situation in which a Labour government benignly enacts it programme while the class of owners stands silently on the touchline of class struggle.
Britain’s establishment is the most experienced and cunning ruling class and its preferred policy is to blunt any challenges to its dominance by careful concessions and by integrating key elements of the working class and labour movement into its system of power and administration.
We have a striking illustration of this in the political makeup of the parliamentary Labour Party which, even after the infusion of some radical new MPs, will consist in the main in people who are exceedingly comfortable with the way things are.
John McDonnell warned that we have seen nothing yet of what we might expect. He is right, with a more powerful challenge to the power and profits of the boss class, we should expect a run on the pound, possibly investment strike, unforeseen problems in the supply of drugs, or vital components in manufacturing. Anticipate interruptions in energy supplies and unaccountable absences on supermarket shelves.
We should anticipate the closure of plants, of unexpected layoffs, of unpredicted bankruptcies of enterprises marginal to the core enterprises of big business.
This is the playbook of capital wherever it is challenged and when the seamless fabric of its power is ruptured.