Futile Labours

by Elias Blum

Four-fifths of Scotland’s MPs, most of whom are Labour, voted against the privatisation of Royal Mail. These selfsame Labour MPs are obstinate in their opposition to Scottish independence. This means, in effect, that they are supporting the political union that makes privatisation of Scotland’s mail services inevitable. Their opposition to privatisation is just for show. If they really cared, they’d be fighting to ensure that Scotland retains a publicly owned postal service – even if it takes independence to get it. Unfortunately, as it is, the Labour party, by their dogged defence of the UK-state and the constitutional status-quo, are the biggest obstacle to social democracy in Scotland. What a parcel of rogues!

It doesn’t have to be this way. If the Labour party would show an ounce of principle, courage and initiative; if it would stop its obstinate British nationalism and start engaging with the question of how to build a better Scotland after independence; if it would set aside, just for a few years, its visceral hatred of the SNP and work with them on the transformational project; if it would stop being a gravy train for corrupt numpty councillors and put forward some people with real conviction and ability; if it would look to the future instead of being obsessed with the past – then it might, just might, actually do some good to build a ‘commonweal’ alternative to neo-liberalism.

Sadly, I’ve rarely met a Labour activist or member who is willing to acknowledge this. I’ve met no-one who is able to engage honestly with the failings of their party and to think creatively about what the Labour movement could be doing to develop and achieve a form of social democracy fit for the 21st century.  Instead of a frank discussion about the Labour party, its identity, principles and purpose, one invariably encounters tribalism and stonewalling.

Many Labour members, I’m sure, have their hearts in the right place. I have no doubt that many are deeply moved by an ethical critique of neo-liberal capitalism, by a sense of injustice and by a desire for a more caring, sharing world. Many of them combine this motivation with intelligence and personal principle.  Yet they cannot talk about their party. It is too sore, perhaps, for rational discussion. They know their party is lost. They know they have no arguments. To talk about it only rubs it in.

It is pitiful to watch, the more so because the door to new social democracy is wide open. The financial crisis pulled the lid off neo-liberalism and revealed the mess within – all the pain, inequality, greed, destruction, alienation and vapidity of the Chicago School doctrinaires has been unmasked.  In response to this opportunity, new movements and civic groups like the New Economics Foundation, UK Uncut, 38 Degrees, Open Democracy, the Occupy Movement, and many others, are asking the right questions and have even begun to propose constructive answers. In Scotland, the pioneering ‘Commonweal’ movement, with its pragmatic amalgam of social democracy and localist ecology, provides perhaps the best glimpse yet of where the path towards a kinder, gentler, more sustainable future lies.

Yet despite this combination of good timing and ideological innovation, the Labour Party remains stunted and muted, unable to build a coalition around these movements to effect social democratic change. This is ironic, for a party so obsessed with looking backwards. The Labour Party grew out of a trade union-based Labour movement that was built on the foundations of a Victorian class system – cloth caps vs bowler hats. Although the working conditions, rates of pay, alienation, and lack of autonomy, experienced by a call centre worker or supermarket shelf-stacker are increasingly reminiscent of the Victorian factory system, and while both inequality and real poverty are on the rise to Victorian levels,  the ‘class system’ from which the Labour party emerged has changed.

The fact is that there are just not as many working class people around as there used to be. Some have made it into the lower middle class – a larger, but more precarious, group than before. Some have slipped into a growing (but politically alienated and effectively disenfranchised) underclass. Those who remain in the working class have largely lost their former class identity: solidarity has been eroded by virtuality, the Working Men’s Club by Play Stations.

The Labour Party’s fundamental problem is that it has not found a way to respond to this change.  In trying to do so, it divides itself. The left of the party wants to go back to ‘working class roots’, but interprets this largely as serving in a clientelistic role to a dwindling number of unionised workers, mainly in the shrinking public sector. Meanwhile, the right of the party, partially recognising the demographic situation but misreading the political runes, assumes that it must move to the right – on issues like welfare and immigration – in order to win the votes of lower middle class electors.

The Labour Party is not alone in this situation. Other Social Democratic and Labour parties across Europe are, to a greater or lesser extent, facing the same problem. What does a working class party do, when the working class is a minority?

The answer is strikingly simple: redraw the class boundary from the ‘working class’ to ‘the 99%’. The class politics of the 21st century will not be fought out between the cloth caps and the bowler hats, but between ‘just about everyone’ and ‘a tiny minority of the super-rich’. There is room for a progressive populist opposition to neo-liberalism, that builds a workable ‘Social Market’ alternative based on the remoralisation of the economy.

This would recognise that markets are important mechanism for distributing certain types of good and services and that widely distributed private ownership of the means of production enables people to enjoy both creative fulfilment and economic independence, while also recognising that market transactions alone are grossly inadequate to ensure a just distribution of resources, and that markets need to be both constrained by an ethically-grounded socio-legal framework and supplemented by non-market institutions, including public services and social and environmental protection.

Labour’s mistake is to assume that as soon as someone has their own (heavily mortgaged) four bedroom house in the suburbs, they no longer care about the wider society around them, or that as soon as someone owns their own small business they identify their interests with those of the owners of Walmart or the directors of Goldman Sachs. In reality, the difference between the working poor and the (relatively comfortable, but still over-stretched) middle class is minimal compared to that between the middle class and the very rich. There is a four-fold difference between those on £12,000 a year and those on £48,000; more than a ten-fold difference between the latter and those on half a million.

The middle class and the working class together constitute what in civic republican language might be described as ‘il populo‘, the demos, the people.  Together, they have a shared interest in making a society that works for ‘ordinary folks’. Against this stand the global super-rich, those who exclusively benefit from the plutocratic ideology of neo-liberalism, and whose excessive wealth and power makes them stand outside the legal and moral order of the polity.

If the Labour Party were able to embrace this – if it could criticise neo-liberalism and set out a compelling vision of a Social Market, ‘Commonweal’, alternative – then it could attract ‘middle class’ voters while still moving to the left. It could be a force for good.

But, being realistic, the Labour Party is unlikely to make this change. Labour, like the post-imperial British State it so obstinately props up, is beyond reform. That’s why I’m so glad that in Scotland we have other options, like the SNP and the Greens.  If these parties succeed in leading Scotland into a better future, it will be despite the Labour Party’s fervent and contrarian opposition.