Can Labour win back its heartlands? Not by turning blue

This is the piece I had in the Guardian (print edition as well as online) a couple of weeks before the election. It’s basically a short version of the Stuart Hall Foundation essay, an revised version of which will be up on open Democracy soon.

It seems a bit like stating the obvious now, although the issue of how we relate to those constituencies who DID switch from UKIP to the Tories, and who used to vote Labour, who do exist and lost us some key seats, remains a live and crucial question.

 

Quick first thoughts on the June 2017 UK General Election result

Why does this electoral defeat mark a historic turning point and moral victory for Labour and UK Left politics ?

-The youth mobilisation marks the end of a period which has lasted over 30 years during which youth participation rated have declined steadily. This in itself represents  a historic shift.

-Increasing Labour’s vote share massively in the face of such unrelenting media hostility demonstrates that, as Corbynite optimists have hoped, it is possible to mobilise a mass membership in innovative ways using new communications technologies on a scale which makes it possible to neutralise much of the propaganda power of the Mail /Sun/ Express axis, in ways which Labour has not been able to do since the 1960s.

-Any recapture of the Labour Party by the Right is now almost unthinkable for the foreseeable future

-The fact that so few of the UKIP votes went to the Tories confirms a perennial fact about the English working class: there are certainly racist and xenophobic tendencies in their culture, but attempts to mobilise those tendencies politically aways depend on tying them to an economic narrative (‘they’re taking our jobs…’). This means that an alternative, progressive economic narrative can generally neutralise them pretty easily. This certainly seems to be what happened.

-Completely contrary to what we all thought, it turns out that the SNP hegemony in Scotland is vulnerable and reversible, with everything that that entails, good and bad.

-In terms of actual votes and vote share for an avowedly radical programme, this is the best result for the British Left (and I mean Left, not Labour) since 1974 at the latest.

Nobody can reasonably believe that, given the constraints of time and resources, the Corbynite strategy has already reached the peak of what it can achieve. There is every reason to think it can go on to increase Labour’s vote share into the mid 40s given time – something that until this week I did not think possible. Let’s be clear – the result we have achieved under such difficult circumstances ENTIRELY vindicates the strategy pursued by the pro-Corbyn movement and Momentum.

The Big Historical Context 

In the big historical context, here’s an important point. If you want to sum up the dilemma of the Left since the 70s, it’s basically as follows. The labour movement and attendant political organisations spent 150 years developing forms of organisation that were appropriate to the industrial society which was born at the beginning of the 19th century and reached its apogee in the West in the 1960s. The cybernetic revolution which we have been living through since then has made it possible for capital to circumvent most of the organisational strategies which workers had developed over the past century and a half (through globalising capital flows, automating jobs, etc.). The defeats of the left since the 70s have basically been a direct consequence of this development. At the same time since the 1960s we have been developing – in a faltering, haphazard ways – various new ways of organising which are more appropriate to the new techno-social context that we find ourselves in. From this perspective, the big question has aways been – would it take us another century to develop those techniques to the point where our standards of living and political / democratic efficacy would cease to deteriorate? Or would the technology itself enable us to accelerate the development of those techniques to the point where we could start to win political battles again much sooner? It may still be too early to tell, but the election result strongly suggests that the answer is that we may be on the verge of having a sufficiently robust and dynamic repertoire of such techniques to enable us to begin to make significant gains again, as arguably has already happened in parts of Latin America, Spain, etc.

A note on coalitions

This doesn’t alter that the fact that ultimately the resistance of the Labour leadership to co-operation with other parties isn’t sustainable in the long-term if they really want to build a social coalition on a scale that could actually make a socialist project viable in the UK. For a really radical project, you need over 50% support (which the ’45 government got, after a couple of years in office, which is why it was able to do what it did). And it is much easier to get that by including people in your coalition without demanding that they all join your party.

But in the specific context of this election, I have to say that despite my lifelong advocacy of a coalition strategy, it was tactically  correct not to pursue a formal coalition with the other left-of-Tory parties, because they would all have have tried to make a commitment to a second Brexit  referendum a condition for any co-operation. Again, personally I support a second referendum – but I think advocating it at the election would have cost us millions of UKIP votes.

But we mustn’t confuse this short-term tactical situation with the long-term strategic one. We will never be able to achieve what we want to as long as we assume that everyone in the Greens, SNP or even the Lib Dems is our enemy (important pointer – many younger activists do not seem to realise that the lib dems contain a radical liberal tradition which situated itself to the left of Labour on all key issues from the early 70s until the 2000s – this tendency has been in abeyance for the past few years, but no more so than was the Bennite tendency in Labour for over 20 years – whether it will ever recover we do not know, but we cannot assume not).

But the coalition (or ‘progressive alliance’ ) strategy must never been seen as an alternative to grassroots mobilisation – they are two prongs of the same strategic fork, not different political approaches.

The Relations of Force: Politics and Power in Britain Today

All politics is about building coalitions and building power: if Labour cannot understand this truth and grasp its implications, then it is doomed. 

A quick preface

This was written as a short contribution to a Pluto Press book that was supposed to be published last year,  but never finally happened. I think it’s still pretty relevant to everything so I’m posting it now.

(If you’re one of the several people who are waiting for me to finish writing something – don’t worry – I did this ages ago…it hasn’t been distracting me from what I was supposed to be writing for you)

My aim in this short essay is to explain how a particular way of understanding politics and social change can illuminate our current situation. But first a disclaimer. I won’t be  saying anything new here. The ideas I will be using are very familiar to those who are trained in a particular intellectual tradition. I present them here because they remain invaluable and useful, and because lots of people have had  no access to that tradition; but not because I claim any originality for them.

I am going to be explaining in very basic terms how an approach derived from the ideas of the great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, who died in ta fascist prison in the late 1930s, can help us understand current British politics. It seems particularly appropriate to to do this right now, because the past month has seen the launch of Stuart Hall’s Selected Political Writings [https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/stuart-hall-event]. Hall was one of the giant’s of British public and intellectual life of recent decades (https://www.opendemocracy.net/author/stuart-hall; https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/jeremy-gilbert/tribute-to-stuart-hall). One of Hall’s great contributions to British intellectual culture was to bring to Gramsci’s ideas to on the analysis of British politics, in a number of key essays, several of which can be found in his key 1980s collection, The Hard Road to Renewal.

At the present time, Gramsci and his ideas seem to be undergoing yet another one of their periodic revivals, having been dismissed by many commentators as hopelessly outdated a few years ago. Many introductions to Gramsci are available,  but one of the best has been recently updates: Roger Simon’s Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction (https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/book/gramscis-political-thought). Many scholarly expositions of Gramsci’s work have been produced, but Peter Thomas’ The Gramscian Moment (2009) set a new benchmark in English-language scholarship. I don’t know much about the state of Gramsci scholarship outside the English-speaking world, but I do know that the popular French radio show and podcast Les Chemins de La Philosophie (https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/les-chemins-de-la-philosophie) recently produced an episode on Gramsci simply because he is so widely cited by so many people. Radical publishers Verso have just published  a historical study of Gramsci’s key concept – ‘hegemony’ (if you don’t know what this means don’t worry, I will explain in simple terms shortly) – by one of its most prominent writers, Perry Anderson. In fact Alex Williams and I are currently writing a book for the same publishers on the subject of hegemony in the 21st century, which due to be completed before the summer. (We are considering presenting initial arguments in a series of public seminars and videos, so if you think you might be interested in that then do follow us at @lemonbloodycola and @jemgilbert).

Here it is

My Friend Mark

Here are two versions of basically the same tribute to my departed friend Mark Fisher, who took his own life in January.

There are two versions, a very long and a quite long one.

The first is my own very very long tribute.  It is as much as anything about me and my thoughts, obviously – as it is basically a kind of intellectual history of Marks’ own conceptual journey and my personal and political relationship to it. If you have been dying to find out exactly what I thought of the CCRU in the early 2000s, then this is for you. If not then maybe don’t bother. To be fair if you are interested in a very detailed account of Mark’s intellectual and political development then I think , I hope, you will find this genuinely useful.

Here it is in a pdf: My Friend Mark

The second is a rather shorter edited version, which is posted along with a number of other tributes on the LARB website HERE

The eulogies from Mark’s memorial service (including an Acid Communist translation of the Internationale) are HERE

308344_10150499900122926_1931766921_n.jpg

Corbynism: Several Articles on Jeremy Corbyn and the Politics of the Labour Party

Over the past year I’ve written several times on political context and implications of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party. I have been very gratified by how well they’ve ben received – by the people who have actually understood them…

The links are below but first here are some prefatory thoughts:

This has been a time of unprecedented turmoil in the party. Pro and anti Corbyn positions have been taken up by a number of public figures and commentators.

In a nutshell my own position is that I am a supporter of Corbyn but, as Neal Lawson puts it, one ‘without illusions’ as to Corbyn’s shortcomings as a political leader. He is not a very good leader in any conventional sense. But all of the currently available alternatives are much worse. He also has shown a singular ability to get people to join the party, which is frankly very impressive, whatever you think of his debating style.

One of the key problems here, which very few people on either side of the debate want to admit, is that the existing Parliamentary Labour Party is made up mostly of people who are just not suited in any way to the task of representing even a mildly left-wing political party in the early 21st century. This means that however bad a leader Corbyn may be, he will at least not be as obstructive to the renewal of the party and the labour movement as almost any of his colleagues would be, even if some of them would perform better in TV interviews.

I am more passionately a supporter and active member of Momentum (in fact I am currently a member of the Momentum national committee), the democratic activist organisation which has so terrified the Labour Right over the past year by, you know, actually mobilising Labour members in support of an actual political programme (the fact that it happened to be Corbyn’s programme was largely secondary to the fact that the Labour Right mostly don’t think party members should really get involved in politics at all). In particular the prejudice demonstrated against this organisation by members of the wealthy London media elite (including people who don’t think of themselves as members of that elite, because they didn’t go to private school, but who clearly now are)  has been extraordinary. I think it really shows what contempt they have for anything like real democracy. They think the country should be run by people like them – and they simply cannot abide the thought that anyone sane might disagree with that.

I come to my position having been a member of the party since the 1980s, having lived for several years in my teens on one of the roughest council estates in the UK (I make this point to refute the claim that all Corbynites are just pampered metropolitan elitists who don’t understand the real working class), and having always been sympathetic to arguments in favour of political pragmatism.

As I try to explain quite carefully in a number of these articles, I think that any sober and informed assessment of the situation must conclude that the strategies proposed and followed by both the ‘soft left’ and the Blairite tendencies in the party in recent decades have all ended in such dismal failure that almost anything else is worth a try. And if that ‘anything else’ should not involve the building of Labour into a democratic member-led mass party for the first time in its history, as some on the Labour right seem to believe, then I have yet to hear any suggestion from them as to what it should actually imvolve.

While both the pro-Corbyn and the anti-Corbyn camps have problems in their arguments and their perspectives, I really do think that they are of a different order. The pro-Corbyn camp does include people who think that Jeremy is actually a brilliant leader, and who think that the fact that Labour did not get annihilated in local elections and by-elections over the past year demonstrates that he can win a general election. This is a problem because he isn’t and it doesn’t. The Corbynite Left has yet to fully face up to the fact that there IS, as our critics keep reminding us, an enormous cultural gap between the metropolitan Left in which we have our base, and the working class voters of the post-industrial ‘heartlands’, at least some of whom we must win over if we are to make any real progress. But that is a problem that could be addressed.

The anti-Corbynites, by contrast, simply demonstrate no grasp whatsoever of what the hell is actually going on. They do not understand where the support for Corbyn has come from, or what kind of organisation Momentum is, or that British parliamentary democracy has been in deep crisis for many years. They respond with caricatures, clichés, and furious trolling, but never ever ever with anything like a reasoned argument. The PLP’s totallybotched coup attempt against Corbyn’s leadership has demonstrated how redundant their whole conception of politics is. Their supporters are mostly people who learned how to do politics in the 1990s and seem to be furious at the fact that the world is changing in such a way that their way of doing it no longer works. They are also generally in total denial about what a disaster New Labour turned out to be. I have noticed in particular that they do not tend to include many people who had any real contact with the public sector during the New Labour years, and so do not have any apparent grasp of the huge ideological price which the sector was forced to pay, in terms of the imposition of neoliberal norms and practices, for the admittedly high levels of investment which the New Labour government oversaw.( If these are words you’re not familiar with then I’m sorry – I suggest you have a look for my little essay on what ‘neoliberalism’ means elsewhere on this blog.)

Anyway that’s enough of that. Here are the links in the order that I would suggest anyone interested reads the pieces:

(Most of these were published on open Democracy UK – if you find them useful and can afford it, please do consider making a donation)

Labour Pains: Labour’s Crisis and the End of the Two-Party System 

This is 2000 words and probably the best summary of where I think things are at to date.

(It appears on the Labour Pains website, for which it was specially commissioned. This is part of a unique ongoing collaboration between the People’s History Museum (PHM) in  Manchester and the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. It is intended as a new type of political and educational resource, incorporating an expanding online catalogue of material drawn from the Labour Party’s Official Archives; original scholarship, commentary and discussion, as well as interactive timeline plotting the key developments in Labour Party history from its foundation at the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day.)

A Response to Paul Mason’s ‘Labour: the Way Ahead’ 

Paul Mason cited  ‘Labour Pains’ in an article a few days after it was posted. This was my response.

Corbynism and its Futures 

This is the big one – 7000 words – but if you want a good introduction to the general political context for people who might now know much about UK politics then this is it. This was written for Near Futures Online, a web-magazine produced by Zone Books, whose first edition was a fascinating collection on European politics.

Corbyn – What’s a Leader Really For?

This is a short piece on the competing conceptions of leadership which the debate over Corbyn has implicitly put into contention with each other.

A Hijack or  a Mutiny? Labour, the leadership and the left

This is a response to the constant claims being made by the Labour Right that the left is somehow acting in a way which contravenes the traditions of the party or its aims as sated in its constitution. In particular it is notable that all of this commentary directly misquotes or misattributes a particular position to Clause One of the party constitution. In this piece I actually cite in full that clause so we can see what it actually says. It is not what Tristram Hunt, Chukka Umunna, the Progress people or Helen Lewis have claimed it says.

Is Momentum a Mob? No – This is What Democracy Looks Like

Another short piece – defending Momentum from the reactionaries.

Facing the facts: a progressive strategy for 2020 

This was my latest contribution to the ‘Progressive Alliance’ debate – which has finally taken off after being advocated by a handful of people for many years  (including me, ever since my motion to Labour Student conference supporting the idea in 1991 was defeated  by the massed ranks of the Scottish Labour Students, who were all convinced that we should have Proportional Representation, but that Labour would definitely one day soon achieve over 50% of the national popular vote, so would never need to be part of a progressive alliance. How’s that working out for you, Scottish Labour?). As I admitted in the comments, it should have been called ‘an electoral tactic for 2020’ really. It’s not a full-blown strategy – that will have to involve mobilising a mass party to challenge the influence of the right-wing press especially in working class communities. But a full blown strategy will also have to involve electoral deals and alliances of the kind that I describe here. Yes, it will. Even with a million members and a full blown national community-activism assault, Labour will not be able to reach the point of actually getting a parliamentary majority, especially once the coming changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries (expected to lose us around 40 seats) have been implemented.

This will be especially important if the majority of the PLP split from Labour, forming a new party which will become the official opposition and will have billionaire money behind it and the BBC and Guardian effectively backing it. In fact  if that happens (which it probably will, and probably quite soon), then we (Labour, who will be left with about 80 MPs, almost a million members, and the backing of the trade unions) will probably end up having to do a deal with their new party as well as all the others, if we are to avoid them forming a permanently-hegemonic bloc with the liberal tories. But that’s all to come. And maybe it won’t happen… Yeah right…

An Interview with Jeremy Gilbert

Pancho Lewis was kind enough to interview me for the Open Labour website about Labour strategies. Most of what I said here I would stick by. But I think was a bit too dismissive of the particular strand of ‘Blue Labour’ thinking which thinks that Labour must have something to say to the ‘settlers'(if you don’t know what that means, read the interview and / or google Jon Cruddas’ report into why Labour the 2015 General Election)…I still think that the Blue Labour answer to that problem is wrong, and I stand by everything Mark Fisher and I wrote in our pamphlet ‘Reclaim Modernity‘, a few years ago, but I do think that in the interview I may have given the impression that we can do without large numbers of working class voters who may well feel mainly like ‘settlers’. The Brexit vote (which I wrote about briefly HERE ) made clear that that we do need to find ways to connect with them (I will write about how I think that could happen at some later dates). I think that people like Jon Cruddas have been right to point out the rise of a kind of latent English nationalism and to argue that Labour must engage with it. I regret not listening to Jon when he suggested some years ago that I, as a Cultural Studies scholars, ought to be able to make some contribution to that effort.

‘We’re Better off Without Each Other’ – an open letter to Blairite MPs

This was intended as a light-hearted, if not particularly friendly comment on the politics of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It was reacted to furiously by Blairite commentators as a call for a purge. It was basically a joke- because I would never be arrogant enough to think that any Blairite MP would actually give a damn what I have to say about anything. But it also makes a serious point, which frankly I think has been thoroughly borne out by subsequent events. I honestly do think that the best thing that most of the current PLP could do for themselves, the party the movement and the country is just to quietly slip off into some other career. They are not going to get the Labour Party back. Many of them will now face deselection, even if they wouldn’t have done before they tried to unseat Corbyn. They will probably split and form a new party which will end up being a massive obstacle to any kind of real political progress while actually, on its own terms, achieving nothing. Come on guys – you could all be earning more money in the City anyway. Why not just do us all a favour?

 

What hope for Labour and the left? The election, the 80s and ‘aspiration’

This was written in July 2015 and was my first big piece on the subject. It’s 5000 words long and much of it was incorporated into the Near Futures Online essay. But there is more in here about the internal politics of Labour and the actual leadership election that Corbyn eventually won. I think now this is an interesting historical document because it was probably one of the first instances of somebody (me) historically associated with the ‘soft left’ coming out – with reservations – for Corbyn. It was actually initially written in response to my student Jack Manton asking me if I thought Corbyn was worth supporting.

 

Corbyn’s leadership and the democratic surge in the Labour Party

This was a short piece written for the Global Justice Now magazine