Crossroads for social democracy

Don Flynn examines Labour’s ‘A New Deal for Workers’ and asks: where are its working class backers? And what role for Generation Left?

The lament that no one knows what Labour stands for anymore has only been partially addressed by the publication of the party’s New Deal for Working People at the end of July.

Discomforted by what turned out to be the narrowest of wins at the Batley and Spen by-election, the New Deal is motivated by the hope that it will put Labour back in touch with the concerns of the people who make up its ideal support base. Numerous think tank reports have pointed to the gulf that has opened up, with voters who feel the party has nothing to say to people struggling to sustain themselves on current supposedly living wage levels. The new policy is supposed to be an answer.

Listing the five principles which underpin Labour’s approach on these issues has been the easy part of the exercise: what lies ahead is the much more difficult task of finding a fragment of working class opinion and interest that will fight to make them the starting point for working class conversations about the plight wage earners find themselves in.

Historic bloc

Once, Labour had a cohort of advocates for its polices in the form of the blue collar trade unionists working in industry, back in the days when the TUC had over 12 million affiliated members. Only a minority of these were working in places that had the industrial heft to constrain the interests of their corporate employers. Back even then, much larger numbers worked in white collar and public sector jobs which the benefits of trade union membership, as a consequence of being the ‘big battalions’, won concessions from national incomes policies and shaped the basic character of employment legislation. In classic Gramscian terms, the trade union movement functioned as an ‘historic bloc’ which fused together a wide range of diffuse and, in areas, conflicting interests into a social force in which a consensus had formed about what constituted progress for all elements of those social forces. The donkey-jacketed, steel-cap-booted factory worker exercised hegemonic influence within this bloc that reached out deep into other trade unions and directed the policy machinery of the Labour Party.

Social democracy is in a state of deep crisis today across its historic European heartlands because blue collar employment went into steep decline back in the 1970s. This was largely under the impact of the rationalisation of industry produced by the energy crises of that period and, subsequently, the trend to outsourcing fostered by the neoliberal dispensation forged in the 1980s.

The working class which remained after this historic bloc dissolved as deindustrialisation took hold looks like the one described in the Great British Class Survey back in 2013, arising from a collaboration between university sociology departments, which painted a picture in which diverse social and economic fragments loosely cohered some version of working life. No part of it could be described as a leading component of this motley crew: all description of working class life degenerated into dispiriting accounts of corrosive infighting between fragments based on geographical location, generation, social and cultural status.

This vision of the working class today has been adopted wholesale by Keir Starmer and his co-thinkers in the Labour leadership. Refined by the work of Claire Ainsley during her time at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, now taking her place as Starmer’s executive director of policy, the fragmented class analysis sees the task of producing any sort of political consensus as being dependent on the arcane sciences of focus group discussion, earnestly attentive listening sessions and one-to-one interviews.

Amplifying distrust

Whole dimensions of class experience vanish when politics is reduced to this sort of public opinion sampling. The fact that its subjects might have a memory of the stages of history and the events that brought them to their current sorry plight is elided by an approach which encourages people to dwell on what they feel now and which of the following three empathy icons best illustrates how they feel about the world.

The methodology has the advantage of allowing the trained public policy researcher to remain in charge of interpreting the data and making sure it delivers outcomes that can be translated into policy. But rather than ensure that working class subjects are at the centre of the process, it gives all the initiatives to members of the middle class commentariat which, we are told, ‘ordinary’ people have learned to despise. Unsurprisingly, the result is a profound distrust of the policy proposals which emerge from all this listening, on the grounds that no one was interested in what they really wanted to say.

‘Trust us’ becomes the least likely course of action for a line of working class thinking which is making total distrust of politicians the one unifying factor in their class identity. In the days of the historic social democratic bloc, an independent evaluation of the credibility of politicians’ promises was possible through the conversations taking place in the works canteen and union meetings, in which the opinions of shop stewards and other officials would have carried some weight, including running policy proposals through a rough-and-ready sense of realism as to what was really possible given the circumstances. The male-centric provenance of this critical evaluation was only marginally balanced by conversations that spread in waves into the places in community life where other social groups, most vitally women, were present, allowing for some sort of consensual view to emerge. This account of the way working class people engaged in politics in the heyday of social democracy is not intended to sing its praises, but rather just to offer an account of how social blocs cohere around hegemonic interests and viewpoints.

Searching for a new hegemon

Is there any obvious contender for the role of a social and economic vanguard which can give flesh-and-blood meaning to Labour’s current vague policy outlines? A solid case is being made for the generation of millennials who are experiencing the bitter disappointment that comes from a labour market downgrading the hard work they have put into acquiring a high standard of education and offering so many of them dubious opportunities in precarious agency and zero-hour jobs. Keir Milburn and Brett Christophers have made compelling arguments for the pivotal role of this group, extending the causes for their dissatisfaction from jobs to their greater vulnerability to exploitation as renters in overpriced housing markets. Their resistance to the sneering contempt of the anti-woke brigade for the social values common among this group, like antiracism, commitment to internationalism, equality and concern for the environment, also add to the belief that a lot can be expected to come from this segment of the population as the left works to rebuild its social base.

However, it is not a simple matter of cheering on the new kids on the (historic?) block. Youth and relative deprivation are not constants throughout life, and for some millennials things will get better as they start to inherit the assets currently monopolised by their baby boomer parents. Further, unlike the industrial workers in the past who had authoritative positions in both the workplace and geographic communities, the millennials lead less constant lives, being continually uprooted in locality as they chase after job and housing opportunities. This is a serious impediment to being able to fulfil one of the other requirements of political leadership: reaching across to other disadvantaged sectors made up of the less well-educated and more communitarian and patriotic in their outlooks. The remarkable revolt of the gilets jeunes in France back in 2018 ought to remind us of the explosive potential of the large group of older, ‘left behind’ people who feel oppressed because their standing as citizens has been downgraded and the demands for decarbonisation of the economy will deprive them of the chance to drive a white van.

If democratic socialism is to be reconstructed as an historic bloc that draws on the energies of jostling subaltern malcontents united by their agreement that radical change of some sort is needed, and if the overall direction of that change is towards progress, then the party which aspires to a leadership role needs to be drawing on a range of strategies – ones that keep its constituencies in civil dialogue with one another and ready to cut the deals needed for a working consensus. Labour has weakened the chance it can play this role in recent months because of Starmer’s apparent decision to set his face against concessions to millennial agitation in the belief that the change this group wants to see will alienate voters in its former Red Wall seats.

The ‘Generation Left’ demographic (Keir Milburn’s more satisfactory term for millennials) is unlikely to compromise on core values that do most to get up the noses of its parents – and nor should it. The political initiatives it will need to proclaim more loudly will be around the democratic change needed to make sure that all voices are heard: initiatives taken to direct investment into communities that have been marginalised for decades and structural economic reform to end the culture of shareholder value, while building a stronger co-operative and public sector to provide the basis for decent jobs.

Labour, for its part, needs to cut Generation Left some slack and start to make bold concessions to show they are wanted in the party, and their ideas and energies will be fully utilised to rebuild a movement which is in grave danger of going down into the grave.

Labour's new deal for working people
1. Security at work

3.6 million people are in insecure work. This means they can’t plan for the future.

Labour would give workers full protections from day one on the job, and we’d strengthen trade unions.

We’d also ban fire and rehire and give people the right to work flexibly.

2. Quality jobs

One in six working families live in poverty in the UK. This isn’t right. Labour would support British businesses so we buy, make and sell more in Britain. This would help to create well-paid, green jobs in the industries of the future.

3. A fairer economy

Your high street businesses pay their fair share of taxes in the UK but some big, global businesses, like Amazon, don’t. Our British businesses are being undercut and losing out.

Labour would level the playing field and give our businesses the boost they need to create good jobs locally.

4. Opportunity for all

Too many people can’t get the training or opportunities they deserve. We’d deliver a jobs-promise for young people with a guarantee of quality education, training or employment.

5. Work that pays

People should be able to raise a family on their wages, not struggle to make ends meet. Labour would introduce a real living wage of at least £10 an hour.

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