In CHARTIST 276, Paul Reynolds demands we start reaching out to the ‘precariat’
There is something odious about the Labour Party leadership debate. A rise in membership and an enthusiasm for supporting Jeremy Corbyn is deemed entryist subversion. When it was for Tony Blair it was a resurgent support for the party and its policies. Right wing Labour and ex-Labour figures, including Blair, seek to undermine and challenge a democratic process because Corbyn represents a different set of choices as opposed to acquiescence to neo-liberal agendas and corporate power. There is no credence given to the possibility that a growing proportion of the population might be beginning to see through the false promises of market and its inequalities and immiseration of the working classes, the poor and vulnerable. These are people waiting to be re-politicised and drawn back into the public debate on social change. Labour’s failure to address that constituency underlines its lack of direction and its failure to think strategically about leading rather than following prevailing politics.
If one moment underlines Labour’s electoral failure and lack of strategic political leadership, it was at the BBC Question Time Leaders’ Special in which the three main party leaders had 30 minutes before a studio audience. Ed Miliband was confronted by a questioner who asked if he accepted that when Labour were in power they overspent and caused the need for austerity politics. Miliband disagreed, but instantly established that the audience might not agree and then talked about Labour’s investment in public programmes and the global crisis. A following questioner – who worked in financial services – challenged Miliband’s account as ludicrous and said he lied, and in the ensuing exchanges used the example ‘If I get to the end of the week and can’t afford to buy a pint, I’ve overspent. It means I haven’t got any money left.’ Miliband’s response was that he could not convince that person and then moved to discuss industrial policy, leaving the charge unanswered and its rejection weak. He should have said ‘If you get to the end of the week having paid your bills, invested in your children and your family, with a small overdraft, and the Bank says we need a massive bailout or life as you know it and access to your money stops, would you blame yourself or a profiteering and reckless banking system?’. This is not just an issue of political rhetoric, though someone with style and presence might have garnered more votes. Five years of vacuous and timid Labour responses to austerity politics, for the most part following Conservative rhetoric with limited opportunist counterstrokes such as the attack on profiteering energy companies failed. If there is to be any form of democratic socialist response, the lessons of Labour’s impotence need to be learned. The first is that a party cannot quietly avoid a fight for four years and expect to then gain electoral success. All movement building, whether electoral or social movements, is a process of engagement that builds, so the challenge for the 2020 election begins today. At this conjuncture, left politics will be about populist alliance building, including those of the left in Labour, under a broad alliance of progressive forces to oppose Conservative politics and build left refutations into the public consciousness. In that respect, smaller socialist movements and groups such as the Chartist have a definite role to play, perhaps a more definite role than they have previously had. Critically, there needs to be strategy. Labour is not short of targets. These include: an unreformed and profiteering banking system; corporate power that permeates and destroys local markets but avoids tax; privatised public utilities that profit with social consequences; the unequal burden of austerity upon the poor and vulnerable, the illusion in a consumer society that the consumer rather than the producer or retailer are sovereign. Popular support could be built around all these issues.
This form of politics involves recognising that one of the most significant developments in contemporary politics has been the exploitation and alienation of wide constituencies of voters who begin to see their social ills as a matter of fate rather than political choice. This involves a reintroduction of a concept Labour have feared for some three decades – class. Labour need to begin to recognise and to promote a class politics that does not have to appeal to old stereotypes of mass industrial disputes – though they still have their place as part of socialist struggle. Class needs to be promoted as explaining alienation, inequality, the distribution of power and wealth and the principal divide between the rich and secure and the poor and insecure. One fertile area of engagement is the emergence of what is labelled the ‘precariat’. These include a wide range of people whose employment is based on precarious terms: those working on ‘zero hours’ contracts; casual workers, often working with no legal recognition and thus unregulated employment; recurring temporary and fixed term work, those doing home based or telecommuting work at piecemeal rates and those forced to be self-employed, in order to lighten the burden of employment rights on business; those in minimum wage employment that is demonstrably lower than a ‘living wage’; those in work with no possible skills development and progression and therefore disposable at any time. These forms of work have become legitimised by claims that global competition and lower labour costs elsewhere, technological development and changing flexibilities in employment require more flexible employees.
Whilst it is difficult to get a sense of what volumes of workers we are describing, The English Business Survey reported in 2013 that one in ten of the UK’s entire private sector workforce, some 2.3 million people – were in precarious employment (interestingly, the survey was discontinued in 2014). A TUC Labour Market Report at the end of 2014 put the figure at one in twelve and noted only one in forty new jobs were full time, whilst 60% of advertised jobs were self-employed and 36% part-time. It reported over a million zero hours contract workers – 3.1 of the UK Workforce, with less than half (44%) lasting for two years. This is one constituency that is woefully neglected in contemporary political debate. It is an exemplar of class relations, where people are reduced to disposable assets. This is a constituency waiting to be mobilised and recognised, and to be brought back into politics, and at the core of Labour’s strategy should be that, rather than simply trying to fight the Conservatives over a hostile middle class whose interests are entrenched in the status quo (though they can also be drawn in on some of the other political agendas for Labour). C Wright Mills famously set the agenda for a sociological imagination as dispelling anxiety and indifference and making the connections between personal troubles and public issues. That should be the mantra for Labour over the next five years, and Jeremy Corbyn is the only leadership candidate who appears to represent that prospect.
This article appeared in Chartist 276