Sifting Through the Ruins
Labour’s policies were popular across the country, but we’ve learned it takes much more than good ideas to win an election. Whether in or out of office, Labour must be a force for good in people’s lives if we’re to win back the heartland seats.
I grew up near Lockerbie, a small town in Scotland famous internationally for the terror attack of 1988, the year I was born. I had an opportunity to go to university, thanks in large part to the absence of tuition fees (although I still left with around £25,000 of debt in the form of a student loan). This, in turn, gave me the opportunity to move to a large city, live abroad, and form friendship groups that were and remain highly international.
Today I live in London, and form part of the younger, precarious, multiethnic working class that is found in the UK’s large urban centers. Alongside the areas of long-standing deprivation in the big cities, many of us are university-educated, highly indebted, and destined to spend the rest of our lives renting expensive property from a series of landlords. We are culturally misread and misrepresented by most of the media as a metropolitan “middle class” — but this misreading is, in one sense, understandable. After all, for most people who go to university, economic security and fulfilling employment is the aspiration. Being comfortably middle class is what we were told would be possible. A large part of the process of our radicalization has been the realization that it is not.
Living in London, I see enormous wealth, even if I have no access to it. The glass and concrete monuments to finance capital show me exactly where the magic money tree is. The house that my partner and I rent, at £1,300 a month, is “worth” well over half a million. After living here for the best part of a decade, I am still stunned by the vast opulence on show in parts of the city center, and find even the alien comfort of leafy suburbs oppressive in the distance it stands from my own life. Alongside this, I see enormous and devastating poverty, and I know which end of the scale I’m closer to and where I would end up if I was out of work for any significant period of time.
Recent years have also seen a number of enormous marches through our city, as well as other large urban areas, which at least symbolically confront the seats of power that lie in close proximity. Last year, between 100,000 and 250,000 people marched to “Stop Trump.” For close to a decade now, there have been sometimes very large demonstrations against austerity, with similar numbers taking to the streets in 2012, 2016, and 2018. Over a hundred thousand marched in solidarity with refugees in 2015. Of course, the biggest marches of all were those calling for a second referendum, which I did not attend despite, albeit very reluctantly, voting Remain myself — precisely because I feared what came to pass last week.
To the degree that direct class struggle has been expressed through industrial action, while days lost to strikes remain historically low, whatever upsurge that we have seen has also been concentrated in urban areas like mine. Last year, strikes in the education sector accounted for 66 percent of all days lost, mostly due to action by (highly precarious) university employees. I, and many people I know, though not involved ourselves, joined picket lines in solidarity. What some have called the “pre-history of Corbynism,” the militant student movement of 2010, also took place mainly in cities and university towns, reaching a peak with the occupation of the Conservative Party headquarters.
A more raw and explosive expression of class rage swept the country in the riots of 2011 following the police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, North London. Again, these riots occurred in large, multiethnic urban centers. They were largely the fury of a different, far more deprived, and highly racialized section of the metropolitan working class to my own. But we share the same streets and neighborhoods. We live — almost — in the same city.
This range of experiences has had a very important effect on my consciousness. They led me to believe that radical change is an urgent necessity; they showed me that a great mass of people thought the same; and they embedded me in some kind of collective social reality that made and continues to make this all seem possible. It was relatively easy for me to imagine the kind of transformation that Corbyn’s Labour fought for, even if I always knew that achieving even half of it would entail a monumental struggle.
More than anything else, reflecting in the cold light of day, I believe that the sweeping and historic losses suffered by the Labour Party in its postindustrial heartlands show what happens when that sense of possibility — and the life-worlds that sustain it — is lost.
We know that Labour’s policies, individually at least, are hugely popular. A YouGov survey showed that Labour’s proposals to increase tax rates for people earning over £80,000, to nationalize the railways and key utilities, to tax wealth, and to give workers representation on company boards were all broadly supported by the public, and sometimes overwhelmingly so. Quite remarkably, given the results, the Lord Ashcroft survey released immediately after the election shows that by far the most important reason in guiding people’s vote was the National Health Service, at 55 percent. This dwarfed “Getting Brexit Done,” which only 36 percent of people cited as their main concern. It is clear to everyone that we need urgent action to address the housing crisis and that the market hasn’t delivered. A £10 an hour minimum wage would be an immediate and vast improvement in millions of people’s lives.
Why then did Labour not win in a landslide? Clearly, the answer to this is multifaceted and complex. It ranges from the intense polarization on Brexit to the unremitting media war against Corbyn, to his real flaws as a leadership figure, to a Conservative Party that was prepared and permitted to run a campaign composed almost entirely of misinformation. All of these reasons are real and important. But I believe that, underlying and exacerbating them, there is something deeper, decades in the making. Even when people at the doorsteps agreed with me, even when I thought I had won them around, in the marginal seats which Labour lost, time and again people simply did not believe that we were credible.
I don’t mean the kind of credibility that you win by producing a fully costed manifesto, or the kind of credibility that can be lost by a negative review from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. I mean the kind of credibility that you can only gain through a long-term and mundane demonstration that you are a positive force in people’s daily lives. Put bluntly, it is hard to convince someone you’ve never met, in a town you’ve never been in, that Labour really can effect a fundamental and irreversible shift in wealth and power, when the local party often can’t even adequately organize bin collection. Under these circumstances, it is reasonable for people to doubt us.
This may seem glib. But our lack of credibility in former heartlands points to a radical disjuncture in how class is experienced in contemporary Britain — especially England. The collapse of support for the Labour Party in postindustrial constituencies is the final stage of the destruction of the “worlds of labor” that once sustained it with an iron certainty. I do not simply mean the closure of mining, steel, and other industries, but the withering away of the much broader social and cultural realities that once flourished alongside them.
Unionization rates, as is well known, have collapsed, as has union militancy. But a whole range of institutions has also gone: socialist Sunday schools, sports and musical clubs, Labour associations, working men’s clubs, and friendly societies. These were the resources that the labor movement had built up over a century as a defence against the alienating and atomizing drive of capital; together, they meant that almost every facet of daily life was imbued with something now painfully lacking — working-class pride and a common-sense consciousness.
We have long known the problems that this decline poses for any socialist movement in practical terms. Less understood, perhaps, is the enervating effect it has had on consciousness, and on what people consider to be possible. Positions around nationalization and taxation, which once seemed abundantly obvious to people in what was, until December 12, called the Red Wall of Labour strongholds, now seem in a quite literal sense incredible.
The autobiographical sketch with which I opened this piece points to the ways in which the experiences of my section of the contemporary working class have come to stand in for what a mass and deeply embedded labor movement once provided. Even for us, it is a hopelessly inadequate substitute, but it nonetheless crucially extends our understanding of political possibility. Nothing similar has occurred in Mansfield or Bolsover, Blyth Valley or Crewe. There are no great accumulations of wealth that people can clearly see and imagine reappropriating. The local bourgeoisie, once based in industry and manufacture, has vanished, and with them, a tangible target of class struggle. Of course, there are huge supermarkets and warehouses for international capital. But these are distant and possibly overwhelming enemies, run locally not by their shareholders but by a managerial layer that itself often barely climbs into the lower middle class. Their mode of operation is designed not only to extract maximum surplus value, but to impress upon workers the sense of utter powerlessness.
If there is one thing that I have become convinced of over this election, it is that the sense of possibility which once existed in these towns cannot be reforged simply through having and arguing for good ideas. It can only be rebuilt slowly and meticulously and, most of all, in practice. In 2017, the novelty of the manifesto and the first genuine offer to working-class people for generations almost succeeded in jumping over this stage of development and initiating the rebuilding from above. In 2019, with two more years of relentless media attrition and a catastrophic polarization over Brexit, it wasn’t enough. If I was to point to a possible way forward, it would be to the work of Labour’s community organizing unit, which has been holding community meetings, running food banks, working with local housing campaigns, and in countless other ways, trying to carry out the essential task of showing that Labour in or out of office can be a positive force in people’s lives.
This work will take time, people, and resources. It will probably take much longer than the electoral cycle. It may entail an acceptance that Labour will be out of power for some time. But it is the only way, as far as I can see, of rebuilding the trust that is in tatters, of making our politics seem credible once again, and of beginning to repair the catastrophic divide that currently exists between the two major sections of the working class today. For the time being, opposition to Johnson is likely to occur in the major urban centers.
Searching for Strategy
We have to contend with the fact that we suffered a devastating defeat to a party of right-wing, racist nationalism that was shameless in its deployment of naked lies. We have to contend with a suspicion that these lies were so brazen that their purpose was not to deceive us, but to generate a radical distrust and disbelief that now extends across the entire political field, and probably harms us more than it harms them. We have to contend with the reality that the Right, even if it presently works almost entirely in the realms of ideology and psychological manipulation, is able to do so with stunning effect on a social fabric that is rapidly and catastrophically unraveling.
We have to reckon with the implication that, beyond the particularities of the various cynical smears against Corbyn, there may well be something very deeply rooted in British culture that is repelled by the thought of someone so unviolent, so unmasculine, so removed from an ethics of supremacy. We have to understand the consequences of the world’s sixth-largest economy deciding that it is simply not going to take climate change seriously.
Jeremy Corbyn was always something of a deus ex machina. Through historical circumstance, he came to occupy a position that neither he or we ever expected him to. It was always a position of enormous weakness. It was one that he occupied with almost superhuman dignity and courage, under unimaginable and unremitting assault. He stood on a transformative program, which offered infinitely more to working-class people than any other in my lifetime. He set himself to monumental tasks, and he almost succeeded against all the odds.
Despite the crushing electoral defeat, his leadership has been essential in building an anti-Tory and anti-austerity youth culture that may be hegemonic — Labour still won solid majorities in all age groups under thirty-five, and the largest share of voters under forty-five. Even if it takes a decade to fully emerge, any future left-wing social force will be hugely indebted to Corbyn’s leadership.
There are likely to be explosive social consequences to Conservative rule. I think the probability of a new wave of urban riots, akin to 2011 and 1981, is very high. I wrote recently about the deep crisis of traditional conservatism and the Tory Party, and stand by most of my analysis. What has surprised me is the speed and success with which they have managed to transform themselves into something qualitatively new, and join the global shift to an authoritarian, racist right, fully prepared to ignore the etiquette and take on the institutions of liberal democracy. My fear is not that the Conservatives are suddenly strategic geniuses capable of forging a stable, long-term hegemonic bloc. My fear is that, given the scale of the defeat and the extent of rebuilding that is required, they may not have to.
We gave everything, and we were right to. But it wasn’t enough, and we need to understand why. A return to centrism isn’t a strategy (does anyone remember The Independent Group: Change UK, or Tony Blair’s five million lost votes — the very places that have now turned blue?). A call by many on the far left, whose politics I share, to return “to the streets” isn’t a strategy. A blind continuation of Corbyn’s approach isn’t a strategy. Finding one requires a painful sifting through the ruins.