Is Labour The Albatross Around The Neck Of Progressive Politics?

With the Labour party reeling from last week's General Election defeat, Joe Kennedy asks if the party rested on its post war laurels just as it kowtowed to neoliberalism, that force he argues is responsible for the 'shittification' of everything

Sunday, May 10 2015: The left of the internet crackles with the recriminatory testiness of a relegated football team’s dressing room, but you need the sense of communality for anchorage. Otherwise, the return of the Tories with a scarcely believable majority feels like being grabbed under the armpits and tossed into an oubliette of solipsistic rage.

The predominant issue splitting the left, both in the run-up to and the aftermath of the election, was the political and ethical thorniness of Labour. Some argued, often persuasively, that to vote for them had a strategic necessity if another five years of austerity were to be avoided: the necessary corrections to the party’s rightwards drift could be effected by ameliorating alliances with the Scottish and Welsh nationalists or the Greens. Some felt that Ed Miliband had capitulated to a right-wing narrative which insisted both on the necessity of austerity and on immigration as a factor in the production of social and economic problems. These were arguably Tory-lite policies that echoed Labour’s collaboration with the Conservatives during last year’s Scottish referendum. Others simply withdrew from the process entirely.

Personally, I fell in the second of those categories. For some time, but particularly since last autumn and the referendum, I’ve felt that Labour is the albatross round the neck of progressive politics. From a number of points on the political spectrum, there has been a willingness to grant ‘Labour’ a certain synonymy with ‘the left’. The right have made relentless political capital from this, blaming socialism for the Iraq War and lambasting Ed Miliband’s moderate concessions to Keynesianism as Marxist ambitions for general redistribution. But hasn’t there been a similar syllogism on the broad left itself? In the days leading up to the election a phrase I heard on more than one occasion was ‘Labour, of course!’ as though there was simply no question that opposing austerity – and maybe even favouring some real redistribution – and voting for Miliband were natural bedfellows.

I’ve tried to describe the odd position my generation of early thirtysomethings fits into both culturally and politically for tQ in the past. We hit adulthood at the crescendo of the (British) End of History’s plausibility, in between Tony Blair’s thumping victory in 1997 and 9/11’s announcement that a post-political age was an impossible fantasy. We grew up being given the impression on TV (the alternative comedy of the 80s having just become ubiquitous and even hegemonic) and in the music papers that Thatcherism had been suffered on our behalves, that the struggles had been fought and won. New Labour, despite the abandonment of Clause 4 and the ominous blessings of the CBI and The Sun, were the crystallisation of every bedsit political fantasy of the Thatcher and Major years.

The crisis of Labour since 9/11 has manifested itself in all kinds of ways. While some of its early cheerleaders have abandoned the party, it’s truly astonishing how many people have clung onto it with a dedication that can only be explained in terms of cognitive dissonance. In some cases, it’s almost possible to believe that guilt-by-association over Blair has turned into a kind of Labour-at-all-costs defensiveness, an insistence that Blair must be overshadowed by the relative triumphs of the NHS and the Welfare State. The institution of the party is clung to anxiously with a cloth-cap nostalgia infectious enough to grab the imaginations of some younger politicos.

However, the notion of ‘reclaiming’ Labour seems to have much in common with the liberal-left fantasy of somehow saving the BBC from its ugly transformation in the age of radically marketised media. Both of these ideas had some purchase five years ago: I was willing to squint at Ed Miliband and see James Maxton or Nye Bevan, just as I was willing to find hints of the BBC that made Play For Today and Boys From The Blackstuff in its latter-day programming. Yet both these monuments to a certain ideal of a social democratic Britain have slithered further and further into the grasp of reactionary and neoliberal priorities. On the issue of Scotland, they have consistently whistled the same tune, note-perfect, as the Tories, and it’s this matter which is in many ways most telling about the failure of Labour in general.

Labour were viscerally opposed to Scottish independence last autumn, and worked with Cameron to grab the ‘Yes’ movement in a pincer. While the right appealed to a residual sense of shared patriotic glory and ‘Britishness’, Labour worked their socks off to defend their regional synonymy with the left and cast the SNP and other pro-independence factions as fanatical nationalists. Their media campaign was devoted to demonstrating how the independence project was incompatible with socialism, and it was a strategy they continued – and intensified – throughout the early months of 2015. With the SNP led by a declared social democrat, and pulled leftwards by its links with ‘pragmatic nationalist’ movements like Radical Independence, it outflanked Labour on policy in the most visible and undeniable of ways. However, Labour continued – and even now continue – to suggest that the SNP’s much-vaunted ‘surge’ was atavistic and chauvinistic. Even as a pledge card boasting of ‘controls of immigration’ and the acceptance of austerity measures such as a welfare cap forgot Labour’s radical history, it continually gestured to the past, claiming counterintuitively that the party is left-wing because the party was left-wing.

And here, perhaps, is the crux. The ideology which keeps a zombie neoliberalism in place in Britain works with concrete recourse to an almost abstract celebration of the past, a valourisation of ‘respect’ which brooks no questioning or analysis. This cuts across the political spectrum. It’s easy to point at Mumford and Sons and Alex James’ cheesemaking, as I did frequently under the Coalition, to see how a fetishisation of an airily pastoral Englishness has reinstated a form of social deference we genuinely believed had disappeared in the 1960s. We should be able to observe how both World Wars have been denuded of their historical specificity by a language sweated in sentiment in order to make them rallying points for a vacuous and increasingly aggressive patriotism. If we’re going to talk about this, however, we also need to stop deferring to Labour’s own attempts to limit the horizons of progressive discourse with its all-singing-the-International-in-a-new-hospital-in-1945 rhetoric. Labour were only ever a placeholder, a product of a niche in the political market for the representation of progressive thought: when they do not hold that place, they should have no claim on the imagination or the ‘democratic responsibilities’ of the left.

So, what now? Are we to, for the thousandth time, pledge to reform the party from within? Already the Blairites who kept their heads down under Miliband are talking about how the party needs to recapture the central ground it won in 1997, as if Ed really had been misguidedly ‘Red’. As such, a project of redesign inspired by the SNP’s belief – and further afield, the more radical beliefs of Syriza or Podemos – that there actually are lots of voters who can connect with anti-austerity narratives seems unlikely. Where will the alternative to Labour come from?

Any answer has to involve telling a better story than Miliband dared to tell in 2015. I felt for the guy. There was a moment when he was once again beaten in a televised debate by a leftwards shimmy from Nicola Sturgeon and his eyes betrayed that, really, he’d like to go that way as well. He seemed, briefly, to see outside capitalist realism, but knew that the die had already been cast in the opposite direction. What could he have said? What comes from the mouth of alternate history Ed? Well, perhaps something along the lines of nearly everything that everyone thinks is bad is actually a product of a neoliberal paradigm. Are you late for work every day on a rail service that costs three times its nationalised equivalent? That’s neoliberalism. Has the football team you support been bought by a businessman seemingly determined to run it into the ground for the purposes of asset-stripping? That’s also neoliberalism. Everything on the telly crap? That’s neoliberalism? Can’t get a council house? That is undoubtedly neoliberalism.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx famously stated that capitalism abstracted and dematerialised, that ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Now, it seems less a process of abstraction than what my friend Karl and I call ‘shittification’: neoliberalism makes everything shit, boring, banal, ineffective, depressing. The future is a game of join-the-dots-of-shit, getting stuck in at the level of actual things that are happening and, instead of hammering people with prefabricated conceptuality, offering the opportunity to see how the continuum of the terrible operates. From tenants’ rights organisations to the supporters’ movement in football, from the group struggling to save the local cinema from ‘development’ to the students resisting hiked tuition fees, there needs to be an energised and accessible conversation which eschews the predictability of V-mask-and-sound-system protesting.

As Alex Niven has argued consistently throughout the period of the Coalition, the local and concrete cannot be given over to the terms of a reactionary Big Society, and there has to be operable ways of bringing out the links between individual instances of the Good Cause. The success of the SNP at this election rests not only on Labour’s complacency but on the willingness of Sturgeon’s party to take their potential voters seriously and to treat them like adult political subjects, rather than attempting to woo them with revisionist tat about ‘hardworking families’ and ad hominem irrelevances. In other words, they were willing to believe that their electorate were willing to believe a narrative which proposed linking an empirical experience of immiseration with ‘abstract’ neoliberal ideology. They showed two and two and left it up people to make four. Rather than wallowing in defeat, it’s surely time to sit up and take note of this.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today