I am a socialist. It is difficult to write in a detached way so soon after a general election that delivered such a surprisingly decisive and divisive conclusion. I still feel emotionally fatigued, disorientated, and above all sad and angry at the future that faces so many who are already suffering at the hands of the 2010-2015 Tory-led coalition. It is little compensation that Clegg and his miscreants and Farage’s proto-fascists came comprehensively unstuck. But here goes. It was not that I expected Miliband and his tribe to deliver socialism, far from it. His Marxist father, Ralph, was entirely right when he judged the British parliamentary system ill-equipped to deliver on a socialist agenda (he had two sons to prove it the joke runs). My case for voting Labour was that a Labour government was a small – ok, tiny – progressive step. An advocate of permanent reform, about which I have blogged elsewhere, I considered a Miliband victory a reform to be celebrated and built on.
Polls have never offered foolproof predictions of election results, although the poll that went unpublished because it was ‘out of line’ did anticipate the exit poll and actual voting. Word is that there was a last-minute swing to the Tories on the part of voters who had previously indicated to pollsters that they would vote Labour or LibDem. More salient here, however, is why Labour failed to capture Number 10 and which lessons should be learned.
Cameron was returned by a mere24% of those entitled to vote (the turn-out was 66%). The media support for him was overwhelming: 80% of newspapers (even the Independent came out for a Con/Dem coalition), plus most TV channels. Tory ideology and its untruths were broadcast crassly and without restraint, the truth by-passed with impunity. Sociologically, wealth (check out the Tory party donors) purchased the political power elite and policy-set of their choice for a further five years. Could Labour have arrested this process? Undoubtedly. So what conclusions might we draw?
Was Ed Miliband’s elevation and effort to shake off the New Labour heritage of Blair, Mandelson and others as disastrous as has been claimed (not least but not only by Blair and Mandy)? It’s a resounding ‘no’ from me. Had it been New Labour opposing the Tories I would have found it as difficult to support them as I did during the Blair/Brown years: a vote for them would have contributed so little to a strategy of permanent reform. Might they have fared better with the electorate than Miliband? Maybe, but not necessarily. While I would not criticize Miliband for coaxing his (New Labour-dominated) party leftwards, a not inconsiderable accomplishment, his campaign was by no means faultless.
The principal flaw in Labour’s campaign has been pinpointed by several journalists and participants in social media. It lacked, possibly as a matter of decision, a compelling narrative. What was required was a principle-based case for social change illustrated by two sets of policies, the one to be implemented in the first 100 days, the second signalled for later. The largely reactive policies Labour bought into and promoted lacked anchoring in a narrative promising a better society and were (increasingly) fragmentary, rushed and ad hoc. Moreover, paradoxically, people did not vote for the party advocating policies they had told pollsters they supported.
‘Austerity-lite’ was no buzzword for voters pondering Labour, as the SNP so surgically and uncompromisingly showed.
But a winning Labour narrative is not so easily forged. The reasons for this go beyond its continuing New Labour discipleship. I must reiterate that I have no time for New Labour acolytes: why win elections if you only intend – after the manner of mercenaries – to be Tory-lite exponents of neo-liberal capitalism? Beware the Blairites competing to step into Ed’s shoes. David Miliband says Ed was mistaken in ‘looking back’, but what does he favour? He’s explicit: looking back to New Labour!
It is intrinsic to the role of the sociologist to analyse structural and cultural contexts. Narratives that are ‘rationally compelling’ are hard to write and communicate now. The culture of post-1970s financial capitalism is: (a) relativistic and (b) individualistic. ‘Pick and choose what you believe and value!’ How convenient. Wealth may have, and has, bought power. It has shares in culture too (although I am no economic determinist). Let’s say that Britain’s individualistic and relativistic culture is expedient for our governing oligarchy. Relativism and individualism have an affinity with and are functional for the maintenance of a (largely global) neo-liberal status quo.
If Labour has to reconstruct a principled narrative for the twenty-first century, how might it optimally do so in such inauspicious circumstances? And how should it read?
As Adam Smith acknowledged, raw capitalism is incompatible with justice and decency; and the present era of financial capitalism is a deal less palatable than postwar welfare capitalism. Justice and decency command a socialist or post-capitalist social formation. Yet there is a problem even saying this. One cannot, it seems, return even to a past and demonstrably superior capitalist formation, although the welfare state and the NHS through welfare capitalism were progressive advances, and regressive ‘reform’ since has undone much good and substituted far worse. If Labour’s 21st century narrative cannot – and politically and electorally it cannot – hark back, then it requires reconstructing and re-anchoring.
This is not the place to map such a narrative. A few parameters and pointers will have to suffice. Required are: (a) an empirically credible theory of financial capitalism and social change; (b) a vision of a better society; (c) a genuinely radical prospectus constructed around a novel, accessible and appealing conceptual frame; (d) an injection of political realism allowing not only for deep and enduring social and cultural structures and active opposition but for the perils of ideology, unintended consequences, contingency and the only too unpredictable ‘wobbles’ of agency; (e) a preparedness and strategies/tactics to circumvent or face down power underwritten by wealth; and (f) fully researched and articulated institutional alternatives to the status quo in such inter-connected domains as climate change, aid, sustainability, energy supply, political decision-making, economic policy, health, social care, housing, education, transportation and so on.
Remember too Ralph Miliband’s wise words. The parliamentary Labour party will have to recognise that it can only be one partner in a extra-parliamentary coalition of anti-capitalist or pro-socialist interests.
I have argued elsewhere that the sociological project has an affinity with the principles of socialism in that it is necessarily and morally oriented to lifeworld rationalisatiom. It is, in contemporary sociological parlance, normative, implying ‘ought’ as well as ‘is’. Having said that, if professional sociology delivers data and results that challenge sign-posted routes to socialism, so much the worse for the latter! A rethink will be required. But I have also referred to foresight sociology, referring to sociology’s duty to spell out empirically plausible institutional options (Giddens’ utopian realism); and to action sociology, referring to a need for the sociological community (as a whole) to actively confront ideological untruths even or especially against mild-to-coercive opposition. There is no doubt, for example, that the shift from welfare to financial capitalism has worked to the disadvantage of all but the fraction of the ‘1%’ and their allies (see my blogs on social class).
Considering Ed Miliband’s successor, it is difficult to look beyond Andy Burnham, most of the other candidates having yielded to capitalist temptation. Too like Ed? Unelectable? Bollocks: LETS FIGHT FOR WHAT WE CLAIM WE BELIEVE IN!