My younger self would have found much to recommend about the proposals put forward for a public vote by Power 2010 following their ‘deliberative poll’; and indeed my marginally wiser current self still sees much to recommend in ideas like fixed-term parliaments. However, one of these options – currently, the second most popular one – has created a disagreement between now-me and past-me. A younger me found being able to vote for ‘None of the above’ a rather liberating idea; it allowed one to express one’s dissatisfaction with the political process in a very real and demonstrable way, without having to spoil one’s ballot. I felt the UK’s political system to be staid, incapable of change and to be clearly ineffective of bringing about the sort of Britain I wanted to see.

Now that I’m older and have actually worked in politics, I begin to see where my younger self was being self-involved to the point of stupidity – and, indeed, why having this option on the ballot paper would be naught but an exercise in passive-aggressive intellectual masturbation.

Past-me had no clear ideas about what change he wanted to see, beyond perhaps a greener and fairer economy. But those ideas themselves are unclear: how exactly do you achieve them? What sort of policy changes do you need to bring in to make the UK ‘greener and fairer’? Who wins? Who loses out? And, moreover, how does voting for ‘None of the above’ tell politicians that these are the changes I want to see?

Even BNP voters, despicable as they are, at least have a clear idea of what change they want. Say this proposal is brought in for the next election, and 25% of the voting electorate opt for ‘None of the above’. What does this achieve beyond giving rise to a repetition of the now-hackneyed promises of the political class to ‘reconnect with the electorate’? It certainly doesn’t tell politicians that, say, you have concerns about Europe (UKIP), you have concerns about civil liberties & effective representation (Lib Dems), or that you have concerns about the environment (Greens). It’s merely an angry undirected shout about a system you have no confidence in, but don’t care enough about to overturn. It’s a sop to an electorate whose lives are comfortable enough that they don’t have the impetus to fight for proper change.

I’d like to say to my younger self (I’m sure we’ve all had this conversation in our heads before) that if I really think our political system is incapable of change and that the country desperately needs radical solutions, then don’t tick a box labelled ‘None of the above’, go out and fucking revolt. If you really believe none of the parties represent you, then I expect to see barricades in the street. Anything else is cowardice.

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The Racist Narrative

September 24, 2008

Out canvassing in Clerkenwell, in a towerblock. I knock on the door of a white woman in late middle age, who doesn’t seem particularly pleased to see me. This is nothing new, canvassers are used to being greeted with low level suspicion. I begin my spiel, and ask a few questions about issues affecting the local area.

“Well,” she began, and her eyes darted across the hallway to the door opposite, which a black woman talking loudly into a mobile phone had just entered. “You wouldn’t like it if I told you what’s wrong around here.”

“From your tone, I’m sure I can guess.”

“You know, my daughter, who’s got two little girls, can’t get anything. And Them across the way never do a stroke. That door just bangs all day long”

In Islington, whenever anyone who lives on an estate is talking to someone associated with politics and says something about ‘getting anything’ they mean social housing. It later transpired that her daughter did indeed have ‘something’, which was a one bedroom flat. But since she had two daughters of her own, she wanted more.

I did some further digging. She had voted Lib Dem all her life, up until the last election. She didn’t want to tell me who she’d gone for. But, she said, “I bet you can guess.” And I could. In Clerkenwell, and the rest of old Finsbury, the socialist vote is divided between Labour and the Independent Working Class Association. The IWCA is, in essence, a communist version of the BNP. They employ the same standard of thuggish activists and are only missing an additional ‘W’ from their acronym to sum up what they represent. They do have something else in common with the BNP, and that’s their narrative.

Right now in the campaigning world there’s a lot of people still having Obamagasms over the way in which the candidates have conducted themselves in the US presidential elections. I’ve written about this before, but what seems to have been missed in all the fuss and bother over the narratives of the main parties is that the far right has been using this approach for some time, and it’s been effective. We’ve missed this for several reasons; partly because the things they say on the doorstep don’t get back to us in the way that their campaign literature does, but also because mainstream politicians have a well justified loathing of the BNP and what they stand for. We don’t want to believe that they’re capable of using the same political tricks as lovely Obama.

But they have, and what they’ve done is very clever – in a rather sickening way. The narrative goes like this. The bourgeoisie brought foreign workers over to undercut the wages asked for by British workers. The foreigners are now taking the jobs and the resources (e.g. housing) that should be going to people from round here. When you complain to the Government, they say you’re being racist. But racism is something invented by the bourgeoisie to stop you complaining about Them coming in and taking our jobs and houses. Only the BNP/IWCA are telling the truth about what’s really happening.

It’s a classic Marxist analysis of power; the bourgeoisie are using social ethics to control the working classes. If it’s made immoral to complain about resources being given to Them, then the working classes can no longer do it.

Of course, this is ridiculous. Distributing resources on racial lines is immoral however you cast it. But it’s a narrative that can be seductive for those whose lives are directly affected by inadequate social resources. When someone mutters darkly that there would be enough housing for your daughter to have a place that’ll fit her and her kids if They weren’t here, you’re more inclined to agree if you’re a Clerkenwell grandmother than if you’re a suburban teacher. And it is true that if They left there would be enough social housing in London for the white working classes.

The fact that that social housing wouldn’t be there in the first place if not for the additional wealth brought in by importing workers is neither here nor there; macroeconomic arguments have little relevance for the grannies of Clerkenwell. And outright condemnation of those espousing the racist narrative does nothing except play into the hands of the racists; it’s what results in the response “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you? Try living down here,”on the doorstep.

I still do not think that the BNP will ever be a major party. But, at present, we are not countering the racist narrative. We need to do better.

‘The Social Democrats haven’t a hope of winning a general election, [because the unemployed and low-paid] make up 40-45 percent of the entire country’s workforce. Certainly under the present electoral system, they will provide Labour with a solid 200-seat base.

Tony Blair, August 1982

And so Labour believed back then, even though the election of 1983 took them perilously close to undercutting that 200-seat base. This notion of a ‘base’ of support was what made the formation of New Labour possible – pragmatically, abandoning the interests of your core supporters in order to attract more support from other demographics would seem to be electorally suicidal. But if that core support could be relied upon to vote Labour regardless, then abandoning those principles which run counter to the interests of the demographics whose votes you are seeking would be a wise step. Assuming, of course, your only goal in politics is the attainment of power.

Now, of course, Labour’s support is collapsing across the entire spectrum, and the loyalty of that ‘base’ is rapidly evaporating. In many respects, it’s surprising that it lasted as long as it did – eleven years in which a supposedly socialist party presided over a massive widening of the income gap is eleven years in which the interests of that ‘base’ were only serviced perfunctorily. Many of the voters who previously would have been Labour loyalists are now supporting the BNP, the Lib Dems, or even the Tories.

The rise of the BNP has caused an awful lot of anguish, but it is in no way surprising. After all, the BNP are a socialist party with an emphasis on nationalism (sound familiar?), and so can legitimately claim to be standing up for at least the short-term interests of the white working classes. They have thereby provided that particular demographic with an alternative, and they’re taking it. Why should the working classes listen to middle-class moralising about the importance of free trade, the market and allowing immigrants to work here when they see no return for themselves? You can’t sell an economic theory by talking about GDP growth, people need to be given something real.

While the Lib Dems are offering long-term solutions to help close the income gap, none of the main parties is putting forward the same sort of short-term massive state intervention that would make a real difference to the lives of these people now. There is no easy market-based solution here – low-skilled workers are simply economically unproductive given the UK’s position in the global economy. There are far fewer significant quantities of natural resources for them to extract, or factories willing to pay the higher wages required by UK employees. State intervention would merely prolong the inevitable.

Nonetheless, this has not prevented calls from within the Labour Party for a return to collectivism and to the party’s roots. Labour is currently caught in a quandary: its old voters are beginning to desert it for a party which partly resembles its former incarnation, while its new voters are deserting it for a party that resembles its present incarnation. Which way to turn? Either field is contested. But surely returning to its previous values would at least give it the security of Blair’s abovementioned 200 seats?

This is not the case. Employment patterns have shifted throughout Labour’s time in power. Examine the graph below.

Over the last fifteen years, the population of the working classes as a percentage of the workforce has declined. This trend is likely to continue in the near future – as I mentioned before, there is simply little call for low-skilled work in the current British economy. Even if Labour did manage to revive their support, relying on a shrinking demographic as a springboard back to power – not to mention a demographic that will be fought over with the BNP – is a foolish move. Thus, I suspect that they will make some cursory moves to the left in an effort to regain some of their heartland support, but retain their market ideology so as to not lose all of their new voters.

This will also affect the BNP. No matter how well they do, since they find their support in a shrinking demographic they can never wield the influence to bring about the changes they seek. For this to happen would require a massive expansion in Britain’s manufacturing industry, which is extremely unlikely even with higher oil prices making it more appealing to produce goods closer to home.

But what do we Lib Dems do about this disaffected demographic? What principled approaches can we take to improve their quality of life? As yet, I am uncertain. I am currently working on this issue with a colleague, but have yet to come up with a solution. I begin to suspect that the answer may lie in high tech industries that require low skilled workers for the production processes, as in biotechnology. But even still, answers on a postcard please.