by Edie Miller
Some insightful comparisons have been drawn in recent weeks between the Labour Party’s platform at the recent general election and their platform in 1983. The 1983 election saw Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair, two future Labour leaders – from opposite ends of what often feels like a yawning, cavernous gulf of an intra-party political spectrum – take their seats in Parliament. Labour’s heavy defeat under Michael Foot in 1983, interpreted as a decisive rejection of the “longest suicide note in history” manifesto, which in some regards starkly echoes the one that was welcomed by 41% of voters earlier this month, heralded the decline of class as a motivating factor in British politics. The chasm of time elapsed and ideologies asserted – and vanquished – between then and now is traversed by one ineluctable thread, the treatment of class in our political discourse.
When Margaret Thatcher said in 1987 that there was ‘no such thing as society,’ it wasn’t because it was true, but because she wanted it to be true. Indeed, most of the Thatcherite project over her 11 years of premiership could be understood as a crusade to will that idea into reality, a bit like announcing the extinction of the ferret while simultaneously heading up Britain’s most prolific manufacturer of bespoke ferret-skin socks.
The effects of this attempt to destroy society, all the while profiting from its destruction, have, as Thatcherism ossified into hegemony, intensified over time. In the last week, the working class community of Kensington – a phrase that until recently many people would have regarded an oxymoron – pulled together to help feed, clothe and house the former residents of the Grenfell tower block. Meanwhile journalists took to the internet to crow their surprise that such a community existed, much less was able to organise efficiently and effectively in the gap left by a conspicuously absent state.
Class interests never left us, but class consciousness is undoubtedly undergoing a resurgence in the UK. Several forces over the last 35 years contributed to a decline, of class consciousness, including notably Blairism’s politics of aspiration. Late last year I heard Tony Sewell, CEO of Generating Genius, a charity that works with high achieving BAME students from disadvantaged backgrounds, speak at my university. Sewell’s model of social justice is one that relies heavily on social mobility; he spoke of his delight in going to university and leaving the other boys of his peer group behind in Brixton. Eighty years after the Clydeside socialist John McLean implored his comrades to ‘rise with your class, not out of it,’ Sewell founded an organisation based on the opposite – plucking those deemed most deserving of salvation from their deprived backgrounds (for Sewell, specifically boys, as he mentioned the desire of young women and girls to ‘keep their nails nice’ as preventing them from throwing them into STEM careers) and helping them into education and towards prosperity, rather than trying to address the systemic issues that disadvantaged them in the first place.
Social mobility and the politics of aspiration rely on an uneven keel, mobility contrasts with stasis, aspirations fulfilled with aspirations quashed. Aspiration fundamentally weakens the capacity for class unity and solidarity because it encourages people to identify with groups of which they are not actually part. You might have nice curtains, you might have managed to get your kids into the best state school possible for your area. But so long as you rely on tax credits to pay the rent, and need the NHS as a safety net for when the worst happens, it is simply not in your materials interests to vote from the perspective of someone who doesn’t.
In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx employs the unflattering metaphor of French peasant households as potatoes in sacks: ‘consequently incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention.’ This dismissal comes from a contrast with the industrial proletariat, which in regular close contact at the site of production was able to develop a class consciousness and institutional forms of a class for-itself. The fragmented peasantry, by contrast, was politically passive, its sole political function being to vote and, largely, to vote in support of reactionary parties. Of course, this miserabilist view of class organisation is not quite so defeatist as it immediately seems: potatoes sustained workforces for hundreds of years, and (trust me, I grew up hefting bags of them around) they’re pretty fucking heavy when you chuck them. As is only correct, this damning analysis of the condition of any oppressed class contains within it an acknowledgment of its potential – thus, a green sprout of hope.
While doorstepping for Labour in the weeks before the election, one of the most uncomfortable experiences I had was with an older man in a tiny house to the north of Colchester, where I live. He had a long term health problem, and was completely reliant on the NHS to keep him alive. His 30 year old daughter was in a similar situation and on a zero hours contract which meant that, although she had only managed to secure two days of work in the last month, she wasn’t eligible for welfare – the two of them were scraping by on his pension.
The daughter in particular was lovely, and adamant that something had to change. The older man on the other hand simply wouldn’t trust me, he was certain that there had been no cuts to the NHS, and so we quickly found ourselves at an impasse. Even as I tried to drum up the figures and put them in context, I was met with a solid ‘well, that’s just your opinion’. I know how I must have looked, standing on this poor bloke’s doorstep in a bright red t-shirt with a votelabour hashtag on it, talking with a northern accent, like some wide-eyed transplanted activist who fell out of the sky and somehow, by serendipity or bad luck, landed in North Essex. Of course he didn’t believe me. How could I seem to him like I was living a life anything like his? But the truth is I am. I get by on just over £8,000 a year, and I have health problems that mean that without the NHS I would almost certainly be dead. Unlike some on the right of the party, I wasn’t canvassing for Labour out of a sense of charity, it’s in my interest to vote for them just as much as it is his.
I didn’t manage to convince him that cuts to the NHS were a fact not an opinion, though a better activist might have done. The question of how best to communicate Labour’s message to voters like these remains of course, though I’m glad to see the decline of the prevailing wisdom of the last decade that the answer is ‘more racism.’ Finally we seem to have reached a point where it is possible to offer a positive message to counter a thoroughly negative situation, rather than throwing more negativity at it and wondering why the air of the political climate increases in toxicity.
The work done by the idea of ‘opinion’ here is important. Take for example the numerous quizzes and websites like Vote for Policies, that allow voters to pick blind from lists of policies offered by different parties, choosing the ones that most appeal to them – the idea being that they will then be given a definitive answer as to which party they ought to vote for. Surely a better model would be this: a website where the voter can input their earnings; their gender identity; their ethnicity; their health status; whether they rent or own their home (if indeed they have one); whether they’re anti- or pro- the fiery destruction of all things… and be advised on how they should vote from there. It makes no sense to treat voting like a ‘What’s the Right Summer Music Festival for You?’ quiz in GQ or Cosmopolitan, when the truth is that the government we have is able to determine our right to live or die, to wither or to thrive.
The commentariat driven political culture of the past couple of decades has, too, seen opinions transmuted into fact; but also vice versa. I recognise the irony of my writing this in what is essentially an opinion piece, but it remains true that too often the voices that speak to us as a nation are white, Oxbridge educated, and materially wealthy enough to benefit from the decline of a society organised along class lines, as opposed to the reassertion of it.
One thing I have found particularly refreshing about Corbyn’s campaign is that the vision he offers is not one we are supposed to accept because we ‘like’ it, rather because we need it; because austerity kills, and we cannot go on like this. When Cameron and Osborne tightened the nation’s belt, people choked to death. This is what the Labour Party needs to emphasise in the next few months, and indeed when it — as now seems both possible and plausible — eventually forms a government. People, especially the poor and the young, have been forced to realise afresh in the last few years, that we can no longer base our politics on what we want, or how we see ourselves through the rose-tinted glasses of aspiration, but on what we need – in order to survive, and to live a good life. Even without the traditional institutional forms that unified, to an extent, the industrial working class as a class for-itself, in this election the response to ever tightening pressure has been for Marx’s sack of potatoes to throw itself hard at the ruling class.
This is the reality of the reassertion of class interest and organisation in 2017: the forces that attempted to divide us have failed, precisely because they failed us. When all is said and done, we will always return to the bosom of the collective when we need it, as we do now more than ever.
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