Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Farewell to Welfare Statism or Good Riddance

Andrew Pearmain writes:
So what do we make of that then? On a personal level, the 2015 General Election leaves me with two contrasting emotions. Firstly, a certain sense of vindication about the outcome, because for several years I've been the only person I know predicting an outright Tory majority. It was pretty obvious what they, and the disgruntled and “worried” great British public, were up to. On the other hand I feel deep gloom about what a far right English government will do with its shiny new “popular mandate”. I suspect that, compared to this lot, the abrupt adjustments to neoliberal globalisation engineered by Thatcher/Major, New Labour and the Con/Lib coalition will come to seem partial and cautious.

The smug determination with which Cameron and Osborne shut the doors to their neighbouring abodes and on us poor bemused electors, and set about ruling party business as usual, was quietly terrifying. It's full steam ahead to a low-tax, low-wage, low-skill, low-productivity, low-security, low-quality economy of services and consumption, retail and distribution. Social tensions and divisions are turning into semi-permanent fractures along class and race lines; “culture war” between competing identities and interests more relentlessly vicious; regional animosities more blatant and unapologetic. In or out of Europe, it doesn't really matter, we're heading for the worst of America, a nation profoundly and permanently ill at ease with itself. This small island is more turned against itself than pretty much anywhere outside the Middle East.

The political prospects of the “anti-Tory alliance” look suitably bleak. The Lib Dems, having been seduced by the lure of ministerial office to provide the Tories in coalition with a veneer of “conscience”, have been duly cast aside. I expect we'll see a revival of their “social democratic” leftism, relapse into comfortable opposition, and a further slide into historical irrelevance. The SNP cheerfully stepped forward to frighten the poor bloody Sassenachs into doing what they were told. I knew some of these new-found, ex-Tartan Tory “anti-austeritans” in former guises - step forward “comedy impresario” and old Labour leftist Tommy Sheppard! -  and believe me, they are just as careerist and opportunist as the old Labour beardies they've displaced. Without the labour movement disciplines that just about kept the old guard in check, we can expect some spectacular nonsense from these new Bravehearts. The Greens, as I've written elsewhere, continue to squander the historical opportunity of climate change for a secure niche on the margins of the political establishment. 

As for Labour, the real surprise is that they've still got so many MPs. How did these 230-odd bores and chancers and big-mouths get anybody to vote for them? The North London “weirdo” had his very own Sheffield-arena moment with his tablet/tombstone (or was it the “gotta” with Russell Brand? Or the “hell yes”? Or the stumble off the stage in Leeds? Choose your own historical embarrassment). Surely, for all the thrashings of the New Labour dinosaurs - “We were right all along!” - we can agree that Labourism is finally, definitively, thankfully dead, an ex-parrot of a subaltern mentality/emergent ideology. Even Neal Lawson, chair of perennially Labour loyalist think-tank Compass, is talking of “kicking the cat to see if it's dead”. We've had Old Labour, New Labour, Next Labour, and New New Labour if Mandelson pulls off his latest zombie trick. Now we have No Labour in Scotland, the South and East of England, and pretty much anywhere anyone else can be bothered to push them out of the way. The question we now need to ask, and which the next five years will almost certainly answer, is what dies with Labourism?

The central project of the forthcoming Tory government will be to complete what first-wave Thatcherism only partially accomplished: to dismantle the one undisputed historical achievement of Labourism, the welfare state. It has always been a deeply compromised legacy, and the contradictions within it – enabler or oppressor? Safety net or trap? Divider or unifier? - have continually undermined its popularity and efficacy. But this election gives the neo-Thatcherites carte blanche to slash welfare, submit benefits to the same squeeze as wages, and carry on the already advanced programme to outsource the public sector's marketable functions. This will entrench our established social relations of wealth and poverty, exploitation and subalternity, grievance and deference, “striver”/“shirker” (and doesn't that hegemonic couplet mark a significant advance on the 1980s stereotype “scrounger”) apparently forever, or for as long and as deeply as makes no difference. In waving farewell to the welfare state, I have to declare an interest. Born dirt-poor in the de-industrialising north of England, but bright and ambitious, I was a child of the welfare state, the beneficiary of benefits, free health care, a scholarship to grammar school, then fully-funded university. In bidding it good riddance as well as farewell, there may be some Oedipal element in my attitude to the welfare state, but that does at least alert me to its essential paternalism, which is surely what's done for it in the court of public opinion.

Much has been said and written about growing inequality, with lots of trendy demographic and economic studies – Wilkinson, Picketty, Dorling etc. - briefly cited by the formers of liberal opinion  in order to fuel philanthropic outrage. For me, the more significant and comparatively neglected social phenomenon of modern Britain has been the stalling of social mobility, the sense that the country is “stuck” in established patterns of power and wealth, that individuals or sub-groups can no longer move up (or down) the social scale by virtue of their own talents and efforts (or lack of them). Instead, we have a system of dynastic succession in power, property, business ownership and acumen, educational and cultural prestige, and even in Parliament. I for one am sick to my stomach at the sight of posh boys taking over everything from art and fashion, even bloody pop music, to food culture, broadcasting and sporting pastimes and whole “hipster” districts of London, invariably assisted by Daddy's money, contacts and reputation   And because it's all “kept in the family”, nobody sees fit to question any of it. Meritocracy was only ever a useful myth, but it helped keep the spirits up in a grim postwar Britain. They're drooping now.

We can rail against the basic unfairness of it, but by far the most destructive aspect of social stagnation is the way it traps people in poverty and misery and dependency; in other words, the not so tender clutches of the welfare state. There are now several generations of families and communities all across Britain who have never had secure employment. They are sustained in various incapacities and disabilities, including the inability to take care of themselves. And don't they make a handy scapegoat/bogey, especially when featured in the burgeoning sub-genre of reality TV known as “poverty porn”? Even the proliferation of foodbanks can be explained away by their lumpen fecklessness, because “these people” spend their benefits on alcohol and tobacco and have to rely on do-gooders for food.  It is fear of that state of destitution, of being somehow hurt by people already in it or of falling into it yourself, which lies behind the mood of “anxiety” which apparently was the key factor in deciding how people voted in this general election.
So what can we “on the left” we do about it? Firstly, we have to accept that the welfare state is dead, along with the century-old tradition of Labourism, itself a strange amalgam of “respectable” workerism and liberal philanthropy. Secondly, we can start to build a new kind of “social welfarism” from the bottom up, that echoes pre-Labourist traditions of mutuality and self-reliance, but adds new 21st century networks and styles. That's what  I plan to do, by returning to the “front line” of social work which 25 years of social services management has taken me further and further away from. I'm sick of the make-believe of “policy development” and “performance management”, of ever rosier reports of the state of things as you go up the hierarchy so that the crock of shit on the ground becomes a bed of roses seen from the top floor of County Hall. If we want to recreate the bonds of social solidarity and mutual interdependence which our “politics” says we do, we can't sit around waiting for the “welfare state” to deliver it, as Labourism promised us it would. Like the pioneers of pre-Labour socialism, we have to do it ourselves. I fully expect to become tired and disillusioned on a professional diet of human misery and squalor, but I might just help one or two people climb out of it.   

The New Plague

Willie Thompson writes:

In the week of the general election the New Scientist journal, which is published on Saturdays, had an accidentally appropriate headline on its front cover (referring to the danger of mutant bugs} it reads,


Which would likewise do very well for the political situation we find ourselves in now. The cover also advertises another of the articles inside, ‘No person, no vote: How health inequalities distort democracy’. That article links differential health outcomes with social class, showing how lower-income electoral strength is consequently weakened. 

It was an exceptionally important election with a remarkable as well as an exceptionally calamitous outcome – and also an exceptionally dirty one. The Tories invoked near-racist prejudice against Scottish voters and attempted, with some success, to fasten on the SNP the scary role that the communists used to occupy in British right-wing imagination. The Labour Party rhetoric did little to challenge this caricature or emphasise that the SNP had evolved into a mildly left-wing social democratic force which had a record of devolved government very much in accordance with British social values as they used to be in the days before Thatcher. They simply tried their hardest to dissociate themselves.

To be sure the Labour campaign had plenty of weaknesses and shortcomings. Not that a boldly left-wing one would have enhanced the chances of victory; it might even have weakened it given the nature of the southern English political climate. What it might have done but failed to do was to present a coherent and convincing programme of progressive change that would have addressed the various issues hurting the public throughout the country. For example, alongside the protection of the NHS from market rapacity and introducing controls on private renting, it could have proposed returning the railways first of all to public control via regulation and then to public ownership – not by immediate outright renationalisation, which would have incurred enormous expense, but by resuming the various franchises as they expired.

Instead what the Miliband team did was to staple on a few socially progressive items to what remained an overall acceptance of a society governed by neoliberal values, exemplified in Ed Balls’ economic strategy, which needed a magnifying glass to distinguish from George Osborne’s. Moreover, while not advocating it, EU withdrawal should not have been excluded as an option in all circumstances if its bureaucracy insisted in blocking socially progressive measures. Moreover Labour  should, in particular, have promised to have nothing to do with TTIP; instead that was viewed with some approval.

In addition the Labour Party should have denounced the sort of political rhetoric favoured by our elites, emphasising that, ‘Hard Decisions’ and Tough Choices’ are not hard and tough for the people who make them in their well-cushioned comfort, but for the citizens who have to endure them. Labour was accused of being anti-business, to which it responded only with weak denials. What it should have proclaimed loudly and emphatically was along the lines of ‘What we’re in favour of are businesses which give their workforce a fair deal, which are attentive to the needs of their customers, which pay their taxes willingly and are alert to their environmental responsibilities. These we’ll applaud, listen to and support; what we’re against are ones who do the opposite, all too prevalent in the present-day neoliberal climate’. That’s not a socialist programme, but is one which the evidence of the recent past suggests would have found a public response even in ‘middle England’.

The Labour campaign was too left-wing, we’re informed. Like in Scotland? And what happened to the Lib Dems, who were surely ‘aspirational’ enough? Back in 2010 after the coalition was formed one of their MPs complained that he hadn’t been elected to make poor people even poorer. That is exactly what his party did and for their treachery they got their just deserts, which regrettably was not to the public advantage.

Now in the aftermath, while Tories and their stuffed-wallet backers gloat and plan their next assault upon the common good, another weasel word is intruding into the vocabulary as the heirs of the Blair-Mandelson gang (plus Blair and Mandelson themselves) crawl out of their political slime to try to recapture what remains of the party for their catastrophic project of being indistinguishable from the Tories – or even worse if that were possible. That word is ‘aspirational’, a code term in this context for the active encouragement of greed and irresponsibility. It’s otherwise known as ‘I’m all right Jack.’

Were Labour to go down this toxic route, as it may well do, the likely inheritor in the absence of other considerations, might even be UKIP, who, in spite of their election disappointments polled strongly, especially in Labour heartlands like North East England. We face the possible nightmare scenario in five years time of UKIP doing in these places what the SNP has done to Scottish Labour and Lib Dems. One of these other considerations however is the Green Party, which will be striving to prevent any such outcome. Its electoral successes on May 7-8 were modest, but they provide a strong base on which to build and expand.

In the event of the Blairites triumphing, a possible response would be for those on the Labour left together with other honest members and MPs to split away and form a loose coalition with other progressive political forces such as the SNP and the Greens. Tony Benn in one of his last public meetings, in South Shields, argued that the Labour and Green parties should work together, and in Scotland the Greens there act in co-operation with the SNP and relations are friendly.
We will have to see, but without any doubt whatever we are on the point of experiencing interesting times – in the Chinese sense.

Friday, 1 May 2015

These are the chumps who lost Scotland

Some years ago in a time BTC (Before The Crash), a group of us wrote a booklet entitled Feelbad Britain. (Available at It received mild interest and then passed into the oblivion reserved for small political tracts. One sentence from its first paragraph sums up its content: Twenty-first century Britain, our country, is afflicted with a deep-seated and widespread social malaise. Since that distant past, this malaise has deepened. One obvious factor is the revelation that our high-street banks, once pillars of respectability, are nests of crooks who have managed to steal billions of pounds without any retribution. Another is the ongoing disclosing of just how deep rooted has been a culture of sexual depravity and paedophilia amongst once-revered entertainers and politicians. Perhaps the defining revelation is that an allegedly demented paedophile was able a few weeks ago to sign his name to a letter requesting leave-of-absence from the institution of which he remains a member: the House of Lords. Presumably his advisors thought it might be embarrassing for him to continue to sign to collect his £300/day ‘expenses’. Truly, England has become a sad and dispiriting country.
Meanwhile, amidst this malaise, a suitably sad and dispirited election campaign is underway. On the Conservative side, this lack of any spirit is understandable. If one accepts that there are only two kinds of election campaign: steady as she goes and throw the rascals out then clearly they have to be bound by the former and unexciting slogan. Steady as she goes, chaps, careful not rock the boat, we’ve got the wind in our sails, easy does it… (I think that’s enough nautical stuff). Even so, Cameron has seemed so lack-lustre as to require a special boost of amphetamines to inject just a bit of dash into his manner.
The issue really is just why the ‘throw the rascals out’ Labour campaign has been so pitiful. Just why these devotees of the West Wing with their expensive American advisers and their months of preparation have managed not just to be totally devoid of any spirit but also to be so inept. These, after all, are the chumps who lost Scotland, the heartland of the labour movement, Red Clyde and all that. Say it very loud: these are the chumps who LOST SCOTLAND.
It is not as though there were not plenty of warning signs. The electoral system for the Scottish Parliament could have been designed expressly to stop any one party dominating but in 2011, the SNP did win an overall majority. Then they came within touching distance of succeeding in the referendum. Then, instead of realising that by siding so openly with the Tories as pro-Union they had poisoned their reputation, that when, last year, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Johann Lamont, resigned saying that Scottish Labour was treated like a branch office of London”, she was replaced not by an MSP but a political bruiser from Westminster. At the time, Henry McLeish, another former Labour first minister, said that Scottish Labour supporters no longer know “what the party stands for” and that it had given “enormous ground to the SNP unnecessarily”. But still the chumps carried on oblivious.
It could still all be a dream and we could wake up on 8 May and find that it was the same-old two-party system. But the Scottish polls all suggest otherwise. The result of the inevitable bargaining over a minority government will clearly fill the columns. But another, underlying issue will also arise; can the Labour Party survive the debacle of losing Scotland. In terms of simple arithmetic, the answer is yes, it can survive without Scotland. In 1997, it won with a UK majority of 179 so even losing 41 seats in Scotland would have left it with a massive majority. It would even have won in 2005 though with a majority of barely 20. In a sense, the arithmetic is even better if one takes into account the fact that Scotland is over-represented with several small seats. It could even, looking to the future, survive the loss of Wales if one follows the idea that if Scotland goes then perhaps Wales will also see the advantage of having a progressive regional party look after its interests. In 2010, Labour won 29 of 40 Parliamentary seats there though with a historically low share of the vote, 36.3%. In principle, taking 1997 as a marker, it could still gain a majority of close to 100 even if it were to be wiped out in both Scotland and Wales. Even the result in 2005, a Labour majority of 66 would be almost a dead-heat without Celtic votes.
To appreciate what this would mean requires some graphics.

Electoral Map, 1997
This is the best that Labour has received in modern times. And here is the map from the other famous victory in 1945 when Labour had a majority of 150.

UK in 1945 general election
Finally, let’s look at the 2010 result.

UK in 2010 election
These three show how dramatically concentrated Labour has become regionally within England even in the miraculous victory of 1997 compared with 1945 when it actually won fewer seats.  Since 1945, entire regions, notably East Anglia and the east Midlands drifting down to London have become effective no-go areas for Labour. In 2005, there was almost dead-heat in England as shown below, achieved by Labour holding on to seats in the west Midlands and this could be repeated in a future election. It is almost certainly the best it can hope for from this election.
In other words, Labour can survive and even win a Parliamentary majority without the Celtic votes. However, it would become essentially a regional party ruling over the entire U.K. as well as Northern Ireland from a swathe of northern England and central London.  This would be more difficult once the slow-motion Electoral Commission had regularised seats boundaries but still not impossible. The question is, even if this electoral manoeuvre could be successfully carried through, is such a regional domination politically, let alone democratically, possible. The problem is exacerbated by the likely issue that Labour would win a majority of the seats but not of the total vote. England is not a country prone to civil war but a scenario of Labour ruling from such a confined English base would seem to set a possible scenario for another one.

Electoral Map of England in 2005 general election
Unless there is a sea-change in the next five days, the result of this election seems likely to raise a whole raft of questions, essentially concerning legitimacy. These could arise almost immediately if, as present rhetoric suggests, Labour would try to govern without making any kind of agreement with the regional party which has just wiped it out in one part of the U.K. The same issue, though as a kind of mirror-image, will come about if the Conservatives push ahead with their commitment to limit parliamentary votes on issues on which Scotland has devolved powers to English M.P.s Although Labour has largely tried to avoid the issue, it was in fact first voiced by a Labour M.P., Tam Dalyell, back in 1977 and became known thereafter as The West Lothian Question after Dalyell’s Scottish constituency.
This problem has been avoided by the three main parties largely because they pretend that they are genuinely national bodies choosing to follow U.K. national sentiment in the belief that Northern Ireland is a kind of foreign country with its own mysterious and potentially frightening political governance. The Tories have moved closest to accepting that they are basically an English party having been wiped out themselves in Scotland in 1997. It is hard to remember that up to 1987, the Tories had 21 seats in Scotland and were only overtaken by Labour there in 1955 when it still operated as the Unionist Party before merging with the Conservative Party of England and Wales.
The Liberal Democrats have an odd, historically based regional pattern with a geographical base in the South West followed by patches in the North West, Scotland and Wales which essentially follow the bases of the old Liberal Party. Given that most these last are likely to go in this election, their regional base will become quite clear.
The regional basis of Labour once it has lost Scotland and, potentially Wales, and having no real links with any Northern Ireland party will pose it with a huge problem given that it has become a party essentially run from a London-based machine. Only Manchester outside of London still possesses anything like a regional power-base. One of the most difficult issues for Labour, if it does form a minority government, is what to do about DevoManc given that it was negotiated directly by local Labour bosses without, apparently, any involvement of the London leadership. If similar powers to that accorded to Greater Manchester are passed to other cities, mostly northern, then it will be seen throughout the rest of England as a way of privileging Labour’s northern base. If it lets Manchester proceed on its own then it will enrage leaders in cities such as Leeds, Newcastle and Liverpool.
The fact is that Labour has become a regional party but without the local, regional dynamism which propels other regional-based grouping in countries such as Spain and Italy. And, of course, its ‘region’ has no name or political identity other than ‘up there’ or the ‘grim north’. Older Labour members sometimes nostalgically recall the days, usually the 70s and early 80s, when local northern Labour constituencies had some real life and sense of social purpose. Now they are just efficiently organised electoral machines with no role for members other than a little electoral activity.
Must Labour die? Well, in its current form, probably unless the chumps who lost Scotland manage some exceptionally clever reorganising. There will undoubtedly by some vicious infighting inside the leadership especially as beasts such as Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy will be wandering about wondering how to get back on to the gravy-train which has given life for so long. The chances of a new and brighter party leadership emerging from the wreck are small particularly if, because of the vagaries of the British electoral system, they have the chance of forming a minority government provided, of course, they manage to eat humble pie and deal with the SNP. Good luck on that one.

One final thought. The Green Party has always had a separate organisation in Scotland. In England and Wales, they could emerge being able to claim that they are the only genuinely national party not rooted in one region, north, south, east or west. Not quite sure how that one will pan out either.