100 Years Ago (4)

Let’s revisit the “working class drift” model. Here’s Stephen Bush:

Under Ed Miliband … Labour was divided between “people who drink wine, and people who drink lager”. Wine drinkers drifted away to the Green Party. Lager drinkers trickled away to Ukip. The result: thumping defeats across England and Wales. Under Corbyn, that Greenward drift has gone into reverse. … The Ukip trickle, however, is turning into a flood in some places.

And Rafael Behr:

the immediate worry is Ukip gobbling up Labour’s white working-class support

the malaise in Labour heartlands is … a function of votes long taken for granted, combined with a sense of Labour’s capture in the 90s by arrogant southern elites: that it was “poncified”. That expresses deeper alienation, connected to the decline of secure manufacturing jobs and to mass migration

[Corbynism feels like] a catalyst for decline … distinct from Blairism only in the sense that they are opposite sides of one Islington coin

Feel the liberal middle-class guilt: those poor white working-class voters, left stranded by the destruction of heavy industry, feeling beleaguered by immigration, finding nobody to speak for them but a bunch of privileged southerners who’d rather be speaking to immigrants anyway… Labour has abandoned its (White) working-class roots, and the White working class is returning the favour by drifting away from Labour. Moving to the Left is no help, because these days that just means attracting wine-drinking, Guardian-reading Green sympathisers (Bush) or another variety of soft southern elitists (Behr). What we need is… well, what do we need, at the end of all this? What do we need, to address the people of the heartlands whose deeper alienation is associated with mass migration, and who are so disconnected from political debate that they see no difference between Blair and Corbyn? What starts as introspective New Labour guilt-tripping ends as straightforward UKIP populism – anti-political (seriously, no difference between Blair and Corbyn?) and distinctly tinged with racism.

In another, saner world Labour Party watchers would have seen last week’s by-election as the test of whether there was any truth to the “working class drift” model, and would have greeted the result with whoops of joy. Because, surely, if this theory was ever going to work anywhere, it would work in Oldham, with the most left-wing leader Labour has had in decades. Ta-da – the theory’s been put to the test and it’s failed: there isn’t a vast, inexorable drift of working-class support to UKIP and away from Labour! Happy days! Better put that political obituary on hold, and get back to thinking about how we’re going to win next time.

In reality, of course, the reaction has been rather less positive. Some people have simply trotted out the same old story again: an article on LabourList takes the “it’ll happen next time, you mark my words” approach, while Roy Greenslade wonders whether to revise a piece he’d prepared earlier (“I spent days wondering whether I should publish this piece”) and decides not to bother:

It has been noticeable for many years that there has been a disconnect between the culture, lifestyle and social outlooks of the majority of the party’s MPs and the people they seek to represent. Note, for instance, Ukip’s level of support in Labour working class areas where its anti-immigrant message has proved a potent vote-gatherer.

I feel your pain, Roy. Or rather, pleasure, obviously – what Labour supporter wouldn’t be pleased by a result like that? (Come on, Luke Akehurst is pleased. Yes, it’s happened – I agree with Luke Akehurst, up to a point.)

But, as we saw in the first of these posts, most of the commentariat reacted to the good news by simply shifting from one line of attack to another, rather less plausible line. You can’t say working class voters are drifting away from Labour when the figures in front of you say they aren’t, but you can say that the majority wasn’t as big as it looked, it should have been bigger, it doesn’t matter anyway, and so on. (And look over there! Enver Hoxha!)

Coming from self-avowed Labour supporters, it’s all very odd – but maybe not inexplicable. One of Freud’s breakthroughs in analysing dreams was the – apparently dogmatic – insight that all dreams are wish fulfilment: the fear and disgust you feel in dreams are states of affairs you want to relive, either because they’re perversely coded as security and pleasure or because they’re a price you believe you should pay, and hence fantasise about paying, for those things. Working out why you have those attachments, and what they’re rooted in, is the job of dreamwork – the patient’s free-associating disentanglement of the dream and everything related to it (and everything that comes up in dreamwork is related to it). I’m not saying that the rise of UKIP is a fantasy – it’s out there and we’re stuck with it, at least for the time being (the party’s ever more overt racism is surely a sign of desperation). But UKIP’s clamorous success in the 2015 General Election owed a great deal to two one-off political events – the implosions of the BNP and the Liberal Democrats – and one anomalous condition which has thankfully ceased to obtain, viz. the attention and respect which the BBC paid to the party during the last parliament. I don’t think it’s the case that UKIP’s modus operandi is poaching votes in large numbers from Labour – still less that the party has a hotline to the collective unconscious of the ‘White working class’. If Labour people are having that kind of nightmares, it’s because they want to have them. Perhaps, deep down, they can’t imagine a working class that isn’t collectively ignorant and bigoted; perhaps they believe that sacrificing their liberal principles to appease ignorant bigots is the price they should pay for taking power.

Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. The aftermath of last week’s election reminded me forcibly of a period in the 1980s when by-elections always seemed to be greeted by Anthony King or Ivor Crewe announcing that this was a very disappointing result for Labour, even if Labour had just won the seat. I remember a Steve Bell strip in which an unnamed Newsnight pundit is challenged on his relentless negativity and replies, “Well, you just have to look at the facts. And the facts are that I don’t like the Labour Party, I never have liked the Labour Party and I never will like the Labour Party!”

And maybe that’s all there is to it. If King, Crewe, Peter Jenkins, Polly Toynbee(!) and the rest were relentlessly negative about the Labour Party in the 1980s, that’s not unrelated to the fact that they were pinning their hopes on an entirely different party – a party that could only succeed by replacing, or at least displacing, the Labour Party. Perhaps Behr, Bush, Cowley, Harris et al are also hankering after an entirely different party – not the SDP but the party that absorbed (or re-absorbed) some of its best people, which is to say New Labour. If so, though, it’s not at all clear what their game plan is. The SDP had a plan and followed it through: first split Labour, then discredit the party, then defeat it electorally (and Profit!). However, it didn’t work, and led most of the leading participants either into the political wilderness or round the houses and back into the Labour Party; it was also instrumental in giving the country 18 years of Tory government, which was a bit of an adverse side-effect. So the nostalgists for New Labour are fighting shy of splitting the party, and long may they do so (I agree with Luke on that one). But this isn’t accompanied by a broader rethink on how to replace the party with something entirely different, or even whether replacing the party with something entirely different is actually a good idea. Rather, they’ve simply skipped to step 2, discrediting the party, and set up camp there: attack the party’s leadership, pour scorn on the party’s members and talk down the party’s achievements, and repeat. (From Mao to Momentum to that disappointing result in Oldham… to Hoxha, and off we go again.) I don’t know what this is supposed to achieve, or how it’s supposed to achieve it; the sad thing is, I don’t think they do either. At this point I circle back to thinking about psychological explanations – if you know, deep down, that Labour Party politics is about abandoning your principles and playing to the middle ground, the rise of a politician like Corbyn must be almost physically painful. I picture the first draft of some of these columns reading something like this:

Jeremy Corbyn today no! no! wrong!

Jeremy Corbyn announced today that he NO! WRONG!

Jeremy wrong! WRONG! Not how we do it!

Then they go and make a coffee, take a few deep breaths and sublimate the rage into printable snark:

Jeremy Corbyn today shocked even his diehard acolytes with an announcement seemingly straight out of the Eastern Bloc playbook

and that feels a bit better, for a while.

In the fifth and final part: all right, clever clogs, what did happen in Oldham?

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