Making sense of the election

Ross McKibbin isn’t quite lost for words – there are 3,163 of them – but his oddly-titled comment in the London Review of Books, Labour Dies Again, doesn’t have much of a conclusion. Without Scotland Labour’s best hope is to become a middle class party (a ‘demographic truism’), form a minority government, and force through some measure of proportional representation. The author of Classes and Cultures, The Ideologies of Class, and  Parties and People deserves close attention and respect but his take on the election reveals more weaknesses than strengths. Politics does not simply follow social structure (if only McKibbin’s critics could be persuaded that politics abstracted from social structure is incomprehensible we would be getting somewhere).

McKibbin puts paid to the ‘moth-eaten’ New Labour obsession with the ‘aspirational middle class’; the party actually clawed back some of the ground lost by New Labour between 2005 and 2010, increasing its vote in England by 3.5% but its electoral failure and its prospects for the future are tied too closely to shifts in the social structure and the supposed ‘interests’ associated with them. There are two sides to this: the strata we call the working class is not only shrinking in size but changing in its composition; the middle class is growing but changing just as fast. The character, interests and boundaries of these groups are more fluid than ever. But they are also defined, as ever, by ideological and political facts as well as social economic and ones. Labour’s future depends less on constructing a coalition of interests than on propounding political ideas that change the way people think about themselves.

The contenders for Labour’s leadership offer next to nothing although Chuka Umunna’s comment that Labour failed because it ‘reached for the old social democratic levers’,  tax rates and regulation, welfare payments and tax credits, is worth thinking about. On their own these were inadequate, but is this all social democracy has become? Low level redistribution and rules? What happened to the idea that democracyshould prevail in the economy and society as well as in the political sphere?

Elsewhere Owen Jones in the Guardian comes close to a view heard more and more frequently on the left (see Richard Seymour’s Against Austerity)that there are no answers to be found in conventional forms of left wing politics; the left must be part of a social movement that challenges capitalism. Maybe old forms of politics are on their last legs, but old forms of power seem as entrenched as ever. Difficult to see how social movements – if we were blessed with one – would tackle the ideological and material structures of power.

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