The tawdry anti-elitism of the Labour elite
For the second time in my life, I am watching firsthand the arrival of a new political dispensation. After growing up under the post-war social democratic consensus, and spending most of my adult years contesting various shades of neoliberalism, it looks increasingly as if populism will see me through to collecting my bus pass.
Britain has, at least so far, been spared the nastier manifestations of the phenomenon. Dramatic as the changes wrought by Brexit will surely be, there is currently no credible prospect of a politician of the stripe of Le Pen, Hofer or even Donald Trump becoming either head of state or head of government.
However, we are clearly not immune from what is establishing itself as a global trend, and working out the right response to the insurgent right should be an urgent priority for the British left. Luckily, Labour is led by a politician who grasps this, as evidenced by the speech Jeremy Corbyn’s is due to give in Prague today.
Tony Blair, by contrast, is entirely perplexed, famously remarking: ‘I really mean it when I say I’m not sure I fully understand politics right now’. Even so, such admitted incomprehension has not been deemed any substantial barrier to his return to politics, predominantly to take on a ‘nutter’ who does understand politics right now.
The former prime minister’s strategy is based on devoting the vast resources he has earned brokering deals for investment banks to derailing Brexit. And there you have it in essence; Blair is trying to undercut a surge in anti-elite sentiment by using elite money to overturn a democratic decision, in the interests of the self-same elite that he has so dramatically enriched himself by joining. Think of him as basically the Labour MP for Davos.
If he is oblivious to the domestic electoral consequences, the sooner he returns to doing public relations for Kazakhstan the better. Nothing could be more precisely calculated to facilitate the resistible rise of Paul Nuttall, the UKIP leader widely being touted as the harbinger of Labour’s impending ruin in the north of England.
This assessment of Nuttall’s prospects, already being passed off as a fact, is entirely untested. Throughout its 23 year history, UKIP has failed to win a single Westminster seat, other than through the defection of sitting Conservative MPs.
It is true that the British instantiation of populism has already secured extensive blue collar support. Yet the psephological evidence — at least according to the standard academic study, Ford and Goodwin’s Revolt on the Right — indicates that most of these people were not previously Labour voters.
Whatever the labour movement myth, the historical reality is that a third of the British working class, variously identified as Disraeli’s ‘Angels in Marble’ or Thatcher’s ‘C2s’, have always backed rightwing parties.
There is no reason to think they will stop doing so no. But were Blair’s Bremain campaign to come out on top, the impact of the backlash and the inevitable subsequent polarisation would surely augment their ranks.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s argument that attempting to hinder British departure from the EU would position Labour on the side of the corporate elites has provoked considerable consternation inside the party. It is, nevertheless, substantially correct. The electorate has spoken, the bastards; it only remains to us to shape the outcome in the most congenial way we can find.
So how does Labour head off the populist revolt? The most popular answer from the Labour right centres on laying a veneer of tough talk on immigration controls over the fibreboard furniture of the same old elite-interest-dominated centrism.
The ugliest example here is Rachel Reeves’ ‘tinderbox’ speech last September. I haven’t seen the full text, so I’ll be charitable in not pressing the obvious comparison to Enoch Powell, as some commentators have.
But Stephen Kinnock is perhaps the leading exponent of making immigration controls central a brand of politics that is still trying to pass itself off as ‘the progressive centre’. He even hails work permits as ‘a cure for a divided Britain’, a sentiment that inadvertently says much about the his vision of the good society.
The big deal for the left is that stealing UKIP’s thunder on this issue is deeply problematic. While advocacy of immigration controls is not in itself necessarily racist, it is verifiably a gateway drug.
We should not reduce ourselves to ‘doing populism’ in a way that raises the chances of Poles getting their faces smashed in in Leeds.
We do not have a dream that immigrants will one day be judged not by the content of their character, but by whether or not their skills fit in with the needs of the labour market.
We must instead address the social discontent that has accumulated since 1979, roughly the point at which this country abandoned social democracy for a faith driven reliance on the free market that has devastated so many communities and blighted so many lives.
That means tackling the housing shortage, the crisis in social care and the shortage of places in schools. That means an end to multigenerational unemployment in pit villages and mill towns, and to the in-your-face inequality that blights the life of our capital.
That means the election of a democratic socialist Labour government, ready to challenge the elite rather than kow-tow towards it priorities.