The Left, the Party and the Class
An essay on the future of the Labour left
The Labour Party faces a historic challenge: the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered state intervention, bailouts, massive borrowing, direct income support and central bank money printing all across the world. And it’s not over.
We’ve entered the worst economic slump since 1921, with a global economy that was already stagnant, heavily unequal and debt-burdened. Anyone who thinks the current geopolitical order will survive hasn’t understood the 1930s.
The Tories claim that, by relying on deficits, state bailouts and quantitative easing, they are acting “beyond ideology”. Rhetorically at least they are edging their way towards a post-austerity Conservatism. The scale of slump, and the money already spent and borrowed, could open the door to a permanent change in the economic model in a way the 2008 crisis did not — if the left can seize the opportunity.
But the Labour left is demoralised and divided. Some activists are leaving the party; others want the left to become an organised opposition to Keir Starmer, producing a continuous negative commentary from the sidelines. The Labour right, and their backers in the British media establishment, are only too happy to fuel this anger with continuous trolling and calls for a purge.
I’m part of a left that wants to engage with Starmer’s project and to help shape it, defending its core agenda of climate, social and economic justice from the inevitable pushback from the party’s right, and by solving through practice the strategic problems outlined below.
The Labour Together election review gives us an opening: it says the strategy most likely to bring victory in 2024 is the offer of radical economic change, combined with a new narrative and activism aimed at communities currently alienated from progressive ideas, plus a more professional party.
The left’s job is to (a) define what this big change agenda means (b) start fighting for it independently through our activism; and ( c) extend party democracy.
So we need, in turn a new strategy for the left: one that that works backwards from our overall goals towards a new course of action. This essay is a contribution to that. It contains a list of arguments that could define the post-Corbyn left, plus the action points that flow from them.
1. We need a left government
The 2019 manifesto presented a long list of good left policies — but no overall picture of what our priorities were or what the end state would look like. It was, as Richard Tawney said of the 1929 manifesto, “a glittering forest of Christmas trees with presents for everybody”. People liked the individual ideas but feared the whole thing might crash an already unstable economy.
In the aftermath, we need to outline better what we’re trying to achieve, which is a left government.
The task of a left government is to end neoliberalism and replace it with a new economic model that delivers radical redistribution, rising wellbeing and a zero-net carbon economy.
Realistically it could achieve this by pursuing five over-arching effects:
- De-carbonise the economy
- End the dominance of global finance
- Reduce inequalities of wealth, income and opportunity
- Raise wellbeing across a wide range of indicators
- Radically redistribute power and defend democracy.
In foreign policy, it would end military interventionism and support for foreign dictators; and promote reform of the multilateral global order to enhance peace, security, co-operation and the rule of international law. And that’s it.
If you want a government that “smashes the state”, that pulls Britain out of NATO and the IMF, defunds the police force or adopts a policy of Open Borders — you are welcome to argue for all these things. But there will be no majority for them inside the Labour Party and — because of the dynamics outlined below — no possibility of Labour coming to power in 2024 if they were adopted.
So let’s be under no illusions: a left government would not constitute “socialism”. The power of big finance, fossil fuel producers, property speculators and tech monopolies would be constrained; wealth would be redistributed; the 40 year preference for marketising all parts of social life would be reversed; power would be redistributed downwards. But the private sector would still constitute over 50% of the economy.
If it worked, this would usher in a new and less toxic form of capitalism — creating the possibility of further transitions: beyond carbon, rent-seeking, financialisation, structural racism and sexism, precarious work and ultimately beyond capitalism itself. It would unlock new opportunities for action from below, and require mass active support because — as with Mitterrand in the 1980s — it would be attacked by the global financial markets.
If you want a framework to understand the difference between such a left government and socialism, the “workers government” concept promoted by the Comintern at its Fourth Congress in 1922 is a good place to start.
The Comintern wanted the early Communist Parties to collaborate with social democrats to form governments that could empower the working class, defend democracy, suppress the far right using the rule of law, take transformational steps in economic and social policy — opening up the space for more radical measures in the future.
Because (unlike the Comintern) most of us are not revolutionaries, the parallels are imperfect, but they are useful. The principle is: if you can’t achieve everything you want, get as much as you can with the forces available and actively embrace the compromise.
ACTION 1: Define the left government by its intended effects: namely zero net carbon, de-financialisation, reversing the rise of inequality, rising wellbeing and the redistribution of wealth and power.
2. Only Labour can create a left government
The state’s central role in neoliberalism means the econonomic model created in the past 40 years cannot be dismantled from below.
We can build platform co-ops, promote municipal socialist initiatives like the Preston Model, form open source software collectives, social centres, credit unions etc… but they will always be under pressure from rent-seeking monopolists and privateers unless we control the state. The same is true for climate change: to decarbonise an economy rapidly you need state power.
But state is so central to the neoliberal project that, for four decades, no anti-neoliberal party has been allowed to control it. That is the lesson of the establishment’s serial destruction of Kinnock, Miliband and Corbyn.
So the challenge for the left is: how do we create a Labour Party with an anti-neoliberal programme that can win an election?
In the 1970s and 80s, when workers were defending elements of the Keynesian welfare state, and had massive social power, you could envisage mass strikes and extra-parliamentary action forcing a Labour government to make inroads against capitalism against its will.
That’s why activism within the party was not the main focus for many us, even during the years of the Benn campaigns. Though we were party members, the real action was in our workplaces and communities.
But after 40 years of atomisation and de-unionistation, the political wing of the working class is stronger than its extra-parliamentary wing. The only route to a left government is through shaping Labour into a party that actually wants to form a left government — and has the professional capacity, political resilience and mass support to do so.
If you are tempted to leave the party, thinking a new, pristine left one could replace it: that is exactly what the elite and their allies want. In addition, the serious differences on the left — over “identity politics”, Brexit and increasingly human rights in China — would blow any such party into two fragments immediately.
ACTION 2: Do not leave the party or deprioritise activism inside it. No matter what the right, the media and the state do to provoke you.
3. Face up to the strategic obstacles
There are new, strategic obstacles to a left government — and we need to face up to them. They are: the strength of progressive nationalism in Scotland; new cultural divisions inside the working class; and pervasive neoliberal fatalism. Unless we come up something different to what we tried, both in 2017 and 2019, we won’t overcome these obstacles.
Scotland: Labour has effectively lost Scotland twice: first by fronting the No campaign in the 2014 referendum and then, in 2019, over its failure to vigorously oppose Brexit. Even if Labour were to take every one of the SNP’s 48 seats (highly unlikely given the Scottish party’s self-defeating opposition to the second referendum) that would leave Labour looking for another 75 seats in England/Wales to form a majority.
Instead, all the momentum is with progressive nationalism. At 54% in the latest Panelbase survey, support for independence is higher than at any time since the 2014 referendum, and has reached 65% among the under-35s.
Thinking strategically, that means Scotland is going to leave the UK at some point before 2050. Labour has — at maximum — half a generation to achieve power in the UK with the supply and confidence of the SNP, or in full coalition with it.
The likely precondition of that is agreement to a second referendum and to a no-penalty secession process if Yes wins. You may not like them, but those are the facts.
But there is a solution short of Labour supporting independence: the offer of a federal state and full fiscal autonomy.
ACTION 3: Labour should support the demand for #Indyref2, offering a federal UK with full fiscal autonomy for Scotland, and a three-question ballot to include it.
Values: The class dynamics that have emerged across the UK since 2010 are even more challenging. The working class is bifurcating into two distinct and sometimes culturally hostile groups. This is evidenced by the collapse of Labour’s support in small town ex-industrial communities, simultaneously with its loss of support among young, educated workers in cities to the Greens, Libdems and nationalists.
Brexit dramatised that cultural hostility but did not cause it. Nor could committing wholeheartedly to Brexit have solved the problem — because as the following election breakdown shows, it runs much deeper.
At the 2019 election, according to Datapraxis research for Labour Together, in net terms, Labour lost:
- Remain voters: 1.1 million the Libdems/SNP/Greens; 600,000 to abstention; and 240,000 to the Tories
- Leave voters: 800,000 to the Tories; 200,000 to Remain parties; 600,000 to abstention; and up to 200,000 to the Brexit Party
The Conservatives, meanwhile mobilised two million non-voters, according to the Datapraxis analyst Paul Hilder, “whose clearest characteristic was an overwhelming and intense negativity towards Jeremy Corbyn”.
The cultural fragmentation over “values” is reflected however you slice or dice the electorate: age, geography, demographics — and, as the Labour Together report shows, this has been building since the 2000s, when the Conservatives’ turn to social liberalism opened up the political space for the authoritarian nationalism of UKIP and the BNP.
And it is still there, despite the resolution of the Brexit debate. The Covid-19 epidemic has produced, anecdotally, a similar split in attitudes between small towns and big cities; meanwhile the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the UK have also played very differently in the so-called Red Wall towns compared to the multi-ethnic cities.
Claire Ainsley, Starmer’s head of policy, summarised the underlying problem in her book The New Working Class (2018):
“Structural changes to the British economy over the past 40 years have created a new working class, which is multi-ethnic, comprised of people living off low to middle incomes, and likely to be occupied in service sector jobs like catering, social care or retail. Many of them will not define themselves primarily through their work at all. The new working class is more disparate, more atomised, and occupies multiple social identities, which makes collective identity less possible.”
The “traditional” working class that coexists with this group numbers only 14% of the population, according to Ainsley’s methodology. But it retains a strong collective identity, which has been increasingly defined against the progressive cultural values of younger, more diverse, city-dwelling workers — a division that is consciously encouraged by the right-wing media.
But as Keir Milburn writes: the rising importance of the values doesn’t constitute an explanation — it is the thing that needs explaining.
Ainsley’s explanation draws heavily on the Great British Class Survey (GBCS), which has been described by more critical sociologists as a “fiasco” — an exercise in trying to define social class via attitudes, which might work for a marketing strategy but can’t be the basis for a political project. Below I offer an alternative explanation.
For now, it is clear that winning back sections of the traditional working class who have deserted Labour has to become an essential part of our electoral strategy. But it’s neither inevitable nor easy.
Though some aspects of the left programme are likely to energise them — job creation, investment, defending the NHS, spending more on the police and the armed forces — the evidence of 2019 is that other parts of the left’s agenda turn them off: open immigration policies, the defence of human rights, universal welfare policies, and above all anti-militarism and anti-imperialism.
Fatalism: In addition to the above we are fighing against a third headwind: the pervasive ideology of fatalism produced by 40 years of neoliberalism.
From the doorstep to the workplace, activists are confronted by fear of change, political consumerism, weak organisational loyalty and the psychological insecurity that results from precarious work. As I argued in Clear Bright Future, fatalism is a spontaneous ideology arising out of experience but consciously encouraged by the mainstream media. It is the working class’ own version of the “end of history” thesis: the result of a multi-generational experience of defeat, and four decades of market atomisation.
Despite living through one jarring crisis after another — the Iraq War, 2008 crisis, the MPs expenses scandal, the near-breakup of Britain in 2014, Brexit, the Prorogation crisis and now Covid-19 — the assumption at the heart of neoliberal ideology is still accepted by many voters: “things will get a bit better eventually, for you and your family if not everyone else, so don’t go risking your job, the economy, your status etc by voting for something radically different”.
As a result, in place of a resistance strategy many working class families and communities have adopted a survival strategy.
And since for many people the workplace contributes very little to that survival strategy, their survival strategies are built instead around the specific cultural values of the community they live in, or come from, and around identity.
The Corbyn project failed ultimately because, confronted by these new, strategic challenges, it had no theory to explain them and so couldn’t evolve solutions.
It had a viable strategy for what to do in power but no adequate strategy for achieving it. Not only the leadership but thousands of members believed that, if we only kept on appealing to people’s common economic interests, they would forget their cultural antipathies, divisions over Brexit, Scottish nationalism, fear of change etc, and vote for the most radical Labour government ever offered.
It was a case of what Chantal Mouffe — and before her both Lenin and Gramsci — labelled “economism”: the tendency to reduce all social struggles to an economic dimension; to underestimate the autonomy of politics and ideology from economics; and to expect workers to develop class consciousness through the experience of the economic struggle alone.
Once we accept that’s not going to happen we can have a serious discussion about the conclusion. Namely…
4. Labour has to build a new electoral coalition
Yes, the Tories might self-destruct over the Covid-19 pandemic, or as the result of a no-deal Brexit, or by mishandling the economic slump that’s begun. But these assumptions can’t be at the core of the strategy for a left government.
Our strategy has to be to assemble a new electoral coalition, which defeats the Conservatives in 2024 without surrendering the key elements of a programme that would allow us to dismantle neoliberalism.
There are only two ways to assemble such a winning coalition for the left:
- through a formal electoral pact with other progressive parties, where tactical voting is officially sanctioned and there are mutual stand-downs of candidates and non-aggression pacts in target seats; or
- by Labour effectively “becoming” the electoral coalition itself.
During the leadership election, these two strategies were clearly outlined: with Clive Lewis supporting the “electoral pact plus constitutional reform” solution; and Keir Starmer stressing that Labour should become a much broader and more diverse party, ending the factional atmosphere that’s gripped the organisation since the Blair/Brown years.
But though formally opposed, these strategies are actually symbiotic: if the Starmer strategy fails, you have to switch to the Lewis strategy as the election looms.
A third strategy, “stick with Corbynism and wait for the electorate to change its mind” was rightly rejected. Those who proposed it have a right to go on doing so, but it is not going to be pursued by the current Labour leadership this side of 2024.
A fourth strategy, not confined to Blue Labour but also advocated by communtarians on the centre and left, is: “ditch both social liberalism and economic radicalism in order to win back the traditional working class”. This was also implicitly rejected at the leadership election. In large parts of urban Britain, as Owen Jones has pointed out, it would fuel mass voter defection to the Greens, nationalists and Libdems.
With Starmer’s victory and consolidation of control, the political strategy of Labour is set.
The opportunity for the left lies in the unresolved question: what kind of politics do we need to build this new coalition around? The Labour Together report outlines two realistic alternatives:
(a) “a move to the centre on economic issues with mild social liberalism tempered by a ‘tough-on-crime’ posture”; or that
(b) Labour “builds greater public support for a big change economic agenda, that is seen as credible and morally essential, rooted in people’s real lives and communities. This economic agenda would need to sit alongside a robust story of community and national pride, while bridging social and cultural divisions”.
Many centrist social democrats in the party want, instinctively, to do (a) because they can’t square the radicalism of the moment (with the biggest slump since 1921 underway) with the current anti-radicalism of the people we need to vote for us.
So it is a no brainer that the left must throw its weight behind (b) — the big change agenda. The contest between the two strategies is likely to shape the outcome of Starmer’s project.
If the left engages with the “big change” agenda we can bring our energy, expertise and networks to bear on the task of concretising it. But the whole quote bears scrutinising: this time our offer has to be credible, morally essential and rooted in real struggles — and we can’t flinch from telling stories of community and belonging in the process.
So this is going to be hard. So hard, in fact, that it would be a lot easier just to become an “opposition” to Starmer, defending every line of the 2019 manifesto while fighting each other over Brexit. If so, the outcome is predictable: the Labour right will get to define the next Labour government.
ACTION 4: The left should critically support the Starmer project and lead the attempt to define what radical economic change means post-Covid and post-Brexit.
5. The left is strong when it’s broad
Antonio Gramsci warned that, in a Western democracy, the state is just an “outer trench” in the defence of capitalism, and that behind it stands “a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks” stretching right through civil society.
From the the 2016 #ChickenCoup onwards it has been clear that one of those defensive “earthworks” runs through the Labour Party. At times, standing in the corridor outside Corbyn’s office, we used to joke that it began at the door separating LOTO from the from the rest of the PLP.
Only twice — under Michael Foot (1980–83) and under Corbyn — has the Labour leadership failed to act as a solid defensive fortification for the profit system. In both cases the corporate elite mobilised their resources to a) split the party, creating the SPD in the 1980s and the TIG in 2019; and b) reputationally damage the leadership to the point where — combined with the impact of a centrist split — it could not win an election.
If you see this happen twice in a single lifetime then it is safe to conclude it is the default modus operandi of the establishment towards the Labour Party.
But it’s important to know what the establishment were afraid of: on both occasions it was a strategy of austerity, class warfare and military intervention that pushed a crucial component of social democracy — what we call today the Soft Left — into an alliance with the anti-capitalist left.
After 2015 the soft, radical and orthodox left tendencies (I’m using Jeremy Gilbert’s typology here) found common cause in an anti-austerity programme. That, plus the massive influx of members into the party, the frustration of left-led unions, and the accidental democratisation of the leadership election, is what enabled Corbynism.
So long as this broader left has a coherent project to defend, it can defend it. The question is: does it want to? Keir is clearly under pressure from the politicians to his right, while the left is itself divided over how to respond to the culture war, in parts outright hostile to him, and increasingly consumed by refighting the battles of the Corbyn years.
Meanwhile the Tories, rhetorically at least, have moved away from austerity.
I think there is a basis for a broad left project, based on something deeper than the anti-austerity project of 2010–20. It reflects the rising popularity of a set of progressive ideas as “common sense” in large parts of British society, especially among young people (see Milburn’s Generation Left). And despite the rigidity of our party structures, and a pervasive bureaucratic culture, activists are using networked communications and non-hierarchical organisational forms in a way that makes the old forms of bureaucratic control untenable.
Recommendation 5: Seek tactical unity with the broadest possible coalition of anti-neoliberals inside the Party
6. The ‘war of manoeuvre’ is not enough
Gramsci wrote that, because the elite’s power in a western democracy was entrenched through institutions in civil society and through ideology, the anti-capitalist left has to conduct a “war of position” — the political equivalent of trench warfare — to build up social movements and ideological support.
The alternative is a “war of manouvre” — where the left comes to power through audacious exploitation of economic crisis, and the weakness of the state — the political equivalent of a blitzkrieg. This is fine for a developing country with a weak civil society like Russia in 1917, wrote Gramsci, but not advisable in a stable Western democracy.
Despite the rediscovery of Gramsci in the 1970s, the British left never fully accepted this - and for an understandable reason: British democracy was not stable during the rise of neoliberalism; and it has become decidedly unstable during the downswing of neoliberalism after 2001.
Repeated crises of trust and confidence — Iraq, Lehman Brothers, the #Indyref and the Brexit crisis — have loosened the elite’s grip on key institutions, including the Labour Party.
Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership — in 2015 and again in 2016 — because he mobilised tens of thousands of activists in an effective war of manouvre. We seized something the political textbooks said we could never take. Even the 2017 election campaign, which so nearly delivered a de facto coalition government of Labour and the SNP, had the character of a rapid and mobile offensive — the manifesto leak, the mass rallies, the gathering excitement and narrowing polls, the total despair of Murdoch journalists as the exit poll came in.
But we barely grasped, and never properly theorised, that our success was just one event in a whole chain of actions and reactions.
If we leave aside all tactical mistakes, the sabotage alleged in #LabourLeaks and the incompetence revealed in the Labour Together report, we lost because the left’s war of manoeuvre the ran into an effective ruling class war of position.
It consisted of, among other things: the smear and disinformation campaigns against Jeremy himself; the alleged sabotage by party officials described in #LabourLeaks; the TIG walkout; the prorogation of Parliament and the attack on the judiciary; the overthrow of May and the purge of the Conservative Party’s liberal wing; the absorption of thousands of UKIP members into the Tory party; the adoption of data manipulation methods from the US right; the Blairite takeover of the Libdems — plus the creation and dissolution of the Brexit Party.
As a result of this political they have consolidated a new and highly defensible “position” (in the Gramscian metaphor): a populist, authoritarian government, with the support of both the socially-liberal middle class and parts of the traditional working class, which promises to “move fast and break things”, including all the traditional checks and balances in our unwritten constitution.
The lesson has to be: you can take the leadership of the Labour Party through maneouvre warfare, but to achieve power in an advanced democracy you still need the war of position.
As Gramsci taught — a mass party of the working class has to not only mobilise and represent its own base: it has to enable its members to assume the intellectual and moral leadership of the whole of society. That is the meaning of the term commonly associated with Gramscian politics: hegemony.
I will discuss how we might achieve this below. The point here is to accept that the challenge no longer just about “organising” or “left policies”…. We need to:
ACTION 6: Refocus everything we do towards the goal of creating broad influence for a few, clear and radical aims, which arise from the real struggles of people on both sides of the cultural divide.
7. Values are now the dominant political frame
The Bristol University policial scientist Paula Surridge has analysed the dataset coming out of the British Election Study, both for the 2019 election and for elections over the past decade. It shows that cultural values have come to determine electoral behaviour more strongly than left-right positions on economics, which in a previous era might correlate with class. She writes:
“These deeply held ideas of how society should be have come to play an increasing role in the political choices of the electorate as older group-based loyalties have lost their power and structural roots”.
British politics are now primarily influenced by “values”, not single class identities or raw economic interests. We can’t reverse our way out of that situation, or ignore it: we have to fight our way through it, to a more advantageous situation.
Using questions formulated by the BES, Surridge creates a 9-point matrix of voter attitudes along two axes: left-centre-right on economics; and liberal-centre-authoritarian on cultural values. This table, which I’ve extrapolated from her research, shows the Labour vote among these groups at the 2019 election:
Labour’s vote is strongest among those with liberal values on society and left values on the economy (70%). It’s pretty strong among the adjacent groups: centre+left and liberal+centre views (45/50%).
But 70% of left-wing people with socially conservative views don’t want to vote Labour. These are what sociologists describe as “left authoritarians”. People who, as Surridge says, want to “nationalise the railways and bring back the death penalty”.
When you look at this on a constituency level, the political implications are stark. Surridge’s research shows Labour lost 40% of its vote in so-called Red Wall seats between 2010 and 2019. This started long before Brexit, and was driven primarily by the feeling of being powerless and abandoned, and manifested strongly through opposition to immigration.
Because the liberal+centrist vote is clustered in the big cities, or in the exurban constituencies we already hold, there is no route to government unless you regain votes lost in the ex-industrial small towns.
A general rule in politics is: “if you are losing the argument, change the subject” — so Jeremy Corbyn’s advisers were right to want the election to be about austerity, pay, services and inequality. The problem is that, because the liberal-vs-authoritarian axis has become the dominant frame, even issues like health, where Labour is traditionally strong, get reframed around arguments about migration, “scroungers” etc.
For example, in Plymouth where I campaigned during the 2019 campaign, where 25% of people only have access to an emergency GP service, and where the A&E is consequently overcrowded, crestfallen Labour canvassers in traditional working class areas were told : “The surgeries and A&E wouldn’t be so crowded without the migrants, and the time wasters…” the latter meaning poverty-stricken English people on benefits, who after a decade of TV “poverty porn” are despised.
The technocratic response to Surridge’s data would be to ask: “how far to the centre do we have to move the policies, and how strongly do we have to start talking about patriotism, crime, the armed forces etc?” You only have to follow the centrist Labour commentariat to see that’s what they are thinking.
But it’s the wrong question. Amid the biggest economic slump since 1921, with globalisation falling apart, warmed-over centrism will produce the same result it did in 2015.
Gramsci teaches us to ask a different question: how can working class people with progressive ideas use the party to build influence — what he called “hegemony” — among people with conservative, nationalist or fatalist ideas?
ACTION 7: Labour’s political strategy should start from the question: how does the progressive section of the working class construct a hegemonic offer to the rest of society, including social conservatives among the “traditional” working class?
To answer that question we need a better understanding of what’s driving the divide over cultural values.
8. Exploitation has become multipolar
In Keynesian era, the working class was easily defined because work was the dominant method of exploitation: the proletariat was “everybody who works for wages and doesn’t have assets they can live off”.
It was, for certain, stratified by incomes, lifestyles, race and gender inequalities etc, but workers could recognise their common interests because everyone had the primary experience of being exploited through work. Plus, you could actually “see” the bourgoisie — the factory owners, conglomerate bosses and the City grandees who backed Thatcher.
But neoliberalism has introduced new forms of exploitation and expanded peripheral ones, channeling everything into the global finance system (see graphic above).
The stream of profits flowing from the activities working class people to the bank accounts of individual owners of capital no longer flows only, or even primarily, through the wage relationship. It flows also through:
- direct financial extraction — interest payments, rents, gambling profits etc;
- consumption — via the systematic overpricing of goods and services provided by unchallengable monopolies;
- data extractivism, where tech monopolies colonise and exploit the behavioural data of consumers;
- the commercialisation and privatisation of previously public goods, services and spaces, and the enclosure of the commons.
Even within the wage relationship itself there is — for the lowest paid — a pervasive super-exploitation, using zero hours contracts, precarity, high surveillance work discipline, informal pressure to work unpaid overtime and widespread bogus self-employment.
Each of these value extraction methods is based on naked power asymmetries but, unlike with the classic wage relationship, the terms of exploitation are much harder to negotiate and struggle over collectively. The lower skilled and less educated you are, the more precarious your job or tenancy, the more easily you become prey to financialised extraction and rent-seeking.
It is also now much harder to identify the exploiters. The elite that runs Britain is part of a globalised, super-rich stratum based primarily on rent-seeking and global finance — and most people’s lives do not bring them into any form of contact or direct conflict with them.
As a result it has become much easier to identify someone other than a capitalist as responsible for your own poverty and powerlessness: the buy-to-let landlord, front-office benefit staff, call centre workers for banks and utilities, the migrant in front of you in the queue at A&E, teachers refusing to teach in unsafe classrooms, the organised crime groups preying on working class neighbourhoods.
Capitalists have always consciously tried to divide the working class — by region, ethnicity, religion etc — but when work was at the centre of the exploitation process that was easier to fight. And because neoliberalism is a system that thrives on crisis, there always has to be a permanent scapegoat to blame for the crisis.
In summary, if work is no longer the primary venue for class conflict, or what creates identity, then it is easier for people to experience the world beyond work as a more promising venue for struggle. And in the world beyond work, values and identity matter.
During the upswing of neoliberalism, many people adopted an identity I’ve described as “the neoliberal self” — individualism, hedonism, fatalism, definied by what they consumed not where they worked, and always premised on the idea that “the market” was an intelligent machine that knows better than any individual human brain.
But after 2008 the market failed. The typical “social character” produced by neoliberal success cannot cope with neoliberal failure. Having been told for 40 years they were simply homo economicus — merely agents in a marketplace — people had to become zoon politikon (political animals) once again. All they had to reach for were their identities.
As a result, today, the pro-capitalist mindset of some workers no longer revolves simply around siding with management, not joining the union and forelock tugging to the monarchy: it involves active participation in the hate agenda towards black people, LGBTQ+ people, feminists, “luvvies” — ie educated people — and Islamophobia.
There is no route to a left government that avoids overcoming with the reactionary ideas that have taken hold in some communities.
But the way to dispel those idea is through practice. And practice means trying to engage people in a common struggle despite their differences — not by trying to wish those differences away.
The political challenge is to channel everything that is potentially progressive inside the competing value sets towards unity in action. And once you move beyond the market-segmentation approach to class analysis there are reasons for optimism.
- Though the “new” and “traditional” sections of the working class may not share a culture, they do share the experience of being of being powerless.
- If their relationship to work no longer breeds an instinctive solidarity, under the right circumstances their relationship to power might.
Classes, as EP Thompson insisted, don’t just get “formed” by the exploitation process: they also form themselves around a conscious project. In the 19th century, the working class formed itself primarily on the factory floor, around the conscious project of ending workplace exploitation.
Today the exploitation process is multipolar. As the authors of The Coming Insurrection wrote, it’s not the factory floor but “the whole of social space” where class consciousness is formed; and not just through strikes but through “the everyday behaviors of non-submission”.
What they refused to consider (being autonomists) is that the 21st century equivalent of a trade union might not be simply a set of social movements, but a radical social-democratic party. If you accept that, there is a practical conclusion:
ACTION 8: Labour’s programme, activism and narratives have to be refocused on people’s shared need to regain power and control in their everyday lives.
9. Policy has to be filtered for political effect
Sidney Webb, when he drew up the original Clause IV, outlined the crucial difference between policy and politics. The task of the leadership, he said, was to pick and choose from Labour’s policies to construct a manifesto for the given circumstance. That is what the Clause V meeting of the expanded Labour NEC is supposed to be about (not the bureaurcratic horse-trading process it has become).
In future, all policy suggestions should pass through a continuous filter which asks more than “is this a good idea”? Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign was based on three principles: economic justice, social justice, climate justice, plus the 10 Pledges, which form a decent starting point.
But as the party fleshes them out with policy offers, the best way forward is to ask, of each proposal:
- Does it enhance our goals of climate, social and economic justice?
- Does the call for it arise out of a real struggle by significant numbers of people?
- Will it sound “credible and morally essential” to people who don’t vote for us?
- Does committing to it help unite the working class across the values divide?
- Does it help us tell a story of hope to an electorate that has become terrified of change?
If the answer is “no” to one or more of these questions then, no matter how strongly activists are attached to a certain policy, we need to question whether it becomes part of our political narrative.
Policies can serve all kinds of other functions. They can make us feel good. They can demonstrate our commitment to one group at the price of making other groups think we’ve ignored them. They can reflect the (justified) obsessions of union leaders, economists, think tankers, but not the desires large numbers of ordinary people. And they can — even with the best of intentions — terrify an electorate gripped with the fear of the unknown.
So it’s not just the leadership and the NEC who should operate this policy filter. The entire membership has to understand and operate it as well, in our own heads.
ACTION 9: Every level of the party and movement should apply the above principles as a conscious “policy filter”, aiming to create a short and easily communicable list of effects the next Labour government wants to achieve.
10. Move people from survival to resistance
Attitude surveys quoted by Claire Ainsley show that — across both the new and traditional working class — the most strongly held common values are: “family, fairness, hard work and decency”.
The values associated with Labourism — equality, freedom, co-operation — are much less prevalent, but then again so are the values of Conservatism: patriotism, independence and self reliance.
Some parts of the left see this “family, hard work and decency” agenda as intrinsically reactionary, or as belonging to Blue Labour traditionalists.
But I don’t. To me, family, fairness, hard work and decency sound like something more than “values”: they describe a survival strategy adopted by working class people in the face of neoliberalism.
- Since you cannot rely on your boss, the welfare system or even a stable community, you fall back on family;
- Since you can no longer fight effectively for redistribution, or a collective real wage rise, you can at least fight for individual “fair” treatment under the law.
- “Hard work” is a placeholder for all the grievances of people exploited and bullied by cynical managers and landlords, and for resentment at the unearned incomes of the rich.
- “Decency” is clue that — as I argued in Clear Bright Future — class consciousness has always been a form of working class moral philosophy. It contains assumptions both about what a good society looks like, and how a “decent” person behaves within it.
Family, fairness, hard work and decency are popular values because they are sources of power for exploited people in a largely powerless world. Though they have been readily claimed by the Blue Labour end of the spectrum, there is no prior reason why a radical and progressive programme cannot start from them, and give them a left content. After all oldest rule in the the left’s playbook is: start from where the working class actually is and work from there.
ACTION 10: Our aim should become to promote agency in the face of powerlessness. To move people from strategies of survival to strategies of resistance.
11. Social justice can be the unifying idea
The cultural divisions between working people have become the chosen weapon the authoritarian right to make left governments impossible, and we need to react intelligently to that challenge.
The answer is neither to slug it out on Twitter with the trolls over “cancel culture”, nor to pander to conservatism on issues like patriotism and immigration. It is, instead, to create a framework within which the different sections of the oppressed and exploited can express their own granular resistance to capitalism.
The core idea here has to be social justice. Despite its liberal associations, it has become one of the most instinctively powerful principles around which people can unite across the values divide.
Yes, in its formulation by John Rawls, social justice is a form of political bean counting — asking, how do we inflict neoliberalism in the least unjust way? But the concept has deeper roots — in Enlightenment philosophy and Catholic social teaching, and is explicitly embodied in the principles of both the UN and the ILO.
It has the same quality that “land to the peasants” had for Russian and Italian peasants at the end of the First World War: something everyone from Jesuits to communists say is a good thing, but nobody except the left is ever prepared to give you.
In addition, the concept explicitly challenges the ideology on which neoliberalism was based: for Hayek, to demand “social justice” was like asking for a “moral stone”. Since there is “no such thing as society”, there is no entity that can be unjust — only a market, relentlessly computing outcomes irrespective of human need.
That is why ideologists of the US right have spent the last decade trying to convince their followers that “social justice” is just communism rebranded.
ACTION 11: The left’s new political narrative has to be built around social, climate and economic justice.
Of course, what “climate justice” means for a Green voter in Stroud may not be the same as what it means for an ex-miner who switched to the Tories in Leigh. But what the two groups have in common is that they recognise a concept of social justice and can be engaged in a discussion about what it means.
Working out how to drive that conversation — how to listen, have arguments, and pass on the lessons laterally from one branch, town, or sector to another — is the most important of all the new things we have to do. It will only happen if we stop expecting “class consciousness” to emerge spontaneously, and to be based on people’s common experience of work and poverty.
From the experience of the doorstep I expect that, on first contact, large numbers of pro-Tory workers will initially reject the social justice narrative. There will be opposition to climate spending; there will be opposition to “free stuff” — and there is a lot of opposition to non-contributory and universal welfare systems. Our job is to erode that resistance through patient work in communities, sticking to a clear and radical story about hope and justice.
Just as important as what’s in the narrative is what’s not in it. I wouldn’t propose an alternative budget with billions attached to each line. You may need that at election time but it does not need to be central now. With the UK’s public finances shot to shreds, all we need to say is: borrowing is cheap, the Bank of England can control the yields on government debt, and the real debate is whether we spend the money on patching up an unfair system or building a new one.
Nor should there be an “anti-imperialist” foreign policy: that was the hard lesson Alexis Tsipras had to drill into Syriza as a precondition of its electoral victories in 2015. A left foreign policy based on defending the multilateral, rules-based order is what Podemos have signed up to as partners in the Spanish government, and what Bernie Sanders would have enacted as President.
As for Brexit, by the time Labour takes power it will have taken a specific form — either in a Free Trade Agreement or via a WTO-only Brexit — and there will be a points-based immigration system.
Labour’s offer should be to amend the FTA — or to seek one in the case of No Deal — in a way that gives maximum access to the Single Market; and to reform the points-based immigration system based on principles of social justice, while offering full UK citizenship and voting rights to every EU citizen who wants it. For clarity, we should not try to build a political narrative around reversing Brexit or a return to Freedom of Movement.
12. Capitalism is failing
It is impossible to predict what the world will look like after Covid-19, except to recognise that it has exarcebated every problem within late-stage neoliberalism.
Capitalism is hitting its planetary limits: both climate chaos and the first economic slump triggered by a zoonotic virus illustrate that. In turn, we now have the outbreak of a new Cold War between the USA and China, which itself will deepen the downturn.
With a one-hit pandemic, UK GDP is likely to slump by 9% or more this year. That on its own will change the fiscal dynamics of the UK forever. But if there’s second wave, according to the OECD, in the three months before Christmas GDP will plummet by 21%. In that case we would see mass bankruptcies and unprecedented levels of unemployment.
In either case, it is possible that the Tories will attempt to swallow the economic costs of a No Deal Brexit within the wider stimulus package they have designed for the virus. But we’ll be in a world of mass precarity, youth unemployment and a disintegrating global order.
We are facing a government of the radical right. A failing Johnson administration that will respond by unleashing Trump-level doses of reactionary culture war, against minorities, Scottish nationalists, “cultural Marxists”, feminists and trade unionists. But it may do so alongside record levels of public spending and welfare payments.
The lesson of the 1930s is that when simultaneous crises emerge, making the old model impossible, the left has to take the lead in designing and advocating the new one. If not, the authoritarian right will do so.
At present, some Labour MPs look paralysed by the scale of the challenge. The Labour right’s big vision is “purge the left and go back to Blairism”, while the soft left’s instinct — as throughout its entire history — is to take the big vision of the left and water it down into something palatable.
The left, by contrast, has the resources, expertise, organisations, platforms and historical tradition to set the agenda: we can own Labour’s vision of the alternative, just as Bevan, Maxton and Cripps did in the 1930s.
So we need to design the alternative ourselves and start campaigning for it, to convince the Labour technocrats to move beyond timid critiques of the Tories and advocate economic regime change. I’ve spelled out some of the concrete proposals here.
The left’s project should extend, of course, way beyond 2024 and beyond the ethos of “Labourism”. A left government would, for us, be transitional to more fundamental and radical change, above all on climate. A two-term Labour government, if it began in 2024, would stand a realistic chance of achieving the zero net carbon target, but only if we also build a social movement to make it happen.
The thing to do now is decide: does the anti-capitalist left want to be a component part of the project Labour members voted for, criticising the front bench where needed, and maintaining our distinct organisations, but pushing the whole party towards a radical economic change agenda?
Or does “stay in and fight” mean fighting the leadership and each other, in an atmosphere constantly poisoned by right-wing media trolls? In the end it’s up to us.
Ainsley, Claire, The New Working Class: How to win hearts, minds and votes, London, 2018
Mouffe, Chantal “Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci”, in Chantal Mouffe: Routledge Innovators in Political Theory, London, 2014
Milburn, Keir, Generation Left, London, 2019
Tawney R.H. The Attack and other papers, London 1953
Thompson, E.P., The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, London, 1978