The following are some personal thoughts from Bill Kerry (a co-founder of The Equality Trust) on General Election 2019.
Following the general election last Thursday, it seems almost certain now that Brexit will happen in some form or other. Perhaps, rather counter-intuitively, this could lead to a revival of progressive politics. When enough people realise that the future for them, their children and their grandchildren is set to be rather grim, the British public might demand change. There is already some hope in that younger people, largely, do not vote Tory and the current prospects for their rather bleak futures mean that is unlikely to change much as they get older. Conservatism will not flourish among a public that increasingly has little or nothing to conserve.
However, I fear the Labour party faces a very difficult challenge whoever the next leader might be. It’s historic power was based on largely homogenous working class communities aided and abetted (and occasionally hindered) by a strata of the middle class that were attracted to the ideas of socialism or social democracy. There was a broad commonality of interests that allowed the construction of a horizontal sense of solidarity across an electorally viable number of people in the country. I think the inequality and poverty unleashed on the country from the 1980s onwards has smashed up that cohesion. Material differences create social distances and everything falls apart. In our unequal, rats-in-a-sack society, we are forced to look after ‘Number One’. Quaint notions such as the common good, community or collective wellbeing take a back seat and we have to live Thatcher’s baleful dream where ‘there is no such thing as society’: only individuals and their families.
The working class still exists (despite siren voices on the right telling you otherwise) as most people still have to sell their labour to survive - but there are very wide variations within the working class in terms of pay, hours, conditions, job security, prospects and pension provision – and, accordingly, wide variations in the ability to plan, get a home and start a family, the things that give people meaning and a stake in society. Both you and the Deliveroo or Uber guy will sell your labour to live, but your worlds are likely very different and your attitudes, values, perceptions, priorities and beliefs will likely be very different too. All the while the top 1% and the top 0.1% soar away, further fraying our social fabric, and are sadly mirrored by the poorest falling away into destitution and homelessness. These conditions are so much worse than even Blair and Brown had to contend with so I don’t think a turn towards centrist Labour politics will guarantee success (you would think a sensible middle option between Blair and Corbyn could be found but if any party can fail to find this sweet spot, it’s probably Labour).
While the sociological foundations of Labour’s horizontal electoral coalition have crumbled a fair bit (not entirely), I would argue that the Tories have better maintained their electoral coalition on the basis of an appeal to nationalism - vertical solidarity if you like, necks craned upwards to the flag and the Queen while kicking down on those below (immigrants, single mothers, people on benefits etc) - a strategy that allows sufficient numbers of people to feel they will be given a chance to maintain, or even advance, their place in our unequal pecking order. History shows that nationalism often trumps (no pun intended) socialism. Before WWI the left parties across Europe all vowed to stop the war because they believed the working class would not fight a capitalist war. That commitment lasted a matter of hours. Thatcher was the most hated PM on record just before the Falklands War with people sporting car stickers that read “Ditch the Bitch” and then after the war she won a landslide. Whether the Labour party likes it or not, there is currently, under our First Past The Post system, an electorally viable constituency (at least 35%+) that can be cohered around a sense of nationalism (although the identity between England on the one hand and Britain on the other is highly fluid and complex). The latest stalking donkey carrying the nationalist agenda is, of course, Brexit.
I don’t have any solutions just a feeling that Labour will now have to embrace constitutional change and a fairer voting system, something it has always - to my intense regret - opposed. I also think part of that will have to be proposals for an English parliament or parliaments (north and south or more?) to address the “English Question” and neutralise that sort of ugly English nationalism which I think is a potentially bigger threat than most nice, middle-class people would like to admit. I would like to see an egalitarian “Federation of the Isles” replace the decrepit, colonial construction that is the Union but if Scotland departs and Ireland unites, I still think the English and the Welsh (assuming they stick around) will still need much greater local and/or regional democracy. Further wishes on my Santa list would be a written constitution, an elected second chamber and an elected head of state (or a Scandinavian-style, bicycling monarchy if we really have to keep them).
There is a consistent anti-Tory voting majority in this country but the electoral system does not allow it to translate into power. It seems impossible for progressive politics to win the game as it currently stands, so maybe we should now work to change the rules.