Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Billy Bragg, strikes and New Labour

I was lucky enough to see Billy Bragg in concert with Akala and Sound of Rum the other week. As well as putting on a great show, he inspired me to the extent that if I hadn’t already intended to strike on the 30th, it would have made me. Normally, in between songs, singers will say the odd thing, maybe being nice and telling a joke if you’re lucky (and if they’re not a present-day Bob Dylan!). But Billy would talk about injustice and then sing about it. He’d speak of the BNP and then sing about how he and Hope Not Hate kicked them out of Barking and Dagenham. I was moved after the other two joined him on stage at the end, impressed by the way they all stuck around after the gig to chat to the public and dreaming of a world not taken over and ruined by neoliberalism when I went to bed. If everyone believed Billy Bragg or at least listened to his music, I don’t doubt the world would be a better place.

Among the excellent points he made was the assertion that 'our biggest enemy isn’t capitalism or conservatism. It’s cynicism'. Not only does cynicism lead to damaging right-wing governments like the present one getting in after those who'll be most hit by them stayed at home, it can discourage people who would otherwise become activists.
A friend the other day made a jibe when I expressed enthusiasm about supporting my striking lecturers. People used to take the mickey out of one of my friends for her environmentalism and passion for environmental causes. Luckily, she didn’t really care what people thought and got on with it, and I can laugh the jibe off (not that it was funny), but think of all the people out there who would be political or environmental activists if not for the stick they’d receive.

You look at things like Israel and Palestine and, as I wrote in my September blogpost, it’s no surprise some people don’t get involved in politics (whatever we do, it seems, the US and Israel will deny Palestine the land and state recognition it deserves). But that shouldn’t mean those that want to are stopped - intentionally or not - by those who couldn’t care either way. I won’t talk too much about the strikes, as I blogged for the Bristol Labour Students wordpress on them, but in short, it was really encouraging to see so many students joining our lecturers on the picket line and so many on the demonstration itself – an estimated 20000 in Bristol. That gave me an element of hope, as Billy Bragg did, that we can defeat the cynicism and the conservatism holding us back.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that it’s largely because of the 5 million working-class voters we lost after 1997 that Labour lost the 2010 election. Something as basic as our strategy on the doorstep admits that it's getting the Labour vote out that will win us an election. When I go and knock on doors, it’s people who've voted Labour in the past that I’m asked to speak to. The problem is rarely that they’ve switched parties. It’s that they've caught somewhere between going to vote Labour at the next election and staying at home.

This is why New Labour was at best a miscalculation, at worst deliberate misrepresentation of the electorate. In Owen Jones’s excellent Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, he writes:
'The near-obsession with ignoring working-class voters meant inflating the importance of a very small tranche of wealthy voters who were misleadingly construed as Middle England'. He went on to talk of arch-Blairite Stephen Byers floating the idea of abolishing inheritance tax altogether in order to 'win back Middle England'. Luckily, Byers didn't get his way, but that a Labour minister considered something so blatantly favouring the rich tells you just how much we abandoned our working-class roots.

It's often argued New Labour was a necessary evil.
We needed to do something, yes; we needed a rebrand. We did not need to go nearly as far as we did, however. We should not have said that Thatcherism was right and all our policies in the 80s were not. We needed to admit that we’d made mistakes – we should not have let the SDP have to be formed and therefore split the vote, allowing Thatcher to thrash us, for instance. With Blair having the charisma and skill I don’t doubt he had at convincing the electorate we were different and therefore electable, I don’t believe we needed to go further than social democracy. He could have united the party more, as well, on a social democratic platform - he really didn’t have to take us as far away from what we were as he did.

The cynicism and apathy I wrote about plays into the hands of Blairites in allowing them to say that working-class people won’t come out and vote and we therefore need to gear our policies first and foremost at big business and people on higher incomes in the private sector. I’m not saying we don’t need to appeal to people in the private sector – and we definitely need to do something to stop the Tories being able to paint the pensions row as private vs. public sector – but, as my friend put it the other day, it’s not like there aren’t enough working-class people out there to get us elected again if we try hard enough.

I’m sorry we have to focus on one class. In an ideal world, we wouldn't have to, but class conflict (now I'm really starting to sound like Calum!) is only getting worse. The Tories - and now the Lib Dems - prioritise helping protect those near the top of the income ladder so much that if we don’t specifically stand up for the working class, no-one will.

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