If you pretend to speak for all working class people, then you’ve either got a chip on your shoulder, are a bit of a wally, or have some theatrical identity politics you feel the need to manifest. I’m guessing no one’s used the platform of the Daily Telegraph to do so before, so many congratulations to Lisa Ansell for being original in at least one respect.
Her thesis is that “The Left” are responsible for grinding down working class people, the demonisation of the right-wing media’s merry-go-round of favourite scapegoats, and choking off discussion about possible alternatives. Sounds very Trotty: “if it wasn’t for the (mis)leaders of the working class …”. Yet the only people I have come across who believe the left have the semi-totalitarian cultural power to shut out and exclude critics are the stunted characters one finds ambling about the yellowing grassroots of the Tories and UKIP, and the degenerate knuckle-draggers of the BNP. “Cultural Marxism” is a thing, don’t you know. But don’t talk about it. The liberal conspiracy will only clobber you.
This is being unfair to Lisa, mind. She’s no right-winger. But still, her thesis is bunk. While New Labour were definitely preferable to the Tories and did some alright things, nevertheless it nailed its colours to the neoliberal mast. It went beyond the traditional Labour conflict between principle and expediency and enthusiastically embraced market fundamentalism until the crash called time on the love-in. Sure, New Labour was a project, a strategic orientation to politics and government by a section of the right wing of the labour movement. It had its architects. It made its deliberate moves. And no one forced it to extend marketisation, bind the tax payer to rip-off PFI contracts, or make war on Iraq.
Where were “the left” when this was going on? Well, for the most part, it was protesting this retrograde nonsense. Organising in community groups, campaigning against privatisation and cuts, mobilising against war. It was doing what the left has always done – fighting working people’s corner. From Chartism through to the New Unionism, the TUC and the Labour Party; the foundation of the NHS, fighting the miners’ strike and the poll tax, the left has backed working people. Because the left is the labour movement. It is working people.
When Lisa moans “the result of their [trade union leaders] ineffectiveness is shown in the expansion of welfare to the working population and a labour market underpinned by zero-hours contracts”, she forgets that whatever the faults of those leaders, the labour movement as a whole suffered a run of strategic defeats from the miners’ strike to the general election defeat in 1992. The much weaker movement we have now is the direct consequence of battles lost. The workplaces, the communities, the solidarities, the very backbone of the left collapsed under the triple whammy of defeat, deindustrialisation, and the privatisation of everyday life. It’s unsurprising that the response to this from the right of the labour movement was an accommodation to the market, not a radical challenge to it.
The left still has not recovered, but it has got better. Lines such as “Labour movement indifference allowed our benefits system to demonise women, carers, mothers, the ill, the unemployed …” could only be written by someone who’s had scant involvement with it. Remind me, who has thrown their weight against anti-bedroom tax campaigns and the appalling attacks on disabled people? What organisations are fighting for women’s equality, against racism, and rights for LGBT people? Who is now leading the charge against monstering and scapegoating? Oh yes, the left. Working people who are active in the labour movement.
But really what Lisa has in her sights is not the labour movement per se, but the left Twitter “establishment”. Shooting through her article – and many tens of thousands of tweets – is a resentment, a belief that a left commentariat is making its way in the world speaking for working people and excluding genuine proletarians like, um, herself. It’s nonsense, of course. Young Owen, a favourite target of Ol’ Green Eyes, writes articles for money and appears in the media. So what? He never claims to speak for anyone but himself. Polly Toynbee has been cranking out centre left comment for years – she doesn’t pretend to be the voice of working class women.
In fact, the only people conceited enough to think they’re speaking for “the working man” (and it is the working man) are the ideological kin of her Telegraph stable mates; Nigel Farage, Godfrey Bloom, Nadine Dorries. It’s these people with their “common touch” that are allowed to pass themselves off as the authentic voice of Britain, of the real representatives of the salt-of-the-earth. It is their rubbish, their divisive rhetoric that gets a free pass from Lisa. And it is they, not a single New Statesman interview on ‘brocialism’ that poses the “complex, chavvy, intersecting, working class” the greatest danger.