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An Osborne Supremacy?

Cameron and Osborne“The best things are when you get your opponents to end up agreeing with you because then you’ve really won the argument. When you finally agree – that’s when it’s going to last, that’s when you’ve won’.”

It is statements such as that which have earned George Osborne so many plaudits in the press recently, from the left and right, and his thinking put into practice which has the Tories polling at over 40%. The claim is that the Tories are stealing ‘the centre ground’, with their ‘National Living Wage’, workers’ party rebrand, and rhetoric around ‘fairness’, and has been made by everyone in Labour from Owen Jones’ belief that Osborne is making “an audacious raid on Labour territory” to Dan Hodges obvious trolling that David Cameron is now the “leader of the British left”.

But the most well-argued and detailed analysis of this new ‘Osborne Supremacy’ is a publication by Compass bearing that title. Written by Ken Spours, a Gramscian Professor at UCL and now Compass Associate, the “The Osborne Supremacy” uses the concept of ‘hegemony’ to argue that the conservatives have embraced progressive values and rhetoric, posturing in hard hats and using the language of a ‘living wage’ to eat into Labour’s support base. 

According to Spours, from 2005 the Conservatives did their homework on New Labour and carefully built a comprehensive political and intellectual strategy, using ‘an oligarchical press, a craven BBC, and an army of neoliberal think tanks’, including some recent creations like Policy Exchange and the ironically, yet brilliantly, named Centre for Social Justice.

In 2005, Lord Ashcroft published a pamphlet titled, Smell the Coffee: A Wake-up Call for the Conservative Party, in which he argued:

The Conservatives were thought less likely than their opponents to care about ordinary people’s problems, share the values of voters or deliver what they promised.

Under the Cameron-Osborne leadership over the last decade, the Tories have attempted to shed the ‘nasty party’ image (a term coined by Theresa May, who has since clearly decided that she can only win the Tory leadership by reinvigorating that exact mantra) in favour of becoming the party of the modern family, the conscientious environmentalist, and the low-income worker. Their electoral just desserts were delivered when 47% of the over-65s voted for them in 2015, a 5.5% swing away from Labour, whose focus on younger voters proved fruitless, as their turnout rate was half that of the pensioners.

By opportunistically painting the financial crisis of 2008 as a crisis of the public sector, and more specifically of Labour’s profligacy, the Tories were able to make cutbacks ‘common sense’, and have spent the past five years using the central political theme of their party (austerity) their chief strategic weapon, using austerity to move workers out of the public sector, reducing unionisation and lowering support for public services.

Osborne’s reinvigorated ‘Blue Collar conservatism’ is targeting Labour’s C2 “point of vulnerability”, and pitting skilled workers against DE welfare claimants, who are less likely to turn out.

There are of course weaknesses to this ‘Osborne Supremacy’, cuts to tax credits, or the NHS, could quickly fracture the Tories’ support in key marginals, while their electoral coalition is ageing and the economy, with huge private debt and a current account deficit, sliding towards another crash – one that Labour should (hopefully) find easy to blame solely on the ruling party and their City donors.

The point Spours makes best of all, and the most crucial one for supporters of Labour and of Jeremy Corbyn to take onboard, is that over the last decade, if not the last four decades, the political right has been significantly better-versed, better-organised and better-disciplined than the left in the language of hegemonic politics. They know how to win people over. They know how to make their ideas ‘mainstream’, and of course, they have vast resources in finance, the media and academia to achieve those ends. Osborne has had a playbook and has executed it brilliantly.

What the left must do is to mount a contest around the language of the Tories, the key terms of ‘fairness’, ‘liberty’, and crucially, ‘democracy’, to argue for a new collectivist politics, and to begin the long hard work of shifting that ‘common sense’ back to where we believe it should be.

4 Comments

  1. Mervyn Hyde says:

    Whilst agreeing that the Tories use the language of spin and always have been the masters of, the problem for real Labour supporters is that the party has been high jacked by Neo-Liberals within the Labour Party.

    In short New Labour adopted all the Tories policies and talk about markets as though it was written in stone, Universities have since the 1970s preached Neo-Liberal classic economics and it is only since the last crash that students themselves realised that what they are being taught is totally irrelevant.

    This is an extract from the Bank of England’s document on Money Creation which says the same thing:

    “The vast majority of money held by the public takes the form
    of bank deposits. But where the stock of bank deposits comes
    from is often misunderstood. One common misconception is
    that banks act simply as intermediaries, lending out the
    deposits that savers place with them. In this view deposits
    are typically ‘created’ by the saving decisions of households,
    and banks then ‘lend out’ those existing deposits to borrowers,
    for example to companies looking to finance investment or
    individuals wanting to purchase houses.
    In fact, when households choose to save more money in bank
    accounts, those deposits come simply at the expense of
    deposits that would have otherwise gone to companies in
    payment for goods and services. Saving does not by itself
    increase the deposits or ‘funds available’ for banks to lend.
    Indeed, viewing banks simply as intermediaries ignores the fact
    that, in reality in the modern economy, commercial banks are
    the creators of deposit money. This article explains how,
    rather than banks lending out deposits that are placed with
    them, the act of lending creates deposits — the reverse of the
    sequence typically described in textbooks.(3)”

    This is the most fundamental principle relating to our economy and yet even in our top universities students are misled by false information.

    For over forty years now Neo-Liberal institutions have replaced and seeped into every aspect of society, from lobbyists, think tanks, and even our parliamentarians. Our whole education system is being transformed into a market, none of this has happened by accident.

    As an indication of where all of this originates you need look no further than the USA:

    The Koch Brothers set up this Libertarian institute for the obvious purpose of bending the facts to fit their agenda.

    http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/25/cato-institute-and-koch-brothers-reach-agreement/

    There are also links to ALEC the American Legislative and Exchange Council which researches and lobby’s government peddling Neo-Liberal theology. There were also links directly through to Thatcher’s Atlantic Bridge with ALEC under Liam Fox, but Atlantic Bridge was finally closed down by the Charity Commissioners because it posed as a charity but was in fact A POLITICAL ORGANISATION.

    This article outlines the connections between Atlantic Bridge and ALEC.

    http://www.thescottishindependent.com/alec-and-uk-branch-office-atlantic-bridge/

    Please look at the links they are important if we are to understand how our democracy has been taken over by corporate power, and why we need to clean out our political stable in favour of genuine representatives.

  2. Bazza says:

    Yes the rich and powerful legally nick the surplus labour of the working billions but their mouthpiece the Tories must try to win the popular vote (helped by media dominance) so they cleverly pretend to rule for the people and use the language of moderation whilst delivering cruel vicious hard right wing practice.
    This pretence is for the mugs out there (imbecilic political commentators included).
    CONservatives are well named.
    We should explain this to people simply and clearly to try to lift the cobwebs from their eyes.

  3. David Pavett says:

    @James Elliot.

    James, I dream of genuine debate on the left as a precursor to winning wider support. The above comments on your article are a good indication of how far we are from such debate. Neither engages with the main points of the article or, more importantly, with the Compass which you discuss.

    The UK left left is notable for its unwillingness to engage in detailed matters of theory. This is perhaps not so true of some fringe groups (although debate on matters of theory among such groups is usually both dogmatic and sectarian) and more or less isolated individuals. It is in this context that I want to comment on your article and also on Ken Spours’ booklet.

    Your opening quotation (taken from Ken Spours) seems to me to be trivial. When you convince your opponent then you’ve won the debate. Didn’t we all understand that without the need to resort to concepts of “hegemonic” domination?

    It’s not that I want to reject the idea of hegemony understood as commanding ideas which take on the force of “common sense” but rather that I think that it is an idea that most of understand readily without the need for references to Antonio Gramsci and Stuart Hall. A political movement hoping to transform society must engage critically with the ideology that forms the backdrop of social discourse.

    The Eliane Glazer’s introduction to the booklet by tells us that “We have all become obsessed with what people bring up ‘on the doorstep’, as though political views are inherently and organically held”. Have we and what does this even mean? The whole booklet is full of highly questionable, and often near-meaningless, assertions of this sort.

    Spours starts off with a claim that “the Conservative Party now commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape”. This pretty much indicates the lack of any sort of empirical control over the claims made which proceeds throughout the entire booklet. I cannot imagine how you formed the impression that this document is the “most well-argued and detailed analysis of this new ‘Osborne Supremacy’”.

    Spours also says at the outset that “when you have been defeated on the field of battle, you ask not only what you did wrong, but also what your adversary did right”. This is clearly correct. The only problem is that he makes no attempt to do this. It is meaningless to evaluate the tactics of one army in battle without simultaneously considering those of the opposing army. Spours makes no attempt to analyse the role of Labour’s lack of a critic of neo-liberal ideas across its policies in making an ideal space for the Tories to advance their case with only minimal opposition (much of which was charted on blogs such as Left Futures).

    Ideology (like nature) abhors a vacuum. When there is no ready explanation for a phenomenon that impacts on daily life people will tend to grab the first plausible account that they encounter. Therefore before attributing some deep wisdom, or cunning, to the author(s) of a dominant narrative one should ask what alternative was on offer. If there is no explanation for lightening then the suggestion that it expresses the anger of the gods may have traction. In an age in which electrical phenomena are widely understood there will be significantly less take up for such a view. A failure to take this simple point on board vitiates the whole of Ken Spours’ booklet.

    Having got off on a wrong foot the Spours’s account (the word “analysis” hardly seems appropriate) flits between one issue and another with grand rhetorical flourishes but with only passing connection with reality. Not only that but the booklet seems to have been produced in great haste. Quotations are not typographically indicated as such and some references are simply given as “(xxx)” obviously awaiting a final proof reading which never took place.

    Spours’ booklet reads like a latter-day product of the Euro-communist wave of the 1970/80s. It retains the uncritical enthusiasm for the ideas of Antonia Gramsci that were then fashionable and for which one of the leading advocates was Stuart Hall. This is not to say that there is not much to admire in Gramsci’s ideas but rather that his rejection of mechanical versions of historical materialism often took him to idealist positions in which the the political exercise of will tended to be taken as independent causal factor impacting on the evolution of society rather than an integral part of the social whole which can only be understood as such. This idealist tendency in Gramsci is all too evident in Spours’ analysis for example in the fact that the economy and its problems only gets a couple of passing references.

    The result is a lot of wildly inaccurate summaries of social trends along with assertions that are in plain conflict with easily established facts. It would take a lot of space to quote all the examples of these problems so a few points will have to suffice.

    1. Accuracy. Spours sais that “47 per cent of the over-65s voted Conservative in 2015”. No, they didn’t. 47% of those voting in that age group did so but the turn out for their age group was 78%. This means that 37% of the over-65s voted Conservative. If we are going to analysis voting patters and discuss their significance the attention to such detail is crucial.

    2. Spours claims that “The Left has all but lost public support for working-age social security, which is now a major point of strategic weakness.” I think this is not borne out by recent arguments over tax credits for working people. And let’s remember the high level of opposition to the bedroom tax as well.

    3. “… Blair, as a political personality, represented a historic compromise between Labour aims and values and neo-liberalism”. What on earth can be meant by this? What was the nature of the “compromise”? I think that most on the left following events would rather say that Blair represented the domination of neo-liberalism over over “Labour aims” (itself a very vague term requiring clarification) leading to their continuous erosion.

    4. “… the Conservatives are not building up support with young people, urban and most black, Asian and minority ethnic voters”. In fact they are doing just that. There is a general trend for long-established groups of ethnic minority voters to drift to the right. This has been noted among Jews, Cypriots, Sikhs and many others. But on this as on so much else Spours does not get his hands dirty by dealing with detailed analysis.

    5. “The exercise of ‘pessimism of the intellect’ provides a method and language to cut across and challenge the ideological limitations of both social democracy and Left forces”. I have no idea what this means. The expression “pessimism of the intellect” is used twice in the booklet with no explanation (so we all know about that then).

    There is much else that is wrong with this booklet. Its pretentious language means that it could only appeal to a very tiny segment of the the left. I suggest to all those who read it that they stop after each grand assertion and ask “What exactly does that mean and where is the argument/evidence”?

    In amongst all this blather a few good point are made. Thus Spours says that it is essential for the left to grasp the decent and plausible reasoning that can lead people to vote conservative and that the left should be able to analyse and work on that reasoning to appeal to the very same decent and plausible reasoning. This may not be an original point but it is an important one all the same and needs repeating (as we can see from comments on Left Futures by people who think that once someone has voted Conservative they are beyond the pale.

    I believe also that Spours is right to contrast the relative coherence of the Conservative ideological offensive with the “This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological ‘trenches’ of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.” Those of us who want to see the Corbyn moment transformed into a deep transformation of the Labour Party need to recognise the truth of this if we are to break out of our silos.

    However, taken as a whole, I think that Spours booklet contains exactly the sort of “analysis” that we can do without. Academics like Spours have the time and resources to reflect rather more seriously on the problems faced by the left. Some step up to the plate and do this. It is a pity that Ken Spours has preferred to retreat to the comfort zone of academic waffle, and neo-Gramscian hand-waving with only minimal analytic or critical content.

  4. David Pavett says:

    @James Elliot
    James, it would be really good to have your response to at least some of my points. You read Ken Spours booklet and thought it was good. I responded by explaining why I thought it was very poor. Don’t you think it would be useful to take things beyond such initial exchanges. To be effective democratic debate has to go beyond opening positions.

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