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The defective anti-elitism of the Blairite elite

greedy BlairFor the second time in my life, I am watching firsthand the arrival of a new political dispensation. After growing up under the post-war social democratic consensus, and spending most of my adult years contesting various shades of neoliberalism, it looks increasingly as if populism will see me through to collecting my bus pass.

Britain has, at least so far, been spared the nastier manifestations of the phenomenon. Dramatic as the changes wrought by Brexit will surely be, there is currently no credible prospect of a politician of the stripe of Le Pen, Hofer or even Donald Trump becoming head of state or head of government.

However, we are clearly not immune from what is establishing itself as a global trend, and working out the right response to the insurgent right should be an urgent priority for the British left. Luckily, Labour is led by a politician who grasps this, as evidenced by the speech Jeremy Corbyn’s is due to give in Prague today.

Tony Blair, by contrast, is entirely perplexed, famously remarking: ‘I really mean it when I say I’m not sure I fully understand politics right now’. Even so, such admitted incomprehension has not been deemed any substantial barrier to his return to politics, predominantly to take on the ‘nutter’ who does understand politics right now.

The former prime minister’s strategy is based on devoting the vast resources he has earned brokering deals for investment banks to derailing Brexit. And there you have it in essence; Blair is trying to undercut a surge in anti-elite sentiment by using elite money to overturn a democratic decision, in the interests of the self-same elite that he has so dramatically enriched himself by joining. Think of him as basically the Labour MP for Davos.

If he is oblivious to the domestic electoral consequences, the sooner he returns to doing public relations for Kazakhstan, the better for Labour. Nothing could be more precisely calculated to facilitate the resistible rise of Paul Nuttall, the UKIP leader  widely being touted as the harbinger of Labour’s impending ruin in the north of England.

This assessment of Nuttall’s prospects, already being passed off as a fact, is entirely untested. Throughout its 23 year history, UKIP has failed to win a single Westminster seat, other than through the defection of sitting Conservative MPs.

It is true that the British instantiation of populism has already secured extensive blue collar support. Yet the psephological evidence – at least according to the standard academic study, Ford and Goodwin’s Revolt on the Right – indicates that most of these people were not previously Labour voters.

Whatever the labour movement myth, the historical reality is that a third of the British working class, variously identified as Disraeli’s ‘Angels in Marble’ or Thatcher’s ‘C2s’, have always backed rightwing parties.

There is no reason to think they will stop doing so no. But were Blair’s Bremain campaign to come out on top, the impact of the backlash and the inevitable subsequent polarisation would surely augment their ranks.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s argument that attempting to hinder British departure from the EU would position Labour on the side of the corporate elites has provoked considerable consternation inside the party. It is, nevertheless, substantially correct. The electorate has spoken, the bastards; it only remains to us to shape the outcome in the least uncongenial way we can find.

So how does Labour head off the populist revolt? The most popular answer from the Labour right centres on laying a veneer of tough talk on immigration controls over the fibreboard furniture of the same old elite-interest-dominated centrism.

The ugliest example here is Rachel Reeves’ ‘tinderbox’ speech last September. I haven’t seen the full text, so I’ll be charitable in not pressing the obvious comparison to Enoch Powell, as some commentators have.

But Stephen Kinnock is perhaps the leading exponent of making immigration controls central a brand of politics that is still trying to pass itself off as ‘the progressive centre’. He even hails work permits as ‘a cure for a divided Britain’, a sentiment that inadvertently says much about his vision of the good society.

The big deal for democratic socialists is that stealing UKIP’s thunder on this issue is deeply problematic. While advocacy of immigration controls is not in itself necessarily racist, it is something of a gateway drug.

We should not reduce ourselves to ‘doing populism’ in a way that raises the chances of Poles getting their faces smashed in in Leeds.

We do not have a dream that immigrants will one day be judged not by the content of their character, but by whether or not their skills fit in with the needs of the labour market.

We must instead address the social discontent that has accumulated since 1979, roughly the point at which this country abandoned social democracy for a faith driven reliance on the free market that has devastated so many communities and blighted so many lives.

That means tackling the housing shortage, the crisis in social care and the shortage of places in schools. That means an end to multigenerational unemployment in pit villages and mill towns, and to the in-your-face inequality that blights the life of our capital.

That means the election of a democratic socialist Labour government, ready to challenge the elite rather than kow-tow towards it priorities.

4 Comments

  1. John P Reid says:

    If you want to do the latter ask why the country abandoned the post war cincensus in 79′ never voted to being it back in 83′ 87′ or 2015 when labour proposed too

  2. Bazza says:

    It is the labour of the working billions which creates the wealth and make societies work and the rich and powerful (including Trump) legally steal our surplus labour.
    The capitalists system in its latest punative Neo-liberal interpretation is presented as the natural order of things and supported and promoted by the media and right in every country including by the Tories here and the likes of Farage, Le Pen et al and all of these are no friends of working people; they are conning the masses and through populism are stealing the agenda!
    The left needs to be articulating its agenda and get it out to working people but we have to do three things (a) beat our Neo-Liberals in Labour (b) beat the bourgeois socialists hovering around Corbyn here (top down, ready made plans, elite central committees – socialism FOR) Trots, sectarians, middle class liberals Greens, AWL etc) and of course (c) the Right outside of Labour.
    We need a bottom up, grassroots-led approach – socialism WITH what socialism was always meant to be but as we saw with Castro (and of course the US pro-capitalists had to undermine a potential dangerous example) but Castro whilst having great successes in health, education, poverty ultimately failed (although a socialist to the fingertips) because like Lenin, would be leader Trotsky, and mass murderer Stalin, and Mao et al ALL TOOK POWER FOR THEMSELVES!
    Three challenges indeed (a) Left wing democratic socialists in Labour should support left wing democratic socialists (b) Momentum etc. be Labour membrs only and ditch the bourgeois socialists – they offer working people nothing (c) articulate and get out there in straight forward language our points about exploitation and power from below.
    In an increasingly depressing World left wing democratic socialists should be giving the diverse working people of the World Hope!

  3. Eleanor Firman says:

    1. Immigration ‘controls’ – this is not a neutral term, like ‘policy’. It automatically means to assert authority / dominance.
    2. ‘Immigration’ is really two terms – ‘inward’ and ‘migration’. But does the term ‘immigration control’ ever refer to rich people moving in to UK?
    3. Migration simply means a flow of people. But this can be ‘internal’ (such as the so-called north-south ‘brain drain’ within the UK) or ‘external’, meaning to travel across a boundary of some kind.

    These are all freedom of movement issues that require practical attention across a whole range of policies.

    The problem is they APPEAR as local issues, but only NATIONAL policy frameworks can address them.

    As Marx said, (I paraphrase) ‘if everything was it appears to be, there would be no need for science’.

  4. Eleanor Firman says:

    Typo ‘if everything was, as it appears to be, there would be no need for science’.

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