Friday, 24 January 2020

There Must Be Some Way Out of Here

I've been expecting Boris Johnson to become Prime Minister ever since he was Mayor of London, and was only mildly surprised when Michael Gove's little Brutus-act delayed his progress by a couple of years. I don't possess any supernatural powers of prediction, it just seem blindingly obvious that he's the only politician with sufficient ruthlessness and charisma among the current professionalised political class. What was a bit surprising was just how inadequate they all proved at dealing with his Machiavellian skills during those grim months from October to December last year (when even the speaker of the Commons was trying to egg them on like a rowing cox).

This post is the text of a talk I gave in January to a panel discussion organised in Finsbury Park by Phil Cohen, under the name 'There Must Be Some Way Out Of Here'. The other speakers were Phil himself, Andrew Calcutt, Valerie Walkerdine, Tim (T.J.) Clark, Lynne Segal and Baroness Ruth Lister: 

Dick Pountain/There Must Be.../ 20th January 2020 08:52:01

I realised the election was lost on the Friday before, when Channel 4 News sent a team to do a vox pop in a northern labour seat. The man they interviewed, who’d only ever voted labour before, called Boris a "lovable buffoon" but said he would nevertheless vote for him. The following week’s defeat was particularly bitter because many people hoped that Labour was about to win a majority comparable to that of 1945 which founded the modern welfare state. Attlee's government came to power thanks to a social solidarity engendered by the collective experience of fighting and provisioning World War Two. British business - or “the capitalist class” if you prefer - was prepared to compromise with organised labour both for their common interest in reconstruction and to avoid the threat of more radical expropriation.

That degree of solidarity clearly can’t be relied upon nowadays, and to understand why, examine what lay behind that man’s description of the "lovable buffoon" who’s now our prime minister. He knew quite well that Boris Johnson isn't going to solve his personal economic problems, but he didn't believe Jeremy Corbyn would solve them either. That’s probably because he thinks no-one can, but he'd rather vote for the one that he thinks is more like himself -- the one who like a drink and a laugh, and who will get Brexit done -- a largely symbolic raising of the drawbridge that he thinks might preserve what he does have from marauding foreigners. The world’s going to hell in a handbasket but he'd rather go there with Boris, and with a giggle rather than a lecture.

The Left devotes a lot of thought to the question of why the working classes, both here and in the USA, choose to vote against their own "economic interests", often using abstractions like ‘false consciousness’, ‘ruling ideology’, ‘consumer capitalism’, ‘neoliberalism’, all of which are merely descriptive. For the UK we can find a more concrete answer in party politics.The 1945 welfare state improved people’s lives over the next half century enormously, in housing, healthcare, education, and employment. It once looked as if this progress would continue smoothly toward some form of pan-European social democracy.

But as we all know this progress was interrupted in 1979 by the election of a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher, which set out to head off such an outcome. Within that government, a group on the Right of the party, who favoured an American-style unregulated economy, set out on a deliberate, tenacious and effective 40-year campaign to undo the solidarity that sustained the welfare state. During Margaret Thatcher’s three periods of office, they devised a policy of selling council houses to their occupants. In the 2nd January edition of the London Review of Books there's an excellent review by Susan Pedersen in which she identifies this policy of selling public housing as a turning point in post-war history.

The policy was part of a three-pronged attack, the other two being malicious neglect of heavy industry to weaken the grip of trade unions, and the fostering of anti-European and anti-immigrant sentiment. But the housing sales were the masterstroke. They gave many Labour voters a stake in the housing market, and this was followed up by restrictions on any further building of council houses, which eventually lead to the housing shortage and ferocious price inflation that’s still with us and is a major factor in the huge increase in inequality and homelessness of the last 40 years. It drove a wedge through the heart of Labour's support, between those who’d bought and those who hadn’t, another split that's still with us. Thatcher famously said she was creating a ‘property-owning democracy’, when in fact she only created half of one. 

The other half, now mostly at the mercy of private landlords lived more precariously, more liable to identify immigrants as competitors for jobs and homes, and less likely to vote Labour. But among the new home owners it reinforced a feeling of autonomy - having your own home to decorate as you like, perhaps a car rather than public transport to go where you like. It’s the attraction of such feelings of autonomy that’s missing from many Left analyses that ask why people vote against their ‘economic interests’ - in the last instance, they value autonomy over cash. Conflict between autonomy and collective good has been around as long as there’s been society, and it always plays better to the Right than to a Left that tends to undervalue autonomy. 

Following Thatcher’s fall, the Labour Party was forced to acquiesce in her counter reformation to get reelected in 1997 under Blair, and ever since the crash of 2007 it's been unable to regain the full confidence of ‘lovable buffoon’ man. Brexit was the Tory Atlanticist's final decisive weapon. Like all the most effective weapons it was two-edged in that it split both the main parties, but the Tory Right correctly guessed that the party’s historic will to power over principle would prevail against Labour’s historic tendency to factionalism and moral probity. And during those horrible three months of 2019 they deftly out-manoeuvered both their own “wet” wing and the Labour Party, to place Boris Johnson in power with a working majority.

Climate crisis hasn’t played a major role in the ‘Thatcherite plot’ until now, but now it’s set to widen the splits in our society that they’ve caused. And we’re not alone in this predicament, as the electorates of almost all Western democracies are splitting in a similar fashion. There’s growing generational split. The younger generations, whose futures are most threatened by climate change, are being politically galvanised by the threat, as well as by an inability to afford housing in the inflated market their parents generation profits from. There’s a growing gap between city dwellers who have decent, even greenish, public transport, and those outside cities won’t be willing to give up driving cars because alternative public transport is inadequate (and because they like driving - that autonomy thing again). Widest of all is the split between those who would close borders to keep out the mass migration of those displaced by war, flood, fire and famine, and those who support freedom of movement.

Under such conditions, promising to restore 1945-style social democracy will no longer win elections: accepting the reality of climate crisis means managing the winding down of fossil fuel usage which will be resisted, and the Right may continue to deny its reality. Australia is likely to be one of the earliest test cases, because when and if Scott Morrison’s government is thrown out over its attitude to the bush fire emergency, whichever successor that does accept the crisis will have to tackle a coal industry that provides a third of the country’s exports. In fact national solutions to the climate crisis aren’t feasible, since a degree of global governance that doesn’t exist is necessary to curb the fossil fuel industry. 
The UN is the only available institution, but its Millennium Goals, admirable as they are in principle, are unrealisable so long as climate-denying administrations like Trump’s have a power of veto.

Over the next decade preserving any sort of democracy will be a challenge, and we’ll need to invent wholly new rhetoric, institutions and practices to achieve it: the spectrum of Left, Centre and Right is no longer helpful, while electoral reform and green coalitions barely begin to touch the magnitude of the task.


  1. Hi Dick,
    There's a lot stuff I would like to comment on here, but I'll restrict myself to environmental issues -I was a GP (Green Party) and environmental activist for about 15 years after I retired.
    About 10-15 years ago, Bob Crow of the RMT addressed GP conference. He was dangling financial political support for the GP - I saw this as a way of putting pressure on the Labour Party leadership rather than a serious offer. However he did get a substantial GP commitment for improved public transport, particularly in cities. Over time I came to see this as wrong. I now think a major way to reduce fossil fuel usage is to reduce commute to work distance rather than facilitate it. By building good quality medium rise housing specifically where the work is, using CPOs on low rise dwellings where necessary. I've seen some amazingly good quality medium rise housing in Berlin. And stop all new transport infrastructure to get the finance for this. Added advantage is reducing the "pressure" on the greenbelt. The problem of course getting there is the reduction in house prices - the UK middle classes main savings are their houses. So, I not selling that as a way out, but I think we ought to at least try.
    As far as international governance goes, forget it. The UN is (rightly) set up to disable its coercion of the major powers (otherwise it would have quickly degenerated into a talking shop). But we do have pressure we can bring to bear on those countries that are increasing production of greenhouse gases. For example 120,000 Chinese students are at British universities ( 2or3 long haul return flights a year each, plus the relatives coming for the graduation ceremony, holidays). I think we could ask for some carbon reduction there.
    Best Wishes

  2. I agree with the general analysis, but want to comment about the concept of ‘ false consciousness’. You say it is ‘purely descriptive’. I would say that it is far more damaging than that implies. It derives, of course, from Bolshevism and demonstrates a contempt for the people who those who use the expression claim to be representing. I think it was at the heart of the historic failures of Communism and inasmuch as the sectarian left, newly-revived under Corbyn, use it, then it is at the heart of its failures too.

    On the ‘...horrible three months...’ , I would supplement your account by asking whether there has ever been a more incompetent opposition. Should the prize be given to Labour, trying to please everyone over Brexit and ending up making everyone distrust them? Or should it be given to the LibDems with their truly insane policy of revoking Article 50 without another referendum? I think the LibDems edge it because of the way they fell into Johnson’s General Election trap; although Corbyn had wanted to jump over that particular cliff for weeks and enthusiastically followed them. Johnson hardly needed his Machiavellian skills when opposed by those dimwits.

    Have you read John Harris’s piece in the Guardian yesterday? Its first rate and covers a lot of the same ground as your blog.


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