Thursday, 11 May 2017

Failing better

In 2013, David Graeber tried to analyse the attitudes of global elites towards the social movements bubbling up beneath them. The first principle was: “under no conditions can alternatives, or anyone proposing alternatives, be seen to experience success,”

It might seem strange to imagine that the social democratic policies of Jeremy Corbyn provoke such fear and loathing, or even that they constitute an ‘alternative’, but I think they do inspire a form of dread.  We all know about his terrible approval ratings but level of vituperation directed at Corbyn from journalists and centrist politicians betrays something else. Such people find his policies – reversing swingeing tax cuts for corporations and the top 5% (partial recompense for the financial asset boosting free lunch known as Quantitative Easing), re-nationalising the railways and not selling arms to repressive regimes  – deeply threatening.

In their eyes, not only must Corbyn not ‘experience success’, he must be seen to fail catastrophically. He – and everything he has come to represent – must crash and burn, so British politics can return to the comfort zone of one centrist neoliberal arguing with a more right-wing neoliberal about how they manage economic decline.

So we must see that he doesn’t.

This is not about Labour winning the General Election. They are almost certain to lose. Opinion polls can be wrong but not that wrong. The one thing that has palpably changed from two years ago is that UKIP voters have migrated to the Tories. Prising that coalition apart in this election, in which Brexit is the dominant issue, is a herculean task.

However, how Labour loses is of vital importance. The party must be able to demonstrate that it is tapping into the enormous discontent and exasperation about the way this country is set up and the direction it is headed. As many have noticed, in polls, Labour is ahead, substantially ahead in fact, of the Tories among the under 40s. These non-middle aged people are feeling the brunt of what is happening in British society – wages falling by over 10% in a decade, unaffordable house prices and the travails of private renting, and a benefits system that represents a punishment, not a welfare, state. Older people, by contrast, are by and large insulated. They often own property and live on generous private pensions which have vanished for people coming after them, and don’t have to work for a living. However, they are much more likely to vote, and the propensity to vote is behind the Conservatives’ huge opinion poll leads.

This would seem to be an intractable problem for the Labour party in the absence of a fresh financial crisis that fundamentally changes the rule of the game. As things stand, all it can do it try to eat in to Tories’ older coalition and launch the mother of all campaigns to get (relatively) younger people to register to vote and actually do so.

Beyond that it can lay claim to the support of the legions of self-employed people and small businesses as opposed to big business. Loyalty to corporations above all else, which miraculously survived the financial crash, was one of the grievous faults of the last Labour government. Policies such as binding arbitration for late payments and the right for workers to buy firms that are sold or floated on the stock exchange need to be brought centre stage. For a party formed as movement of private sector workers, it is utterly inept for Labour to either conflate the interests of owners with employees or retreat into its public sector comfort zone.

If Labour loses the election but does so with an increased share of the vote compared to 2015, there is hope. If it secures the active backing of the pre-middle aged portion of the population, it can plausibly claim to represent the future. But if it crashes catastrophically, the New Labour old guard will ride, however unfairly, on a wave of vindication and Yvette ‘work capability assessment’ Cooper or someone like her will become leader. The robotization of British politics will then be complete. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter,” said the playwright Samuel Beckett. “Fail again. Fail better.”