CsVeYSNWEAAUU0G‘Some have become richer; all have become poorer’. England’s perspective on Labour’s future

Dear Universe,

I’ve tried, but I cannot vote for Owen Smith.

I was tempted not to vote for Corbyn either, if only to debunk the myth that Labour members are either Corbynites or Blairistas, radical dreamers happy to remain in the electoral doldrums or practical centrists willing to sell any Labour value or policy to get elected in May 2020. I do not believe most Labour supporters fit into either camp. I agree with Owen Jones’ concerns about Corbyn’s project so far (medium.com, 31st July) but also feel that Paul Mason was largely on the money in his critique of the Smith campaign (medium.com 18th Aug).

So I will be voting for Corbyn. Winning the leadership contest the first time mandated Corbyn to lead the Labour party into the next general election. That’s democracy.

1997 was the first year I could vote after growing up under 18 years of Tory government. There must be a strategy to defeat the Tories, to stop that fate happening to my children’s generation. There must also be a strategy to use government to make the world an increasingly better place, not a strategy that merely slows down the pace at which the world becomes worse. What is Labour’s ‘Theory of Change’ to achieve this? That should be the conversation.

Thatcher claimed that one of her greatest legacies was Tony Blair. She drove the political agenda to the right, and Blair gladly picked up the baton and passed it on to Thatcher’s next political heir, David Cameroon. Thatcher and Blair in particular have – in England at least – both successfully divided and ruled by validating and appealing to ‘aspiration’ defined in the meanest and most diminished terms possible: financial and material enrichment for ‘me and my little atomic family in my little corner of my little country’. Some have become richer; all have become poorer.

This version of aspirationalism was openly casual about the extremely wealthy, not admitting to the fact that this meant also being casual about inequality and the other social and environmental externalities of the current political economy which created that extreme wealth (a political economy which they therefore conveniently failed to acknowledge let alone begin to understand or challenge, not least since they were its beneficiaries). This led to a culture of dismissing the ‘losers’: chavs, asylum seekers, pikeys, refugees, migrants and the disabled – the ‘undeserving poor’; championing the ‘winners’: the city traders, the guy with the most recent phone, the media, legal, property and tech tycoons – the ‘deservingly wealthy’; and to wholly neglect our empathic, civic and social instincts, letting them fall into disrepair and disuse.

This definition of aspiration did not properly extend to an aspiration for healthy families and communities in all parts of all countries. It did not extend to an aspiration for a healthy relationship with the planet. Their political vision was therefore a neoliberal vision at heart, whose most pernicious result (other than the continued erosion of our social and environmental fabric) was to publicly extol, reward and thus accentuate our most selfish instincts: to make us all more Tory.

This is now a well-recognised psychological phenomenon: rewarding our extrinsic values diminishes our ability to identify with our intrinsic values. For Labour, a strategy whose effect was to push the country to the right was always going to be a short-sighted one, possible only during a temporary period of buoyant economic growth and a series of crumby Tory leaders. We are now paying the price (what was that about “no return to boom and bust” Mr Brown?). Blair may have helped Labour into three terms in office (though a tired and sleaze-ridden conservative party was a relatively easy target in ‘97), but his real legacy has been to make England more conservative than ever and more likely to vote Tory.

(Unlike Blair, Thatcher surprisingly had the good grace to admit that contrary to her theory of the champagne cascading down and making the economic winners more generous, those winners instead bought a bigger and louder telly on which to watch Towie, and did not give more to Bernados or fix the church roof, instead holding in contempt the many economic losers of Thatcherism who slipped from working-class to under-class in the process. Good deeds v. good intentions – go to hell Maggie.)

Monbiot put it well:

“the longer Labour keeps repeating the same mistakes – reinforcing the values it should be contesting – the further to the right it will push the nation, and the more remote its chances of election will become. The task is to rebuild the party’s values, reclaim the democratic debate, pull the centre back towards the left and change – as Clement Attlee and Thatcher did in different ways – the soul of the nation”

This crucial factor (not Miliband, not a turn to the left, not the SNP, not Corbyn) is a key reason why Labour is now so unelectable. Labour under Blair happily tried to fight the Conservative party at their own game without challenging and changing the game and its rules. Not surprisingly the Tories have come out on top. As a direct result we are ruled by a party that blithely closes sure starts and libraries and presides over a country where nearly 1 in 3 children grows up in poverty.

That’s why an alternative was a necessary change, to start the process of playing by different rules, and Corbyn was the only alternative presented to us then (and still is now), at least in England. A strategy that makes the country less Tory is a process that needs all hands on deck and will take some time, and yet many in the PLP cannot see past the next election, the immediate horizon for their political careers. That is why their analysis is so flawed and their conclusions and advice are so untrustworthy, based as they are on a fundamental conflict of interest. I cannot therefore vote for Owen Smith on their recommendation.