Restarting the forward march


identity, political events, progressive politics, UK politics

Author(s):  Tristram Hunt
Published date:  06 Dec 2011
Source:  IPPR

MP and historian Tristram Hunt reviews the current state of the Labour politic through the prism of Eric Hobsbawm’s seminal Marxism Today essays.

The great strength of Marxism Today – which closed its doors 20 years ago and which IPPR is marking with a special edition of its journal PPR – was its intellectualism and its catholicism. One of its main contributors was the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm whose most profound contributions to the intellectual history of the Labour movement centred on his 1978 lecture on ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ More than a generation on from that groundbreaking intervention – and following on of Labour’s worst election defeats – it is timely to return to this thesis and assess the popular and political prospects of the centre-left today.

On retracing the terrain of the debate, one is immediately struck by two points. The first is the remarkable foresight of Hobsbawm’s original lecture. In it, he provides a comprehensive sociological history of the British working class before turning to speculate on the trends which may shape the Labour movement in the immediate future. From its depiction of union sectionalism, to its highlighting of stratification and decline in the industrial manual classes, and its illustration of a culture of masculine-dominated ‘Labourism’ struggling to come to terms with new forms of identity, it captures the essence of a movement undergoing a profound sociological and political crisis.

The second point, seen retrospectively, is the reluctance of the movement to face up to the scale of the problem. The influence of Marx’s historical materialism, the comforting certainty that history was on the side of socialism not capitalism, still exerted a powerful hold on leftist critiques at that time. Even electoral defeat, when it arrived in 1979, would be blindly greeted by some as merely an impasse – with normal service shortly to be resumed

Examining this history is important, not least because certain parallels between 1979 and today are inescapable. Like then, we live in the eye of a volatile and unpredictable economic storm, brought about by excessive faith in a hegemonic economic ideology. However, unlike the post-war consensus, the neoliberal consensus does not (yet) appear to be on the brink of collapse. In part, this is because neoliberalism is a peculiarly resilient ideology. Indeed, in Europe and across the developed world, it has so far often been to a resurgent right that voters have turned.

As in 1979, the right has successfully mobilised its response to the crisis in language that the public can understand. Nowhere is this phenomenon more pronounced than here in Britain where, with breathtaking ruthlessness, the Conservatives have successfully reframed the crisis. The political agenda is not dominated by how to correct the problems associated with unregulated market power, but about how to deal with unrestricted government spending.

The temptation is to fight back, but it is vitally important that the Labour movement does not delude itself into thinking that we can build a new consensus purely through waging a persistent, attritional war of rebutting the government’s more specious claims. It is correct that the deficit was caused by the seismic shock of the financial crisis, but politics is not an empirical science. It is about peoples’ perceptions and emotions, their hopes and insecurities. Directing a sceptical public to the relevant graphs and statistics will never be a winning strategy. The Conservatives mounted a sustained argument, firmly rooted in popular notions of common sense – rooted in the image of household finances – leaving Labour’s positivistic and technocratic tone lagging.

At this stage in the electoral cycle it is more important to identify the process of renewal than speculate on the answers: asking the right searching questions and, where necessary, facing up to the unpalatable truths. This is not just about rejecting false choices – between the politics of aspiration and security, or of prioritising the middle class progressive over the working class communitarian – though that would be a welcome start. It is about embracing a methodology for strategic political renewal that goes far beyond the usual psephological clichés. This is how we can avoid aligning ourselves to declining demographic groups and anticipate the political challenges of the future.

This requires a change in mindset. Too often we translate new political contexts into policy challenges, rather than exploring the opportunities they afford to develop a broad-based coalition that could lead back to power. For example, the correct question to be asking in response to the rise of Scottish, Welsh and English national sentiment is less whether we should advocate an English parliament or a greater devolution of powers, and more how we might find a language and identity that embraces the vitality and distinctiveness of different nations and places. Deprived of the old language of class, but as the only party with a popular reach across all of Britain, the identity Labour embraces must be nimble enough to accommodate the tension between nationalisms while maintaining the union.

Arguably, the biggest strategic challenge is posed by the polarised patterns of ‘winners and losers’ that globalisation has created. Left unchecked, this will make building our majoritarian coalition even more challenging. While Labour lost votes across all sections of society in 2010, our losses were greatest in what might be described, loosely, as traditional working class areas. A recent study showed that the average fall in the Labour vote in constituencies where more than a quarter of the economically active electorate were manual workers was 3 per cent higher than in constituencies where the share was less than 18 per cent. Despite its real achievements, there is some justification in the charge that New Labour exercised an almost-whiggish zeal in the benevolence of progress, elevating ‘change’ to an end in itself. Inevitably this alienated those most uncomfortable with change. If Labour is to recommence its forward march, it must once more reach out to these communities.

This alone, of course, will not be sufficient. Hobsbawm’s analysis showed that Labour was never purely the representation of a uniform working class (and certainly wasn’t in 1979 or 1983). Yet, even he might be surprised by the extent to which the Labour vote in 2010 appears to be classless or ‘post-class’. In the 2005 election, a greater percentage of Labour voters came from the 'AB' than the 'DE' social class group. This is partly the result of the expansion of the professional middle class. The road to electoral success for Labour will always will be through building a popular, majoritarian coalition across all areas of society. Yet, ‘reconnection’ with lower social class groups is of vital importance for two reasons. ]

First, to put it bluntly: when we do, we win. In 1983 and 2010, Labour’s lead over the Conservatives in the DE class of voters was 8 per cent and 9 per cent respectively. By contrast, in 1974 the lead was 35 per cent and in 1997, 38 per cent. The same is true of the C2 class. In 1983 and 2010, the Conservatives led among this group by 8 per cent, while in 1974 and 1997, with suitable symmetry, they led by 23 per cent.

Second, and more importantly, being disconnected from these communities will have disastrous consequences for the way we do our politics and our ability to engender change. People have turned away from politics in their droves – and the managerialism of contemporary political culture has played a significant role in this. Labour is not entirely to blame for this, but we must take our share of responsibility. When told of a failing school, we replied that GCSE results kept on improving every year; when people spoke of not feeling safe, we responded with statistics indicating a fall in crime rates.

Hobsbawm warned us about this danger in a 1983 article. He suggested that there are inherent weaknesses to what he called the ‘neosocialist’ strategy for achieving popular support:

‘This [neosocialism] implies abandoning the traditional character of such parties as mass parties, based on mass organisations, especially those of the working class, and turns them into common electoral fronts of all who are, for one reason or another, opposed to reaction, interested in reforms, and prepared to sympathise with progressive appeals … [T]he weakness of this strategy lies in the instability of the political support gained in this manner, the lack of activity and feedback from the citizens, the undoubted temptations of opportunism it encourages, and the lack of any organic base for the policies of such parties.’

Of course building a ‘common electoral front’ is, as Hobsbawm also realised, essential for electoral success. His criticism is more subtle: it is when we consider how to turn a broad-based electoral front into a project to transform society that the importance of being rooted in our communities is brought into sharp relief. The unfortunate history of Labour governments is that having acquired access to the levers of state, they forget about other avenues for change. Rooting our political strategy once more in the popular concerns and aspirations of the communities we care most about improving would create the potential to develop an ‘organic base for policy’ and a popular movement for transformative political action. We can build a movement that not only strengthens the ties that bind us together but one that is ready to play an active role as a partner in creating a better society.

This is an edited version of an essay which will appear in the forthcoming edition of IPPR’s quarterly journal PPR. This is special edition to mark the 20 anniversary of the last edition of Marxism Today, an iconic magazine of the British left.