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John Harris on the left September 14, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

John Harris wrote a piece, which both Michael Carley and others have pointed to this week, in the Guardian. It’s a reflection on the left and the prospects for the left. And as Michael says it is thought-provoking even if one doesn’t have to agree with significant parts of it.

This is particularly worthy of consideration, his description of his response to Tony Blair at the BLP Conference in 2005/6.

His next passage was positively evangelistic. “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”

And frankly Harris nails it in the following:

I watched that speech on a huge screen in the conference exhibition area. And I recall thinking: “Most people are not like that.” The words rattled around my head: “Swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” And I wondered that if these were the qualities now demanded of millions of Britons, what would happen if they failed the test?
Listening to Blair describe his vision of the future – in which one’s duty was to get as educated as possible, before working like hell and frantically trying not to sink – I was struck by two things. First, the complete absence of any empathetic, human element (he mentioned the balance between life and work, but could only offer “affordable, wraparound childcare between the hours of 8am-6pm for all who need it”), and second, the sense that more than ever, I had no understanding of what values the modern Labour party stood for.

I think that has a wider currency when we look at examples closer to home. The ILP in coalition with FG and even well before evoked a similar response I am sure in many of us, a sense that whatever else it was about its values had no resonance with what we, whether mildly social democrat or further left or points in between believed was ‘left’.

Harris writes about three basic problems facing the left. He suggests that:

The western left faces three grave challenges, which strike at the heart of its historic sense of what it is and who it speaks for. First, traditional work – and the left’s sacred notion of “the worker” – is fading, as people struggle through a new era of temporary jobs and rising self-employment, which may soon be succeeded by a drastic new age of automation. Second, there is a new wave of opposition to globalisation, led by forces on the right, which emphasise place and belonging, and a mistrust of outsiders. And all the time, politics rapidly fragments, which leaves the idea that one single party or ideology can represent a majority of people looking like a relic. The 20th century, in other words, really is over. Whether the left can return to meaningful power in the 21st is a question currently surrounded by a profound sense of doubt.

There’s a lot of truth in that. And yet, as with Paul Mason’s piece recently which seemed to dismiss unions as an engine of resistance, to indeed dismiss the very notion of workers as workers in workplaces, I can’t hep but feel that there is an overstatement of the zero hours/short term/crowd workers economy. Even today, even after everything, most, and by most I mean an overwhelming majority, of workers work in relatively traditional workplaces with fixed hours, etc, etc. For example even today just one in 7 workers is self-employed in the UK (one has to suspect that after the attrition of the past seven or eight years some of that is paper rather than real self-employment). Moreover the conditions prevalent in the UK, or US or indeed this state are not necessarily replicated everywhere and in all ways the same.

Yet, work is shifting. There is a blurring of it for some, in more fortunate positions, and an increased constraint for those in much less fortunate positions.

The opposition to globalisation is another interesting point. And yet I cannot but think that had the crash of the late 2000s occurred it is likely that many of the forces now evident would have been considerably weaker. There’s another thought. Even if they are stronger they remain much less so than ‘mainstream’ conservatism and christian democracy. That may change. Perhaps we’re all heading towards a Polish style situation (or a situation that we know in this state all too well of effective power being transferred between competing ‘right-wing’ parties).

Anyhow, Harris isn’t wrong about this either, which dovetails with his scepticism about the Blair analysis:

If the party hoped to reassemble the electoral coalition that had just about held together through the second half of the 20th century, the world that gave rise to it had clearly gone. Trade union membership was at an all-time low, heavy industry had disappeared, and traditional class consciousness had waned.
As those foundations crumbled, so did the party’s old nostrums of nationalisation and redistribution. In their place, and in unbelievably favourable circumstances that veiled Labour’s underlying weaknesses – a long economic boom, and a Conservative party incapable of coherence, let alone power – Blair and Brown had come up with a thin social democracy that stoked the risk-taking of the City and used the proceeds to spend huge amounts of money on public services. But the financial crisis had put an end to that model as well.

And it’s not difficult to go some way to agreeing that he’s onto something here too:

In retrospect, the left’s halcyon era was based on a straightforward project. When the archetypal factory gates swung open, out came thousands of men – and by and large, they were men – united by an unchanging daily experience, and ready to support a political force that would use the unions, the state, and the fabled “mass party” to create a new, much fairer world in their monolithic image.

Harris suggests that:

Now, an atomising, quicksilver economy bypasses those structures, and has fragmented people and places so thoroughly that assembling meaningful political coalitions has begun to appear almost impossible. These are the social and political conditions that define relatively prosperous places such as the commuter towns of Surrey, or Essex, the centres of the knowledge economy to be found around Cambridge, and the gleaming new town of Livingston in Scotland. And in a very different way, these new conditions can be experienced just as powerfully in the tracts of the UK that modernity seems to have left behind.

Yet as with Mason does he overemphasise change, rather than continuity? And even where there is change it isn’t impossible to unionise retail, tech, warehousing. It is difficult. But it can be done. And one has to wonder at the missed opportunities during the Blair years (and the boom here) where unions could have extended their reach organising in new workplaces and strengthening in old and moving from a particularly short-sighted dependence upon public sector workplaces. The legacy of that is well described by Harris:

I drove into town [in Wales in 2013], I clocked an EE call centre, which pays its customer services operatives around £16,000 a year. Outside the town’s vast Tesco, I spoke to two retired men, who understood what had happened to Merthyr as a kind of offence to their basic values. In the past, one of them told me, “a man wanted to be a working man: he didn’t want to be in here, stacking shelves”. When I asked him about the legacy of the miners’ strike, what he said was full of pathos and tragedy. “Thirty years ago, whatever … it’s still embedded in us down here, he said. “We still talk about it every day: what might have happened if it had gone the other way.”
In the town centre, I then met an 18-year-old who was finding it impossible to get a job. “I’ve applied and applied, and it’s all been declined,” she said. She wondered whether there was something wrong with her CV: the idea that there were perhaps larger forces to blame for her predicament did not enter the conversation. I wondered, did she know what a trade union was? “No,” she said. “I don’t. What’s that?”

But even so, that means unions have to redouble their efforts to reach out to people in that position. And it is difficult to quite understand why Harris is so scathingly negative in the following:

Go to any traditional Labour area, and people will tell you that Labour was once “the party of the working man”. Even now, from its name onwards, this reductive understanding of Labour, its people and its essential mission still runs deep, not least within the party itself. In place of “the working man”, the New Labour years ushered in a politics pitched at “hard-working families”, a term partly intended to reflect people’s increasing antipathy towards people on benefits. Even when it was advocating enhancements to childcare and pre-school provision, Labour tended to do so in terms of getting new mothers back into paid employment as soon as possible.
Today’s Labour party has not shed these outmoded ideas about the nature of work. Both Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn have sketched utopian plans to somehow magic the world back to some unspecified time before 1980. Smith wants to revive the Ministry of Labour, done away with by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1968. Corbyn’s “10-point plan to rebuild and transform Britain” is all about “full employment and an economy that works for all”, and promises to restore “security to the workplace”. These visions are either naive or dishonest, but they reflect delusions that run throughout Labour and the left.

Harris has much to say about the gig economy and the precariat, and again overstates it to my mind, but I’m at a loss to understand why either Smith or Corbyn are dishonest. The state remains, even now, a motor of economic change. The forms adopted could be multiple – cooperatives, etc but a judicious push would make all the difference. And work, as I noted recently in respect of a Mason piece, remains the focus for many many of us. Indeed Harris himself acknowledges, implicitly, as much even while trying to make a somewhat different point when he notes how the left, by which he means Labour, lost a generation of workers (though he doesn’t quite address the role of the media in that loss).

In this vision – taken to its logical conclusion by Uber – the acceptance of insecurity becomes a matter of heroism, and a new political division arises between the grafters and those – as Britannia Unchained witheringly puts it – “who enjoy public subsidies”. In other words, the “skivers” versus the “strivers”.
Blair tried to lead New Labour in this direction, but his attempts always jarred against his party’s ingrained support for the traditional welfare state and its attachment to increasingly old-fashioned ideas of secure employment. But in the context of the modern labour market, lionising work for its own sake will never bolster support for a politics built on those values. Instead, it may push people to the right.


People who work, after all, are no longer part of a monolithic mass: many increasingly think of themselves as lone agents, competing with others in much the same way that companies and corporations do. In the build-up to the 2015 election, I saw vivid proof of how fundamentally this erodes the left’s old understanding of its bond with its supporters.
In Plymouth, I watched a woman answer the door to a Labour canvasser with the words: “I’m a grafter – you ain’t doing nothing for me.” I spoke to a man in the north-eastern steeltown of Redcar who told me he would never vote Labour “because I work”. In the bellwether seat of Nuneaton, two women told me that Ed Miliband would probably win the election because “all the people on benefits” were going to vote for him. As these people saw it, Labour was no longer the “party of work”.

HIs solution, and here I think he’s on firmer ground, is to argue that intervention by the state remains in play but also:

…beyond the old gospel of hard graft and the dignity of labour, any modern centre-left politics has to surely speak powerfully to elements of people’s lives – as citizens, carers, friends and parents – which it has long underplayed, and for which the incessant demands of modern capitalism leave little room. People on the left should be thinking about extending maternity and paternity leave and allowing its reprise when children are older; reviving adult education (often for its own sake, not just in terms of “reskilling”); assisting people in the creation of neighbourhood support networks that might belatedly answer the decline of the extended family; and, most obviously, enabling people to shorten their working week – think about a three-day weekend, and you begin to get a flavour of the left politics of the future.

And he has a cogent point about how in an age where automation may well make deeply destructive assaults on actual work ‘the… often macho rhetoric of work and worker’ may not ‘really articulate any meaningful vision’. And yet and yet, as matters now stand, work still retains that centrality. ‘What do you do?’ is not a question without meaning and isn’t likely to become so for quite some time. Moreover, even if some are dubious about Marxist claims about the intrinsic power or centrality to transformative change of the working class, or even the prospect of transformative change, there is – without question – a momentum (and on occasion inertia) in relation to same that is profoundly important for left politics and for the retention of victories hard fought and won.

Other aspects of the piece are fascinating. He discusses patriotism, and noticeably in the context of Englishness, and argues:

But the left, in Britain as much as in Europe, remains in denial about why people have taken refuge in such expressions of nationhood. This is something that applies to both so-called “Blairites”, and Corbyn and his supporters: one is so enraptured by globalisation that it thinks of vocal expressions of patriotism as a retrogressive block on progress; the other cleaves to a rose-tinted internationalism that regards such things as a facade for bigotry.

There is an element of truth in that too. But of course it goes far beyond England and Englishness. Scotland offers another example which in fairness he addresses later in his piece, and even in the context of Englishness there are contradictory currents. Moreover one has to wonder at how deep ‘internationalism’ actually is in practice. Often it seems as, if not indeed more, rhetorical than nationalism.

But it seems to me that England presents a different problem to Scotland. Those contradictory currents, and a vastly different historical experience, mean that forging an equivalent, a much more left equivalent at that, of the SNP is difficult in the extreme. The British aspects of the LP has taken quite a hammering in Scotland when faced with another nimbler and localised variant on mildish social democracy. Wales looks like it may present problems too. And England itself is a problem. But then some of this is true of the Tories as well. Where are their legions north of the border with Scotland?

Perhaps, and this strikes me forcibly while reading the article, the problem is there isn’t a single problem but many ones. And problems that will impact on conservatism too. That it is an unhappy coincidence that Britain is facing an existential crisis of identity and structure in large part due to Brexit (and a multi-pronged one at that – hence the UKIP threat, hence increasing differentiation between a pro-EU SNP and English parties), and the changing nature of work and circumstances of workers, and fragmentations within the coalition that was the Labour Party, a coalition that stretched from pretty far to the left to pretty far to the right.

And in a way that makes me suspicious of the conclusion Harris arrives at:

If the left’s predicament comes down to a single fault, it is this. It is very good at demanding change, but pretty hopeless at understanding it. Supposedly radical elements too often regard deep technological shifts as the work of greedy capitalists and rightwing politicians, and demand that they are rolled back. Meanwhile, the self-styled moderates tend to advocate large-scale surrender, instead of recognising that technological and economic changes can create new openings for left ideas. A growing estrangement from the left’s traditional supporters makes these problems worse, and one side tends to cancel out the other. The result: as people experience dramatic change in their everyday lives, they form the impression that half of politics has precious little to say to them.

That sounds about right, particularly in relation to ‘moderates’. Part of the problem is that too often acceptance of change does seem to be mere capitulation to (and often enough capture by) right wing nostrums. Again I think of unions and how rather than pressing home advantages battles have been lost, again and again in relation to extension of membership, and so on.

But look, ten years ago I was reading books about how the Tories were wounded, perhaps to the point of never taking power again, and certainly not achieving the sort of semi-hegemonic status they currently have arrived at (albeit in the context of a warring LP and that existential step-change of Brexit). Circumstances change. Or forms change. Harris argues that PR is one part of the solution. I think he’s right. But… it could also be that the LP is belatedly following a path that the German SDP and other European mild social democrats have already taken, moving towards somewhere between half and full party status, always or almost always behind their Christian Democrat rivals and that PR will merely accelerate that trend. Or it could be that the fracturing of monolithic left parties means it is game over for this generation of mild leftists (and before others take comfort in that the prospects for left LP/SD parties seem at the very best mixed to poor). Or perhaps that Polish model is what’s next in line with toxic formations of the right who present a populist/working class aspect but are wrapped in bigotry. Though I wonder how successful they will be long term.

And through all this I have a sense that perhaps Britain is anomalous in some way or that it is simply too soon to tell… Harris comes close to that too:

Perhaps the most generous verdict is that here and across the world, the left – radicals and liberals alike – is stuck in an interregnum. You could compare it to the predicament of the 1980s, but it is even more reminiscent of the 1930s, when the aftershocks of an economic crash saw the left pushed aside by the politics of hatred and division.

That seems overstated – movements on the scale of the LP don’t vanish overnight. Nor does the ‘left’ as a concept. But then I’m here, and Harris is there. And that has to make a difference. What do others think?


1. Phil - September 14, 2016

I think it’s a really weird logic that says that because the Left built strongholds and successes in the organised working class, it has nothing to say to unorganised workers. Harris seems to see organised labour as a giant Wakes Week outing, a chummy celebration of the life of the factory worker. Once you take into account the fact that organised labour is all about organising – engaging with people who, by definition, aren’t already organised – and that organisation and struggle go hand in hand, a lot of the apparent contradictions and reasons for pessimism drop out of the picture. Yes, it’s a new world of work – but people are still getting screwed by the boss, and standing up collectively is still the way forward. Same as it ever was.

I think this is symptomatic of a broader weakness in Harris’s writing, which is to take ‘the Left’ (in a more or less reified & idealised form) as his starting-point when looking at the working class, rather than starting with the condition of the class. The logic’s electoralist, and as such substitutionist: when you get right down to it, the working class only really matter because they’re the people ‘we’ are going to have to get to vote for us. Harris’s recent journalism is all about reminding people who share that assumption that working-class voters do matter – it’s one long reminder that Labour can’t, in fact, dissolve the electorate and elect another one.

But if your goal isn’t “a Labour government” but “a socialist society (or irreversible reforms shifting society in that direction)”, and if your starting-point is the class rather than the party, it all looks a bit different. Are there millions of workers who think of themselves as working-class and identify with their trade union leaders? No, not really; nor are there millions of people clocking off when the whistle blows, or reading the Daily Herald. Are there millions of people facing real problems to which neither deferential Toryism nor aspirational conservatism offers any answers (while even outright racism can only offer a short-term fix)? Damn right.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - September 14, 2016

I could not agree more. I think you out your finger on it. I wonder are Harris et all blinded by media, social and otherwise? Because as you say organisation is the only way forward and most of that has to done face to face, person to person building trust, confidence and solidarity.


2. CL - September 14, 2016

“the neoliberal era has delivered the west back into the kind of crisis-ridden world that we last experienced in the 1930s…
Few recognise that we are at the end of an era….
Both the Republicans and the Democrats now find themselves deeply polarised between the pro- and anti-globalisers, an entirely new development not witnessed since the shift towards neoliberalism under Reagan almost 40 years ago.”


3. sonofstan - September 14, 2016

” most, and by most I mean an overwhelming majority, of workers work in relatively traditional workplaces with fixed hours, etc, etc. For example even today just one in 7 workers is self-employed in the UK ”

You can be employed though, rather than self- employed and not work in a traditional workplace with fixed hours. I know a fair number of home workers, people for whom ‘workplace solidarity’ means feeding the cat -or people who do have an office but rarely visit except for meetings.


WorldbyStorm - September 14, 2016

That’s true and I wouldn’t argue that there are no changes at all. There’s a good question as to how to organise that cohort.


4. Ed - September 14, 2016

“This is something that applies to both so-called “Blairites”, and Corbyn and his supporters: one is so enraptured by globalisation that it thinks of vocal expressions of patriotism as a retrogressive block on progress; the other cleaves to a rose-tinted internationalism that regards such things as a facade for bigotry.”

I just don’t recognize the second argument at all. If anything, the standard line from Corbyn-leaning folk is that people are turning to nationalism because it seems to offer a solution to the very real economic problems they have to deal with. In Scotland, nationalism has been articulated in a centre-left, social-democratic, immigrant-friendly way; in England of course it’s very different. But nobody says it’s just a facade for bigotry; on the part of some people maybe, but not all by any means. Corbyn’s first speech after the Brexit vote, for example, didn’t berate the Leave voters as small-minded bigots; he spoke about the impact of public spending cuts on the areas that had some of the biggest Leave majorities. If what’s he’s hinting at here is some version of the ‘progressive patriot’ line, I think he’s very naive about the extent to which British/English nationalism in particular can be used by the left, when it’s still soaked in all kinds of post-imperial crap.


WorldbyStorm - September 14, 2016

Yeah, 100% agree and isn’t it interesting how variants of progressive patriot are appearing too, people assigning too much weight to the vote and saying ‘we’ve got to listen to fears on immigration’ which morph none too subtly into de facto right immigration control arguments. Corbyns line was vastly better.


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