How did we get here? The forward march of labour halted, again

By Olly Hudson

Socialism is in crisis. From France to Denmark, from Spain to the United Kingdom, Europe’s left is in decline and its leaders are impotent to stop it. Simply put, they lead parties without a people. As Western economies move beyond industrialisation, the challenge of igniting passions of solidarity, bonds of collectivism and visions of common endeavour is as acute as ever it was. And we have been here before. In 1978, Eric Hobsbawm launched a series of essays in the Marxism Today journal with ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’. Now as then, Europe’s parties of the left must cross-refer and recognise the nature of our joint-affliction. Now as then, we must reformulate our narrative of decline, not as one subject to the contingency of the electoral cycle, but as one which conceives of Labour’s crisis in the broadest possible terms. Now as then, the forward march of labour has been halted.

How did we get here? Explanations abound, and they span competing academic schools. A sociologist might consider the tale through the lens of culture. Cultural hegemony is a Gramscian concept, but during the 1980s it was recognised as a useful tool for deconstructing Thatcherism. How could it be that a doctrine so flawed and haphazard in its economic prescriptions, so prejudicial in its social outlook and so fundamentally and materially at odds with the interests of the British people could come to achieve such dominance? It was no smart quip when Thatcher responded that her greatest legacy had been New Labour. Looking at those two governments in counterpoint, the picture is stark. New Labour is celebrated through its deconstruction: the minimum wage, Sure Start, civil partnerships. Thatcherism can afford to do without these qualifications. In 50 years, who will remember the Medium Term Financial Strategy, or the 1988 Education Act. Thatcherism is legacy.

An economist might apply a realist slant. Thatcherism succeeded because it identified a number of home truths, even if its remedies often fell short of the mark. Britain’s economy in the 1970s was suffering an assault from all sides. The easy policy trade-offs that had characterised the post-war settlement were falling apart. Unemployment and inflation emerged in tandem in a way previously considered impossible. Across Europe, growth took a beating from the impact of dual oil price hikes in 1973 and 1979. In Britain, the corporatist model of wage-bargaining proved too fragile and liable to inflationary bias to withstand the buffeting of external events. Yet, none of these realities need have entailed what came next. The Thatcher government expertly seized on the crisis of the 1970s and declared that Britain was in the grip of something altogether more fearsome and terminal. This was the malaise of social democracy, the decline of collectivism, and a uniquely “British Disease”. The rest is history.

As Hobsbawm noted, it is a history that the left should have foreseen, and the lesson rings true today. If 1978 heralded the beginning of an epochal socio-economic shift, then 2015 saw its best-laid plan come to fruition. The structural challenges to British socialism identified by Marxism Today nearly four decades ago are mightier and more insurmountable today than they were at Labour’s lowest point of the Thatcher decade, the long-1980s. In the long-run, industrial decline was a necessary consequence of Britain’s task of recapturing its competitiveness in a globalised world. Like it or not, today’s left must accept that the service economy is here to stay, and that the future of British manufacturing is one of high value-added and low labour-intensity.

But if the history of socialism tells us anything, then it is that we are used to finding ourselves the underdogs. Rarely does socialism find itself in the driver’s seat in the first instance. More often, we find ourselves having to respond to the sub-optimal conditions in which capitalism places us, rather than defining those conditions for ourselves. By our very definition, we socialists are counter-system and countercultural. We thrive on our daring to be different. So then, it is true of today. The question for socialism in the 21st Century cannot be, ‘how can we turn back time?’, or ‘how may we unpick the fabric of the global economy?’, but where and how can socialism thrive, and how can we drive that forward march?

 A central point is the inertia of British industrial relations. For those who have nothing to sell but their labour and no surplus to extract, the most fundamental right of all is the ability to withdraw that labour. The ignoble efforts of successive Conservative governments to limit the democratic rights of British trade unions is a familiar tale, but all too often, its simple truth diverts our attention away from the far more pressing question of what to do about it. Simply promising to repeal Conservative anti-strike legislation can never be enough. Britain’s trade union movement, led by the TUC, must be willing to take up the baton from generations of activists who have come before and forge a new road ahead for Britain’s changing workforce. No longer can we be content for the trade union movement, and by implication, the Labour Party, to rely on the support of a tight-nit but rapidly shrinking band of industrial workers.

Britain’s labour force is not the homogenous blob it once was. And would we want it to be? One convenient oversight of post-war consensus nostalgics is that the welfare state we so love to eulogise was fundamentally sexist. Predicated on the ‘male breadwinner’ model, Britain’s set-up was by no means unique, with the French example basing its prescriptions for the active labour force on the foundation of stable, female domestic labour. And so too is it the case for our young. Britain is a country of burning ambition and we should be prepared to celebrate the fact that today’s students, apprentices, service workers and labourers demand the right to do better than the generation that came before. They will not settle for more of the same. That we can no longer expect them to do so is not the result of a cultural malaise, or moral decline, but is a consequence of structural limitations in our economy and in our workplaces, limitations that a trade union movement that takes the 20th Century as its point of reference cannot be expected to overcome.

And what of the socialist political party? The decline of a homogenous and predictable voter-base has prompted political elites to look inwards rather than outwards for solutions to the crisis. The rise of the so-called ‘cartel party’ has witnessed the emergence of a profound disconnect between voter-base and the party machine. The scale of this crisis cannot be overstated. Labour has become an internally-dependent party. The divide that we are currently witnessing between its central and parliamentary direction is symptomatic of our descent into cartel-party status. But simply dismissing the membership as suicidal ideologues works to absolve successive generations of parliamentary leadership of their failure to build a movement founded on more than the Spad-ocracy, spin and machine politics. Labour has been hollowed out. We are truly in a fight for our party’s soul.

This essay has steered well clear of pinning blame on wings and strands, people and leaders. None of the usual suspects and dart-board targets of the party left and right have warranted a mention. That is because the scale of the challenge facing our party is so broad in scope, so deep in its historical reach and so fundamental to our self-definition as socialists that we cannot descend into squabbles over policy minutiae, hero-worship or vilification. Across Europe, the forward march of labour has been halted once again. The tide of neo-liberalism sweeps more thoroughly than ever before, infecting all in its wake, from the highest levels of economic policy to the foundations of a solidaristic society. But easy answers there are not. If we are to take forward the baton of our movement, we must first be willing to take apart our shared story, piece by piece. Nothing less than wholesale deconstruction will suffice. We ask for nothing more than your ear.