Monday, 3 November 2014

Labour pains

I saw two speeches recently that contained points that I reckon are worth repeating. First, I was lucky enough to see James Galbraith speak about inequality at a recent conference. I won't rehash his argument, but one thing that stuck with me was his criticism of the idea that "a rising tide floats all boats". Aside from the fact that this may be questionable in its own right (e.g. if you look at real wages of the lower paid in recent years), he said the implication was that we don't have do anything in order to become better off. He argued that, if we want to address inequality, then this is time to return to struggle. If we want change we will have to organise and fight for it.

Second, I saw Adair Turner speak at an Equality Trust event, and he made some interesting comments about technological change. Part of what he said was essentially rehearsing the 'rise of the robots' argument, and the fact that a whole range of jobs are threatened, including middle class professions like accounting. But he also gave a qualified defence of luddites. He said that while it was true that overall and over time we benefit from technological advance, the economic damage done to specific groups of people could be quite long-lasting. Certainly long enough for people to not recover their economic position within their lifetime.

These things resonate a lot with me now I'm back working in the labour movement again. They help show (me) that economic and political processes are long in duration. They take serious effort to change, and there can indeed be good reasons for seeking to address the short-term pain they generate even if they have benefits over the long term. People don't experience life at the level of increases of GDP, or aggregate benefits from technological change. I think if we want to see real change again in the future it's going to require serious effort, not just expecting others (politicians mainly) to deliver it. And this has implications for politics as well as unions.

Thinking back to my time at the TUC, I remember a comment that John Monks made about many in the Labour Party seeing the unions as a bit like the uncool relatives at a party. The implication was that the political part of the movement was at the cutting edge, the industrial part stuck in the past. And there continues to be plenty of criticism along these lines from to the party to the unions.

But when I look at UK politics right now, I wonder who really has the bigger problem. Unions here have to run to stand still. Membership is not going up, and is still considerably weaker in the private than the public sector. But the industrial wing of the labour movement seems to me to have a much clearer sense of what its purpose is, and, for the first time since I've been seriously interested in politics, looks in better shape than Labour.

The debate about inequality, which both Galbraith and Turner were focusing on, gives us a few clues. Most analyses accept that the decline of organised labour is at least a part of the explanation for increased inequality. But the unions and the Labour Party may draw different conclusions from this. For some in Labour, a weak position for organised labour may be just what modern capitalism looks like. They may feel the tools to address inequality lie elsewhere (transfers, education/skills) and/or they may feel that there isn't a whole lot anyone can do about it.

For unions this trend is an existential threat - we need to reverse that decline in order to survive. This means rebuilding membership, convincing millions of people who have no experience of unions that they can do better if they become part of the movement. Of most importance is to demonstrate to people, not just tell them, that unions can deliver real change. To me this points to an organising agenda, and to relearning some old lessons. But it does at least give unions a very clear sense of what they need to be doing.

I'm not sure the same is true of the Labour Party. There are multiple signs that it faces significant trouble. The defection of white working class voters to UKIP, the defection of Scottish voters to the SNP, the possible defection of left-wing voters to the Greens. I can't shake the feeling that a lack of sense of purpose is the common theme. I actually think Ed Miliband probably has a good idea of what he thinks Labour should be doing, but feels unable to articulate it because he's not convinced the public will bite. So we end up with a really mixed message, not helped by the fact that Ed has failed to connect with voters.

Perhaps this is a passing storm, but when you look at centre-left parties across Europe things look grim.  This challenge to Labour isn't made any easier by the fact that the echo chamber of professional political commentary seems desperate to find the answer in the 'centre ground'.

Exhibit A:
Labour under Miliband are pitching leftwards with the introduction of a mansion tax. Homes where I am from in Liverpool, or in Harlow, Stafford or South Ribble, are not going to be worth more than the £2m threshold, but – as some Blairite Labour MPs are acknowledging – the tax sends an anti-aspirational message to those who dream of working hard to climb the property ladder.
This is language is alien to me and I doubt I am alone. I want my family to do well, but how many actual living human beings "dream of working hard to climb the property ladder"? Isn't it much more likely that most people simply want a decent home for their family, rather than a £2m one? Don't most people want this in exchange for spending a reasonable amount of time working, but also having enough time left to have a decent family life (rather than "dream about working hard")? And how many of them plan their lives in relation to a tax threshold relating to property values that they are very unlikely to ever breach? If "Blairite MPs" worry about this being "anti aspirational" I think that says a great deal about the problem that Labour has. These people simply don't represent the interests of the average punter, so what are they doing there?

Something isn't right.

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