Don’t believe in the ghosts of politics past

ELECTION ESSAY: Whether we are talking about the UK General Election or the current outbreak of strikes, it is definitely not déjà vu all over again.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

In the run-up to the UK General Election, spiked will publish a series of essays reposing political issues. The aim of the ‘Question Everything’ essays is to encourage people to rethink the past, the present and the future. In this third essay, Mick Hume says political observers should face up to the fact that ‘the end of left and right’ is a reality, not a platitude.

Britain seems to have an unhealthy obsession with ghosts these days – often a symptom of insecurity and impotency among the living. Satellite and cable television channels are packed with daft ghost-hunting, spiritualist and séance shows such as Most Haunted – Live or Celebrity Spooks on Ice (well, almost), while headlines announce the portentous news that model Katie Price/Jordan has fled her ‘haunted’ house. At the higher end of the spectral cultural spectrum, meanwhile, the new hot thing is Roman Polanski’s The Ghost, based on a Robert Harris book about a former prime minister – that is, Tony Blair – who comes back from the dead in political if not corporeal terms.

But the ghost-hunting trend is not confined to the relatively harmless spheres of culture and fiction. In the UK today the real worlds of politics and industrial conflict also appear to be haunted by the ghosts of the past, as many media and political observers suffer visions of spectral figures apparently stalking our public affairs.

Thus the Labour Party claims to see the Conservative opposition as still Thatcherites in sheep’s clothing, the same old Tories who have not changed really and are just waiting their chance to attack the NHS and reward their rich pals. Meanwhile the Tories say they can see the wicked spirit of old Labour alive beneath New Labour’s white sheet, still in thrall to militant trade unions such as Unite.

In the televised ‘chancellors’ debate’ this week, Liberal Democrat economic spokesman Vince Cable seemed to see more ghosts than TV spiritualist Derek Acorah, arguing that the mainstream parties were both still trapped in the age of left and right, with Labour beholden to union militancy and the Tories to the City’s ‘pinstriped Scargills’. When Robert Harris appeared on BBC TV’s Newsnight the next evening to discuss Blair’s return to the pre-election political fray – a ‘spooky’ coincidence with the launch of The Ghost – he too claimed that it was now clear Blair’s changes to the political scene had been illusory, and that we were faced with an election between old-style Labour and Tories.

A similar outbreak of hauntings seems to have inflicted those covering developments in the world of industrial relations. The coincidence of a few relatively small and short-lived strikes – for example, three or four days at a time of industrial action involving British Airways cabin staff or railway signalmen –has been widely claimed as the return of the spectre of union militancy. Spooked media scaremongers have dubbed it the ‘Spring of Discontent’ to draw direct comparisons with the past ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-9, which signalled the end for the previous Labour government. On the other side of the picket lines, meanwhile, union spokesmen and their supporters have accused BA management of acting like old-fashioned Dickensian-style bosses out to ‘break the union’.

Behind all of these ghostly sightings lies the common assumption that things cannot really have changed all that much in UK politics or workplace relations over the past few decades, so that the old patterns and forces are essentially still active, even if sometimes they might be buried just beneath the surface of a shallow grave.

Yet only an overwhelmingly naivety or wilful ignorance about historical and political facts could try to justify such assertions. There is simply no comparison between the parties, trades unions or employers of today and those of 20 or 30 years ago.

An outbreak of amnesia

The obsession with ghost-spotting reflects two related political failures of the modern age. One is a failure of political imagination – the inability to grasp just how far things have changed, and lazy preference for seeing the familiar. The other is a failure of political nerve – the refusal to face up to the new and the unknown, and the habit of wrapping oneself in old newspaper cuttings as a sort of comfort blanket for uncertain times.

The combination of historical ignorance and amnesia is of course made easier by the appearance of institutional continuity – the parties are still called Tory and Labour, and while an organisation such as Unite might have changed its name through mergers, it still claims the name ‘trade union’. Yet this apparent continuity of institutional forms disguises the extent to which the content of these bodies has been completely transformed.

Who could seriously argue, on the basis of anything more than prejudice, that Gordon Brown’s government is ‘old Labour’ in disguise? Nostalgists from the rump of the old right and left are equally guilty of fantasy politics in talking up New Labour’s links to the past. From Alistair Darling’s multi-billion pound bailout of the bankers to Brown’s denunciation of the ‘deplorable’ striking BA cabin crew, New Labour has established itself as the accountants-in-chief for modern British capitalism. Against this, the odd rhetorical attack on Tory ‘toffs’ and one-off tax on bankers’ bonuses hardly amounts to a socialist revival.

It is equally ridiculous to claim that the spirit of Margaret Thatcher still stalks the Conservative Party of David Cameron, as the Tories’ opponents have sought to suggest. No doubt traditional Tories still dominate the rank and file of the party, just as older Labourites still make up the majority of Labour activists. But they have no influence on PR-oriented party leaderships divorced from any such roots. The central aim of Cameron’s reform project has been to distance the Conservatives from their past in every sense possible, to establish them as the Not-the-Tory-Party (what they actually are is far less clear to us all, except that many of their policies appear more New Labour than New Labour’s). Look at the way in which Lord Norman Tebbit, the living tomb of Thatcherism, has become the bête noire of Cameron’s new Conservatives.

Perhaps the most fantastic ghost-hunting of all is the attempt to claim that employer-employee relations and industrial conflicts today are comparable to those of the past. As Brendan Barber, nominal head of the British trade union movement, has himself somewhat pathetically pointed out, talk of a ‘Spring of Discontent’ is a wild distortion. Despite the fact that Unite still funds the Labour machine, the unions have nothing like the membership, power or influence they had in the past. Today’s small and short-lived strikes by cabin crew or rail signal workers stand out only because such disputes are so rare these days. Yet they are a far cry from the clashes between millions of members of the big public service unions and the Labour government in the Winter of Discontent of 1978/9. During that months-long conflict, some 29million working days were lost to industrial action, compared – as Barber pleadingly assured the media this week – to only 455,000 days in the whole of 2009.

Nor is it really right to equate today’s big employers with the union-busting bosses of the past – not because they are somehow ‘better’ today, more because British capitalists, like their union counterparts, are pale shadows of their former selves. No doubt Willie Walsh of BA is an objectionable individual, and of course his underpaid cabin staff should be supported in their fight against his cut-costing measures. But he is a poor imitation of a ‘union-buster’ set against the bosses and governments of the past that used laws, police violence, prisons and deportations to break trade union organisation. Nor is it necessary to go back to the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Twenty-five years ago Thatcher’s government waged open warfare against the striking miners, while bosses would often lock out and sack strikers – taking away their jobs rather than withdrawing their perks, as Walsh has done to striking trolley dollies. Mention of ‘union-breaking’ disputes involving air travel brings back memories of the US traffic controllers strike in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan had union leaders arrested and led away in chains before the watching media.

The differences between political parties, trade unions and other institutions then and now are about much more than the personal contrast between, say, a Thatcher and a Cameron. However much today’s leaders might pretend otherwise, a political culture cannot be reduced to the personalities of politicians, nor what they represent attributed simply to which schools they attended.

Political and social movements are the products of much broader factors, of the historical context that gave birth to them and the constituencies and forces in society that they represent. It is in this sense that we can see why none of the political players in the UK are what they once were.

The end of Tories and Labour

The Tories dominated twentieth-century politics as the party of the British Establishment and Empire – not only was the Church of England the Tory Party at prayer but the British Army was the Tory Party in uniform, the senior civil service the Tory Party in bowler hats, the BBC the Tory Party on the airwaves, and so on. As the Establishment declined, the Empire disappeared and British capitalism stagnated, Thatcher’s Tory governments of the 1980s broke with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism and launched an offensive against both the trade unions and many of the other institutions of the postwar order. Thatcher won the war against the unions, but when it was over both traditional and Thatcherite Toryism were exhausted, too.

The Labour Party emerged at the start of the twentieth century in the age of mass industrial conflict. Labour became established as the powerful party, not so much of the new working classes, but of the trade union bureaucracy that led the labour movement. Its state socialist policies of nationalisation and government intervention offered an alternative way of managing capitalism with the consent of the mass trade union movement in the postwar era. That era came to an end in the recession of the 1970s, when the Labour government’s ‘social contract’ with the unions sought to restrain working-class pay and living standards in the interests of capitalist industry. The result was the Winter of Discontent and the election of Thatcher’s Tories in 1979. By the time it was routed in the 1983 election, traditional Labourism was dead.

Thus were the great historical forces of modern British politics, first Labourism and then Toryism, emptied out by the end of the 1980s. That process was sealed by the international fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. This first destroyed the credibility of all state socialist traditions – even those such as Labourism that had been hostile to the Soviet Union – and then undermined all of the conservative parties that had existed for 40 years on a limited diet of anti-communism.

These changes in the political terrain should make it impossible to imagine that either the Labour or Conservative parties could exist in the old way today. Whatever they call themselves they are empty shells, without the links to real roots and movements in society on which both once built their authority. Each of these election machines masquerading as political parties now practises the ideology-free politics of managerialism, bean-counting and – since they stand for nothing distinctive or of substance – swapping positions and pinching one another’s business plans at will.

In recent years many observers have paid lip service to the ‘end of left and right’ in UK and international politics since the end of the Cold War. Yet when a moment of real political and social crisis arrives, such as the debate around the coming General Election, most retreat from confronting the serious consequences of that insight and seek refuge in the safe old politics of the past. Suddenly we are told that the forces of both left and right really are alive and kicking, fighting for their lives over such apparently historic issues as a penny on national insurance.

Once again the attempt to summon up the ghosts of the past becomes most absurd in relation to the unions and workplace relations. The British trade unions emerged from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the mass organisations of the working class in an industrial age, often in the face of fierce hostility from employers and governments. Over the next half century the bureaucracy that took control of the unions sought to reach compromise between workers and employers and to increase its own influence in the state machinery. This strategy reached fruition during the Second World War, when union leaders were incorporated into the heart of the war effort and the government.

In the 40 years after the Second World War there were two distinct phases of trade unionism in Britain, as an excellent Marxist study outlined in the early 1980s:

‘The first phase corresponded to the period of postwar expansion and the early stages of recession up to 1979. In these years the employers and successive [Labour and Tory] governments built up the union bureaucracy as a means of containing conflict in industry. This approach reached its peak in the Social Contract years of the mid-Seventies [brought to an end by the Winter of Discontent]. The second phase began with the deepening of recession after 1979 and the election of a Conservative government. The Tories decided that the state no longer needed to rely so heavily on the union leaders to deal with the working class. They set about pushing them into a greatly diminished role in the management of social conflict.’ (Mike Freeman, Taking Control, 1984.)

As that book was being published, the ‘second phase’ of industrial relations was exploding in the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, when the Thatcher government went to war with the militant wing of the trade union movement.

It should be obvious today that we are living through neither of those phases of trade unionism and industrial relations. The power of the union bureaucracy was shattered by the capitalist offensive. What pass for trade unions today are often little more than an extension of the human resources department, selling insurance and dispensing legal advice to their members as individuals rather than fighting for their collective interests. Strikes have become so rare than even small-scale disputes can make headlines.

According to official figures, the number of days lost to industrial disputes in the 1970s averaged almost 13million a year; in the 1980s the annual average was more than seven million days; in the 1990s it fell to 660,000. That only 455,000 were lost in 2009, a year of recession, rising unemployment and falling wages, speaks volumes about the neutered unions. Those banging on about a ‘Spring of Discontent’ today are playing a game of fantasy industrial relations. Working people certainly have many problems and issues to fight about. But their old weapons have been blunted. And class solidarity with strikers today is noticeable by its absence, in an age when many working people see the world as individual consumers, so that a strike by airline or railway staff becomes a matter of personal inconvenience rather than a political issue.

New thinking

It is important that we take a sober and realistic view of how far things have changed in politics and society, rather than wasting time on a ghost hunt. There are plenty of big issues to be addressed in deciding what sort of society emerges from the current crisis, including how to stand up for jobs and pay. But there seems little hope of coming up with any forward-looking answers if we are still trying to answer yesterday’s questions. The logical first step towards discussing a solution must be identifying the real problems of the present.

For those of us who might still think of ourselves as being on the left, if not of the left as it exists today, there is nothing to be gained by indulging in nostalgia, either by imagining that there is a Labour Party worth defending or that there is a Thatcherite threat to unite the old movement against. Things need to be thought about anew. Those taking refuge in ghost stories instead are betraying a loss of nerve that refuses to face reality.

That need not be a message of doom and gloom. There were plenty of big problems with the powerful old politics. The ghosts of politics past are by definition ethereal and more readily exposed. Putting an end to the ghostly possession of political life might at least present the possibility of debating some new alternatives. But only if we begin by accepting the grown-up proposition there are no such things as ghosts.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.

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#3: Mick Hume on left and right

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#7: Brendan O’Neill on freedom

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#9: Sean Collins on capitalism

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Topics Politics UK


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