Come out from under the comfort blanket of class politics
Why both the left and right are fantasising about a new Winter of Discontent, and why spiked isn’t.
It is testament to the utter stasis of contemporary politics that so many politicos and observers would rather fantasise about a replay of the Winter of Discontent than get to grips with politics, debate and democracy as they exist today.
Everyone is citing the ‘high-octane tub-thumping’ at the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress as evidence that the old class politics is about to plant its long-forgotten fist squarely on the nose of complacent contemporary Britain. But it isn’t. Instead, this fantasy about a return of mass striking in protest against the Thatcherite public-service cutters in Cleggite masks is just that – a fantasy, indulged by people so disorientated by today’s changed political landscape that they would rather revert to a long-gone past than think hard about the present.
The TUC conference is turning into one of the most overblown political stories of the year. What looks to most ordinary people like a gathering of OAPs in fancy suits, making loud but ultimately substanceless speeches about standing united against government cuts, is being depicted as a rebellious coven that will either electrify modern Britain (if you’re a leftie) or threaten its very survival (if you’re on the right). The Guardian correspondent who described the TUC conference as ‘remarkable’ and ‘high-octane’ must have been watching a different conference to the rest of us. But it isn’t only left-leaning commentators getting unjustifiably excited about the TUC conference – strikingly, so is the right, which glimpses in the bluster of Brendan Barber, Bob Crow and Co. the return of an old demon against which it might reassert its flagging traditionalist agenda.
There is almost a subconscious desire to recreate the Winter of Discontent of 1979, when there were widespread strikes in protest against a pay freeze enforced by James Callaghan’s Labour government. Feeling like political refugees in the present – in that they cannot comprehend, and feel alienated from, the political landscape – political observers seek refuge in the more familiar-feeling, structured territory of the past instead. Both left-wing and right-wing forces indulge the fantasy about the resurrection of old-style class politics, the left in a desperate attempt to give a shot in the arm to the rotting corpse of labourism, and the right because it would love nothing more than to have that instantly recognisable ‘enemy within’ from yesteryear against which to rail once again.
So alongside the left’s fictional accounts of a lively, relevant trade union leadership taking principled action, right-leaning commentators have also gone into full 1970s mode, screaming about striking ‘crazies’, ‘dinosaurs’, ‘union barons’ and ‘mad militants’ who are making ‘blood-curdling speeches’ promising ‘a huge wave of industrial unrest’. The liberal commentators warning that this signifies a worrying return of right-wing anti-union rhetoric are missing the point. These right-wing commentators are actually really excited, overcome with glee almost, at the seeming return of old-fashioned strike talk, for it allows them to relive those past moments when their political project felt urgent, pressing, concerned with protecting British stability and Western morality, in contrast to the kind of thing they do these days: moan about yoof who vandalise bus-stops and bang on about cats dumped in dustbins.
What all these fantasists overlook is how much politics has changed over the past two decades. Looked at rationally, the TUC conference really reveals a movement with an ageing, out-of-touch leadership, whose bluster is actually an attempt to disguise their own disorientation, flagging membership numbers and lack of solutions to the crisis. And the Lib-Con coalition, far from being Thatcher-in-drag, is making various cuts in public services precisely because it has no ideological vision or sense of overarching mission. Thatcher’s economic measures were bound up with an ideological desire to defeat a then still relevant trade union movement and left; the Lib-Con cuts are just about slashing stuff and hoping for the best.
In the flurry of commentary about the TUC conference, everyone from trade union leaders to David Cameron are effectively being assigned roles in a political pantomime; they are being dragged on to the stage to do a nostalgic re-enactment of the Winter of Discontent for the benefit of a political class that desperately misses at least the certainties of that era, the sense of fixed camps and fixed politics. Ultimately, it is their utter inability to understand the present, and to devise a new, galvanising politics suitable to now, that makes them long for aspects of the past. This is cowardly, dishonest, and a little creepy. Yes there will be discontent during the recession as jobs and wages are cut, and we should absolutely support those workers who do take action, whether it’s dustbin men in the public sector or trolley dollies in the private sector. But a winter of discontent? A mass public expression of anger, akin to 1979, 1973, 1926? That would be to buck every trend of the past 20 years.
spiked wants no part of this panto production of long-gone struggles, not because we don’t care about workers’ living conditions; we do, which is why we have opposed everything from government-led austerity measures to trendy liberal critiques of ‘stuffism’ and have supported strike action that others denounced as ‘deplorable’. No, it’s because we recognise that this subconscious rehabilitation of the emptied-out rhetoric of old-style class politics springs from the narrow needs of an at-sea political class, and has nothing to do with pushing forward politics, democracy and liberation in the twenty-first century.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.
Want to join the conversation?
Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.