Friday 8 May 2015

Still Building Jerusalem? British Labour And The "Spirit Of '45".

Man Of The Hour? After five years of right-wing economic austerity, the British Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, should be celebrating an historic landslide victory this morning – not casting his eyes, warily, north of the border.
UNLESS THE POLLSTERS have got it very wrong, it’s probably too soon to say who has won the UK General Election. After five years of right-wing economic austerity, that’s extraordinary. The British Labour Party should be celebrating an historic landslide victory this morning – not casting their eyes, warily, north of the border, to where the Scots really are celebrating an historic electoral rout.
A great part of the problem afflicting labour and social-democratic parties all over the western world is the vast gulf that now separates the party activist from the party voter. Though many of Labour’s activists may have grown up in families only one generation removed from the mean streets of working-class existence, that gap is all important.
In the UK, the activist’s grandparents may have been among the tens-of-thousands who gathered outside Transport House on 26 July 1945 to celebrate Labour’s crushing victory over the old order, and to sing – no, not The Red Flag – but Jerusalem, the English poet, William Blake’s, great summons to moral and spiritual transformation.
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land
That “Spirit of 45” was hot enough to keep up the pressure in Labour’s political boilers for another quarter-century.
Victory! The British Labour Party leader, Clement Atlee, celebrates his own re-election and Labour's landslide victory on the night of 26 July 1945.
The wholesale democratisation of British society, which the Spirit of 45 catalysed, made possible the next great wave of political transformation. Building on the solid economic foundations of the Welfare State, the post-war “Baby Boom” generation extended Labour’s revolution into the fraught territory of race, gender and sexuality. These “new social issues”, which also included the struggles against nuclear annihilation and environmental desecration, recalled to the men and women of 45 the words of the old trade union song, Bread and Roses:
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too
The great hope, of course, was that, in the next generation – the Baby Boomers children – this  great, two-pronged assault on inequality and injustice would culminate in a new kind of society: a society in which economic and social democracy would finally be able to clothe the bare skeleton of political democracy with living flesh and blood.
That this did not happen is explained, at least in part, by the fact that the men and women of 1945 built too extensively and too well. Full employment, strong trade unions and massive social housing programmes joined with free public health and education to produce a generation for whom the gut-wrenching realities of want, ignorance, idleness, squalor and disease had retreated to the realm of parental memory. The power of collectivism, so essential to the defeat of those evils, would also fade. Increasingly the question asked was not: “What do we need?” But “What do I want?”
As the thirty-year period of reconstruction, which fuelled the great post-war boom, fell victim to stagnation and the most successful rear-guard action in defence of profit and privilege the world has ever seen, the ideological separation of social from economic freedom saw the fire beneath Labour’s boiler shrink to embers and ashes.
By the time Tony Blair’s “New” Labour Party confessed to being “intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich”, it was clear that the Spirit of 45 was dead. A Labour Party that no longer burns to create a society in which none are filthy rich, and none obscenely poor, isn’t a “new” Labour Party; it’s not a Labour Party at all.
Does Ed Miliband understand this? Does he now accept that Labour, by upholding “economic freedom” as an unqualified good, has contributed hugely to the burgeoning social inequalities against which he’s spent the last five years campaigning? We must hope so.
We must also hope that in the ten minutes he spent chatting with the visiting New Zealand Labour Leader, Andrew Little, he reiterated the futility of promising to get tough on inequality, without also promising to get tough on the causes of inequality.
That mental fight, in both the UK and New Zealand, remains to be fought. A generation still waits for their bows of burning gold, their arrows of desire; for their spears – oh clouds unfold! – for the chariots of fire that only a real Labour Party can give them.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 May 2015.


Tiger Mountain said...

finally someone, and suitably Chris, has distilled modern social democracy’s key malaise down to one line–“the ideological separation of social from economic freedom”

“The Spirit of ’45” is also a great Ken Loach film documenting post war Britain

Anonymous said...

It's surprising the Conservatives aren't doing better, given the success of their economic program.
Perhaps the cost of it has been too high for many of the electorate.

Perhaps the rise of the third party is due to loss of faith in the old 2 party system - Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Don't really understand the SNP - perhaps because it's an emotional issue rather than a rational one.

How many seats will the Ukip get? Their anti immigration is a valid an huge issue ("You're a racist" is not a valid response, even if our Nick Smith thinks so) , but they may be brought down by actual race haters in their numbers.

The British Greens seem utterly barking - they make their NZ counterparts seem sane.

Jigsaw said...

While the left continues to live in the past it will stay in opposition. While the NZ Labour party has so many old hacks like Annette King it will weaken even more.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Jigsaw, if that were true, and the right which is mired in the 19th century would be just as bad. And if you look at the British elections they're not doing particularly well. Not that their economic policies are any good, not at least for those at the bottom. The place is a cesspit of class privilege.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I suspect that for many Scots, the prospect of being ruled by a Conservative party base in England has fuelled their SNP votes. Scotland has traditionally been solid Labour. And largely ignored by both major parties. The Conservatives because they don't get any votes there hardly, and the Labour Party because they've taken them for granted. Good. Might produce some sort of shakeup.

Victor said...

A few quick thoughts and subject to revision (nay even denial and craven renunciation) as events unfold.

Firstly, Labour has been most roundly defeated in Scotland.

So OK, the 40 seats that the SNP has taken off Labour probably won't form part of a pro-Tory majority. But, given the zero sum way that UK elections are fought, that still constitutes a loss for Labour.

Secondly, Miliband was always a questionable leader for a media dominated age. He either seems too awkward or too staged. And (I write as someone who shares Ed's Polish and Belgian North London Jewish roots)perhaps he's just a bit too exotic for many a voter.

In contrast, in a world that seems to demand facile but lucid and fast-footed leaders, Cameron is (stylistically at least)as good as it gets. I must say that I find his electoral appeal easier to understand than that of our own home-grown teflon kid.

Thirdly, if you've never heard of Keynes and genuinely think that austerity is the answer to sluggish economies, then it SEEMS to be simple common sense to give credit to the austericrats and not to wish to endanger what seems to be a steady if slow and very uneven economic recovery.

Which brings me back to Scotland because, fourthly, in a UK unused to coalitions, confidence and supply agreements etc, there were real if unjustified fears of the SNP tail wagging the Labour dog, both over the unity of the realm and over economic and defense issues. Of course, there are many in England who quite like what Sturgeon and Salmond have to say on these issues, as do I. But there are many others who don't.

In summary, you don't need to invoke the "if only Labour was more left-wing" mantra to explain what's happening. That doesn't mean it's untrue but maybe (just maybe) it fails the test of Okham's Razor.

Victor said...

And just clarifying my previous comment, although Labour has lost big in Scotland, that hasn't on its own, to my mind, decided the election.

Even if Labour had retained every single seat lost to the SNP, the Tories would at this point be close to forming a credible coalition or even ruling on their own.

Nicola Sturgeon has, by the way, just said on the BBC that a Labour-led, SNP-supported government is still possible. But I think the horse has bolted.

Wayne Mapp said...

Hmm, Chris, it is really hard to understand what you beleive.

Do you think Labour should appeal to Waitakere man (your invention) or not?

If the answer is yes, then Labour needs to first persuade him not to vote for John Key which is what he is doing at the moment.

So a policy of strong unions, high taxes and controls over all aspects of his life will have zero appeal. Often Waitakere Man is a successful tradesman perhaps employing a two or three people. So all the usual concerns of metrosexual Labour politicians have no real interest to him. He wont be keen on a CGT since he may well have a modest beach place or investment flat. But he will want to see his kids "get ahead' (a phrase I note that is beloved by Gerry Brownlee, who in many respects is Waitakere Man).

But Waitakere Man will vote Labour in the right circumstances. He has done so in the past.

But it is Blairite Labour that appeals to him.

As for the UK, I think the SNP factor was an essential component of the swing to the Conservatives. Many voters (in the centre) would have hated the idea of British policy on a zillion and one things being decided by a party that ostensibly hates the UK and all it has traditionally stood for.

At some point I would not be surprised if English voters basically say to Scotland, at least as represented by SNP, "sod off we don't want you and we don't need you"

Anonymous said...

Bottyspanked! The Conservatives economic policy worked after all.
Why were the polls so wrong?
Or was that an FPP % votes vs seats gained?
Now, about that immigration policy...

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Miliband's and Cameron's "style" is partly a result of different treatment by the press. The gutter press has attacked Miliband in much the same way that it attacked Michael Foot – it must've had some effect I think. I mean he does seem a trifle awkward, and he can't seem to eat a bacon sandwich – which should he actually be doing? Is he Jewish? (Cue racist tag from the usual suspect) but he seems serious and well-meaning to me. He certainly seemed to hold his own in the debates. Personally I think it's the party that lost the election rather than Miliband. They haven't any guts anymore.

pat said...

is there a new logic that has developed unnoticed (by me at least)?

Anonymous said...

Anyone know what Yvette Cooper is like?

Chris Trotter said...

Seriously, Wayne, did you read that column? Did you even try to understand the historical progression I outlined? And where, exactly, did "Waitakere Man" enter into a discussion about the British Labour Party?

I sometimes think that the Bowalley Road readers who question whether you are the real Wayne Mapp might have a point.

The real Wayne Mapp is an intelligent former National Party Cabinet Minister. I'd like to think he'd have no trouble understanding the above argument.

Anonymous said...

Once more, the Left misfires.
Ever get the feeling that the majority don't want what they are selling?
(Assuming they could work out quite what that is).

If you read of the realities of life for the poor in the pre welfare state, it is significantly worse than today. Perhaps this is the problem for the left - most people think (rightly or wrongly) that provissions for the poor and sick are more or less adequate, and that able bodied people have the ability to improve their lot in life.

Gareth Wilson said...

"Jerusalem" was an odd choice for Labour supporters, wasn't it? They wanted more "dark Satanic mills", even if the ownership and working conditions were different. Of course, singing about the "holy Lamb of God" in the modern Labour Party wouldn't go down well.

Wayne Mapp said...

Hi Chris,

I was really brining several threads together in my comment.

As you note, one of the most interesting things about 1984 was how it was done by the children of the generation of the 30's and 40's, though that generation even in Labour were hardly uniformly poor.

However, the 1980's is 30 years ago. The next political generation has come through. What do they believe, whether of the Left or the Right? Well on the Left, a strong Green tinge, and probably more Left than their parents. On the Right, pretty much all revere Margaret Thatcher, but have tinged it with a large dose of pragmatism.

And is that latter aspect that is giving so much electoral success to the Right.

As far as I see it the electorate in a general sense has accepted the necessity of the Thatcher revolution, but want a more inclusive approach. I would say Key and Cameron are particularly skillful in that regard, Abbot and Harper somewhat less so. And of course Blair was probably the most successful of all.

At least on the evidence to date, Left parties need to be moderate to win. Of course there are some exceptions, such as Greece (surely a special case) and maybe Scotland, but again there are special factors in play.

Jigsaw said...

GS - The right is not 'doing so well' in the UK-you must be spluttering over your cornflakes this morning! Labour in New Zealand is full of people who need to find another job- Phil Goff would be a good start. The UK has always has class problems - a concept I abhor but one that the UK seems to be gradually getting rid of.

Mike G said...

What the SNP and Greece have proved is that a hard left agenda only works when tied to rabid nationalism and xenophobia in a post-industrial and globalized world; most so-called metropolitan elites are increasingly wary of a left linked in any way to both hard-left xenophobia and redneck social conservatism

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Wayne, if indeed you be Wayne :-). I suspect the Scottish voters will be the ones to say goodbye. If they leave, they possibly condemn England to decades of Tory government, but will save themselves from the same. Scotland is simply left-wing, (I think only one Tory electorate.) and self-interest suggests that they should stay that way.

aberfoyle said...

Thatcher,gave and sucked in the mass of the British public,give them something to own,and see them change,and she did,sold them their council homes and chained them to debt exploitation and its control.

And changed Britans voting public choices,indebted to a social structure of uncaring selfishness,home ownership and all other that dared challenge the debt of their roof,not for us.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Jigsaw, you seem to think I carry a flag for the Labour Party. Wrong. As far as I'm concerned the longer the Tories stay in our the bigger the crash will be and the further left the government that succeeds them will be. So I'm happy for them to have another term. :-)