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Why aren't they voting?

Gavin Lewis on how new Labour acolytes in the media keep the drum beating for Blair.

Periodically, any one of the Great Modernists can become extremely unfashionable and fall into disuse. Friedrich Nietzsche, because of his unfortunate appropriation by the Nazis, was a philosopher very rarely used or cited in the time immediately after World War II. Similarly, in the 70s Freud was unpopular, particularly with feminists and occasionally leftist theoreticians. Feminists didn’t like the fact that he positioned masculinity as a norm and femininity as an external disturbance; leftist theorists objected to Freudian therapeutic practice intervening in what they believed to be justifiable social alienation. Both of these Modernists are now once again celebrated, Nietzsche as a major influence on Postmodern and Post-Structural Theory, Freud in such diverse practices as advertising and the analysis of popular culture.

Currently the Great Modernist who dare not speak his name is Karl Marx. Considering that we live in an era where the worst extremes of exploitative manufacturing have been removed from our gaze and relocated amongst the black and brown peoples of the earth. This is disappointing but perhaps hardly surprising. Also, he is hardly likely to be championed in an era in which the public sphere has been so successfully colonised by the corporate sector and in which the self-interest of ABC1s alone is almost exclusively represented in our media. But this is unfortunate, because removing a significant source of conceptual knowledge from our intellectual gene pool is both damaging and reductive. In addition, social theory derived from Marx offers the most potent explanation to the question being asked by political theorists, media commentators and the new Labour élite alike - Why Aren’t They Voting? Put simply, the electoral phenomenon we are currently experiencing is the imposed dominant or ruling ideology of the new élites being contradicted by the social reality of our citizens.

As cracks now appear in the hegemony of new Labour, the period in which the sheer inescapability of its message prevailed over all before it seems unreal or dreamlike. Were journalists really content just to regurgitate New Labour press releases? Did they really put up with Alistair Campbell berating them with, ‘No that’s not the story; I’ll tell you what the story is’? Were MPs and cabinet members really comfortable with the pager system enforcing a uniformed linguistic and ideological conformity from them? Is anyone really surprised that there is a democratic deficit when MPs supposedly representing diverse constituencies are homogenised into this unrepresentative uniformity?

But of course the real inescapability of the new Labour narrative was due to strategic and structural relations. Strategy for new Labour was collusion with the right-wing press - or what new Labour calls ‘triangulation’. At the level of policy this involves outright capitulation on the issue of corporate tax. But at the level of representation triangulation entails getting prominence in the right-wing press by ‘out-bigoting’ the right. This involves appearing to be more right-wing than your opponent and has the advantage of gaining further press coverage in what’s left of the liberal press. Unfortunately, the downside for society is that the most vile and reprehensible characteristics get reaffirmed as reasonable and normal.

Structural relations between new Labour and the press apparatus have been coherent and intimate. This at times, has allowed for an almost undiluted imposition of message . For example, despite the mess of the Gilligan affair, the BBC are still to this day content to give uncritical airtime to anonymous briefings from No. 10. Clare Short has quite reasonably criticised the practice of giving airtime or column space to those who lack the courage to step into the light, but there are perhaps broader questions. What would make a journalist go back to an office and staff that has got him/her to repeat that Dr David Kelly is ‘a Walter Mitty charactersimply to uncritically regurgitate their current spin? Is it done to fill airtime? Is it motivated by personal or party political loyalty or the shared assumptions of the social class that inhabits the Westminster media bubble? Is it about institutional interdependence or a combination of these? Via these various mechanisms of social connection new Labour has been remarkable in its ability to impose its homogenous master narrative from above through a variety of institutions. However, this has not always been unproblematic.

The liberal press in particular has creaked and strained in its attempt to maintain the coherence of the new Labour narrative. The Guardian has been dragged dramatically to the right. In doing so it has lost left-wing columnists such as Mark Steele and Jeremy Hardy. Hardy’s sacking was controversial but mysteriously - only allowed to be debated on the letters pages of The Independent – with Guardian readers largely kept ignorant of his protests. Guardian staff concerned at the paper’s shift to the right canvassed readers for a book entitled Reading The Guardian, which was never allowed distribution in this country. Concern has also been articulated about The Guardian’s sister paper The Observer.

Such is the obedience to the new Labour line that , despite lies over WMDs, capital-investment in infra-structural projects like Manchester’s Metrolink extension and the conflated announcements of years of future regeneration funding - which are subsequently never really met – the liberal press still repeats without question government statistics and announcements. Pressures on journalistic time, mixed with blind adherence to the top-down narrative, mean that alternative options such as representing the social base via interviews with the public, investigative reporting and/or coverage of independent social research are never really adequately explored.

However, the new Labour narrative is not only being maintained via structural and institutional cohesion with the government but by personal loyalty too. Writing in Prospect Magazine, John Lloyd lists a cabal of writers apparently willingly accepting the New Labour Whip. ‘…supporters of the government. These include Polly Toynbee and Martin Kettle of the Guardian, Steve Richards and Johan Hari of the Independent and Peter Ridell of the Times (‘Culture of Contempt’, Prospect August 2004). The argument most frequently made by these apologists for the new establishment is that despite Iraq we shouldn’t lose sight of new Labour’s achievements. Of course, if these ‘achievements’ were as substantive as we are so repetitiously told via the great new Labour media machine, wouldn’t self-interest be making us all vote - and in large numbers? So, how much scrutiny can these ‘achievements’ bear? What is the real social reality for our citizens?

The most regularly cited ‘achievement’ is the minimum wage. For most of its existence the minimum wage has paid less than £130 for a 35hr week. Currently it pays £145.50. In large parts of the country it has not even equalled the local cost of a single person’s rent. And then there are utility costs to account for; local taxation, food and subsistence to be found from this too. Also, the MW provides a brutal welfare system with a justification for stopping benefits – You have to take this job, it’s minimum wage,’ etc. As Britain has opted out of substantive parts of the EU’s employment and social protection, this means that the minimum wage provides a rationale for forcing individuals into the worst employment practices in Western Europe. It therefore functions as a service to unscrupulous business by providing a label of respectability for these practices. If all of this seems far-fetched consider this – there is no punitive dimension to the MW. If an employer pays less than the MW wage, even for a period of years–and when approached by the MW Enforcement Team makes restitution – there is no punishment. The worst that can happen is that the employer gets an interest-free loan from his workforce.

Another habitually touted ‘achievement’ is the end of unemployment. This appears to be one of new Labour’s most obvious misrepresentations. There are currently 2.74 million people claiming sickness benefit, plus a further 2 million that have disappeared off the census entirely. Most likely a cruel welfare system enforcing workfare poverty has simply deterred large numbers of people from claiming unemployment. Nor should we be at all surprised about this, because when the Clinton administration originally imposed these policies in the US they simply caused and legitimised entry into the illegal drug and sex trades for large numbers of the poor and socially deprived. This offers a more telling explanation of our own rising gangsterism than new Labour’s racist assertion that it is down to criminalising black musical genres. But perhaps they similarly believe that ragtime caused the gangsterism of the Great Depression?

There is also new Labour’s repeated assertion about record public sector investment to address. Chancellor Gordon Brown boasts that he has achieved this ‘feat’ not by using direct taxation but by simply using economic growth to fund new investment. If this were correct it would mean that the proportion of GDP being used to fund public services was always relatively constant. It would also mean that, while the amounts cited might seem huge, they wouldn’t necessarily be as proportionately big in relation to GDP as that invested by Labour governments in the 60s & 70s. In any case, the provision of public services on the ground doesn’t seem to reflect the hype regarding investment cited in the media. In fact, new Labour’s claims about public sector improvements frequently omit the post-Fordist managerial structure designed to ration access. Any reader who has used the NHS recently will be aware that there is a complex system of ‘gate-keepers’ whose function is to regulate the flow and access of patients to trained medical staff.

As new Labour’s ruling ideology omits mention of the bureaucratic nature of modern life, so too does it fail to mention the human costs of casualisation: work-place insecurity, managerial insistence on long-hours; in European terms an inadequate, over-crowded, under-subsidised transport system that prices the poor out of the very basic right of mobility. Not only that, but we as citizens are scapegoated for the social consequences of their macro-policies. When, instead of using re-distributive taxation for regeneration they rely on inward investment and this causes an explosion in bars and clubs, we are told that we are naughty binge drinkers. After seven years of interest rates being used to stimulate borrowing and therefore debt-driven consumer spending, citizens are told they’ve been neglectful of pensions. Similarly, the government abolishes legal aid for the poor and then blames the population for a commission-based compensation culture.

So the question remains, if the population as a whole felt that new Labour policies genuinely reflected their needs and self-interests wouldn’t they - regardless of Iraq - be voting? What is obvious is that not even the Labour Party’s core demographic still believes in the new Labour project. A Labour membership of 400,000 in 1997 has now been nearly halved to 208,000. In the Hartlepool by-election, new Labour’s majority of 14,000 collapsed to a mere 2,000 - and this in a constituency without an Asian anti-war vote.

The real problem for our democracy is that every time a voice is raised from the base of society which says ‘this is our social reality, this is how we are living and it’s exploitative’ – a contradictory new Labour narrative smothers it with ‘Oh no it isn’t.’ This contradiction may not be indicative of an emerging so-called revolutionary consciousness but it does represent something very rarely mentioned in the corporate press – alienation.