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The rupture between Westminster and reality

Jon Cruddas on why more New Labour solutions are likely to further fuel the far right.

as the MP for Dagenham on the East side of London one of the most wretched experiences arising out of the local election campaigns – one of manys – was seeing the cover of the May/June edition of ‘Progress – Labour’s Progressive Magazine’. The top banner headline of the edition established the leadership’s post rationalisation for the election defeats – often described as the narrative. Put simply ‘we lost New Labour votes’ was the conclusion drawn by Tony Blair.

This was followed by the predictable interventions by Mandelson, Milburn and the like all of whom defined the results in a highly specific way. The only losses were New Labour losses. The only solutions, ceteris parabus, are New Labour solutions. We must therefore reform further along New Labour lines; to offer up the usual triangulations; to placate the right wing press and push for more clamp downs; to signal even more authoritarian party reforms; to promote more ultras and carry on separating ourselves from the day to day life experiences of millions of people. Simplistic New Labour solutions are provided, refracted through the mindset of middle England, increasingly at odds with the empirical realities of modern Britain

The BNP and the Local Elections

The BNP was one of the major winners in the 2006 local elections according to new data supplied by the anti-fascist group Searchlight. In the wards it contested its share of the vote rose by approximately 3% compared to 2003 and 2004. It has broken out of its West Yorkshire and East Lancashire strongholds, performing strongly across the West Midlands, London and Essex. Even in Sussex, Hampshire and Wiltshire, they polled over 15% of the vote in several wards and polled over 14% in the South East overall.

In 13 authorities, where the BNP fielded five or more candidates, the party won over 20% of the vote where it entered the contest. In Barking and Dagenham they polled on average 40.3% in the seven wards where they stood. In Sandwell they averaged 33% for their nine candidates. This year they stood full slates in Birmingham, Kirklees and Sunderland and polled 11.3%, 18.4% and 15% respectively.

The Labour hierarchy see the BNP as a localised phenomena. During the election campaign the Labour Minister Andy Burnham described the BNP as a ‘protest vote in a few pockets of the country’. In his region of the North West they averaged 21.5% in the wards they contested. In Yorkshire and Humberside they averaged 20%, in the West Midlands 21.2%, and in the Eastern region the figure was 29.6%.

It is the Labour Party that has most to loose from the BNP. Of the 33 BNP councillors elected, 28 seats were either won from Labour or in places where Labour is the main challenger. Of the BNP’s next 50 strongest performances, Labour won 36.

Research for the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust found that most BNP supporters were skilled or semi-skilled workers – 72.7% were found in social groups C2, D and E – exactly the constituency from which Labour has traditionally drawn support.

New Labour, Middle England, Race, Class and the BNP

The common criticism of New Labour from the left is a fairly straightforward one: that it is part of the neo-liberal right and thus a product of this ideology. An alternative approach is not to see it as the product of a body of ideas as such. Rather to see it as singularly driven by the imperatives of power retention. Its policy agenda is crafted out of a rigorous analysis of the preferences and the prejudices of those voters who matter – swing voters in marginal seats – rather than traditions of thoughts or ideologies. In short, in order to reproduce the power of this political elite it must dominate middle England.

Ideas are only introduced so as to render intelligible this exercise in abstract political positioning – polling determines policy. This was aided by the contributions of a number of academics who sought to legitimise this political repositioning with reference to supposed revolutions in economic and social relations. Issues of inequality, class and power were seen to be withering away as technological revolutions within the context of globalisation meant that the primary role of the state was to provide ‘education, education, education’ to enable individual self-actualisation in the new epoch – the classless, knowledge economy of New Labour.

Yet the fundamental dilemma for New Labour is the growing rupture between, on the one hand, the stylised view of modernity upon which it constructs its policy and, on the other, the empirical realities of modern Britain and the day to day realities of class, race and inequality.

On the basis of empirical changes over the last ten years and the best projections for the future, we are witnessing an ever clearer polarisation within the labour market and society – the hour glass economy. On the one hand, a primary labour market- or the knowledge based economy – covering about 21% of jobs. On the other hand an expanding secondary labour market where the largest growth is occurring – in service related elementary occupations, administrative and clerical occupations, sales occupations, caring, personal service jobs and the like. New Labour’s political strategy has been driven by the middle England dynamics at work at the top of this hour glass – the inference being that those who occupy the bottom half will always stick with Labour as they have no where else to go. As such, for specific positioning purposes it constructed a model of the world which rendered the latter – the working class – invisible and downgraded the needs of their communities. When we even acknowledge the existence of a working class it tends to be demonised – for example in debate around crime and anti-social behaviour.

Simultaneously, however, through its approach to flexible labour markets and migration it has ensured that the material conditions experienced by many working class people are in decline be it in relation to terms and conditions of employment, housing pressures or the consumption of public services. Even against a benign economic backdrop this creates the material conditions for the emergence of the far right.

Migration and Class in Urban Areas

The gearing of the electoral system ensures that all political parties have to camp out in middle England. Yet the dynamics at work in urban areas outside of these tight confines are arguably creating pressures that urgently demand an alternative policy response to the spin and triangulations dominant in Westminster political debate.

Take for example, the situation in London. According to ONS figures for the period 1992-2003, the annual inflows of legal international migrants into London more than doubled from under 100,000 to roughly 200,000 per year. We can assume that a large part of those who are working illegally are also resident in the capital. The Government has assumed that these number up to 570,000, namely people who overstay, illegal entrants, failed asylum seekers and the like. This figure does not include dependants.

This should be considered alongside the effect of A8 European migration. The Home Office predicted 5-13,000 A8 migrants a year. In reality the first 18 months saw 293,000 registered for work. The self employed do not register neither do students, dependants and those who are illegal. We do not have reliable total figures but the numbers could well approach three quarters of a million, many of whom will be in London.

In short, the dynamic at work in terms of population flows into London is extraordinary, but remains unquantifiable in terms of real levels of migration, economic activity and thus the real demography of the city.

These movements occur off the radar of politicians and public policy makers. The communities that actively attempt to deal with these movements are the least equipped to do so as they are the poorest yet they also provide the magnet of low cost housing. These communities are disenfranchised because of the political imperatives of middle England yet maintain the worst health and education inequalities and legacies of under-investment and structural inequality. Yet these communities compete at the bottom of the hour glass in a race to the bottom of the labour market.

The incremental investment strategies deployed by the State cannot even begin to deal with the dynamics at work in many parts of urban Britain. Policy is based on out of date census data that disguises more than it exposes because of the extraordinary movements in people especially over the last couple of years. Hundreds of thousands of families do not show up on any official data yet are having profound effects in terms of labour markets and public services. Moreover the communities within which they live suffer from long term structural neglect.

For many in communities such as Dagenham their social wage is in steep decline as population growth exceeds public service refinancing and wage rates decline. Every issue of resource allocation is thereby seen through the prism of race. The policy solutions – for example building council housing- are out of favour as they do not chime with the preferences of middle England. In turn, the prejudices of middle England mean we have to triangulate around the lives of those most in need of a Labour Government be they migrants or indigenous working classes.

The Government remains mute on these issues which in turn ensures that many in urban Britain believe the Government is out of touch. The extreme example to date is in Dagenham- the lowest cost housing market in Greater London; the perfect storm for the far right. Yet these issues remain generic to urban Britain. The real danger is that this policy mix will promote real tensions in an economic downturn.

Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham