There’s something darkly comical about Michael Sheen’s intention to abandon acting in favour of defeating the far right. An esteemed actor, deeply immersed in the world of theatre and art, jetting off to Port Talbot to tell working class Welsh people, caught up in a wave of revolt against the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, what to do. It couldn’t be any more counter-productive if the embodiment of this elitism, Tony Blair himself, had made the journey — although I suppose someone who has played him is good enough.
Its 1995, Tony Blair has been in post as leader of the Labour party for some time and is determined not to be its third failure. The 1980s had seen everything that the left had held dear torn up and cast aside in the pursuit of privatisation and monetisation; former industrial communities who had once thought they had jobs for life were suddenly cast into a directionless despair as their living standards and self-esteem collapsed. Michael Foot and, to some extent, Neil Kinnock had sought to be their champions and lead a revolt against the new neoliberal economic consensus but, unfortunately for them, a lot of people had made a lot of money in this new economic era, enough to keep Thatcher in power.
former industrial communities who had once thought they had jobs for life were suddenly cast into a directionless despair as their living standards and self-esteem collapsed
Blair, alongside Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, understood the components of the left’s failure. Aside from an economic wobble in the early 90s, the Conservative party had presided over a period of unprecedented growth in living standards for enough people in the country to keep them in power. However right the left were about the devastating effect on postindustrial Britain, they could never build a coalition large enough to wrench the Tories from power. The strategy then? Embrace the new economic era and hit the Tories on two key areas of weakness: competence and social conservatism.
It might have seemed strange or even downright stupid for the newly christened New Labour to abandon the communities that had stayed doggedly loyal to them throughout their years in opposition but, as the apocryphal quote attributed to Tony Blair goes, they had “nowhere else to go”. Clause IV of the Labour party constitution was abandoned and Tony Blair began hammering beleaguered Prime Minister John Major week after week on incompetence, division and the latent racism and sexism festering in there Tory party. The result? A landslide victory that Labour would never see again.
The result? A landslide victory that Labour would never see again.
Like the New Democrats, the SDP and virtually all left wing parties in the Western world, Labour did not just embrace neoliberal economics, it sought to bring its benefits to the working class. Financial deregulation meant ballooning credit offers to even the poorest of workers, London’s thriving financial sector and the taxes they paid, allowed Labour to pour money into public services and questionable public sector jobs.
The goal was not to bring justice to the working class, it was to erase class altogether. New anti-discrimination legislation was intended to have the same effect: bringing women and ethnic minorities to the newly enriched, universally middle-class party. As the Conservatives receded back into their core constituency of Church of England social conservatives, the left entered full-on attack mode and sneered at the Daily Mail readers of the world and their backwards views. The path to progressive social justice had been ensured when Cameron became Conservative leader, abandoning the social conservatism of another era, and the credit-funded boom that my generation grew up in had provided postindustrial Britain access to the means of middle classhood.
The goal was not to bring justice to the working class, it was to erase class altogether.
Then, the financial crisis of 2008 hit. Economic decisions made by governments have consequences, but sometimes they don’t manifest until it’s too late to change course. Neoliberal economics was predicated on the belief that financialisation and consequence-free credit would create economic growth that would never end. It wasn’t until the credit-crunch that the essential truth became clear: money doesn’t grow on the trees of the financial services industry. The charade collapsed, the artificial sense of prosperity with it, and left was riding the train as it happened.
Labour returned to opposition and fudged their economic message whilst holding true to their social liberalism. Little did they know their coalition of postindustrial Britain and liberal middle class London was beginning to fall apart. The working class has been fooled once, and they wouldn’t be fooled again: UKIP rose in the UK, Trump in the US, LePen in France, and the AfD in Germany. Once stranger bedfellows than you could imagine, many in postindustrial Britain are now holding hands with the social conservatives we once mocked, and we only have ourselves to blame.
Let me be absolutely clear at this point: the equality and diversity legislation pursued across the West was undoubtedly a good thing. In fact I, as a gay trans woman, benefit from it every day. Our culpability lies in the fact that we promoted this not alongside justice for postindustrial Britain, but at the expense of it. Passing laws to prevent discrimination is comparatively easy. Saving the working class from deepening economic despair is not.
Passing laws to prevent discrimination is, comparatively, easy. Saving the working class from deepening economic despair is not.
Far from having nowhere else to go, the working class now have their champions. This is a working class that now believe we on the left don’t care about them, and only about social justice for marginalised groups. We have abandoned the communities that we were supposed to represent and we are not just paying a political price for it, we are putting BAME, LGBT people, the disabled, and women at risk. The right did not need to play divide and rule – we created these divisions ourselves.
My grandpa was a railway engineer. He was a member of the communist party in his youth, and voted Labour all of his life until the 90s when he switched to UKIP. I firmly believe that he would not have done so, had Labour not abandoned class struggle and created the perception that social justice was more important, rather than equally important.
The people that propelled Donald Trump to office, pulled Britain out of the EU and will put the leader of the national front into office in France next year are the same people who used to vote with us. If we are to even begin taking on the far-right we have to accept our failure and complicity in their rise.
Featured image via ibtimes