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What Is Happening To Labour? An Explainer For The Perplexed

05/09/2016 12:11 | Updated 05 September 2016

I haven't blogged for a while, part out of being busy with writing in my day job and part out of utter despair for my party - Labour. In the current battle between the membership and the parliamentary party, most Labour MPs are beyond confused. Last week, Frank Field's letter to J. K Rowling - insisting that the membership need a reality check - is the just the latest example in a long line of exasperated public outbursts. So on the eve of Jeremy Corbyn's reelection, I can hear a collective groan emanating from Labour's NE: 'What the hell is going on'? This is my humble attempt at an explanation.

What are Labour for?

For generations, Labour politicians took to role of promoting a egalitarian society, through the eradication of extremes in wealth and poverty, as though it was their sole preserve. Shared prosperity was Labour's sacred mission - a task that their MP's took to with relish. These days, though, Labour MPs are scornful of members who dare to suggest that the party might wish to act on their foundational aims. Delusional, irrational, Trots, and rabble dogs. The list of insults peddled by the parliamentary party, toward their burgeoning membership, is long, concerted, and tiresome.

It is hard to Govern, they say. You cannot achieve everything that you want from politics. Instead, compromise should be the raison d'être of the Labour party. Policy that emerges in the professional bubble of think tanks and focus groups. Many ordinary working folks, though, are beyond disillusioned. For there are consequences to excessive compromise, just as there are to any other forms of overindulgence. One is disaffection, another is political alienation, and a third is Brexit.

The rise of inequality

Disillusionment among vast swathes of the population is a very contemporary phenomenon. There was a time when Britons knew whether they were rising or falling because when the country prospered, so did they. Between 1950 and 1979, the lower 90 percent of the British population - a cohort we might label the 'British people' - took home over 70 percent of pre-tax income share. By contrast, the share of income going to the top percentile fell almost three-fold over the same period.

Compare those numbers with the period beginning in 1979 and finishing today. You will get a very different picture. The British people have pocketed virtually zero of the proceeds of growth in productive capital. The financiers and management classes of the 1 percent have eaten the whole thing. From a low of almost 6 percent in 1979, the share of income to the top percentile stands today at around 15 percent. Shares, assets, and corporate profits have soared, and FTSE 100 chief executives enjoy average income rises of 10 percent year on year. The privileged are doing better now than they have since the days of Victorian plutocracy.

Meanwhile, in the real world, wages going to people who work for a living have slid 10.4 percent over the past 10 years. And as wages have declined, the burden of repaying the debt we now survive on has become much harsher. Over 3 million households now spend more than 25 percent of their income on unsecured debt repayments, and an additional 1.5 million households pay out 40 percent or more of their income to creditors. No wonder many outside of the South East think the country is still in recession, for them it very much is.

And yes we get it. It is the Conservative party who are primarily responsible for our deeply unbalanced society. They are party that, after all, propelled us on our contemporary era of tax cuts, deregulation, labor casualization, and deunionization. These are the people who worship at the altar of the market, and fight tooth and nail to hack politics open to the influence of money at every single level.

Labour's failure

But it is time we recognized that our current situation represents a failure of the Labour party too. While our party cries big tears over inequality, and its damaging effects, the current crop of parliamentarians have spectacularly failed to do anything about it. In fact, many of the sitting Labour MPs oversaw a period of Government between 1997 and 2010 in which income inequality rose further than it ever had under Margaret Thatcher.

From some of our MPs, I've no doubt compassionate ones at that, working people might get sympathy when Chinese steel dumping means the local plant has to shut. But that's technology, that's globalization, there's nothing we can do about that. And so on to their focus groups of 'swing voters', which insist they peddle the Daily Mail myth that these 'scroungers' are part of the problem. Instead of challenging and agitating to change public perception, they chose to pander to it - no matter how cynical or antithetical it may seem.

More troubling than the hypocrisy, though, is the arrogance of some Labour MPs in dismissing the very real concerns of their constituents. Concerns that have culminated in the emergence of UKIP across its traditional strongholds. That a failure of the party to engage with the interests working people would expose them to a counter offensive from the right is something they appear utterly blinkered to. For all their subtle learnings and fancy degrees, many Labour MPs cannot see why a backlash such as Brexit happened. What they seem to see in the rise of nationalism and UKIP is some ugly reflex in the minds of an unenlightened public.

This attitude is as conceited as it is condescending. There are real issues of technology and globalization that have conspired to blight working communities. And no, it is not racist to say that businesses openly exploit free movement within the EU to drive down wages and working conditions. It is ironic that, having been such a prominent driving force behind our current social and economic upheaval, the right are the only political movement who are willing to offer an answer - albeit in fantasies of liberal persecution. But you know what's worse than exploiting them? Ignoring them.

Reality check

It should be worrying for Labour that its failure to speak up for ordinary working British citizens is no accident. Most Labour MPs are steadfast in a conviction that it is their brand of meritocratic liberalism - or a liberalism of the educated professionals - which the rest of the British public need. Equality of opportunity, rather than outcome, and more of the same high-minded demurrals of aspiration. Recall Tony Blair's famous mantra; 'Education, Education, Education'. If only we could teach those poor working class kids out of their poverty, inequality will somehow solve itself.

But it doesn't work like that. History tells us that only with radical structural reform can inequality be tackled.

Regardless, Labour will plough on with their mission of meritocratic righteousness. And you can certainly see how illusions of meritocracy might be seductive for Labour politicians who have convinced themselves that we, like them, are 'all middle-class now'. After all, for especially successful educated professionals, like most in the parliamentary Labour party, meritocracy is a deliciously self-serving doctrine - granting them to all sorts of rewards and statuses - because they are, to be blunt, smarter than other people.

Yet for those on the receiving end, the repercussions of meritocratic liberalism are having your pay cut year on year, drowning in debt, losing your tenancy, or surviving on minimum wage. To such people this ideology basically says; 'give it up'. You have no one to blame for your precarious situation but yourself. These are, let's not forget, the very people that Labour was formed to represent.

So call the membership delusional, naive even, but as the parliamentary party keeps insisting; there is a high electoral price of being out of touch with reality.

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