A       Discussion Paper

    
 

The Corridors of Powerlessness

A Critical Response to Towards a Democratic Populism

Kevin Davey

 

The government's dented lead in the polls may not be as significant as

its opponents - and Jeremy - claim. In fact its late arrival is testimony

to the government's strength. It's not fatally wounded. But a small chink

has opened into which a critique can be inserted, with the possibility of

it being heard. But it's an opportunity that could easily be wasted,

unless the purpose of the critique is clear and its judgement fine tuned.

This is not the case with Jeremy's piece, although I broadly agree with the

strategic aspects of his conclusions, particularly that the political mood

and political culture won't be changed by a party. However the individual

steps in his argument are not convincing, and only those resolutely opposed

to Blair would stay the full course. It may be that the ghost of 'shrill'

and self righteous rhetoric which he associates with the hard left and

Schnews/Squall still rules the labyrinthine corridors of powerlessness that

SOTT inhabits.

I think that New Labour has certainly been too deferential to middle

England. But I don't think its accurate to say that Blair thinks Mondeo Man

has "unshakeable and unreformable prejudices". I'd suggest he has

re-articulated some of them to notions of the good state, fairness and

social justice - particularly around health and education. JG believes that

"complicity with Middle England is "utterly futile". This will fall on deaf

ears. The electorate knows better than this - it doesn't overlook the

increased spend and improvements in the NHS, education, the minimum wage,

childcare etc. As a result I don't think it can be seriously argued that

the unwieldy coalition with middle England is 'futile', though I doubt it

is sustainable.

Blair's speech to Labour conference, abjuring the race card, is not a U

turn but a continuation of the party's multiculturalism, which has a

liberal and nationalist cast. The memory of Stephen Lawrence, which Jeremy

cites as an index of a wider interacts potential, relates to the rights of

a member of the British polity, a very different kettle of fish to the

demands and needs of those outside it. Like asylum seekers and economic

migrants. The guilt prompted by the murder of the first does not easily

translate into solidarity with the second. If JG believes it could, if only

Labour rose to the task, he needs to explain how.

His attitude to Blair's take on race is confusing. How can he say that

"one cannot doubt the authenticity of (Blair's) private liberal

convictions" but also describe him as having a "personal commitment to

conservatism, authoritarianism and xenophobia" ?

Having worked in education for far too long, and having parented on and

off for 20 years, I must say that I find JG's unconditional defence of the

teaching profession unconvincing. I don't think I'm unrepresentative in

this, just stupid enough to say it in public. Schools and colleges,

particularly in the inner city, have failed working class, ethnic minority,

female - and now white male too - pupils and students for a long while.

Staff have often put their own needs first. They often don't want to be

accountable to anybody, let alone students, head teachers and departmental

heads, or the state. Shortages of funding and poor management are easy

targets, but not convincing alibis. When dialogues have taken place with

teachers in the past, teachers haven't liked it. I recall the graffiti on

the wall of a local Hackney school in the early eighties: 'parents have

rights too.' Teachers have traditionally feared and resisted this.

I think JG's claim that the central pillar of British authoritarian

populism is the claim that the English are conservative, intolerant and

individualistic is wrong. Conservatism - certainly in its Thatcherite,

antiestablishment form - and individualism, are far too shapeshifting and

turbulent as traditions to underpin the political formations of Labour or

he Tories for long. And they just aren't the main themes of Labour's

rhetoric, I'm afraid.

I welcome SOTT's engagement with the Williams, May Day Manifesto, Hall and

GLC traditions, though it is, as they say, non-homogenous and internally

divided rather than a unified discourse and formation. (After all, what was

so new left about the way Ken became leader of the GLC?) And let's face it,

its also a tradition which hasn't had any marked successes - Raymond once

described it as a "set of principles for which one is prepared to fail" -

that seemed an impressive statement at the time, but looking back its

hardly the basis for a new politics. The May Day Manifesto movement was

sunk by the divisions engendered by the electoral process - i.e. tribal,

party loyalties - and it was disappointed by its own success, uncomfortable

with the form its influence took - as the opening words of the manifesto

admit, someone else (Labour) had taken its values and changed them. But

then that's politics. It's what happened to Marxism Today and the New Times

analysis during Labour's policy review of the late 80s.

There are a number of similar antinomies on the question of political

agency in JG's piece. On the one hand JG says that parties can't save

politics, on the other he believes that Labour could and must offer

leadership. His espousal of non-authoritarian populism is a reasonable but

detached goal, which doesn't resolve this ambivalence. More thought must be

put into describing, and deciding how to intervene in, the political

process from which it might emerge. Only then will it become clear whether

SOTT has relinquished any "psychic investment in themselves as rebels or

outlaws."

Kevin Davey