Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Do Labour Voters Really Not Know Where The Party Stands on Brexit?

According to various news reports, Labour voters do not know where the party stands on Brexit. Can those claims be believed, or are they just part of the Tory media narrative that Corbyn is not really a supporter of Remain? If they are true, what does that tell us about the tragic level of political and civic culture in Britain today?

Are the stories that Labour voters do not know where the party stands true? The media have been pursuing a narrative all along that Corbyn and McDonnell do not really support Remain, and that they have been keeping silent, as a result, and so as to allow the Tories to knock chunks out of each other. But, the fact is that what they really mean is that Corbyn and McDonnell have not argued for Remain on the same conservative basis as Cameron, Osbourne, and the Blair-right sections of the Labour Party, who have stood on the platforms with the Tories. Corbyn and McDonnell have been doing lots of events around the country making a left-wing case for Remain, and for building a different kind of Europe, but the Tory media do not want to hear it, and do not want anyone else to hear it, so they have not covered it. When even Gordon Brown made a lite version of that case, this week, the media only presented selected snatches of that too.

The other question here is, what do the media mean by core Labour voters. The fact is, as the issue over Emily Thornberry's tweet during the General Election showed, the media have a very odd idea of who Labour's core vote is. They assume that the core Labour vote is the most depressed and deprived sections of the community. It isn't and it never has been. The people such as white van man, who hangs an England flag or Union Flag outside their house, is not part of Labour's core vote, as that particular example was later to show. That particular section of the population that is atomised, traditionally stands outside the organised labour movement, finds itself by its condition of looking to individualistic solutions, is far more likely to have no interest in voting at all, or if it gets involved in politics will be drawn to parties that offer demagogic usually right-wing, and nationalistic solutions. Anyone who has grown up and lived in these communities over the last few decades knows that to be the case, and like me is not at all surprised to see in this vote, that is essentially now about immigration and nothing else, that these layers are voting with UKIP, and its Tory subsidiary, to Leave.

When I was a kid, the traditional Labour voters lived in terraced streets like the ones I grew up in, and on council estates like the one my dad grew up in. In both locations there was the odd family that spent a lifetime on benefits, that never maintained their house and so on, and there were the sink estates, where a larger number of such families lived. Over the last 40 years, and particularly during the Thatcher years, there has been a change. Not only did Thatcher drive a large number of workers out of the permanent labour force, and into an under class, or precariat, but the years of low interest rates, followed by easy credit and encouragement of private debt, meant that a lot of people that comprised the traditional working-class, and core Labour vote, moved out of those locations and into more modern private residential estates.

In the 1960's and 70's, those new locations would have been the breeding ground of Tory voters. Watch the “Return of The Likely Lads”, and the aspirations of Bob and Thelma in that regard, and the taunts from Terry, to see what I mean. But, by the 1980's that was no longer the case. The core working-class, and core Labour voters now lived in these estates, and the old terraced streets, and council estates were now filled by members of that precariat, and under class. The terraced house that I grew up in was old, cold and damp without hot running water, and with only an outside toilet, but like nearly all the other houses in the street, it was kept maintained as well as it could be, and clean. When I go back to the same streets today, even though many of the houses have double glazing, and have had bathrooms fitted where the coalhouse used to be, the whole street looks shabby, as do all the streets around it.

So, when the members of the media get out of their cosy bubble in search of the traditional working-class, and core Labour vote they are often looking in the wrong place. The working-class that Marx looked to as being the means of transforming society was not comprised of these peripheral elements, who he described as being part of “the dangerous class”, but was the aspiring working-class, the working class that sought to better itself, to educate itself to acquire culture and skills so as to make itself fit to be the new ruling class. This is what he says in relation to education,

“If the middle and higher classes neglect their duties toward their offspring, it is their own fault. Sharing the privileges of these classes, the child is condemned to suffer from their prejudices.

The case of the working class stands quite different. The working man is no free agent. In too many cases, he is even too ignorant to understand the true interest of his child, or the normal conditions of human development. However, the more enlightened part of the working class fully understands that the future of its class, and, therefore, of mankind, altogether depends upon the formation of the rising working generation...

The combination of paid productive labour, mental education bodily exercise and polytechnic training, will raise the working class far above the level of the higher and middle classes.”

He makes a similar point in The Grundrisse, in discussing The Civilising Mission of Capital.

So, if the media are asking people living in areas where the traditional working class, and core Labour voter lived thirty years ago, they are asking the wrong people. I would not at all be surprised if all those peripheral members of society today had no idea what was going on politically, or what the Labour Party was saying. Moreover, as the incident over the Thornberry tweet demonstrated, the Blair-rights in the LP have no idea in that regard either. They criticised Thornberry for making what was interpreted as a dismissive tweet against white van man, but as I and Phil wrote at the time, those of us who have actually grown up and lived in working class families and communities over all that time, know that white van man, and what he represents, is dismissed by real working-class people too!

Pandering to the lowest common denominator, rather than focussing on the real working-class, the working class that has aspirations for improving its condition, its education, its culture and making itself fit to rule has been the main weakness of the Labour Party, and large sections of the left for the last thirty years.

After all, what does it tell us if, in fact, large numbers of people really do not know where the Labour Party stands on Brexit. It can only mean that those people are peculiarly uninterested in even the most important political questions that affect their lives, but which require very little effort on their own part. Nowadays I have very little interest in football, I never really watch sport in general on the TV, and turn to something else, even when the sports news is on. Yet, I do know that Roy Hodgson is the England Manager, that Wayne Rooney is the captain, that the Euro 2016 championships are taking place, that England drew 1-1 with Russia. I know that simply because even watching the news peripherally, its hard to not know things that are going on around you, even things you are not interested in.

So, how on earth could anyone, let alone supposedly core Labour voters, not know what Labour's position is on Brexit. Corbyn has spoken about it on TV, there has been more than 6 months of coverage and debate, the parties have put out literature to every house, and so on. You would have to say that if people do not know even the most elementary things about this vote that they really should have no right to participate in the vote in the first place. 

In fact, I was discussing that with my son recently. Being a citizen involves not just rights, but also responsibilities. I am coming to the conclusion that in order to be allowed to vote, every citizen should have to fulfil some minimum requirements of citizenship, as indeed the Greeks proposed. If someone has to pass a driving test to be able to take charge of a car, then should we not insist that people who have a vote, whose use has the power to affect all our lives, and not just theirs, have to show that they can use that vote responsibly?

I find all of the stuff about people not knowing what the issues are, what the parties stand for, how they need to go about registering to vote and so on, so much crap! In previous generations, our grandparents and great grandparents, worked 12 hour days and more, six or seven days a week. They did not have the Internet, nor even TV and so on, to be able to find out information. Yet, they recognised that the right to vote was important. They used what little free time they had, to educate themselves, by going to meetings, by studying in co-operative reading rooms and so on, and they demanded the right to vote. Today with all the advantages, with much extended leisure time, we have the ridiculous sight of people claiming that they do not have the time to find out how to register to vote, or to find out about the issues, expecting someone else to do all those things for them, and then treating their right to vote as though, instead it was a chore, an obligation that they should almost be bribed to use.

I was married when I was 20, and my wife was 18. I walked an hour to work in a morning, and an hour back again at night. I studied at night classes after work. But, no one told me how to go about getting on to the electoral register to vote. We did it ourselves, just as we found out information for ourselves by going out of our way to read newspapers and so on, in an age when there was no Internet, and when we saved money to buy a house, by not wasting it on a TV. Forgive me for not having sympathy with anyone today who says they do not have the time to do any of the basic things required to be a citizen, and to find out the basic things required to participate in the democracy that our forefathers fought for!

We have created this situation by decades of welfarism and pandering to backwardness that has infantilised large sections of the population. Where Marx spoke about the working-class making itself fit to rule, by taking back control of its life, by engaging in self-activity and self-government, the capitalists welfare state has encouraged people to leave everything to someone else. It has not only, thereby undermined working-class social solidarity and pride, it has infantilised it, and reduced it once again to something like the condition of serfdom that existed under feudalism, a crushing level of dependence upon a paternalistic state, and an encouragement to treat politics as just something to be consumed, that is provided by someone else. It has backed that up by an endless diet of bread and circuses, and the kind of routinism that Marx describes when he talks about "the idiocy of rural life". In fact, it reminds of the film of the same name; what has been created, and the support for Trump in the US, and for Farage and co. in the UK illustrate it, is not a bourgeois democracy, but an Idiocracy.

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