Power and precarity: the class politics of the Labour leadership race

Labour's hotly-contested leadership election is underpinned by issues of class and poverty. Yet the class dynamics at play are seldom openly addressed.

Julian Sayarer
29 July 2016
 Scott Heppell / PA Wire/Press Association Image

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Scott Heppell / PA Wire/Press Association ImageThe conflict between the so-called 'corbynistas', and those affiliated with Labour’s centre, right and Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is to an enormous extent underpinned by issues of class and poverty; but few address these issues in anything but the most off-the-cuff and pejorative terms.

The most obvious example, most frequently circulated and from the Corbyn camp, is that Labour’s centre is effectively 'red tory'; out of touch with the issues of inequality and precarious livelihoods that now blight the UK. The second example I encounter most frequently is levelled more personally at Corbyn. His middle class background and status – shared by some of his loudest supporters – allows him and his supporters to be pinned as people kept alive by trust funds or inherited wealth, granting them the luxury of a jolly in the politics of socialism. Helpfully or unhelpfully, (depending on how polarised we have become), there is truth in both sides of the argument.

In picking through the dogma, the first thing it seems necessary to establish is that poverty and its precarity are both a form of trauma and a form of minority-status. It is traumatic because it robs you of even the most modest and rightful comforts of a life, and because it places serious obstacles of time, space and resources between you and the future you might have wanted for yourself. In doing so, it blinds you to those opportunities and attributes you do still possess, and it robs you of peace of mind, and of a timeline that extends long enough in front of you for you to plan your own best interests. Life leaves your control. The state of high emotion – anger, resentment, despair, numbness – that this induces (and corbynism is seen by many as an antidote to) can eclipse your ability to make pragmatic decisions. Indeed, this is arguably one of its key features. But any to the right of Labour’s internal spat who would use this instability as evidence that their 'safe hands' should guide the party are glibly underestimating the injustice at the heart of the mood. It is also, crucially, quite possible to have irrational reactions as part of a response to very deep and totally rational grievances.

This need for empathy extends into the second part of the understanding; that of poverty and class sharing features with minority-status. Statistically, this is not the case: those suffering relative and absolute poverty, or gross material insecurity, now represent a number growing steadily towards a majority in demographics and regions of the UK. Nevertheless, the similarity between their position and those of a minority-status is that those in precarity are deviant from the set of norms and images about 'normal life', and from the political debate and sense of belonging, that is assumed to represent the outlook of the country. This debate does not relate to their lives and so they do not relate to it.

This debate does not relate to their lives and so they do not relate to it.

This exclusion is corrosive to the self-worth of those it marginalises, but also weakens those mainstream norms, as consequence of the vast numbers of perspectives it fails to see, understand, internalise and so represent. Who is to uphold this norm when it represents normality for increasingly few? Just as men should seldom explain to a woman alleging sexism that they are mistaken and only angry, and just as white people should refrain from explaining to those of different skin colours that their perceived racism is in fact not racism but only their own anger, nor should the materially comfortable, whatever their good-intentions or apparently pragmatic path to a solution, respond to the anger of the dispossessed with only a critique of the anger rather than the dispossession. In the main, you cannot have both material security and an intimate understanding of those without it. Those who claim to are performing a twofold disservice in that they are (1) likely to fog the true circumstances and emotions of precarity and scarcity, while (2) denying those suffering it even the right to articulate the terms of their own experience. This is not to make it an exclusive condition, but as is so often the case, empathy and listening are more welcome than assured explanations.

The British class system plays a peculiar hand in this relationship, for it produces a culture whereby the better-off often emphasise and subtly glorify their own privations. I am always curious when invited to ‘scrappy’ meals that are comprised of artisan products that never would have appeared on any table I knew growing up in the Midlands. I find those who are better-off will often outline proudly the nature of stints in shit jobs, whereas to most workers of those jobs they represent either only normalcy, frustration, or maybe a minor point of shame. This trait was explored so perfectly and anthemically in Pulp’s Common People (1996) it is almost unfair, but the song's mix of cultural observation and social awareness is a sublime piece of musical and lyrical accuracy. If ever it even were the case, class can no longer be used to explain everything in modern Britain; but that is not to say that it no longer explains anything. 

While all of the above might read as a standard defence of the Corbyn project and its associated offshoots, it is not intended as such. For all that I share many of his values, and for all that genuine political principles are not the monopoly of the most hard-up (who all too often have no time or heart left for politics), Corbyn has a very different background to my own - a background I only ever encountered at and since university. Without meaning to be excessively critical, I place Corbyn within that group of people who want the world to be a fairer place, and engage with vigour in the task of making it so, but seldom in their own personal history have had the direct need for it to be that better place. A by-product of this same lack of personal necessity is that others, predominantly in Labour’s centre and right, can give off the sense that, in their help for the betterment of other peoples’ lives, they are committing a benevolence for which we should be grateful, meanwhile agonising at the stubbornness of those who refuse to seize at someone else’s prognosis of their best interests. Nothing could be more off-putting.

[they] want the world to be a fairer place, and engage with vigour in the task of making it so, but seldom in their own personal history have had the direct need for it to be that better place.

If this characteristic in the PLP and centre creates a lack of empathy, in Corbyn and his followers it often produces something of an over-empathy that – moreover – is directed at characters and notions that are not entirely real. The noble working class, rooted in salt of the earth communities and trades, did and does exist, but so too do other forms of poverty: working poor and workless poor that are often less outwardly noble-seeming, more complex to address. People are not necessarily well-served by only projections of valour and struggle. 

In this outlook, the existence of ‘struggle’ is particularly troublesome, for implicit to a struggle is the idea of an adversary. And if you have an absolutist expectation of adversaries then that delivers a bias towards enmity, when sometimes alliances might be the better tool. This is problematic in much Labour talk about Tories, and now even more problematic in the way much of Momentum seems prepared to disregard the PLP. So it follows that both sides of the feud are content to shed the asset of the other; whether that is the PLP’s contempt for the numbers and enthusiasm of corbynism, or corbynism’s contempt for the expertise, experience and – however differently expressed – commitment of the PLP (not to mention the power vested in the offices they currently hold). If the issue of who started Labour’s civil war has become too great a tussle of chicken and egg, Corbyn’s handling of the media is maybe another facet of the same trend. Seeing hostility rather than opportunity has caused instances where the possible advancement of corbynism was missed - for example, refusing to discuss David Cameron’s personal links to revelations in the Panama Papers, because he Corbyn was asked about it on his doorstep. In life you more often convert your enemies than actually defeating them, and so effective brokerage is more important in politics than dogmatic notions of victory.

You more often convert your enemies than actually defeating them, and so effective brokerage is more important in politics than dogmatic notions of victory.

Quite probably far too late, this notion of brokerage has entered the Labour spat in the casual-seeming suggestion from Corbyn’s leadership rival, Owen Smith, that the former perhaps be given a sort of presidential role within the Labour party. If Labour is to avoid a split, and the poor personal polling of Corbyn with the wider electorate is to be dodged, then something of this nature must eventually take place. However, one presumes that substantive change rather than personalised symbolism would be more to Corbyn’s liking, and simultaneously more reassuring to the wider electorate. A dynamic of class and tone, however, once again brings itself to bear, in that Smith and the PLP should recognise that these overtures are an unusual offer for the outsider to put to the favourite, and that Smith is asking and not granting a concession. 

The need for humility is both crucial and absent on all sides. In many ways, both are united by a similar resistance to democracy in which the PLP refuses to acknowledge the mandate and passion of Corbyn’s supporters and voters, and those supporters in turn refuse to acknowledge the wider electorate’s attitude towards Corbyn. Despite this, similarities are also beginning to proliferate between newly announced policies from Owen Smith, and those long-linked to corbynism. Smith has now proposed wealth taxes, inheritance tax and capital gains increases, national investment and repeal of the Trade Union Act, all without any of the fierce criticism Corbyn received for raising the same issues (and indeed with a statesmanlike glow leant generously to a very new MP). It becomes evident that the Corbyn part of 'Project Corbyn' is now the main sticking point.

Here too exists a disparity that has commonalities with class in the UK, specifically around the increasingly heard charge that Corbyn is a populist – a particularly barbed word in an age of Brexit and Donald Trump. As Smith’s policy proposals coalesce with Corbyn’s, it is impossible not to ask why one is populism and the other not. Furthermore, populism is not a monopoly of opposition for contenders such as Corbyn: “Brexit means Brexit”, “British jobs for British workers”, “Son of a bus driver”, “Hardworking families” and “We can only afford X because we have a strong economy” are all populist tropes that have been used by both governments and successfully elected mayors in recent times; what is being singled out then is not so much Corbyn's populism as his outsider status within parliament. 

This sort of labelling, disparity, and subtle aspersion is likewise what underpins the class system. The labels are damning and stick not because they are levelled and substantiated in strident terms but because nobody would feel the need to. The power is in the subtlety of the judgment on a thing's value, and the assumption by the judge that they were entitled to cast it. Class structures are resolute precisely because they permeate everything and are hard to pinpoint; when you criticise the modern Tory Party, you criticise a body that stands squarely atop nearly two centuries of history, cultural prestige, and major crossovers with civic institutions. As such, that criticism is inevitably directed at only the last speech, policy or U-turn, and rather than the entire, well-embedded body. corbynism, on the other hand, has a body that is narrow and weak; with few major supporters, scant cultural capital to burn, and only a ten month history, the latest criticism is inseparable from the whole because the whole is so small. The mass resignations triggered by Brexit might be regarded as taking to the weakest available target as if it were a punchbag; a Labour equivalent of Francoise Hollande bombing Syria because French and Belgian citizens had attacked Paris.

The power corbynism does still wield is doubtless confined primarily to within the Labour Party itself. In return for democratic overhaul of that structure, and (re)enshrinement of corbynism in Labour values, there would once have been much to be said for taking a moral high-ground and walking away from the PLP body that refuses to be governed on such terms. Perhaps Corbyn’s doggedness to hang on in may yet prove a decision that usefully and legitimately strengthens both Corbyn’s hand, and even the Labour Party as a whole, should any such deal be forthcoming.

Labour’s centre, meanwhile, should heed the fact that much of the loyalty to Corbyn stems from a distaste for the fashion in which he has been treated, rather than to the man himself. Many (probably including Corbyn) would defer to a genuinely unifying prospective leader who embodied the values Corbyn was voted in on, and Owen Smith and the Party centre now also seems to share. For as long as both sides refuse point-blank to relinquish what power they have, they simultaneously cancel out their own by denying that of the other half. Growing ever more sure that strength is found in an imposed, clan homogeneity that neither faction will bow to, the sad and ironic fact is that both would be stronger, and certainly more resilient, if from the outset they could strive to avert the false promise of such an outcome. Perhaps in this there is an unlikely lesson to be drawn from the negative examples of class systems and precarity; a set of ideas and circumstances that are hard to define, and consistent but not always coherent, makes for a terrifying opposition.

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