Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Past is never the Answer

They call it the rustbelt for a reason.

Just before the EU Referendum I wrote a blog, Voting against Now, in which I sought to explain the anger that was driving Brexit among, particularly, white working class communities.

I wrote then.

"If you look at those areas of “the Country” which voted Yes and are looking like voting Leave, they share one thing in common. A legitimate feeling that while “elsewhere” prospers, their own location and indeed personal circumstances do not.

And that is, for the avoidance of doubt, a legitimate feeling. The affluence of the “white working class” is at best getting no better, following a period, starting after the war and continuing until perhaps thirty years ago, when a year to year improvement in circumstance, marginal but noticeable, was expected as the natural order of things. Just as, with the benefit of hindsight, that improvement happened marginally but noticeably, it equally ceased to happen marginally. But it is certainly noticeable now. And to compound the resentment of that experience, the relative affluence of others in our society has, over that same thirty year period, visibly improved; whether catching up from behind in relation to the general circumstance of ethnic minorities and “immigrants” or pulling further away in front in relation to a distant metropolitan elite.

And overwhelmingly, those standing still, or sometimes worse, are people who used to “produce” things. All sorts of things from coal brought to the surface to iron turned into steel; from tiny buttons to ocean going ships and things of all sorts and sizes in between. Different things in different places but with a common culture. Industrial work that often depended on brawn rather than brain but which nonetheless, for the long post war boom, had more or less guaranteed availability. Work which brought with it honest reward that fuelled a local service economy: shops, cinemas, social clubs, that was visibly there not as an end in itself but rather as support to allow the primary “producing” purpose of the place to function.

In many, many places this world has gone. It hasn’t changed or modernised. It has just disappeared. The same things are (generally) still produced, obviously, but they are not produced here. They are produced in India or China or wherever. Produced by different producers, working in harsher conditions and crucially at a much lesser level of personal reward. 

And what’s left, too often, is little more than the service economy that once enjoyed only a support role. As Shirley Williams famously described it, an economy based on people selling hamburgers to each other."

All of this could just as easily be applied to the events across the USA this past week. Or, actually, not across the USA, for it should never be lost sight of that Hillary actually won the popular vote, but rather across a handful of large but ultimately critical midwestern states.

Now, the immediate reaction to this is that we must find some way of reconnecting with these voters and, of course, in a democracy, building a winning electoral coalition is what the whole business of politics is about.

But the problem for the left is that in many areas conceding what is demanded simply isn't economically possible. while in others, to concede it would cease to make us "the left" at all.

To deal with each of these in turn, globalisation might be halted or at least slowed isn't going away. The BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China aren't going back to their previous existence of isolated or essentially agrarian economies, neither willing or capable of competing with the west in advanced manufacturing. And the MINT countries, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey are only one of many acronyms for other countries not far behind on a fast track to development.

What is the answer proposed anyway? Import controls and a decline in world trade leading to higher prices and drastically reduced growth? Greater international rivalry for resources that could only too easily slip into something worse? Really? Is that how the dog is to be wagged by the tail? And anyway, even if this was all undertaken, would this make this discontented section of the electorate happy? No, for none of it would ever recreate, in world terms, the advantage they once enjoyed. You might as well fight a British General Election on a promise of returning us to being the workshop of the world while Britannia once more ruled the waves. Getting elected on such a manifesto wouldn't ever, conceivably, make it happen. That will be the ultimate lesson of Brexit where many seem to have believed they could vote for just that. Similarly, no amount of shouting about making America great again will ever make it as great as it once was. For the world has moved on.

But, of course, this is almost as nothing as the second element of being "left behind" it is suggested we must appease, the anger of native born white men. How can the left ever "understand" that without ceasing to be a left at all. If you asked anybody on the left, anywhere in the world, what their basic belief is then they would start with greater equality. Equality between the sexes, equality between the races, thanks to many brave modern pioneers, equality between those of different sexual orientations or physical abilities. And, yes, equality between all those contributing to our communities, no matter where they were born. It is not accidental that the most long lasting achievements of UK Labour Governments include, right at the very top, The Sexual Offences Act 1967, The Equal Pay Act 1970, The Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. There can be no compromise on any of this. Our side is correct in our world view and anybody on the other side isn't just otherwise minded. They are wrong. When Labour notoriously lost Smethwick in 1964,  Harold Wilson didn't try to "understand" why we'd lost the white working class vote, he described the racist winner as a "Parliamentary leper". He was right to do so.

So, if progressive opinion, is to rebuild a winning electoral coalition perhaps we need to move away from the assumption that we start with a class based politics and instead look to a politics which divides between those who want history to continue to go forward and those under the delusion that somehow voting for "a flag" can turn somehow turn it back.

Of course, in the US, the Democrats have been here before, most noticeably when they decided that the tolerance of racial segregation was a price they could no longer pay in order to hold on to the "solid South". They built a new coalition then and in a nation which, no matter what Trump does, will continue to be ever more diverse, they'll can do so again.

Perhaps in the UK we need a similar rebuilding exercise with regard to our own progressive coalition.

I finish with one of Obama's favourite quotes from Dr. King. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." That didn't change last Tuesday.