In Westminster, the extent of the Conservative hegemony early in this Parliament is beginning to crystallise. But the conquest runs deeper than the detail of governance: the Tory executive is redefining the terms of engagement. By this I mean the way British people view and understand political events; how concepts like ‘work’ and ‘desert’ can be used and abused by those who wield them in the political contest. This amounts to the appropriation of some of the finest political tools in the opposition kit. The consequence has been a severe worsening of Labour’s crisis of identity. That such developments were predictable and partly visible even before the election should not diminish their gravity.
Reading the mainstream press this summer, I am confronted with headlines which tell the two parallel plots of this tale, of the rise of one party, and schism of the other. Two events of the past fortnight – Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget on July 8th and the announcement of the Trade Union Bill on the 15th – are of course chief among the critical turning points.
The former was a fairly deplorable state of affairs as far as socioeconomic justice is concerned. Most notably, the relative abandonment of ailing young people compared to their older counterparts. This also represents a failure to invest in the future population’s skills and prospects. The fact that the former are much more likely to vote – almost twice as likely, according to this Ipsos MORI estimate –pays dividends. Alan Mackie assesses here the damage done by, for example, the cessation of maintenance grants, and young people’s ineligibility for the new ‘national living wage’. The situation we find ourselves in, however, is that the line coming out of 11 Downing Street is swallowed wholesale by the political establishment at large. Osborne is now conductor.
Converting the message of the Budget into a pro-work, anti-shirk sermon proved easy enough. “A Budget for working people”; “the best route out of poverty is work”; remember, this is “all part of our progressive goal of securing full employment in Britain”. What scoundrels it would take to deny such clear cut principles of fair contribution, and of Doing Your Bit! – forgive me the sardonic tone, but the Budget had scarcely been announced when the Social Market Foundation noted that, in fact, plenty of the most vulnerable working families were due to lose income under the proposals. Furthermore, the persistent Tory tendency to equate the national finances to those of a household – looking “to create a country that can truly pay its way” – bolsters the paradigmatic image of the honest, ever-toiling citizen.
All of which has been said with almost as much vehemence by a range of commentators. But it took the Trade Union Bill and the furious row that engulfed Labour shortly after the budget to reveal how effective Osborne’s game is. Harriet Harman’s tepid response to the welfare cuts took centre stage in more than one sense, to the dismay of the party’s left. The schizophrenia rampant in the Labour ranks is largely about how the party should respond to the prevailing wisdom over that thorny issue of work and benefits. The rift occurs because the left must not abandon the needy; but so long as it supports extensive welfare payments, it cannot effectively champion workers against Osborne’s rhetoric either. The Chancellor has today (the 20th) hounded the routed opposition through this call to support his reforms. The Conservative arrow has found the heel of modern Labour.
In discussion on Radio 4’s PM on July 15th, Oliver Dowden MP justified the Trade Union Bill (of which the ruthless consolidation of Tory advantage in party funding and industrial relations is the most pertinent feature) thus:
“When there’s a tube strike or a teachers’ strike… so draconian in its impact…. I don’t think saying that four out of every ten having to vote for strikes, that have a tremendously disruptive effect on hard-working people, is an unreasonable proposition.”
Hard-working people are relatively frequent in this world – politics is the art of reconciling their conflicting claims. Which is why the ubiquitous buzz-phrase which afflicted this year’s general election carries so little meaning. Dowden may well support hard-working people in general, but the policy supports a particular set of such people – those in no need of collective bargaining. The language of rights is similar – the (human?) right not to be disturbed in your daily routine established contra the (human?) right to strike provides scant guidance as to which is really of the higher order. But the choice made by David Cameron’s cabinet places the many, as Zoe Williams writes, in an even weaker position vis-à-vis the few.
Such an effective promotion of a particular set of political ideas reminded me of Antonio Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony and the perils the imprisoned Marxist warned of. His concerns ran deeper than the phraseology of Budget speeches, but once an idea takes hold, it can spread and be reinforced by everyone involved in the establishment and intellegista. Thus capitalism justifies its longevity as an organising principle. The Conservative take on work fits neither the pessimism of Adam Smith nor the optimism of Marx (see this essay), but is a hybrid of the language of collectivism (‘all in this together’) and individual enterprise. Thereby appealing to blue collar workers and traditional liberals, the Tory line is doubly powerful. It has room to thrive.
Fitting indeed that Sajid Javid, the former Wall Street darling and free-market devotee, should announce the Trade Union Bill. His illegitimate MP status by the democratic standards of the Bill’s union voting reforms notwithstanding (a mordant point, but one I couldn’t pass up), his presence at the forefront of these changes in industrial policy embodies the ideological persuasion of the current government. True, Osborne invokes the ‘One Nation’ motif, at once purloining a favourite of Ed Miliband’s devices while invoking the original philosophy of Disraeli. And yet the government pursues reforms – presumably to Javid’s delight – inspired by Mrs Thatcher and the 80s, from Help to Buy to union relations.
All of this calls into question the idea that in the past decade the British people might have cast off their typical reticence in the face of an unchecked, unified executive. Hugo Young’s 1988 characterisation of the electorate in Britain as “prepared to be quiet accessories to mandates they never really gave” has a track record in heavy flux in the 21st century. With thousands marching against austerity, it seems that the age of begrudging acceptance is waning. But the general election in May indicates that Osborne’s compelling tune may have the electorate in a trance for a while longer.
Photo/ copyright mrgarethm; https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrgarethm/15195262730/