With the general election nearly upon us, I thought this a good time to add a new page to this site. I probably won’t add to it too often (don’t want to distract too much from the historical nature of the main blog) but this will at least offer a medium for engaging in contemporary matters and with my emerging work on academic precarity.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
Charles Dickens, 1859.
Over the last few months, as we’ve watched the continued decline of the Labour Party in Scotland, the narrowing of the likely vote share of the Conservatives and Labour in England, and Plaid’s revival as a party which is able to speak with youthful optimism and aspiration, I’ve been talking to friends and colleagues about what this might all mean for the labour movement. One thing is clear, there is a strong appetite for looking at the labour movement with fresh eyes and seeing the Labour Party as one element in a much bigger, and more vibrant and long-lasting, movement. Labour’s decline is absolutely not labour’s decline. But why has the former happened and what danger is there that the latter might be dragged down by the sinking ship?
Whichever way we look at it, the labour market today is based not on social-democratic stability and fairness, but on the anxiety and contingency of the neo-liberal settlement. All around the world, in wealthy countries as much as poor “developing” ones, the many labour in precarity. In the service sector, in the creative industries, in traditional heavy and light industry, and in academia, there are billions of workers whose fate is to labour under a cloud of uncertainty. Some will accept it – that’s how it is, they cry, deal with it – others will buckle under the strain, exhibiting mental and physical illness on a scale largely unparalleled in modern times; and there will be those who, like the pioneers of the labour movement, stand up and question it. They ask why are the many poor, still, and what can we do about it?
To look carefully at the modern world, at post-industrial America or Europe, for instance, is to recognise that the old tripartite class structure is no longer appropriate. Many who believe themselves to be working class are not in fact so – they are part of an emergent precariat class, as Guy Standing has argued. We sit in a moment of making, then. Just as historians once observed a making of the working class in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, and a remaking in the 1890s, 1920s, and 1960s, today we are witnessing the passing of that process. In his 2011 work, The Precariat (you can read it via this link), Standing argues for as many as seven classes ranging from a lumpenprecariat through a salariat to the traditional upper class. Gone is the teleology of workers defeating capital, but retained is the teleology of the poor springing into action, driven by their own anger, and becoming self-aware.
One problem amongst many us what can organised labour do to organise the precariat, to guide the process of self-discovery, and represent its interests? On the face of it, nothing. That model of representation is seemingly finished. It is, I think, why the Labour Party in Britain has completely absolved itself of any genuine attachment to the challenges of growing up and living in poverty. For all his neo-liberal economics, Gordon Brown was, probably, the last genuine social democratic prime minister Britain will ever see. There is much to lament in that statement but equally much that we need to learn from having recognised that reality. For the dominance of the Labour Party over the labour movement is only one phase in the long history of organised labour. The Party is not the inevitable guardian of the hopes and aspirations of the ordinary people of Britain – the precariat, the proletariat, the working class – and it has long misunderstood their hopes and dreams. Is it any surprise that Labour’s core demographic is now as old as that of the Conservatives?
Until the Second World War, the Labour Party was chiefly a libertarian organisation. It believed in libertarian socialism, insofar as this meant transferring power to the ordinary people in whose name it sought elected office. Remember Aneurin Bevan’s own political testament, In Place of Fear, conveys a political creed which had at its core one simple question: ‘where does power lie in this particular state of Great Britain, and how can it be attained by the workers?’ The answer was different depending on whether you were Keir Hardie, Aneurin Bevan, SO Davies, or Tony Blair. For Hardie that meant localism, it meant bolstering the democracy that lay on people’s doorsteps. For Bevan, haunted by the misery evident in Tredegar and the rest of the South Wales Coalfield in the 1930s, it meant evening out unfairness by redistributing from the centre. For SO Davies, the maverick and resilient Labour MP for Merthyr, it meant home rule for Wales and getting rid of the dependence that Wales seemed to have. And for Tony Blair, well, I suppose we shall never really know.
Remember that this was the Labour Party that in 1918 declared of home rule for Wales that ‘it is hardly possible to conceive an area in which a scheme of parliamentary self-government could be better established with better chances of success’. Yet what we think of today as ‘Old Labour’ – the party of Wilson and Callaghan pre-1979 – was not exactly enamoured with the idea of parliamentary self-government for Wales. Even in the 1990s, when the Blair government, with its hands tied by the determination to provide home rule for Scotland, decided to offer devolution to Wales its first thoughts turned not to self-government but to a glorified Wales County Council. The voices of ‘Old Labour’ too were hardly in favour: Neil Kinnock and Leo Abse thought it all a bit ‘Commie’, a bit too much like speaking the language of the ‘Nats’. There are plenty who think of themselves as Old Labour in Wales today who still hold that view.
The problem lies in 1945. It is heresy, I think, to say this, but I will. 1945 represents a turning point in the fortunes of the labour movement, as much as it does the Labour Party. One of those who saw it clearly was William Hazell. A Londoner who spent his adult life in Ynysybwl, just around the corner, in fact, from where I grew up, Hazell was a co-operator who felt that the 1945 settlement had taken the essence of self-determination out of the labour movement. As my friend (and Hazell’s biographer) Alun Burge has pointed out, Hazell was concerned by the fact that the ‘state took over roles previously undertaken by the people’. Take the NHS as a prime example: what Bevan hoped to do was ‘Tredegarise’ health services for everyone. What we are taught this meant was a model of collective saving which made healthcare free at the point of use. But there’s something else to it too, which we are not taught about, and that is democracy. Every member of the Tredegar Medical Aid Society voted on its officers, its committee, could attend annual general meetings, and enjoy a reciprocal relationship with their society. Today we have an NHS that is, fundamentally, undemocratic – it is as removed from the people as any other central government department.
And no, that is not a plea for a ‘health and well-being commissioner’ elected on the model of the Police and Crime Commissioners. What it is, however, is a plea for some sanity about the NHS and a recognition that we do need to take a long hard look at it and what it represents. We don’t need more myth-peddling.
Labourism is dying but its decline does not have to be the demise of the labour movement. But when we make the argument for re-politicising work we also have to be aware how different it’s going to be. Rebuilding the trade union movement cannot be a period costume drama.
Where I differ is on the re-politicisation of work. To revive the trade union movement we need, first and foremost, to recognise that what we are talking about here is not ‘work’ but ‘labour’. Guy Standing makes the valuable point in his book Work after Globalization that throughout history there has been a distinction between these two words. In ancient Greece, labour was something done by the ‘non-citizen’ – the Metics, for instance, who lived in Athens and shared in the burdens of the city-state but were not able to participate in it as full citizens – it is a commodity bought and sold. Work, on the other hand, is something that ‘strengthened personal relationships’. The distinction is quite clear in the Welsh language. Llafur (labour) can mean, as the Dictionary of the University of Wales illustrates, exertion, toil, anguish, and even pain. Gwaith means simply work or job – something that is created for interactive relations such as literary composition or a blog! It is not ‘work’ that needs to be re-politicised, then, but labour.
And what labour do we have today: shop and local government service workers whose hours are variable at a whim because they are on a ‘zero hour’ contract; academic tutors who earn less than £1000 for teaching a full term. I could go on. Organisation has to come from within – not in a Trotskyist sense, I hasten to add. A first step is to recognise that we are not alone, and that there are many others in our situation. Secondly we should reach out. And thirdly we should try and do something about it. In his classic book, The Making of the English Working Class, Edward Thompson writes (echoing Marx, of course) that class is a relationship not a thing. We of the precariat do not possess a certain ‘precariatness’ but rather was become aware of the reasons why we are precarious and not properly salaried. Organisation in the twenty first century does not have to be by sector, either. Indeed, as Andrew Ross, a sociologist who teaches at New York University, notes:
Though they occupy opposite ends of the labor market hierarchy, workers in low-end services, both formal and informal, and members of the “creative class”, who are temping in high-end knowledge sectors, appear to share certain experiential conditions.
We are all members of the precariat. An early career academic on a short-term contract has more in common with a zero-hours Sports Direct worker than they do with the professor or senior lecturer in the department who supervised their PhD. To recognise this is to make a better future for ourselves. To coin a phrase, then, members of the precariat unite, all we have to lose is exploitation.