Last year, about a week before the General Election, I was travelling home on the X4. That fabled bus route between Cardiff, Pontypridd, and Merthyr Tydfil, that Iain Duncan Smith once told everyone to catch to look for work. If the ‘neo-Victorians’ of the Thatcher years believed in getting ‘on your bike’, so the baby boomers yearning for their own childhood bliss of the 1950s believed in getting ‘on the buses’. Either way the destination is the same: security guard, shelf stacker or till operator in a supermarket, a care worker in one of numerous care homes along the routes. I happen to work in a university. But we all share a similar fate: not enough hours, high costs of living (it’s all relative, and it isn’t just about housing), and a precarious existence. In such an environment you hear and see a lot of things. Politics is not a conversation that occurs often, but when it does, it hits hard.
‘I would never vote UKIP’, one fellow traveller tells me, ‘But I agree with them. We’ve got to do something about people coming here’.
There are nods from those who can hear us.
Now, don’t get me wrong, other things happen too. Some merry Merthyrites were on the bus late one evening extolling the virtues of Corbyn and the revolution within, but I soon discovered they were active in the Trades Council, and so not quite like the people I hear muttering about UKIP. The message wasn’t loud, but it was persistent. And it all pointed the same way. So to say that the European Referendum result did not shock me, is not to say anything surprising. UKIP have clued in to the problem and have been busy feeding their noxious solutions. I don’t need to say what they are, we all know.
The problem is precarity. Say it once. Say it often. Say it loud enough that the Labour Party hears it, finally. It is impossible to stand up, as Labour did ahead of the 2015 General Election, and say you are against zero hour contracts when your party relies on them to keep local government running. You sound like a hypocrite. You cannot be for well-paid jobs, meaningful employment pathways for young people, and then jump on the apprenticeship bandwagon. In recent times my Labour-run council has offered apprenticeships in being a receptionist, working in a leisure centre, working in a library. Say that word to someone with a bit of grey in their hair and they imagine an apprentice being someone with a trade, not someone paid half the wage of someone who isn’t an apprentice and being used to fill labour shortages (self-) imposed by austerity. In a precarious world, such an exercise in doublespeak tends not to go unnoticed.
The twentieth politics of social democracy, sustained by a twin dynamo of a political solution and an industrial solution, are dead. And I’m afraid to say, they died a very long time ago. Before, in fact, I was born. Well, the year before. The political route to social democracy suffered its major defeat in 1979; the industrial route, sustained by victory in 1969, 1972 and 1974, lasted until March 1985. Defeat of the miners meant there was no more fixing the engine. It was already knackered. Then it was kaput. Like it or not, New Labour, which sought social democracy by neo-liberal means (always an impossible dream to fulfil), was probably the best way forward for the centre-left in the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike. But it suffered from a lack of anchor, from the departure of the Social Democrats into the Liberal Party, and from the bloated excesses of the 1997 landslide. Labour, which had not known all-mighty power for a generation, and even then it was always contingent, had no way of keeping its head.
Erm, well. You can’t build social democracy through PFI and state subsidies for poor wages. As we’ve discovered, much to our cost. The same way you cannot strip away nursery education – something fought for for decades by the Labour Party, especially women activists – and then offer ’30 hours childcare’ as a limp replacement. I’m looking at you Welsh Labour. And you Plaid Cymru.
Corbyn’s politics feels anachronistic to the New Labour commentariat, because it is. It’s been an attempt to stitch together a diorama of what politics used to be like. Politics with a kinder face. Politics of meaning. But you can’t carry on making a model of the past thinking it’ll provide solutions for the future, leave the chaos of what was to historians. Twenty-first century social democracy – and, by the way, we haven’t found what this actually looks like yet – is under threat of dying before it reaches maturity. Suffocated by nostalgia on the one hand and nationalism on the other. The thing is, this is hardly novel. Labour has consistently suffered from splits and divisions. Refusal to allow the Communist Party to affiliate; disaffiliation of the ILP; the ebb and flow of nationalism; Bevanite versus Gaitskellite; Landsburyite versus MacDonaldite; Bennite versus Kinnockite; Blairite versus Brownite vesus post-Bennite; Corbynista versus the “Blairite Conspiracy”. It’s never quite been enough to kill the party off, although it has come close.
Those on the pro-European Left should reserve particular ire for the Remain campaign. It was run appallingly. Voters wanted a message of hope, which would say to them, especially in those areas most impacted by globalisation’s negatives, that through Europe can come solutions not just to your lives but to those who live abroad too. If a Greek or Pole or Romanian had wages akin to those paid in Britain, they wouldn’t up and leave their home to live in a dirty polluted environment like London or Birmingham. Economic precarity and inequality encourages the levels of intra-European migration that we’ve seen in recent years, not “hordes” wanted to “steal our jobs” and “scrounge off the state”. The real scroungers are the companies that pay poor wages in the knowledge that they’ll be subsidised by in-work benefits. The real scroungers are the companies and directors that subsist on state socialism, whilst getting their mates to impose neo-liberal austerity on their workers. Why wasn’t that the message of Remain? Well, because instead of actually speaking language that would have encouraged working-class people to think again, they put Richard Branson on their leaflets, they let George Osborne tell us how awful it would be (it’s pretty awful in Blaenau Gwent now, mate), and Labour’s attempt at articulating a ‘remain to reform’ agenda came across as half-hearted.
But it wasn’t half-hearted. It was actually somewhere on the path of what Remain as a whole should have been saying, should have been putting on its leaflets, should have been encouraging Leave-leaning areas in the Valleys, and in the post-industrial North of England, to think about. Remain needed to offer a choice of “it will get better” not “it won’t get worse”.
The Remain vote should have been about precarity. At its core, the leave vote was about precarity. It was a signal in Merthyr, Oldham, Middlesbrough, that the resilience of the people to withstand austerity has withered away. It’s gone. All that’s left is apathy, anger, fear. The very things that populists know that they can exploit in the Rust Belt states of the United States. Flint, Michigan, should be a singular lesson for all of us who care at all for Leave-voting post-industrial Britain. That’s our destination. Let’s not kid ourselves there’s anything remotely “progressive” about limiting free movement of people. That’s looking at politics the wrong way. Utterly.
So if we want to pick a target or two to be angry at let’s at least realise that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the problem. He’s a symptom of a much wider malaise. People believe he’s different, and he is, because we’re still looking back for our answers, not forwards. The Labour of Jeremy Corbyn cannot bring about 21st Century social democracy. Nor can the Labour of the post-Blairite group. Nor can the governing Welsh Labour Party. Nor can Leanne Wood’s Plaid Cymru. Nor can the SNP. No-one knows what it looks like yet. How does social democracy manifest itself in the absence of an industrial solution? How does it manifest itself without resorting to neo-liberal mechanisms? We haven’t even begun to have that debate. So let’s have that debate. Heaven knows, if we don’t, there’s a lot of people who are going to be miserable now and for a long time to come. And we don’t have the luxury of time any longer. The existential crisis, long forecast, never quite believed in, is upon us.
As they say in the North, winter is come.