This is our truth, tell us yours
Hopi Sen was once upon a time a Labour Party press officer and backroom boy, so when he writes about politics and the left, he deserves at least a cursory listen, albeit with a sceptical ear. So it is with this post on the entirely fake ‘real divide’ trope much loved of Blairites in the Labour Party.
However, you have to listen with care and remember that Hopi once was a Blairite, one of the generation of press officers and policy wonks recruited from the private sector (he worked for a multi national cosmetics and soap powder company) as an alternative to the party’s traditional class warriors recruited from the trade union movement.
Politics has become a game of demographics, not ideology, and more about labels than Labour. Remember Worcester Woman or Mondeo Man?
The false divide trope was deployed not merely to frame and re-frame the debate in the way Hopi describes, but to tune into the touchstone issues that those key demographic groups were obsessed with; if the election was going to be decided by Mondeo man, the false divide trope would be used to frame the debate around whatever Mondeo man said was most likely to get him to change his voting intention. So if Worcester Woman told the pollsters that she hated the way foreigners were changing the character of traditional English suburbs like the one she lived in, then spinsters like Hopi would be required to frame the debate around issues of community and identity in a way that would send the appropriate dogwhistle sounds to Worcester Woman.
That practice was tragically significant for Labour’s tradition of being able to align social liberals with those whose political focus is class conscious, and grounded in traditions of economic equity. A willingness to blow the dog whistle as and when required, whether on race or sexual non-conformity, on crime or anti-social behaviour, was at the heart of the dismantling some of Labour’s traditional attraction to those with social liberal leanings. The coalition of interests within Labour that produced liberal reforms in the 60s and 70s was fractured beyond repair by nothing more deep and meaningful than political necessity.
There’s no way of knowing if Worcester Woman is a social liberal or not. No-one ever asked Mondeo Man how he felt about social issues. It’s all about the economy stupid, and their status within it. And guess what? That’s exactly how Hopi wants to frame the debate. Never mind growing inequality, or poverty, or the dismantling of the NHS. Apparently, Labour’s hopes of winning or losing the next election rest on whether Mondeo Man, or his successor, feels better off. The sharper cookies amongst you might think that the Tories have made the same calculations, and are engaged in systematically impoverishing the north in order to make sure they win enough seats in the Midlands and the South. You’d be right.
Now you might find it odd for a Marxist to be arguing that the economic position of an individual is less important than what they think, but that’s precisely the issue for thoughtful Marxists, that consciousness is everything. If Labour is ever to be a reformist party again, a party changing society for the better, it needs to be able to identify with people who are conscious of what they believe is wrong in society, not just their position within it. Not just that, but it needs to make a virtue out of appealing to individuals on the basis of justice and altruism, not the lowest common denominator.
Labour in the sixties and seventies felt like a comfortable, kind hearted place. The obsession with electoral victory based on demographics has made it feel like a less friendly, less welcoming party, representative of a less welcoming, more suspicious Britain. Perversely, it may actually be making its own problems worse, not better, by taking part in a political race to the bottom. By allowing the political debate to be framed around the economic interests of a minority of voters in a minority of seats, as Hopi implicitly proposes, Labour risks losing its core vote in exactly the same way as it lost its liberal core between 1997 and 2010.