So this week I have been very busy and SUPER smart. I appeared on the excellent queer politics and music podcast Queer Punx, talking about Lily Allen, mental health, bisexual erasure, and why Katy Perry is history’s greatest monster.
Also my music choices are excellent. My religious affiliation is to The Shondes.
I have also written about Ed Miliband and the role of building ‘institutions’ in order to change the Thatcherite consensus for Shade. Below is the article published in full.
Can Miliband’s populism break free of Thatcher’s legacy?
Ed Miliband is being trapped by Margaret Thatcher and Russell Brand. Not only is that a good name for a 1950s-style b-movie, but it explains much of the political consensus as it exists today.
While the former Prime Minister dismantled social democracy by breaking apart institutions that held social power – namely unions and nationalised industries – Russell Brand, author of My Booky Wook, has tapped into distrust of institutions that do not protect the most vulnerable, which social democracy at least has the pretence of doing. The attacks on Miliband’s relationship with unions and the Labour Party’s move away from welfare ‘universalism’ show the importance that institutions have in binding meaning, and of the careful course which the left need to navigate.
Ed Miliband is the first Labour leader in over twenty years attempting to formulate policy in the tradition of the post-war social democratic consensus. For over three decades after 1945, social democracy was an imperfect attempt to raise the standards of the working class; state provision of healthcare, council housing, and full employment on the one hand, and unions collectively bargaining in the workplace on the other, created a cultural as well as economic hegemony. The welfare state and unions mobilised people behind a class-based set of interests.
By the 1970s, with the loss of empire, entry into the EEC, the occupation in Northern Ireland, and economic ‘stagflation’, the ideological consensus was breaking up; as homogeneous working-class culture dissolved, social democracy could not continue in the same form. As women increasingly entered the workplace, for example, minimum wage legislation was required that protected women from the vulnerabilities of wage differentials – the unions’ opposition to which demonstrated that they were unprepared for the challenges of the social democratic consensus breaking up. The left was unable to form a coherent response to the breaking of this hegemony, and the vacuum was created for Margaret Thatcher to completely break the institutions and reshape the political consensus in her own image. Defeat of the unions was required for her to move the consensus to the right – namely to enable privatisations.
Before the summer, Miliband’s position was threatened by demands that he pursue the remaining ‘institutions’ that bind the left. Labour u-turned on welfare ‘universalism’, calling for means-testing the Winter Fuel Allowance for pensioners, despite the observation in the party that this ‘respectable’ centrism would not end calls to further cut benefits. Simultaneously, the Falkirk West selection process led to calls for the end of the official link between Labour and the unions, and Unite were accused of recruiting party members to ensure the candidate they backed was selected. But the controversy did not take place in a vacuum; Falkirk West became a battleground for what the Labour Party stands for, and whether they support equality for temporary and agency workers, or lobby against it. It is also worth considering that 69% support Labour’s link with the unions, indicating that people are supportive of a link that entails ‘meaning’ and distinguishes the nominal values of the party.
After conference season, however, Miliband has had his most effective period since becoming party leader. His policy to freeze energy prices for twenty months has been at the forefront of his boost in the polls. Amidst the resurgence of attempts to undermine his – and the Labour Party’s – relationship with unions (as well as the attacks on his late father), the right fear he is repackaging social democracy in a populist and electorally viable form. This populism on issues like energy prices, the bedroom tax, and on issues that concern the unions (like blacklisting in the construction industry and ‘zero-hour’ work contracts) capture the language of ‘common sense’.
Such a populist repackaging of social democracy, nonetheless, feels temporary and insecure. Ed Miliband appears to be picking up the slack of the Thatcherite consensus’ most egregious failings rather than trying to create a new consensus. Other than during the immediate aftermath of World War Two, Labour has never attempted to challenge the given political consensus – they are not necessarily an inherently centre-right party, but they are still an inherently conservative party. In both opposition and governance they try not to give anything away for attack, or concede anything too big. When a political opening is created, they allow themselves to tinker with the consensus.
But there is no assumption that the Thatcherite consensus and its institutions are broken; the ultimate symbol of her break with the post-war consensus was the privatisation of British Telecoms, the ‘good privatisation’. It is not questioned in the mainstream, but the failures of telecoms privatisation are apparent in BT’s role in supplying universal broadband, with public money providing up to 77% of funding for this project.
So what would a more holistic attempt to create a different consensus than the Thatcherite one look like? Miliband’s energy price freeze policy has allowed calls for public ownership of energy to re-enter the mainstream. Yet as such calls to nationalise industries like energy or rail recognise, they cannot return to the top-down structures of the post-war consensus. They require genuine democratic control and representation that prioritises the stake of workers, combined with investment, which both require a greater role for unions. In the provision of public welfare, rebuilding council homes instead of inflating the £23 billion housing subsidy bill would contribute to rebuilding ‘universalism’ not just in welfare, but in public services.
The only way for the Labour Party to escape the constraints of the Thatcherite consensus is to create new institutions that challenge the current hegemony, and that can be built into people’s current realities. Expecting the Labour Party to actually undertake this task may be too tall an order, but something has to give; as in the 1970s, the contradictions and tensions in the existing hegemony can’t continue. Such a shift in the political consensus, therefore, will most likely not be led by Labour, but forced by outside pressure. Russell Brand’s critique of the current hegemony alone is not sufficient. However, the reception his remarks have received is revealing that popular pressure exists to change the political consensus.