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By Jason Michael
LISTENING TO BRITISH LABOUR in Scotland, to people like Richard Leonard and Paul Sweeney, one gets the distinct feeling of déjà vu. Their old timey fist banging rhetoric would have us think we are stuck in a Groundhog Day loop somewhere between 1901 and 1950. They sing The Red Flag while reading its lyrics from a pamphlet at conference, hold their closed fists aloft as though they had broken a sweat in their lives, and refer to one another as “comrade.” Year in and year out the script is the same: Labour is the party of the working man, the saviour of the working class. Growing up in a so-called working-class housing scheme in Kilmarnock through the 80s and 90s, it seemed pretty obvious to me that this outdated language had had its day. Our grandfather worked as a car mechanic at a garage in Riccarton, our faither was a commercial printer, and our mother a housewife and former mill worker – none of them were in a trade union, not one was “organised labour.” The lot of the working-class was long-term unemployment, benefits, the dole que, and the lot of their children and grandchildren was hanging about street corners, Buckfast, and heroin.
Working-class politics was a weekly laugh on Spitting Image with a frothy mouthed puppet of Neil Kinnock drenching a hellish-looking Maggie Thatcher in spittle. After the working people of Chile had been tobered by the shock liberalisation of their economy with some help from the CIA, Thatcher saved the neck of their butcher. Augusto Pinochet and the Iron Lady had loads in common, and she would have done exactly the same to the miners, the steel workers, and all the workers of Britain if she was given half a chance. Throughout her entire unremitting war against the unions and against the ordinary working people of the United Kingdom, facing her in the House of Commons, Neil Kinnock sat on his hands. Britain’s “pink socialists” were content to sit back and watch the mayhem unfold as a defenceless working-class was systematically torn limb from limb.
Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party and leader of the opposition, sat for almost a decade at the head of a Labour movement that was unelectable – and at a time when workers needed a saviour the most. He was happy to serve his time long enough, be useless enough, until he was made a peer of the realm and wheeled over to the cosier benches of the House of Lords in 2005. Tony Blair revolutionised the politics of Labour by making it more right-wing than the Conservatives. His New Labour government set about the wholesale stripping of employment terms and conditions, introduced zero hours contracts, criminalised unemployment and poverty with the ASBO, and waged war against the working people of another country with the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. This was the politics of the working class as I grew up.
Now when I listen to Leonard and Sweeney and Co. prattling on about the working-class it means nothing. Their insincerity and lack of authenticity no longer upset me. Council housing area vermin (CHAVs) like me stopped caring about their hypocrisy years ago. Most of us gave up on politics altogether, thinking no doubt that David Cameron was at least more honest about his loathing of us as a class without aspirations. As we awoke during the 2014 independence referendum campaign, after a long sleep, we saw up close how Labour campaigned against us. While the independence movement was raising awareness of the depths of poverty in Scotland, and as we were suffering under austerity – the savage cuts, the sanctions, the foodbanks, we watched as Labour leapt into bed with the Tories and bloodied itself in a propaganda campaign against us. It was Labour that called my grandmother to threaten her, telling her she would lose her pension with independence.
We were warned about this. Back in the 1920s John Mclean and the Red Clydesiders knew fine well the British Labour Party was a fraud, a diluted socialism (hence “pink socialism”) and a compromised party designed to curb revolutionary sentiment and stop a revolution – what was actually needed in Britain – from ever happening. Never in our lives has the Labour Party been a party of or for the working-class people of Britain. It functioned in Scotland as it did in England and Wales to pacify a whole class and ultimately to anesthetise it ahead of its destruction.
We have to laugh now when we hear Scottish Labour and its “radical” acolytes talking about the Scottish working-class and its need for class solidarity with the working-classes of England and Wales. There is no Scottish working-class! And such a statement should not surprise us. Having a job, working for a living, and living in a council house do not make us “working-class.” What we have today instead of a working-class – thanks to the absence of any effective resistance – are people who work for a living (“wage slaves”), people who try to work for a living (those Guy Standing calls the “Precariat”), and a burgeoning underclass of the now inter-generationally unemployed (the “Lumpenproletariat”). The Proletariat – the traditional working-class – no longer exists, certainly not in any real sense.
Marxist theory – something completely alien to the British Labour Party and much of the rest of the so-called “new” or “radical” left – defines the working-class as subsisting of two categorical requirements; that it is a “class in itself” and a “class for itself.” As a class in itself, the working-class is the “working-class” in name only, that is that it is constituted of people who share a common relationship to the means of production – they own feck all. In this limited regard there is a working-class, but it is not the Proletariat. It has no inherited wealth from which to survive without selling its labour, it does not own the means by which it can earn a living, and is therefore forced into an exploitative exchange of labour for money with the capitalist class. This is the so-called working-class to which British Labour addresses itself, a modern Prometheus – a zombie class largely created by Labour and the failures of pink socialism.
The true working-class, however, is both this class in itself and a class for itself – a working population enriched by a sense of itself, in solidarity with the rest of the members of its class, and organised – industrially and politically – in pursuit of its own interests. Where does this working-class, defined by Marx, exist in Scotland? It does not. It is a memory. It is lost.
Something much like it does exist, however, in the independence movement. It should not come as news to anyone that a national movement driven and inspired by the hope of national renewal should rediscover a sense of class consciousness. Yet, this is not a socio-economic class. It is a national class that is characterised both as a class in itself and as a class for itself. The development of a national “class,” apart from social and economic concerns, will always worry Marxists. It stores up class conflict for the future, and this is so because for the time being the class tensions are whitewashed over – as we saw in Scotland during the 2012-14 independence campaign – by the national project. Also, it is laden with all the potential, if these tensions are left unresolved – as we have seen in England with Brexit, to become an organised nationalism of the worst kind. But the formation of this national class in Scotland explains Labour’s antipathy for the independence movement, because it threatens to achieve what Labour was formed to prevent – a revolution.
Labour, however, lacks the wherewithal to stop the independence movement. Scottish Labour, like the British Labour Party elsewhere in the UK, is little more than a museum piece of how class politics used to be done – somewhere between 1901 and 1950. It speaks to a class that no longer exists and in a language that is no longer spoken. It is an anachronism, a performing arts troupe acting out the lines of a world that is now dead and gone forever. Labour was dying long before the rise of the independence movement precisely because its audience is as dead as my grandmother. Rather, it has become the victim of its own success: It succeeded in killing a class, the children and grandchildren of which found political succour in the birth of a new national class.
The Purpose of the Labour Party is…?
2 thoughts on “What Working-Class?”
Exactly correct it’s like they are selling a product no one wants and they don’t know it.
Very perceptive article. I attended a MayDay rally in Glasgow a few years ago at which John McDonnell was an invited speaker. The gathering in the Old Fruitmarket was mostly the usual staunch Old Labourites, with a few SNP supporters added to the mix as Chris Stephens MP had been invited along to provide a balance. Someone on the organising committee had conjured up the bright idea to associate the gathering with the working class, by having a film of a MayDay Rally from the late40s/early50s projected onto the wall. This rally was evidently much better attended with thousands of ordinary folk marching and milling around listening to speeches. The contrast between the two could not have been starker, with the present-day one being totally bereft of any working-class support, and attended by a variety of Champagne Socialists, all anxious to display their Labour Party/working class credentials, and loudly cheering John McDonnell’s speech full of the usual Tory-bashing meaningless waffle. The irony of the modern sparsely-attended gathering contrasted with the vibrant earlier version appeared entirely lost…