Why is the left silent on the scourge of consumerism?

Labour must look beyond the politics of more and recognise that the good life cannot be bought off a shelf.

Did you do it – by accident or design? Did you manage to buy nothing on Buy Nothing Day last Saturday? What do you mean you didn’t know you it was Buy Nothing Day? Too busy Xmas shopping?

The idea that an issue can only be raised by dedicating one day out of 365 to it is just one indication of how we have become a consumer society.  Being a consumer society doesn’t mean that all we do is shop,  rather it suggests that knowing ourselves and others by what we consume is the prime way in which society now reproduces itself.  It is the dominant way of being, just as work once was, when we knew ourselves, and others, primarily as producers. We were what we did. Now we are what we buy.

I don’t know the ‘Buy Nothing Day’ people but I’m guessing the problem isn’t consumption per se. We have to consume to live. The problem is one of balance. What is the damage being done to us, our society and the planet by consuming too much? And the issue is not the inability of capitalism to balance its need for expanding profit and our individual, collective and environmental needs, capitalism can’t do balance. The problem is that our politicians have given up trying to secure that balance through regulation.

At one level who can blame them for not trying. Why would you even want to get people to vote against the seductive powers of shopping and the thrill of the till? The answer, when it’s the only form of compensation currently on offer, is not to tell them it's bad but to come up with a more seductive offer. If we tried that it might touch a chord. People know the rewards of turbo-consumption are only fleeting and ultimately unfulfilling. If they don’t, then Selfridges kindly remind them every year with their sale slogan "you want it, you buy it, you forget it". How kind of them to let us in on the joke, which is on us.

Even when you come up with what you hope to be a telling insight, to help people liberate them themselves from the high street of hell, the market cleverly co-opts it and comes with its own response – as it must if it is to successfully reproduce itself. So, when you offer the idea of the time to read a child a bed time story as a moment of non-commercialised freedom you have to contend with the company called Nursery Rhymes who offers an iPad app to read "with a child" so that you can be in the office or anywhere around the world. So you work, to earn, to buy the products to assuage the guilt because you are always working and never with your children. This is why capitalism is winning.

And then you try this clincher as an argument to stop shopping; no one dies wishing they had more things but that they had more time with the people they loved. Trump that capitalism! And of course they do. We go back to the iPad or rather the iTomb which gets placed in your headstone so that messages and memories can be eternally communicated.  Another pleasure you, of course, have to work for.  We don’t stand a chance.

Interestingly, the right seems more willing to act on the spread of at least the worst aspects of our consumer society than the left. Just this week, the government proposed a minimum alcohol price to restrict drink consumption, although the floor of 45p per unit is seen by many campaigners as too low. And it was Cameron, while in in opposition, who at least piped up about chocolate being sold at the counter of supermarkets to maximise child pester power and high street stores selling sexualized clothing to young girls, an issue I brought up last week. Small beer, I know, but it at least raises the issue.

The left is pretty silent on consumption. Social democracy is the politics of more – and the more in question is money and therefore spending power. Today ‘Labour’ is not about dignity or craft but raw consumption. Jobs, any jobs, are what matter. For many on the left, it seems enough is never enough, no matter how much consumerism tears society apart and threatens the basis of social democratic dreams.

Of course, in a time of austerity the fixation is growth, as we saw with the figures this week on the two million jump in those who are in work but feel underemployed and therefore are under-spending. But that desire to return to pre-crash ‘business as usual’ is misguided. Many of us have more clothes than we can wear and more food than we can eat – but work too hard and have too little time to do what we really want. Instead, the emphasis should be on two things; first sharing work more equally and therefore the material benefits and time that go with it. And second, help each other recognise that the good life cannot be bought off a shelf but created in our imagination and our mutual endeavours. There are many visions of the good society, said J.K.Galbraith, the treadmill is no one of them.   

So if you can, work less, so others can work more, on some days buy nothing – expect the New Statesman, of course. Otherwise buy less, buy better, but buy time, love, care, compassion, freedom and some control over your life and your society the only way you can – by doing it not as a consumer but as a citizen.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers

Shoppers carying shopping bags on Oxford Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.