Labour campaigners, and the MP Stephen Doughty, wait for results in Cardiff. His win was a lone bright spot. Photo:Getty
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What is Labour's future?

The Labour rout offers lessons for the party's future, as long as the party refocuses on the emerging "middle-middle" majority.

Leading Labour party members have delivered a devastating critique of the way their party conducted the campaign for the general election. I feel that perhaps much of the criticism of the leader at the time was unfair, and in any event, blame and recrimination is not going to restore the fortunes of the movement. It is now necessary to concentrate on new and constructive proposals alone if we are to emerge from what many regard as a bottomless pit.

There is a general consensus amongst leading commentators that the party must concentrate on “wealth creation” and the aspirations of the middle majority. Wealth creation is indeed an all-important concept but only if understood in benefiting the majority. The term “wealth creation” is in itself utterly meaningless as it may be interpreted to mean an economic system exclusively promoting the super-rich and investors in polarizing wealth in society; or in furthering the interests of some other particular group in another form of oligarchic society; or in pursuing the interests of all in the broader dissemination of wealth.

Most right wing governments in modern democracies try to argue that their economic system strives to benefit the majority population, but in this they are usually either dishonest or more often self-deluded. The ideology of  neo-liberalism was designed by a small group of clever men to appeal to the majority, but the falsity of its outcome, and total un-workability from so many perspectives, has been amply demonstrated, particularly since 2008.

The same may be said about “profit” as “wealth creation.” Those on the left have traditionally deplored “profit” as exploitative, arguing that production should be for “use” and not for profit. I have argued at length that profit is not only good but that we should seek its maximization, but only if profit is defined in serving the interests of the majority. That is, profit should be used in seeking to maximize commercially viable productivity (in serving consumer needs); and then for necessary re-investment for expansion and innovation; followed by rewarding producers according to fair distribution along the lines of skills and status; and then employee internal shareholders (to include directors) whose power should override any external influence in matters of ownership; and lastly, dividends payable to external investors.

All this entails a thorough understanding of the business process and the formulation of extensive reforms of the financial-industrial system. It is not sufficient to have an understanding of the “capitalist process” as understood by Marxists or traditional socialists (irrespective of whether the latter may regard themselves as Marxists or not), as the capitalist system in the 20th century has evolved in such a way as to defy all the old convictions that are now discredited. This has led inevitably to misunderstanding and confusion throughout the left, and ultimately to the Labour party turning its back on any attempt to comprehend the world of business. This has been compensated apparently by the satisfaction of remaining a public sector party contented with offering patches of reform here and there on the periphery of society.

It should not be concluded from the above that there have not been prominent business people, who as members of the Labour party, have not put themselves forward as proponents for serious radical reform of the financial-industrial system. And here I must draw on my personal experience as a Labour party activist between 1994-2008. As a member of the Labour Finance & Industry Group, responsible for advising the front bench, I came into contact with leading bankers, manufacturers, and even stockbrokers, who were intent on reforms for the fairer distribution of wealth and extending the power of ordinary working people.

We were divided into specialist groups for discussion and the preparation of reports, and on one occasion, on request, I even stood for the chairmanship of the LFIG. Until the late 1990s the group achieved excellent preparatory work through the keen professionalism of its 300 or so members, but on the election of the Labour government in 1997 everything changed. A number of the specialist groups were either closed down or “put on ice,” and it quickly became apparent that “new ideas” or “reform” of any kind were no longer welcome.

Overnight the association became part of the orthodox financial-industrial establishment, and within several weeks many of my friends had either fallen away from the association or formally offered their resignation. With the advent of Blairism, and to the astonishment of many, the Labour party was to maintain the principles of Thatcherism under another name, and in regard to business policies, little has changed since that time.

In the shorter term Blairism ensured the credibility of Labour in the eyes of the electorate, but in the longer term it merely enabled the continuation of a discredited financial-industrial system under a new label. The myopia of the Labour party on the reality and mechanisms of business were now redoubled as they cooperated with the worst aspects of Rentier capitalism and the polarization of wealth. The irony is that for a short period the party flourished and gained a popularity it had not enjoyed since shortly after the post-War period.

The longer term result of this is the present catastrophe and the predictions of some that the party may not regain power for a generation or more. In view of this situation a mitigating factor may be borne in mind, viz., if the Labour party may be accused of failing to understand the mechanisms of business in all its complexity, so too may most of the population. Even a great part of the business population, especially those in manufacturing and the primary industries, never properly understood the implications of Thatcherism and how it was ruining the wealth creating base of the country.

In what way, therefore, should the party attempt to re-orientate its thinking in preparation for the future? A two-pronged approach is called for. Firstly, it is necessary to understand the sociological changes of society and the world of work, without which realistic forward-looking policies are impossible to formulate. There must be a base or dialectic on which to construct practical proposals. In my book, Emergence of The New Majority, I not only analyse these changes in identifying how different sectors of society think and act today, but illustrated how Labour party members tended to cocoon themselves in the comfort zone of their own ideology and so misinterpreted the outside world.

Secondly, it is necessary to discriminate between Social and Unsocial wealth creation, in covering all aspects of business. A new vocabulary needs to be formulated for the discussion of business and the financial-industrial system, for without such a vocabulary there can follow no effective decision-making or further action. Such a vocabulary should comprise terms that are not only factually descriptive and fit within a rational system but are ethically emotive in differentiating good from ill.

The following pairs of contrasting values have been discussed in depth in my book, The People’s Capitalism, concerned with the lay person and his (or her) relationship with the world of work, and in, Prosperity in a Stable World, concentrating on the internal management of industry:- Social Wealth Creation versus Unsocial Wealth Creation; Productive (or Social) Capitalism versus Rentier (or Unsocial) Capitalism; Productive Profitability versus Rentier Profitability; and, Productive Purpose versus Rentier Purpose.

In view of all the unanticipated developments in the evolution of capitalism over the past hundred years, the purpose of the left should not be its destruction but rather its absorption and transformation in best serving majority interests. The first purpose of Labour or any movement of the left should surely be concerned with overseeing the management of the financial-industrial system, as indeed was that purpose in this country until approximately 1924, rather than fiddling with minor matters on the periphery of society.

The Labour party is now offered an ideal opportunity for renewal, and this is made evident not through the disaster of the general election, but through the emergence of the 90% “middle-middle” majority with its new economic issues not addressed by any of the current parties. The significance of today’s society is not marked by an equal split between the Working and Middle classes, as these were known in the past, but rather a heterogeneous 90% confronted by the 2½ % super-rich at the apex of society and the 7½ % unfortunates comprising an underclass at its base. If the Labour party cannot unite this 90% heterogeneous middle majority into comprehending the reality of its true economic situation, then it is unfit for any kind of future.

In regard to the question of unifying all sectors of our population we cannot ignore the significance of the SNP and its future impact on parliamentary life in Westminster. A huge cloud is now threatening peaceful relationships between the nations of the north and south and the Scots are fully aware of this. The constant gesture of the SNP in extending “the hand of friendship” to the English is only met by suspicion and the cold shoulder of apprehension. Both Scots and English anticipate the possibility that relationships could descend to the level at the time of the Jacobite Uprising in 1745-46, when Scots were stoned in the streets of London.

This must never be allowed to happen nor need it be necessary. When Scots express their resentment against the “Westminster system” that is not the root cause of their complaint. Their real resentment is against the overwhelming “power” of the south, or more accurately, the malign power of the City of London that has subdued the all-party parliamentary system to serve its interests. All this is clearly reflected in their manifesto and entire thinking of the SNP. A financial-industrial system that by default discriminates against home-based productivity is for obvious reasons more strongly felt in Scotland than in England, although the entire UK is the victim of its malign force.

Hence the Labour party should concentrate intelligently on those aspects of the financial-industrial system which call for urgent reform in promoting Social as opposed to Unsocial wealth creation, so that housing and property in all its forms is fairly distributed to the broader population. The aim of the Labour party should not be to blindly attack the City of London (as may have been the purpose of the far left in the not-so-distant past), but rather to empower those professionally competent bankers and others with the vision and intent for real change in society. In this way the Labour party may constructively cooperate with the SNP and other parliamentary groups for a better Britain – and at the same time diffuse that tension between SNP MPs and their other colleagues in the Commons. 

Robert Corfe is a social thinker, political philosopher and author of multiple books, including Social Capitalism in Theory and Practice, published by Arena Books.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era