Organise and divide? Belated musings after the J30 strike

One of the current Government’s core tactics, when it comes to steering through cuts, is defining different groups against each other.  Whether it’s pitting private sector workers against the public sector, justifying cuts to housing benefit on the basis of unfairness to people in work or distinguishing deserving from undeserving social tenants, the Coalition understands the political gain of identifying a particular group, claiming that they’re gaining unfairly and then cutting in the name of fairness.

One nation social democrats?

Left-wingers have tended to argue against this kind of narrative, for obvious reasons.  They reply that, even if ‘divide and rule’ sounds effective, it doesn’t cut much ice in a two-earner household where the only reliable pension is from the public sector employee, the family whose 20-something son or daughter is on ESA but whose parents are in full-time work or the low earner in London who relies on Housing Benefit to pay the rent.  There is, of course, a lot of truth to this: the lives of people in different jobs, different housing tenures and different personal circumstances are often deeply intertwined.

Note, though, how much these examples rely on people’s own specific lives being intertwined.  Not every public sector worker lives with, marries or relies on someone in the private sector; most families don’t have a member on ESA.  In fact, assortive mating means that people are often likely to end up with people like them than not.  (The overwhelming majority of people I know work outside the for-profit world – the state, political parties, universities, charities, NGOs … almost anything, in fact, but a private company.)

Partly as a result, many of these divides are more real than social democrats like to admit.  In my own family, some of our most visceral differences come from the fact that I don’t work for the private sector, but my father does.  Left-wingers’ own attitudes often contribute to those divides: in my heart of hearts, I know that I tend to place the public sector, its values and its ethos higher on my priority list and to treat it as an ethically better option.  I’m not saying I should: I’m saying I recognise my own prejudice – and that it makes it harder, not easier, to win over people who do work in the profit-making economy.

Trade unions suffer badly from this – and it’s very hard for them to get out of the bind.  It’s worth noting that, since May 2010, unions have been keen to ‘speak for society’ and to emphasise their role in defending public services.  Unions 21’s new report highlights some of the problems they face presentationally, both through their own failings and through hostile reporting; but at least part of the problem is intrinsic.  Trying to articulate the national voice is, by its very nature, going to be in tension with action on behalf of members’ specific interests: not necessarily in conflict, but in tension.  When considering responses like the 30 June strikes, this is worth bearing in mind.  The unions’ great opportunity is to be seen as on the side of the public; their great danger is convincing the public, again, that their powers need to be curbed.

Justice versus envy?

Left-wingers can also risk playing to the Coalition gallery in the way they talk about justice.  Much of what we consider to be justice is, of course, decried by the right as the ‘politics of envy’ – when complaining about the super-rich, for instance.  Now, of course, this is spurious: there is a distinction between saying ‘the wealthy in our society have too great a share of the wealth, while millions of people are in poverty’ and saying ‘I haven’t worked my way up the ladder, so I want to pull you down to my level’ – and if we can’t make that distinction, the debate about fair shares is effectively over.  But, rhetorically and in the eyes of people less committed to our own values, the line is a hard one to police.  Arguments about ‘reverse class war’ may make it more difficult, rather than less – though it’s important to remember that defining a privileged minority working against the interests of most people is a long tradition of the left, as well as the right (People’s Budget, anyone?).

This is part of the reason why, when dealing with tax paid by the wealthy, issues like tax avoidance are so useful.  They tap into a very widely held view that the rules should be the same for all of us – providing a way of arguing for the wealthy to pay their share and binding us together, as a society.  (Even Ted Heath talked about ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’, after all.)  In particular, this argument helps to explain why focussing on paying due rates of tax, rather than just raising the rates, tends to have a wider political appeal.

All in all, I have more of a sense that there’s a problem than I have of the answers.  But for what it’s worth, people on the left need to be aware that they too have prejudices in favour of particular social groups (maybe even vested interests … sometimes).  We need to ask ourselves whether we make enough effort to engage with others – private sector workers in particular, who do after all provide much of the revenue for social programmes.  We need to do more to connect campaigns to the wider good – where union campaigning can be linked to the interests of patients, pupils, parents and families, it should be.  And we may even have something to learn from the language of one nation conservatism: it was, after all, Benjamin Disraeli who first talked of ‘two nations’!

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