- The tasks ahead
For most of us the election result was a shock, but in some ways it didn’t substantially change the nature of the tasks we face. We still need to find new ways of battling against an environmentally destructive and aggressively unequal capitalism - and the common sense that sustains it. The result made this more difficult in the short term, but its primary effect was on tactics.
If Labour had been able to form a government with SNP support, there would have been more obvious and accessible faultlines and pressure points to work with. And a Labour-led coalition or minority government could have provided a basis from which to build a conglomeration of parties and social forces to begin to push back at the ever encroaching logics of marketisation and individualisation. We could have started to explore the possibilities of different left practices and imaginations - embracing new forms of collectivity and networks of solidarity, and ways to repurpose the economy towards sociality, care, and participation, as well as finding sustainable ways to increase productivity that could lead to material benefits for all, not sharply increased returns for a few.
With a Conservative majority government we still need to do those things - though of course the organisational difficulties are greater, and the most vulnerable in society are at much greater risk.
There is a danger that the left in Britain will now spend more time on the defensive, seeking to protect the remnants of social democracy. Instead we need to focus on serious critical work as well as activism, and continue our efforts towards creating a new politics. In order to do this we must take account of the massive changes that have transformed the political landscape in the last few decades, including the constant diversification of the terrain - for example through new forms of connection to place and generation - and major shifts within the norms and expectations embedded in the social settlement. These shifts can only intensify in the next five years and we need to get to grips with them. [End Page 4]
This multiplication of identifications is nowhere more evident than in people’s experiences of class. These are no longer solely based on location in the labour market: for example, the nature of the assets owned within a family has become of growing importance. The new contradictions and complexities require new approaches to building solidarity across different groups. Bland commitments to social democracy - such as ‘we all love the NHS’ - are not enough to hold the necessary alliances together.
Staying with the example of family assets: after thirty years of minimal public investment in housebuilding, homeowners - especially those who are able to finance their children’s entry into the property market - do in fact have conflicting interests with those campaigning for social housing or rent caps, regardless of their common reliance on public health care. Already, policy announcements by the new government indicate that it will do all it can to exacerbate this conflict. It is only by acknowledging such differences that new alliances can be conceived of and constructed.
We also need to think again about the way we deal with the idea of austerity. The widespread acceptance of the concept of austerity marks an ideological victory for the right, whose fiscal rhetoric has never been matched by policy: apart from in the crisis countries, especially those under great pressure on the periphery, European governments have always found space for politically motivated tax cuts, or pay-offs for electorally significant portions of the population. As Lynda Dyson argues in her article on higher education, austerity operates as an ideology. It is often used as a means of justifying the withdrawal of funds from specific parts of the public sector in order to use the same money to subsidise the private sector operators in the field from which the funds have been switched.
Furthermore, an emphasis on anti-austerity focuses on what is no more than the current face of the longstanding enemy: even if we defeated austerity, neoliberalism could still remain hegemonic, though it might be forced to reconfigure. In our focus on austerity we focus on the crisis, not...