For those who stand outside the austerity consensus, reading Len McCluskey’s columnon Tuesday was like coming up for air.
It is a cause of deep frustration that, as the Tories’ economic policies are shown to fail (in terms of jobs, growth, consumer confidence, economic inactivity and borrowing levels), the Labour leadership has moved to legitimise them. I’ve written elsewhereabout why Ed Balls’ declaration that “My starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have keep all these cuts” is politically disastrous, and indeed it was jubilantly used by David Cameron to beat Ed Miliband across the head with at today’s PMQs. But in truth, it is difficult for even the most diehard leadership loyalist to sum up Labour’s current strategy on the cuts and the deficit. The Tories are shaping the argument, and no coherent alternative is being offered.
What is perhaps most galling about Balls’ intervention is that it came as Standard & Poor of all institutions offered the missing coherent case against austerity as it downgraded the credit ratings of nine European nations. Justifying its decision, it said: “We believe that a reform process based on a pillar of fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating, as domestic demand falls in line with consumers’ rising concerns about job security and disposable incomes, eroding national tax revenues.” Balls has referred to it in passing, but it was of course eclipsed by the rest of his statement.
The commitment to a public sector pay freeze may have even worse consequences. Given the rate of inflation, Labour has committed to a pay cut for dinner ladies, nurses, teachers, bin collectors, and so on. A false choice is being presented – that it’s either pay or jobs. But if millions of public sector workers have less to spend, consumer demand will be hit, and considerable numbers of private sector workers will almost certainly lose their jobs as a consequence. Labour’s position is more than symbolic, though. Now the Opposition is committed to the Government’s position on pay, it completely undermines the union case against it. Labour’s leadership has allowed itself to become an outrider for the Government.
Given Labour’s failure to challenge the Tory agenda, the fact that Len McCluskey has acted as a voice of sanity at a time of economic madness is welcome in itself. Miliband talks a lot about a return to the 1980s, but McCluskey more accurately points out we’re experiencing a 1930s Comeback Tour: when all main parties converged around the same disastrous economic course. But McCluskey’s intervention is far more significant in other ways.
Many party activists and trade unionists may not happy with the direction of the Labour leadership. But the truth is that it is an expression of where we’re at politically. The left and the broader labour movement were battered and beaten in the 1980s, and never recovered. Today, there exists no left either with mass support or a coherent alternative, either within the Labour Party, or outside it. There’s lots of pressure dragging the Labour leadership towards the Tories’ position: the presence of hardened Blairite elements, a hegemonic government, the media, big business, the City, and so on. I’m afraid it also includes broader public opinion which, while believing cuts are too far and too fast, still believes them necessary: unsurprising after years of being bombarded with pro-cuts propaganda, with no alternative being offered.
If the left wants the Labour leadership to change course, it has to build pressure that currently does not exist. And that’s why McCluskey’s intervention is important and should be built on.
There is currently a divide in the labour movement between those who accept the underlying case of what the Tories are doing, with just nuances to separate them from the Government: or the Surrender Tendency as I call them. On the other hand, there are those who want a coherent alternative to the Tory agenda: I can’t think of a good label for them, so I’ll stick with the Alternatives (even though it sounds a bit like a girl band). The problem is the Surrender Tendency happen to be concentrated in the Labour leadership. The Alternatives have a lot of support in the broader membership, but they are not organised.
McCluskey’s intervention should be treated as a kick up the backside for the Alternatives. We need to organise so we can put pressure on the Labour leadership, challenge the Tory and media consensus, and shift public opinion.
McCluskey is in a good position to help lead this charge. He can’t be dismissed by Tories and Blairites as the mouthpiece for public sector “vested interests”: although his union represents thousands of public sector workers, most of its membership are private sector workers who are themselves being hammered by the crisis.
We need to get the Alternatives together: party activists, MPs, trade union leaders and members, activists from community and campaign groups, journalists, bloggers, and so on.
Then we have to move from ‘There Has To Be An Alternative’ to ‘There Is An Alternative’. We could start by calling on the likes of Nobel Prize-winning Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both trenchant critics of the suicidal economic strategies of British and European leaders. We also have progressive economists we can draw on here, such as Graham Turner and Richard Murphy. Rather than a fragmented ideological objection to what the Government is doing, we need to develop a coherent alternative economic argument that can be communicated in a way that resonates with people. Let’s call it The Plan.
Not all Alternatives will be happy with The Plan. Some will have to treat it as a start. But we have to stick with one clear, convincing message that we can hammer away at with every given opportunity.
We’ll then push The Plan everywhere: through supportive journalists, social media, in party and union branches, stalls in every town centre, poster and leafletting campaigns, newspaper adverts, and so on. It will give the Alternatives something to unite around in the labour movement – and crucially, drag the leadership away from a course of surrender.
My fear is that – if we do not act – the Labour leadership will spend the next few years continuing to retreat to the Tory agenda. That will cement David Cameron as the third transformative Prime Minister of post-war Britain, after Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. It will be argued that there is ‘no going back’, that reversing the Tories’ programme is politically impossible. Cameron will have transformed Britain irreversibly.
That’s why we have to get our act together, and why we should treat Len McCluskey’s piece as a call to arms. Let’s stop our sulking, and get organising.
I never expected to become a defender of New Labour’s record, let alone against its own most zealous supporters. At this point, I should clarify that I haven’t been kidnapped by Peter Mandelson and transformed into a Blairite drone. What I mean is that among all the disappointments and betrayals of the New Labour era, there were genuine social advances. They are now being shredded at lightning speed by a radical Tory government – but with the increasing complicity of the Labour leadership.
Just after news broke on Friday that Ed Balls had regretfully announced the next Labour Government is ‘going to have to keep all these cuts’ and declared his support for the Government’s public sector pay freeze, I spent my evening debating Tory ex-Minister Edwina Currie on Stephen Nolan’s 5 Live show.
Currie was in full-on triumphalist mode, gloating that Labour had accepted that the Tories were right all along. I couldn’t blame her. Before coming on air, I listened to a spokesperson for the hard-right Taxpayers Alliance similarly praising Balls to the hilt. At the same time, I scrolled through Twitter, wincing as prominent Tories and Liberal Democrats proclaimed victory. ‘You lose,’ tweeted right-wing blogger Harry Cole to Balls’ political advisor Alex Belardinelli.
Tory MP Robert Halfon couldn’t contain his glee, either: he promptly cobbled together a blog post entitled ‘Ed Balls comes out… as a Conservative’, bragging that the Shadow Chancellor had appeared ‘to sign up to Coalition economic policy’. ‘After months of opposition, the Labour Party appear to have conceded defeat,’ he boasted, adding that he thought ‘Coalition Ministers will be able to sleep safer in their beds in future’.
The stifling of Labour’s internal democracy is taken so much for granted that no-one has even bothered to pass comment on the lack of consultation before Ed Balls’ announcement. One leading MP was stunned, telling me that the Parliamentary Labour Party was given no prior warning and would be ‘shellshocked’ when they returned to Westminster. As for trade unions or party members — well, you are well within your rights to chuckle that I’ve even bothered to mention them.
Ed Balls’ surrender is a political disaster. It offers vindication for the Tories’ economic strategy, even as it is proven to fail. Growth has been sucked out of the economy. Consumer confidence has plummeted. Unemployment is soaring, with no sign of the promised ‘private sector-led recovery’. Even on its own terms, the Government’s austerity measures have failed disastrously: George Osborne will borrow more than Alistair Darling’s plan, so derided by the Tories at the last general election. As for the impact the cuts are beginning to have on our communities and those groups being pummelled hardest (women, young people, and the disabled, for instance) – well, that’s simply incalculable.
But rather than trying to push a coherent argument against this disastrous austerity programme, it is now being treated as a fait accompli. Sure, the cuts are now necessary because of George Osborne’s mistakes, but they are nonetheless here to stay. Labour can no longer talk about how these cuts are inherently destructive, because otherwise it would have to commit to reverse them. Neither can it aim fire at their ideological nature, as when Cameron announced they were permanent before the election: that is, after all, now Labour’s starting point too.
And it will surely fuel the sense that the Conservatives are making the necessary tough economic decisions, and Labour are simply playing catch-up. This is a large part of the catastrophe that has befallen Labour since the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s began. The Tories were allowed to transform a crisis of the market into one of public spending because Labour failed to offer a coherent alternative narrative. The role of collapsing tax revenues and rising welfare spending as unemployment rose barely got a mention; the Tories managed to get away with the fact they backed Labour’s spending plans pound for pound until the end of 2008.
When I complained about this suicidal strategy – or, rather, suicidal absence of one – to a shadow minister at Labour Party Conference in September, they responded quick as a flash that we did indeed have a deficit because Labour overspent. I confess that – at this point – I felt that if senior Labour figures were happy to accept dishonest blame handed out by the Tories, then it was hopeless.
This latest surrender to the Tory cuts agenda comes after a protracted struggle at the top of the leadership. One faction argued that, once you started specifying cuts, there would be a loss of focus on their deflationary impact, and that the Tories would come back for more and more detail on Labour’s spending plans. We now know this argument has been decisively defeated.
Arch-Blairite Jim Murphy – who harbours ambitions to stand for leadership should Ed Miliband fail – began rolling out the new strategy earlier in the month by calling for Labour to avoid ‘shallow and temporary’ populism over spending cuts, setting out his own proposed cuts as an example to his colleagues. The equally devout Blairite shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has partly endorsed Michael Gove’s attacks on the scrapped Building Schools for Future programme, and has outlined £2bn of his own cuts. And Liam Byrne has committed Labour to a renewed attack on the welfare state, currently being hacked to pieces by the Government. I bet the word ‘vindicated’ will be used liberally around the corridors of Conservative Campaign Headquarters next week.
And so former arch-critics of Blair and Brown such as myself are forced to defend large chunks of their record from their acolytes. New Labour’s major departure from Thatcherite orthodoxy was investment in public services. It is now being torched with the approval of Blairites and Brownites. Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher headed the two transformative governments of post-war Britain, each establishing a new political consensus by forcing their oppositions to accept the key tenets of their programmes. Cameron looks set to follow in their footsteps, with New Labour an interregnum that temporarily tinkered with the Thatcher consensus, much like the Tory governments of the 1950s and the Attlee consensus.
As the usually thoughtful Tory Peter Oborne put it:
A sea change is at work. In practically every area of British public life – state spending, the economy, education, welfare, the European Union (where Ed Miliband refused to condemn Cameron’s pre-Christmas veto), mass immigration, law and order – Conservatives are winning the argument and taking policy in their direction.
It is not inevitable, of course. It is being allowed to happen because there is a lack of countervailing pressure from below. If a broad coalition of Labour activists and trade unions united around a coherent alternative and put concerted pressure on the leadership, this surrender can be stopped in its tracks. With the Shadow Cabinet set to continue its suicidal course, time is running out – but it is the only hope to stop Cameron transforming Britain forever.
When David Cameron tires of this prime minister lark (don’t feel you have to take your time, Dave), he should write a self-help book for aspiring rightwing politicians. It could be titled I Got Away With It – And Here’s How You Can Too. I can think of some of the promo lines: “Are you a passionate believer in free-market economics who has been lumbered with the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s?” “Are you keen to turn a crisis that looks like the death knell of all you believe in into your greatest opportunity yet?”
Since Lehman Brothers went under, I’ve watched in awe as the right transformed a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending. Even as a battery of cuts suck jobs and growth out of the economy, Cameron’s Tories still define the political debate. Despite winning just 36% of the vote, they look increasingly like Britain’s third radically transformative government since the war – the other two being the Attlee and Thatcher administrations.
How are they getting away with it? Having a supine media and an opposition still lacking a coherent alternative helps. But I have to hand it to them: this government has one of the most effective propaganda machines of modern times. If Cameron was to pen a book explaining his secrets, he could blow Machiavelli’s The Prince out of the water. While he mulls it over, I’ll suggest some key tips.
That two of the racist thugs who murdered Stephen Lawrence have been locked up is, finally, some justice. But this is no moment of catharsis; nor can we say this is the long-awaited righting of an extreme injustice which we can put behind us. That’s certainly true with the Lawrence family: they have still been robbed of their son, and will grieve for the rest of their lives. Some of the other racist gangsters who murdered him nearly two decades ago remain at large.
But it’s also true about the fight against racism. Doreen Lawrence has been an inspiration throughout her family’s 18-year ordeal. And she has a message for all of us that should be a rallying cry in the aftermath of this verdict: “The fact is that racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country, and the police should not use my son’s name to say that we can move on.” With nearly 40,000 race hate crimes in 2010 (with many others undoubtedly unreported), it is no time for complacency in the struggle against all forms of prejudice and bigotry.
That is not to gloss over what has already been achieved. On the contrary, we should draw strength from it. Just over 50 years ago, a Gallup poll found that 71 per cent of Britons opposed interracial marriage. The number of people who still hold this view is so small that pollsters have stopped recording the figure. Indeed, Britain has the highest levels of mixed-race marriages in Europe. Only 3 per cent of people now admit to being “very racially prejudiced”: undoubtedly many others are not being honest, but the fact that the figure has fallen is testament to the degree to which overt racism has become unacceptable.
We should also not fall into the trap of portraying racist gangsters like Gary Dobson and David Norris as somehow emblematic of the bigotry of the so-called “white working class”. Of course, racism remains a problem within working-class communities as it does at every level of society. But inner-city areas are far more mixed than many leafy middle-class suburbs. Some 35 per cent of London supermarket workers hail from an ethnic background; the figure is 10 times lower among partners of Britain’s top 100 legal firms. In London Boroughs such as Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham, working-class people of all ethnic backgrounds work, socialise and sleep together. Around half of British-born black men are in relationships with white partners, and it is in these sorts of communities where such mixing is taking place most.
But race and racism continue to loom large over British society. It is a point that was made to me forcefully in the aftermath of the August riots. I spoke to a number of young black men about their experiences with the police. Like me, they had never been charged with a crime. But while I have never been stopped and searched by the police in my life, it was an experience many of them had had to endure since they were as young as 12. Sometimes, the officer stopping them was respectful, even almost apologetic; but at other times they came across as aggressive or intimidating. For some of the young men I spoke to, the police acted as though they were “the biggest gang around here”. It is a shocking statistic, but black people are 26 times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by the police under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Pubic Order Act in England and Wales.
Some parts of the media retain their pernicious role of fanning prejudice. Because of its relentless pursuit of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers, the Daily Mail is receiving much kudos, including from its normally diehard left-wing critics. But let’s not forget that newspaper’s role in promoting dangerous myths about immigrants and ethnic minorities. Take these Daily Mail headlines: “Maternity units turn away British mums as immigrants’ baby boom costs NHS £350m”; and, “Want to see a GP? Gypsies come first as NHS tells doctors that travellers must be seen at once.” This is the kind of reporting that perpetuates the dangerous myth of white Britons being undermined by ethnic minorities – and thus helps inflame divisions within our society.
Some forms of prejudice have actually become worse since Stephen Lawrence was murdered. I’m not one to normally agree with the Conservative Baroness Sayeeda Warsi but she was right to say that Islamophobia now passes the “dinner-table test”. It is a bigotry even indulged by some progressives. The 19th-century German socialist August Bebel once described anti-Semitism as the “socialism of fools” because of its rhetoric about Jewish financiers; Islamophobia today could be described as the “secularism of fools”. A study at the end of 2007 revealed that 91 per cent of articles about Muslims in one selected week of coverage were negative; I doubt things have improved since. For the British National Party – as is the case for the far-right across Europe – Muslims are now the main target of choice.
That’s why it’s so important that we take heed of Doreen Lawrence. Racism and prejudice retain their ugly presence at every level of society. The fight against it has a long way to go.
This is the kind of piece that delights Liam Byrne. It is an article of faith for the Blairite true believer that, the louder the left squeal, the more confident you should be that you’re doing the right thing. Another vindication is if the swivel-eyed hard right knuckle-draggers of the Daily Mail applaud you. So I’m sure that Byrne was chuffed to read the headline ‘Now Ed Miliband gets tough with onslaught against ‘evil’ of benefits scroungers’. After all, the hard work of him and his team had paid off: it was an article based on their private briefing, after all. According to a ‘source close to Liam Byrne’: ‘Decent Labour voters see their neighbours lie about all day and get benefits while they are working their socks off, and say, “Why should I vote Labour when they let this happen?”‘ I wonder how many people join the Labour Party to cynically exploit prejudices about (and among) some of the poorest members of society in the pages of the Daily Mail. A tiny number, thankfully, but Byrne is among them – and I am ashamed to share the party card as him.
I will be accused of playing the man, not the ball here, but Liam Byrne is an interesting case study of the worst elements of New Labour. In a party founded to represent working-class people, New Labour increasingly became over-run by hacks whose professional background showed no evidence of any commitment to the values of the labour movement. Byrne is a typical example: a former management consultant-turned-merchant banker.
He is perhaps most famously known for the hair-grabbingly stupid decision to leave a note for the Tories in the Treasury after the election boasting that ‘I am afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck!’ Here is a concise summary of the utter failure of New Labour to challenge the Tories’ narratives. The political genius of Cameron and his allies in the media was to transform a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending. They were aided and abetted by the failure of New Labour to push the reality – leaving arch-critics of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown like myself in the bizarre position of having to defend a large chunk of their economic record against their supporters.
But Liam Byrne is also a prime example of the utter shamelessness of the British political elite. He is a politician who fuels prejudices about welfare ‘scroungers’. It takes one to know one. After all, he himself systematically milked the system, leached off the taxpayer – whatever you want to call it. He claimed £400 a month off the state for food, despite having a salary which comfortably placed him in the top 5% of the population. He rented an apartment in County Hall overlooking the Thames to the tune of £2,400 a month – paid for by you and me, of course. He attempted to submit room service bills to the fees office, which proved even too much for them (and, at the time, that’s saying something). His food bill alone was over a hundred quid more than the maximum Jobseekers Allowance payment.
His shameless hypocrisy is but a mere gripe compared to his real offence, however. The Tories are currently hacking large chunks off the welfare state, and it is Liam Byrne’s job to oppose it. After all, this is a government planning to drag cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy from their hospital beds to undergo assessments to see if they can work. It has sent letters to 700,000 terminally ill patients informing them that they may lose their benefits. It is introducing a benefits cap that will provoke one of the biggest population movements since World War II, which one Tory minister has compared to the Highland Clearances. Even Boris Johnson hyperbolically made references to Kosovo-style social cleansing.
But – with a few mealy-mouthed, heavily caveated exceptions – Liam Byrne is not leading the charge against this unprecedented onslaught. Instead, he is himself arguing for more punitive treatment of people on benefits, drawing on a completely distorted interpretation of William Beveridge’s thought.
There are a whole number of arguments that Byrne should be making. Despite the obsession with benefit fraud, the Government estimates it is worth just £1.2bn a year – or less than 1% of welfare spending. Compare that to the £70bn lost to the Treasury’s coffers through tax avoiding businesspeople.
Indeed, a far bigger problem is what could be called ‘benefits evasion’. A whopping £16bn worth of benefits go unclaimed every single year.
Byrne argues that Beveridge ‘would scarcely have believed housing benefit alone is costing the UK over £20bn a year. That is simply too high.’ Of course it is, but Byrne fails to explain the reasons why: the scrapping of rent control and the failure of New Labour to build council housing, forcing millions of people to rent from unscrupulous landlords exploiting the lack of affordable housing to charge extortionate rents. It is, after all, the landlord – not the tenant – who pockets housing benefit.
But the real travesty of conjuring up the ghost of Beveridge is that we currently live in a society blighted by mass unemployment. As George Eaton points out over at the Staggers, ‘Beveridge’s welfare state was designed for a system of full employment.’ The clue was in the title of his second report, Full Employment in a Free Society. But in Cameron’s Britain, there are 23 people chasing every available job. In some communities, it’s even bleaker than that. In Hull, for example, there are 18,795 jobseekers for just 318 jobs. There is simply not enough work to go around.
Byrne argues that, for Beveridge, ‘”idleness” was an evil every bit as insidious as disease or squalor. So he would have been horrified at the long-term unemployment breaking out all over Britain, with over a million young people out of work, and appalled at the spiralling cost of benefits.’ But this has nothing to do with ‘idleness’, with its implications of laziness on the part of the individual. Firstly, it is to do with the destruction of industry under Thatcherism: entire communities never properly recovered (including under New Labour) and were left bereft of secure, well-paid jobs. Secondly, it is to do with the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. Thirdly, it is to do with the most drastic cuts since the 1920s. Mass unemployment is not an individual fault; it is not the product of millions of people ‘choosing’ to go on benefits out of a ‘lifestyle choice’; it is not the consequence of people failing to look hard enough for work. It exists because – to repeat myself – there is simply not enough work to go around.
The political rights and wrongs aside, it is a politically suicidal strategy. Byrne is fuelling prejudices about people on benefits that the Tories will always be trusted most to satisfy. The whole justification of Byrne’s strategy is that Labour voters felt that the party was too soft on ‘scroungers’. But New Labour could hardly be accused of such ‘softness’, either in policy or rhetorical terms. The Tories are building on the foundations laid by New Labour predecessors, including James Purnell who talked of people on benefits ‘having miserable lives where their universe consists of a trip from the bedroom to the living room.’ New Labour did increase the issue of so-called ‘benefits scroungers’ in people’s minds and fuelled the media narrative – and still ended up with the Tories most trusted to deal with the issue, and ever will be it thus.
Defenders of Byrne will look to the recently published Social Attitudes Survey, which revealed hardening attitudes towards the poor and unemployed, and argue that there simply is no choice. But these prejudices have flourished in large part because of the legacy of Thatcherism and the failure of Labour to challenge it. Attitudes have shifted in a relatively short space of time, and they can be shifted back again – if there is sufficient courage and determination. ‘We have to move this country in a new direction, to change the way we look at things, to create a wholly new attitude of mind,’ Thatcher told her party after her 1979 election victory. That’s exactly the approach the Labour leadership needs to take.
The fundamental aim of every Labour activist is to turf the Tories out of Number 10. We will not achieve that by ceding the argument to them or engaging in a competition about who can kick the poor hardest. Byrne has capitulated to the Tory deceit on mass unemployment and benefits. That doesn’t mean we all have to.
Recently, a close straight friend made a slightly startling, off-hand comment. “Being gay is more common among middle-class people, isn’t it?” He hadn’t thought it through and, when I challenged him, he felt a bit silly. But he was merely expressing a commonly held prejudice – that there’s something a little bit bourgeois about rolling around with other men.
Jokes about what public school boys get up to in shower rooms have long been common. The myth of the affluent homosexual has even been used by dictatorships to crack down on gay rights. Although the Bolsheviks decriminalised homosexuality after the Russian Revolution, Josef Stalin banned it as a “bourgeois decadence”. Today, talk of the “pink pound” often suggests the pockets of gay men are overflowing with dosh (to spend on Kylie concert tickets and camp tat, obviously).
There’s also a presumption that acceptance of gays is confined to the sorts of middle-class Guardianistas you might find crammed into Islington wine bars. Working-class people are often portrayed as knuckle-dragging bigots who are about as keen on gays as they supposedly are on immigrants. Interesting, then, that a recent survey for social research group BritainThinks found that 76% of working-class people felt that gay couples should have the same rights as straight couples. The figure was only 70% with middle-class people. Another poll for the Times revealed that skilled workers were more likely to have an openly gay family member than middle-class professionals.
The findings don’t surprise me. When I worked as a barman in Manchester’s Gay Village, both the staff and the clientele were almost exclusively working-class. Mums and dads would have nights out with their out-and-proud sons; and groups of straight Mancs would pop in for a pint after a day slogging away at work.
On the other hand, I’ve encountered numerous heartbreaking examples of middle-class homophobia. When my first boyfriend came out as gay aged 15, his well-to-do mother sent him to a pseudo-doctor to “cure” him of his “illness”. Other friends who hail from leafy Home Counties suburbs have told me of growing up in an oppressive atmosphere of intolerance.
The term “gay community” is bandied around as though we can all be easily lumped together just because we like sleeping with other men. But in reality, we’re as socially diverse as the rest of the population.
Our massive class differences even emerge in our sexual tastes. There’s currently a study underway at University of Leicester into so-called “class tourism” among gay men. Above all, it focuses on the appeal of so-called “chav culture” to middle-class gays. Some go “slumming” it at “chav” nights in clubs, occasionally dressing up as the stereotype for the occasion – above all, baseball caps, sportswear and bling.
A whole genre of porn exists starring young men who live on council estates and so-called “scally boys”. Even the lust for so-called “straight-acting” gay men is wrapped up in class. Sometimes it springs from an insecurity about being gay; but often it’s a desire for a caricatured, rugged version of heterosexuality associated with working-class men.
Class tourism isn’t only a fantasy of gay men: after all, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Titanic there’s a whole tradition in fiction of straight people turning the class system upside down in the bedroom. Crossing class divides – or the privileged being sexually dominated by those lower down the social pecking order – is a big turn-on for some gays and straights alike.
But we rarely ever get to see the real diversity of gay men – not least because, more often than not, we appear on TV as one-dimensional uber-camp clowns being served up for entertainment. It’s starting to change, though. Last year, former Welsh rugby captain Gareth Thomas came out: unlike in England, rugby is a working-class sport in Wales. Here’s an example of a working-class gay icon that can help puncture the stereotype.
We’ve come a long way in our battle for legal equality, but the struggle for social acceptance is still far from won. In part, that means taking on the narrow images of gay men that appear in the mainstream. We’re a diverse bunch; let’s face it, we’re just as complex and divided as everybody else. It’s a reality that’s waiting to be shown.
2011 was the year the phoney war ended or – as the kids say these days, so I’m told – shit got real. When queues of anxious customers demanding their money suddenly formed outside Northern Rock over four years ago, it seemed like a slightly surreal – but one-off – disruption to normality, like an eerie re-enactment of a scene from Depression-era United States. As the entire global financial system faced total meltdown a year later, a sense of normality was mostly still preserved thanks to taxpayer bailouts and multi-billion fiscal stimuli. But more than one commentator conjured up the image of the global economy as a cartoon character who runs off a cliff, legs still flapping, suspended in mid-air as the scale of the fall sinks in. This year, the tumble began.
The declared strategy of the Conservative-led Government was that, as it pushed forward with the most devastating cuts since the 1920s, there would be a private sector-led recovery. By the end of 2011, unemployment had soared towards 2.7 million, a level not seen for 17 years. And while 67,000 public sector jobs were lost in the third quarter, just 5,000 private sector jobs were created. As had been predicted by those the Conservatives and their outriders had sneered at, the cuts were sucking growth out of the economy. Four years since the crisis began, Britain once again stands on the brink of another recession. Even on the Government’s own terms, its strategy is a failure, with George Osborne forced to borrow more than was projected under Labour’s plans at the last election. No wonder Osborne stood accused by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman of being “a medieval doctor bleeding his patient.”
“We’re all in this together,” or so George Osborne and the Government told us. Throughout the year, it was a sentence that veered between the ludicrous and the insulting. The average Briton is experiencing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s. The majority of us will be no better off in 2016 than we were at the turn of the millennium. But there might as well be an economic boom as far as those at the top are concerned. The wealth of the richest 1,000 people in Britain surged by a fifth, one of the greatest leaps recorded. In the corporate boardrooms of the top 100 companies, pay went up by 49% – nearly as much as it did last year. Here was a silent class war waged from the top.
Bleak stuff, and enough to leave the Government in serious trouble, you would think. After all, the Conservatives had the last election on a plate thanks to the biggest economic crisis since the Depression and a woefully unpopular Labour Prime Minister – but they lost. Cameron is only ensconced in Number 10 because of the duplicity of the Liberal Democrats. But with a coherent alternative still lacking from the Labour leadership, David Cameron looked smugger with every passing month. Even as Job Centres became more crowded, the PM and Chancellor remained (perversely) more trusted on the economy than Labour. The genius of the Conservatives’ strategy of turning a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending – and the failure of Labour to challenge it from the start – was paying off.
And as 2011 advanced, the Cameron regime looked a whole lot more like a hard-line Conservative government. “We are making cuts that Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s could only have dreamt of,” boasted Tory minister Greg Barker in April. As those on benefits became more demonised than they were before mass unemployment returned to Britain, a Government report proposed forcing cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to be assessed for their fitness for work. With little co-ordinated opposition, the Government pushed through the first stage of the privatisation of the NHS, without bothering with the courtesy of putting it before the electorate first. And as Cameron flounced out of the EU Treaty negotiations – after making sure journalists were briefed he had eaten a full English breakfast – it was clear Britain had the most Eurosceptic government since World War II. But still the Liberal Democrats – a now indisputably rag-tag bunch of opportunists – kept the Government in power in cynical defiance of their (former) voters, with just the odd bit of choreographed “letting off steam” to keep up the pretence they were anything other than Tory voting fodder.
Though Cameron remained largely untouched, economic upheavals invariably cause things to “kick off”, as the BBC’s Paul Mason puts it. The students had led the charge at the end of 2010, throwing off illusions about British passivity and proving that it was possible to resist. They had put the trade unions “on the spot”, as Unite general secretary Len McCluskey put it. Many an obituary has been written for the labour movement since the hammering it suffered under Thatcher, but in 2011 it returned to the stage. Its unique potential to mobilise was showcased on March 26th, as it organised the biggest workers’ demonstration in a generation. The theme was ‘March for the Alternative’, and though that alternative remains far from properly sketched out, here was the biggest show of defiance against Tory rule yet.
But it was a Tory attempt to impose a deficit tax on public sector workers that forced the trade unions into action. Superficially, it was about pensions: they were becoming unaffordable, claimed the Government, even as a report it commissioned by ultra-Blairite New Labour ex-minister Lord Hutton revealed that pensions would shrink as a proportion of GDP in the years ahead. Indeed, the money raised from increased contributions is to flow straight into the Treasury’s coffers. On June 30th, teachers and civil servants went out on strike, and Tory minister Francis Maude had his arguments torn to shreds on national radio. Then came the biggie: on November 30th, public sector workers ranging from dinner ladies to top civil servants, lollipop ladies to nurses came out in the biggest industrial action since the 1926 General Strike.
There was a sense of exhilaration that comes from sharing a common purpose on the day. It didn’t last. In the face of media hostility, the union leaderships (with honourable exceptions) failed to present their compelling case in a way that could resonate with an increasingly union-free workplace. Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, had promised “the fight of our lives”, but looks set to lead a capitulation to Government proposals. No concessions on the key issues were offered, and civil servants’ union PCS – whose leader, Mark Serwotka, had shown the most determination of the trade union leadership – was locked out of talks. And so 2011 could end with what may come to be seen as the biggest trade union defeat since Thatcher.
Resistance came in unorthodox forms, too. On 17th September, protesters set up tents in Wall Street in protest at the injustices of economic crisis; in part, they were inspired by the Spanish indignados (indignant) who occupied Madrid’s main square in protest at the political establishment in May, and they, in turn, looked to the example of the Egyptian revolutionaries who seized Tahrir Square. Occupy Wall Street was the catalyst for a global movement that finally came to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral on 15th October. It was a drama that dragged in the usually irrelevant Church of England, forcing the resignation of three priests. But Occupy clocked up a real achievement: it reminded us all who caused the crisis, and who was being made to pay for it. Indeed, one poll revealed that 51% of Britons felt the protesters were “right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people.”
Britain’s tearing social fabric could manifest itself in uglier ways. After 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot dead by police, riots exploded in Tottenham on 6th August; within two days, rioting and looting were tearing through London; other English communities were next. Anger and fear provoked a ferocious backlash: mid-way through the unrest, one poll revealed one third of people wanted live ammunition used. Newspapers blamed single parents; and I was all too paralysed as I sat in a TV studio while Tudor historian David Starkey attempted to scapegoat black people by arguing that what he described as their “culture” had turned white people into rampaging thugs. As Government supported plans to evict rioters and their families if they lived in council homes and to confiscate their benefits, a precedent was set in Cameron’s Britain: if you are poor and commit a crime, you will be punished twice. With talk of “feral underclass” being bandied around, there was little sympathy for those – like myself – who argued that there were growing numbers of young people with no secure future to risk.
And so Britain leaves 2011 with an increasingly triumphant right in office; a broad opposition not lacking in passion, but scattered and lacking in coherent alternatives; a Labour leadership still failing to make the case against the Government; brutal cuts and economic crisis biting away at people’s jobs, living standards and futures; and swelling ranks of people with nothing much to lose. If it doesn’t sound pretty, it’s because it isn’t.
But it’s no time to flail around in despair. 2012 could be bleak, or it could be the year that a resurgent left gets its act together, unites around an alternative that resonates, and starts building pressure from below. Rather than assailing Ed Miliband for being hopeless, political space could be created for progressive policies, and the Labour leadership dragged to support them – willingly or not. But a note of warning. If the left doesn’t tap into the inevitable growth of anger and frustration, then somebody else will. And a cursory look back over the 20th century tells us just how disastrous that can be.