How should we read the present Tory moment?
Compass recently published a paper, The Osborne Supremacy by Ken Spours. Its purpose is to reframe Labour and the left’s post-election strategy by referring to Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. It argues that since about 2005, the Conservatives have been engaged in constructing a new ‘dominant bloc’, which has enabled them to recover from the exhaustion of their earlier drive for domination, under Thatcher and Major.
Spours’ account draws together various elements of Tory strategy linked to the constituencies that it aims to capture. Cameron’s social liberalism is said to be joined with Osborne’s economic conservatism, the two leaders working successfully as a combined (Machiavellian) Prince to reshape the political landscape. Osborne’s announcements of the National Living Wage and the Northern Powerhouse were especially alarming portents for Spours of how the Tories might achieve lasting power, by capturing important elements of Labour’s support. His paper points to the multiplication of sites of right-wing intellectual labour and propaganda, as part of a project to reshape ‘the commonsense of the age’, as any hegemonic project needs to do. Deploying hard rather than soft power, the government plans to cripple opposition and dissent by imposing further restraints on trade unions and on charities, and by reforming the system of electoral registration, effectively disenfranchising many younger voters. The Tories have successfully targeted older voters by insulating many of them from the cuts, which then fall disproportionately on everyone else.
Many of these observations are accurate, and Spours’ analysis is of particular interest to Soundings because it draws on Gramscian theoretical models previously deployed by Stuart Hall in his analysis of Thatcherism. Hall argued, against some critics from the left, that Thatcherism was an ideologically productive strategy of domination of a new kind, and not merely the old Toryism we had always known. Soundings and its Kilburn Manifesto have been developing this Gramscian critique of neoliberalism over many years, as Spours acknowledges.
The argument of Spours’ paper is valuable in its framing of the political debate. But is its thesis correct, as Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism was? Was the election result of 2010 ‘arguably one of the worst results in Labour’s history’, given that the Tory majority in parliament is about the smallest ever (12) and that Labour increased its share of the poll, notwithstanding its disaster in Scotland? It seems that the impact of this defeat was magnified by its unexpectedness.
Do the Tories have a ‘hegemonic strategy’ to create a new dominant social bloc, or is their aim principally to secure their majority in Parliament? These are not the same thing. Spours’ analysis shares with mainstream Labour a preoccupation with electoral allegiances and prospects, which are not the only ways to view the political scene. After the election, the leadership candidates, until Corbyn, could only talk about how to win back votes, and not about society’s condition and its underlying problems. It was this gross deficit in mainstream Labour’s thinking that made Corbyn’s victory both possible and necessary.
Was Corbyn’s success merely the emergence of a ‘primitive political bloc’ (as Spours unflatteringly calls it)? Or, does it reveal, like the SNP’s victory in Scotland, that opposition to neoliberalism, austerity, and the destruction of the public sphere, has at last found a voice, despite Labour’s years of complicity with such policies? This complicity – and concurrent failure to challenge the Tory charge that excessive public spending wrecked the economy – was the fatal weakness that was exposed in the leadership election campaign.
Spours’ view is that the Cameron-Osborne project may bring within its sphere of domination a broader social bloc than was captured by the Tories in the previous era. But let us suppose that, in order to achieve this success, the government did have to redress the north-south balance, significantly increase wage-earners’ incomes, and address the concerns of libertarians and the environmental agenda – which Spours suggests they have tried to do. If such a significant Tory move to the centre should occur, should we even mind this? Should we see it as a political threat? Or should we rather welcome such a long overdue shift of the political agenda away from neoliberal ideology and policy? What matters most: whether ‘our party’ is in power? Or what is happening in society, whichever party is in power?
However, the fact is that the reality of an ascendant one-nation Toryism is much exaggerated in Spours’ paper. What we are seeing is a renewal of the earlier ‘hard right’ Thatcherite programme, now that the Tories are free from the constraints of the Coalition. So, for example, the policy to introduce the National Living Wage has been shown – even to many Tory MPs – to be fraudulent, since so many ‘hard-working families’ will lose so much through cuts in working tax credits. No sooner was the Northern Powerhouse announced, than the electrification of the Midland Mainline and Trans-Pennine Railways was put off, and the steel industry of the North closed down. Surveillance of everyone’s electronic communications is now to have virtually no limits. Will there soon be any powers of local government left, other than to commission private contractors? Restraints on the banks, and on the tax-avoidance of non-doms, are relaxed already. What will happen to the Human Rights Act? The fact is, the primary interests that the Tory Party represents preclude those shifts towards the centre that a merely electoral logic might recommend.
There certainly are Tory ‘double shuffles’ being enacted. ‘Weaponising’ the deficit in order to destroy the public sector, and to discredit the Opposition is one. Continued subscription to a ‘balanced budget’ and ‘deficit reduction’ philosophy, in which Osborne probably only pretends to believe (his economic policies are quite expansionist, his grand projects uneconomic, like Hinkley Point) would continue to condemn Labour to failure, or to impotence, even if it were elected, like Tsipras in Greece after his capitulation. (When one considers that Labour had a parliamentary majority of 177 in 1997, how could they have done so little?)
Spours proposes a ‘progressive double shuffle’ arguing that there is ‘a huge opportunity and responsibility for us to hold the centre of British politics’. Aside from the fact that the ‘Osborne Supremacy’ in his view leaves little space at the centre, this is not a sufficient aspiration for progressives. We have surely had enough of double shuffles. Instead, we need to grasp the failures of neoliberalism, and the damage that its continuing domination is doing across the world, not least in Britain and Europe. We need an analysis of social harms and their causes, in order to identify and give support to the sources of resistance.
Another famous phrase of Gramsci’s now applies: ‘the old world is dying and the new world is struggling to be born’. The task, in which Soundings, like many on the left, is now engaged, will be to map out the shape of this unborn world.