By Vince Mills, Chair of CfS
One of the interesting things about the concept of class and class politics is the number of times historically, right wing political leaders and commentators tell us that the very idea of class is an impediment to progress. Class, it seems, is always about to be replaced by a national, or socio-economic shift that renders it redundant or irrelevant to that particular historical epoch.
So in Ireland in 1918 a special party conference of the ITUCLP voted by 96 votes to 23 not contest the 1918 general election. This was to allow the election to become in effect a plebiscite on Ireland's constitutional status, rather than, as the minority in the Irish Labour movement had wanted the launch-pad for a movement to transform the country from impoverished, backward, agrarian state dominated by big landowners and Bishops, to a modern industrial society. Sinn Fein said in 1918 that Labour in Ireland must wait. It is still waiting, for it is impossible to look at contemporary Ireland and see a country that is not ridden with class inequality.
More recently, in 2010, the political writer and commentator Peter Kellner wrote:
“Half a century ago the typical Labour voter belonged to an utterly different tribe from the typical Tory voter; now they occupy slightly different slots on the same continuum. Vast changes to the jobs we do and the lives we lead have swept old loyalties aside. In that sense, class is dead.”
In the first example offered, Ireland in 1918, class, or more accurately ending class society, is simply denied as the central purpose of politics, in favour of the primacy of nation, defined in the terms of dominant reactionary classes and their allies in Ireland.
In the second example class difference is defined as social markers such as how we consume and how we earn in order to consume as opposed to the fundamental issue of economic power relationships. Even on the basis of social markers, incidentally, Owen Jones has argued in Chavs, that there is still discrimination against working class forms of dress, speech and recreation.
But to be clear, class, and the tensions between classes, usually described by the left as class struggle, exist because it is still the case in all capitalist societies that those who carry out the actual process of creating goods and delivering the services have limited or no control over the means to make those goods or create those services. In contrast the wealthy - individuals or corporate entities - enjoy a vastly disproportionate share of the fruits of the labour of others.
This can be clearly seen in incomes. The Equality Trust website tells us that people in the bottom 10% of the population have on average a net income of around £8,500. The top 10% have net average income almost ten times that (£80,000).However this does not reveal the full extent of the difference between the richest and the rest of society. This is because the top 1% have incomes substantially higher than the rest of those in the top 10%. In 2012, the top 1% had an average income of around a quarter of a million pounds and the top 0.1% had an average income of one million pounds.
Although averages can be misleading it worth noting that the average salary in Scotland is £27,000. And that is important when we consider another aspect of the appropriation of wealth that the dominant class engages in. For simply to consider individual incomes disguises the extent to which, using its control of the state and aided and abetted by the supra-national EU, the dominant class has appropriated many of the resources previously publicly owned. I refer here to the programme of shrinking the state through privatisation and outsourcing and attacks on welfare otherwise known as the politics of austerity supported by New Labour and Tory and SNP governments alike.
Given the level of income in Scotland it is impossible for ordinary workers to afford services necessary for a decent life on a private basis - health, education, housing, and supportive welfare services. However, instead of resources being directed into the public domain there has been a significant shift of public wealth towards what John McDonnell terms ‘Corporate welfare’.
How do we change this?
At the Labour Party conference John McDonnell told us. He set out a programme firmly based on an understanding of class and the state and how we begin to attack inequality and state support for capitalist appropriation. In other words how we mount an attack on austerity.
He argued that
Austerity is not an economic necessity, it’s a political choice. He promised: a real living wage; that Labour would force Starbucks, Vodafone, Amazon and Google and all the others to pay their fair share of taxes; that there would be cuts to subsidies paid to companies that take the money and fail to provide the jobs; that there would be cuts to the billion pound tax breaks given to buy to let landlords for repairing their properties, whether they undertake the repairs or not.
By contrast he said that Labour would raise money from fairer, more progressive taxation.
Labour can’t wait in Britain in 2015 any more than it could in Ireland in 1918. Since the Corbyn revolution, in Labour we now have a party and a leadership in that is capable of winning political power and taking on capital but only a fool would imagine that this is anything but an enormous task. So it is over to us. Only we can win hearts and minds. Only we can combat the insidious lies of the right wing in our society in whatever party or movement they are located.
We need to begin a campaign that seeks to enfranchise the thousands that have fallen off the electoral register coupled with information about how voting Labour will tackle austerity.
We need to recruit new members enthused by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s message and help in the process of transforming the Labour Party
We need to organise in every Constituency Labour Party and Labour Party unit and turn the Labour Party outwards to the wider community committed to promoting the anti-austerity message.
We need an incessant social media campaign rebutting the lies and prompting the anti-austerity vision.
I will finish with the same words John McDonnell used to conclude his speech: