Monday, November 14, 2016

"They've Got Nowhere to Go"

While New Labour's chief ideologues promoted the idea that class divisions were no longer relevant – part of the 'old ways of working and doing things', in Tony Blair's words – working class people of all races were feeling the sharp end of the New Labour project. Inequality of income, which had soared under Margaret Thatcher, continued to rise. In 2004, well before the financial crash, real wages stagnated for the bottom half of earners and fell for the bottom third. Disguised by the availability of cheap credit, social mobility had in fact stalled. The aspirations of many were increasingly out of reach.

Plentiful immigration, which grew further after 2004, when eight former Eastern Bloc countries joined the EU, was only one factor in keeping wages low – a 'flexible' labour market, where employers were much freer to hire and fire than elsewhere in Europe, was the broader picture – but fears about immigration were hyped by right-wing newspapers and pressure groups such as Migration Watch. Perception mattered: by the end of the New Labour era, only 18 percent saw immigration as a problem in their area, but 76 percent saw it as a national problem.

In 2009, Gordon Brown's attempt to deal with growing discontent as the economy turned sour was a disastrous speech in which he promised 'British jobs for British workers' – a slogan that could have come straight out of a far-right propaganda handbook, and one that was thrown back in his face in 2009 by oil refiners workers in Lincolnshire, who staged wildcat strikes in protest at their wages and conditions being undercut by several hundred European contract workers. Even this ham-fisted attempt to address the issue was too late. During New Labour's pomp, Hain told me, few at the top were willing to listen. Blair, along with his closest allies, simply did not see a problem. According to Hain, his warning in 1999 was met with a complacent response. 'Peter Mandelson said to me, "your preoccupation with the working-class vote is wrong. They've got nowhere to go."'
- Daniel Trilling, Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain's Far Right (2012)

Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.
- Will Davis, "Thoughts on the Sociology of Brexit" (2016)